Generous Advent

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This is becoming an annual game, but this year’s crop of outlandish Advent Calendars is no less extravagant than last year’s. Top of the list at £104,000 is the Tiffany Jewellery Calendar, with a different piece of bling for each day to add that extra sparkle to your watching and waiting. More modestly, Fortnum and Mason offer an Old Rare Whiskey calendar for £1,000. For those who want to save on the washing, Happy Socks offer a new pair for each day at £104.96. Meanwhile at John Lewis their beauty calendar is similarly priced at £105.00 – no messing with loose change there. At the more sensible end, Hotel Chocolat offer their calendar for £26 and Divine have been offering a much more reasonable Fair-Trade calendar for a fiver, whereas the Real Advent Calendar has been even better value at £3.99.

These calendars were discussed on Radio 4 the other day because there has been a campaign to challenge the excessive consumption and acquisitiveness. This was seen as a radical option, which of course it is, if we take radical to be going back to the fundamentals. Advent is a time to ask what really matters and fasting and denial are a way Christian spirituality has traditionally encouraged this. Rather than acquire more stuff, consume more unnecessary chocolate or alcohol, the focus is to aim at living more sustainably. This Advent, with the climate challenge we face to reduce energy and carbon consumption by 7% a year, living sustainably is a timely message. We have to learn a different way of living and being; we will have to learn to curtail the endless increase in consuming that has become a way of life and something to be taken for granted. Endless growth has limits.

Friday was Black Friday and if like me you tried to drive round the city you will have seen how gridlocked it was with queues of traffic bringing people into the centre to shop for bargains. This is based on a marketing tool to encourage spending, which gives bargains to the cash strapped, but it is also a tool of the excessive consumerist culture that we are subjected to. When an event which was designed to get people back into the shops after the Thanksgiving public holiday in the United States of America now lasts a week, leaving aside that we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in this country, something is horribly out of balance. It feeds a craving for having where a bargain is seen as something to be grasped, even if you don’t actually want or need the goods on offer – the enticement tempts and dangles something attractive but not actually needed. We have to get this back under control and the best place to start is with ourselves and our own cravings. Living with enough, consuming no more than we need to consume is not a bad way to approach this season which can so easily be characterised by excess and over indulgence.

There is a radical alternative, which gives the whole basis of this a flip. Some are looking at what they can give as they join in with a Generous Advent. In Generous Advent, rather than opening boxes to take out a gift, looking at what’s for me, the flip is to put a series of boxes or baskets to one side and each day put in another item as a gift for someone who needs it more than you do. It can be a food bank Advent  to feed the hungry rather than more chocolates we don’t need. Rather than socks to save the washing, put a pair of socks in the basket for a homeless person who needs a pair. Rather than cosmetics put in toiletries and personal hygiene items for someone who can’t afford them. With this our watching and waiting takes on a different tone.

Advent is a time of preparation, when we prepare to greet the Christ who comes in the crib and also who will come again at the end of time. Our Gospel reading (Matthew 24:36-44) reminded us that we don’t know when that will be. We are to keep awake, be ready. In other words, live as someone who is living in anticipation of Christ’s arrival. And this is where Advent as a season of reflection and self-examination comes in. If we prepare with more consuming, with more acquiring, with more excessive living, then this is what we are preparing for. And we know that this is a distraction from the real goal and point of life. Riches, status, power and glory are all fading vanities. They will come to an end, but they provide a way to shut out that stark and sobering realisation. This is why Jesus said it is so hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. It is hard because it can be a distraction from mortality, from hope and from living for the Kingdom rather than for today’s comfort alone. Poverty is not fun, but riches can be a different kind of poverty, acquiring can impoverish the soul and impoverish contentment. Cravings are rarely satisfied because they are often a sign of something deep being empty and these commodities are the wrong thing to try to fill it with.

The Epistle (Romans 13:11-14) also reflected on this theme with its encouragement to live honourably and not in revelling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarrelling or jealousy. That rules of out the EastEnders Christmas special which usually promises a fight and debauchery in one form or another. Living honourably in this context is to live in the hope of Christ, who comes and fulfils, who is the one we should really crave for.

Advent looks forward and the calendars should point forward too. Having a treat each day, be it shiny things, socks or something for the taste buds, is not actually the point. Advent bids us to live in the light of God’s future, to hope in him and find as we do contentment. As we live in harmony with the earth, with justice and diet, we will be much more at peace. A Generous Advent is one inspired by the hope of Christ.

Sermon for Advent Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 1st December 2019

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Love is stronger than death: Remembrance Sunday

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Looking through hymns for Remembrance Sunday, and also readings and prayers, a common theme emerges. The imploring is for war to cease, looking forward to a time when peace will reign and there will be an end to fighting, to killing, to hatreds and violence. We could be forgiven for thinking that either God is not listening, or more to the point humanity isn’t, and this is a vain hope. Peace can be seen as the temporary pause between wars, a brief moment when conflicts quieten and we conduct those struggles through other means. Which is of course, not what peace is. Peace is not just a pressing of the pause button, but a reconciliation and uniting of common cause so that the flourishing of all is advanced. Anything else is not really peace at all because in the heart the hatreds and injuries fester ready to erupt again and wreak havoc.

For those of us longing for the day when war will cease and the shouts of battle will be turned to cheers of praise, our first reading speaks (2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-15). Paul was writing to a beleaguered and persecuted church in Thessalonica. It is one of his earlier letters, written around AD51. News reaches him in Corinth that the Christians in Thessalonica are wondering when Christ will come again and relieve them of their sufferings. He seems to be taking his time. If you were to sum up his letter in a Tweet it would be something like:

“Hold your nerve and stick at it. Don’t be conned by fake news.”

False reports of Christ’s return were abounding and people led astray in all sorts of ways. If there was a message for today, then that would be it. We are surrounded by misinformation, lies and deception in politics. The first casualty was truth and it was injured a long time ago. Holding our nerve and sticking at it is a message we can be renewed and strengthened in.

The passage we heard, ended with encouragement to stand firm and hold fast to being living witnesses to the hope, light and love of God in Jesus Christ. Whatever assails us, whatever fake news abounds, whatever hatreds, we are to remember that the way of Christ is the way of truth and peace, and it will always win through because it has the ultimate victory. It is better to be on the side of the angels than the one that leads to destruction. Put another way, Michelle Obama said, “when they go low, you go high” appealing for rising above the fray and going for the moral high ground, dignity intact. ‘Being the change we want to see’, words often attributed to another great leader, Ghandi, is one way we can bring it about, we can act as salt and light and yeast, as we are bidden to do in the Gospels. We want peace, so we have to live and breathe it, to be it, to proclaim it in how we are. When this happens it can have a remarkable affect on those around us. 

Remembrance Sunday is always a poignant moment, standing in the autumn sunlight and cold air, with its silence. Silence is the only response we can make in the face of the horrors and loss of life. It should sober us. It is a different emotion when reflecting years later to the moment when battle ceases. That can be a simple sitting on a rock with a quiet ‘it is finished’. Those are evocative words for us, because those are Christ’s words from the cross just before he died. A moment has been reached when conflict no longer has the upper hand. That will feel very different depending on whether this is a peace-treaty that brings reconciliation or is one of victor over vanquished. When there is liberation then one has to be put down and Paul implies in his letter that this is indeed what will need to come to liberate those in Thessalonica enduring great suffering. So the poignancy of the moment will vary with how we approach it – later reflection, post battle relief, victor-vanquished spectrum, moment of liberation.

This leads to another theme for Remembrance hymns, prayers and readings, that of justice. Without it there is no peace because that is the root of flourishing we seek for all.  And here we hit up against another theme, in the hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’. It is the line about a love that asks no questions that always sticks in my throat. It can be read as a love that will give willingly and in the service of others, trusting the one who commits them. But as we know too often that kind of blind allegiance is misplaced as political leaders who commit troops to action prove to have clay feet. And so if we are building a nation for peace and justice we need a love that asks lots of questions. And that is not incompatible with going high when others go low, because it is a search for truth and the solid ground on which justice and peace can be built, sustained and  can therefore flourish. Remembrance falling during General Election campaigning is a reminder that keeping faith, holding our nerve and sticking at it and not being conned by fake news requires calling to account and respectful challenge. Our patience may get tried, but that is the challenge as we seek to be the change we want to see and hold the high ground.

I will give the final word, as is fitting, to D-Day Veteran Harry Billinge, who was being interviewed on BBC Breakfast on Friday morning (8th November 2019 – 12:10 mins in). He was asked by Naga Munchetty what his message to young people would be, making sure they know the history and the lessons learnt. He replied that they need

‘to learn to love one another. There is a lot of hate in the world, greed and nonsense… It is a pity really that we don’t have a month of prayer because we have so much to thank God for. “Turn back O man, foreswear thy foolish ways.” We have been stupid. We are so clever, we can blow one another up but we don’t love one another. That’s the strongest thing on earth. ‘Love is stronger than death’.”

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 10th November 2019

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Hymn: Christ the Saviour (87 87 D)

A hymn based on ‘Follow me: Living the sayings of Jesus

In Babilone 87 87 D

1

‘Take this bread’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘eat and share in life with me,

with thanksgiving bless and honour

all the gifts to set you free.’

May this cup of hope revive you

on your journey through this world

filled with grace to follow justly;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

 

2

‘With this towel’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘I will wipe my people’s feet

washed in streams that flow from passion,

met at altar and in street.’

May the love that leads to service,

reaching out to all in need,

be a sign of Christ’s embracing;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

 

3

‘When you come’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘to the altar with your gift,

check your heart for buried hatred,

lest it make too great a rift.’

As forgiveness makes us worthy,

as a treasure lost and found,

make our own an act of blessing;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

 

4

‘See this coin’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘with the head that tells of power,

make it work for all God’s people

bringing hope to spring and flower.’

Use it wisely, use it justly

to achieve so much for good.

Bless the gift from God’s own bounty;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

 

5

‘When you pray’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘use the words within your heart.

Ask for bread and for forgiveness,

seek the grace to play your part.’

Bow before the holy mountain

where God’s people have been led,

drinking from the living fountain;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

 

6

‘See this cross’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘take it up and follow me

as so many have before you,

share its shame and victory.’

Walk in hope of Easter triumph,

when all things shall be redeemed,

in the love of Christ’s own promise;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

 

Optional Doxology (2nd part of tune)

Alleluia to the Father,

Alleluia to the Son,

Alleluia, Holy Spirit;

Praising God, the Three in One.

 

© Ian Black 2019

 

Suggested tunes – with hymn numbers:

In Babilone (A&M 229; CP 168; HO&N 571)

Everton (A&M 781; AMNS 132; CP 573-i; NEH 498;)

Corvedale (A&M 806; CP 598-i;)

Lux Eoi (A&M 194; AMNS 80; CP 137; HO&N 9NEH 103;)

Blaenwern (A&M 721-ii; AMNS 464; CP 301; HO&N 428-ii; NEH 408-i;)

 

Key:

A&M – Ancient and Modern: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship

AMR – Ancient and Modern New Standard

CP – Common Praise

HO&N – Complete Anglican Hymns Old & New (orange cover)

NEH – New English Hymnal

i or ii – First or Second Tune

 

This hymn is based on the themes in my book ‘Follow me: Living the Sayings of Jesus‘ (Sacristy Press 2017). It was written during my Sabbatical in the summer of 2019. It is offered for free use, with just the appropriate acknowledgement ‘© Ian Black 2019’.

It will go to any tune of the 87 87 D metre, but I think it needs to be one with energy and ‘In Babilone’ (above) suits it well. While this might not be well know, it is fairly easy to pick up so should prove quick to learn.

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Foundations of nation-building

67132800_2502926356396614_4368860979967033344_oYesterday our church calendar remembered Alfred the Great, King of the West Saxons in the ninth century. There is so much more to Alfred and his dynasty than burning cakes and raids on Danish occupying forces from the marshes. Alfred was a scholar, deeply rooted and grounded in the Christian faith and the scriptures. He was devout and believed in education. The foundation of this schooling was the liberal arts: grammar, logic and rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. These formed the fundamentals of what someone needed to know for moral thinking and growing in wisdom. They are concerned with training in robust thinking, forming an argument and persuasion, understanding the workings of the world, our place in the universe and the arts to lift the spirit in praise. This is a high culture, one to build a nation and train leaders. Alfred was much more than a warrior leader set on the liberation of the Saxon lands. He had vision and had worked out what a settled, harmonious people needed to flourish and secure that kingdom.

Alfred also set about making sure that his reconquest of the land from the Danes settled. He set about an ambitious plan to establish a series of fortified Burghs and Boroughs as a defensive system and focus for the civic life. Many of our great towns, including our own, were established or re-established at this time. It was as part of this programme that Peterborough, or Medehampstead, was re-established by monks sent by the Bishop of Winchester, then the capital of Wessex. A century earlier this place was completely wiped out by the Danish invaders and lay fallow and empty for the next 90 years. It is located on the edge of the higher ground and the gateway to the fens, so a key place to become a strategic settlement.

What is notable is that it is not just fortresses that Alfred established, but he set at their heart religious houses, founded on Christian faith with schools to teach the liberal arts. He set his nation-building on the Christian faith, on the scriptures, and so rooted it in a vision of life, of hope, of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ. This was the foundation of his own life and was to be the foundation of the national life. There was moral and spiritual purpose at the core of his nation-building.

We find ourselves today at a crossroads in our national life. Whatever the decision finally becomes over exiting the European Union – be it the deal on the table, with all its questions and uncertainties, or the decision being passed back to the people to make, or abandoning this process through revoking Article 50, which may be one of the options – whatever that becomes we are re-shaping our nation for the future. The deeper question, the more important question I would argue, is what is going to inspire that. The implications are far reaching and we need to be clear who we are to assess how those decisions are affected by treaties with other nations and global economic factors.

Depending on how you view what is happening, the Welfare State is being either dismantled or reshaped. The result of years of austerity is that there isn’t the funding for what we have become used to. Whether there should be is the fundamental question and the big political debate – how big or how little the state should be, and how much should be provided by central taxation and how much left to local generosity. The budget consultation, launched by our City Council on Friday, gives a rebranding of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ – remember that. It is now being called ‘Think Communities’ and the aim is for provision to rest much more on local resources and philanthropy. Foodbanks are well and truly established as part of this provision. Garden House, the go-to place for the homeless, while it receives some funding from the Council and has five housing officers and outreach workers embedded in it, is largely funded by private donations and other sponsorship. Without the churches it would not be. There are big questions here about what shape the Welfare State should take going forward and how that can be sustained. We have come a long way since William Temple and the other architects of it in the 1940s.

Today’s readings are those set for Bible Sunday. The Epistle (Romans 15:1-6) places the scriptures as being ‘written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and encouragement, we might have hope and grace to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus’ (vv4-6). Then in the Gospel reading (Luke 4:16-24), Jesus gives his Nazareth manifesto where good news is announced to the poor, release for captives, the oppressed go free, and he proclaims a year of the Lord’s favour. This is the liberating challenge of justice and righteousness, of mutual responsibility for one another and to ensure that society is governed and shaped for the good of all. It is a social challenge and provides the ‘instruction and encouragement to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus’. It is the kind of foundation that Alfred sought to build his nation on and, by example, so should we.

Looking around the city centre, I think we are seeing the signs of social disintegration with the homelessness crisis and antisocial behaviour. They are linked and we will not tackle the symptoms we see on the streets until we tackle what kind of nation we want to be and how we are at the moment might be contributing to this. The benefits system is in a mess and there are people who have fallen so far through the gaps that they have landed in a very deep place. The light of hope can reach them, but it takes long hard work to do so. There are many stories of how this is happening coming out of Garden House, how lives are transformed, but they also tell just the slow and difficult journey involved when the fall has been so far and deep.

Private philanthropy and encouraging communities to take up responsibility for their neighbours calls on us all to not just be consumers but participants of a caring and more cohesive society. But it can also be a smokescreen for governments failing to take care of their people, to insist that a just level of taxation is collected and to leave selfishness unchallenged, even colluded with. The exposure which came through the Panama papers of tax havens providing shelter to hide wealth and avoid shouldering a fair contribution to the common purse shows just how real that danger is. So when I hear that ‘Big Society’ has been rebranded as ‘Think Communities’ I am somewhat cautious of it, even sceptical that it is just another way to hide taxes being lower than they need to be so that rich voters and backers can keep their money for themselves. I make no apology for believing in taxation – it is our contribution to civil society and each of us should pay according to our means.

Chances are we will have an election in the coming months. This will be a moment to decide what kind of country, indeed united kingdom of countries, we want to be. What are the principles and values, the goals and aspirations we want to live by? Will we be a place that announces good news to the poor, sets the oppressed free and proclaims the Lord’s favour? We know that some challenges are international in their scope and so how we relate with other nations will be critical. The death of 39 migrants in a lorry in Essex this week is uncovering a very dark network of trafficking. Families in debt-bondage sending one of their number to find new opportunities to be able to send money back to pay off loans to unscrupulous people, finding that those young people are exploited in the most dehumanizing ways, reveals organized crime on an international scale. This is way beyond closing borders. It shows that some of the problems we face are not limited by international borders and require serious cooperation across continents.

Alfred the Great’s genius was not just in military prowess, though that enabled the peace and security for everything else to be established. It lay in his rooting of his vision in his faith, in his outlook and his learning. It meant that he established a culture and network where his vision based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be advanced and sustained. Today’s readings call for nation-building that is just, that is compassionate, that ensures the wellbeing of all people.  

Sermon for Bible Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 27th October 2019

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Through the Arched Window: People, Prayer and Proclaiming Saving Love

Play School Windows

Play School Windows

My return from Sabbatical has been somewhat bumpy. I had hoped for a gentle re-entry but with footballs through stained glass windows at St John’s and then a gargoyle falling from the church tower punching a hole in the roof, things have been a little disrupted. There have been times when a wrestle with Jacob, as in our first reading (Genesis 32:22-31), would have been preferable. These ancient buildings trigger awe and wonder, lift our souls and inspire us in holiness. They also require a lot of attention and sometimes without warning. It is therefore important to remember that the most important task in front of the church is not transepts, tracery and towers but people, prayer and how we proclaim God’s saving love for creation. If we are being generous in spirit, we could imagine the judge in the gospel (Luke 18:1-8) as being overburdened by other matters, though that is not how Jesus tells it. Whatever the case, the woman’s need was pressing and mattered.

On Friday, for those of a certain age, an icon of childhood TV was with us in the Cathedral presenting prizes for the Peterborough School at their speech day here. Floella Benjamin, who presented the children’s TV programmes ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’ from 1976 into the 1980s, came here and I couldn’t resist taking a picture of her in front of the ‘arched window’ – well we do have a few. It turned out the school’s photographer’s company had bought Humpty a few years ago and if he’d known in advance he would have brought him to greet one of his past carers. That would have raised the excitement levels somewhat.

Floella had a wonderful manner with the children of all ages, giving each of them time as she presented their prizes. Afterwards she took a great interest in all of them who came up to her and there were many who did. It was a reminder of who mattered most in the room – it was the students because that is who a school is for. Her speech included getting us all to join in with the sound effects for a retelling of the story of the three little pigs. One half of the cathedral were the little pigs, my side had to play the big bad wolf. She used this to talk about the importance of being true to values which matter most, and resisting pressures to conform in ways that are not healthy and even destructive of self or another, to resist the huffing and puffing of the big bad wolves when it comes. She encouraged the young audience to be considerate, to value one another and be kind; to be contented, with who we are, and be thankful for what we have; to be confident, so that we have the resilience to say ‘no’ where that matters and to be courageous to stand when there are attacks and the mood is not favourable for us. Those four ‘C’s – consideration, contentment, confidence and courage – were all in our epistle reading (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5) and also the gospel (Luke 18:1-8).

In the letter to Timothy, the writer encourages his reader to be rooted and grounded in the faith that he has learned and holds firmly. He is to proclaim the message “whether the time is favourable or unfavourable” (4:2). And for us, as it was for them, finding the right language that communicates and connects with where people are is crucial. The language of faith is not common currency at the moment and so we have work to do to help people move from crossing the threshold to find that place where life changes its focus and is captured by God and a spiritual encounter with Christ. I don’t think we should underestimate the challenge here and it is one of the reasons behind the most recent church attendance statistics released by the Church of England this week. It shows a steady decline continuing, of just 1 or 2% but nonetheless steady. If that trajectory continues unabated then the prospects are for ruins and buildings which speak of a past faith that is no more.

Actually, things are not completely gloomy, because spirituality has a way of finding an outlet and there are plenty of mind body soul expressions around. That provides a place for connecting with the narrative of faith, the story and real presence of God in Jesus Christ to be made. It just takes a little courage, confidence in the gospel, a considerate approach that values and loves, and contentment that God is good and life is blessing. Comparisons are often made about how the nave of cathedrals were used for all sorts of events in the past, and they were. The difference is that then people lived in the story of faith, it was their operating system and default setting. Today it is not, so crossing the threshold is just the beginning, but it is important to encourage it because it is a journey many rarely make. And stage two won’t follow unless it starts.

At the Deanery Synod Meeting on Thursday, Charlie Nobbs, the Diocese’s Director of Mission, asked how many people believed that their churches could turn around and find new life, new people, be places of lively, loving faith. The response in a secret poll was encouraging. Of those present 76% said that they did believe this was possible. A further 7% were undecided. When we are thinking about how to approach the task of growing churches I think there are three factors to start with. The first is prayer. That runs through everything we do, everything we are. And our gospel was a story to encourage faith in prayer. How much more will God give if even an unjust judge gives? The second is a desire for this. Do we really want to see churches that grow in faith, in numbers and in service? If we don’t, then empty, declining shells is what we will get. Thirdly, and this came to me on Thursday, was that we need to believe it is possible; to trust in God’s goodness and that it is his church and so will not fall away, if we are faithful – whether the times are favourable or unfavourable. And Christianity has survived in some pretty unfavourable times, indeed it began in them. This belief is the gift that comes through prayer and faith and trust that all things are possible with God.

None of this is about growing institutions. That is probably the dullest way to go about mission imaginable. It is about people, who are loved, who are given time and honoured, who are shown what blessing means. For some that will be desperate needs are met and I spoke a little about this when Garden House marked the first anniversary of opening in the precincts just over a week ago – Garden House is the go-to place for homeless people, especially those at the lowest ebb, rough sleepers and those with no place to call home. Meeting needs can be the myriad of coffee drop ins that there are and Wednesday at One serves such a purpose with its lunch afterwards. Meeting needs can be where the lonely find company, those who are usually rejected find acceptance and all are greeted with the love of Christ. It can mean so many things, but when faith is seen to transform lives then it becomes a place of turnaround, of transformation and lives are blessed – including our own.

The question at the end of the gospel reading is the punch. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (v8) Not if we think this is a task we can do in our own strength, in our own efforts, and to our own glory. That is why prayer is the first and last and middle element of all of this. It is God’s kingdom we seek and in tune with it we can place our trust and hope – whether times seem favourable or unfavourable – because ultimately it is the way of life and hope and truth.

Sermon for Trinity 18, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 20th October 2019

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RESPECT – Prayer for Good Debate

A prayer based on the Simple Charter for Good Debate.

God of truth and trust,

as we pray for parliament* and the agenda before it,

pour your grace upon its members

to debate with respect,

honouring each person,

especially where differences are strong;

to shun all hatred and any language that might inflame it;

to seek the protection of the most vulnerable

and the good of the whole community.

May each behave with integrity,

seeking best advice and evidence

for the decisions to be made,

that this city and all its citizens

may flourish, living in peace and harmony

with you and one author.

In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

  • * “Parliament” may be replaced by “this council” or another suitable word to suit the occasion.

Written for use before a City Council Meeting, Peterborough 16th October 2019

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The flourishing of grace

img_2369We have two stories of healing this morning and both involve foreigners – people from nearby countries, viewed at best with suspicion and often with open hostility. Both, though, turn out to play key roles in the unfolding events and are the ones who bring or show the flourishing of grace.

In our first reading (2 Kings 5:1-13), the commander of the King of Aram’s army, Naaman, suffers from leprosy. On a raid into Israel, a young girl was taken captive and she ended up in the service of Naaman’s wife, as her slave-girl. It is she who suggests that Naaman consults the prophet Elisha, back in her home land. Given that they are from a foreign power, diplomatic channels swing into operation and the King of Aram writes a letter to the King of Israel – this bit was cut out of the passage for this morning, so I asked for it to be read so that it makes more sense. The request for the King of Israel to heal Naaman doesn’t land well and the King of Israel assumes that the King of Aram is picking a fight, asking him to do what he has no power to do, trying to show him up. It’s only when Elisha hears about this that he says ‘pass it to me and I’ll deal with it’.

So Naaman goes on a long journey to find healing at the hands of Elisha. When he gets there Elisha doesn’t even bother coming out to meet him, he just sends a message – a bit like being treated over the phone rather than actually seeing the doctor, except in this case he’s had to travel a long way to get to the phone. The prescription is to take a dip in the River Jordan and this doesn’t land well either. Naaman thinks, ‘we’ve got rivers in Aram, why did I bother making this journey’. It is his servants who bring wisdom into this tangled web of confusion. They tell him that if he’d been asked to do something difficult he’d have done it, so why not do something simple. So, he goes for the dip and is healed. In gratitude for this Naaman offers a great reward. If we were to read on we’d learn that the gift is declined by the prophet Elisha – he knows the rules against simony, selling the gifts and graces of God. Naaman goes away a happy man, with two mule-loads of soil so that he can capture something of the sacred place, the holy ground by spreading out the soil to pray on (v15-17). It might be he thinks there are magical properties in that there soil, so he’s trying to bottle the power. That, of course, is not how it works.

In the Gospel reading (Luke 17:11-19) there are echoes of this story. This time 10 lepers are healed by Jesus but only one returns to say ‘thank-you’. He turns out to be a Samaritan, another foreigner. He is someone the audience would have prickled at hearing mentioned so favourably – this is not how to win over an audience, rather shock and challenge them. In a story of healing it is the foreign immigrant who turns out to be the good guy. We are not told if the 9 ungrateful lepers find their disease returns, so probably they went away healed too but clearly it is noticed that these others have not bothered to give thanks and so perhaps by implication the grace in them has not been taken by them so deeply.

In these readings we see signs of faith beyond the confines of the tribe – in the faith of Naaman the Aramean and for them in the young slave-girl who was from foreign lands; in the gospel it is the Samaritan who returns to say ‘thank-you’. For those of us who gather to pray, to give thanks, we might identify with these outsiders. There are aspects of our society that can make overt expressions of faith feel like we are outsiders, especially on a Sunday morning when so many are on a fun run and we’ve had to move the service time to take account of that. But the trouble with the gospels is that when we are feeling special and self-righteous this is precisely when God shows up somewhere else and the faith and commitment elsewhere is honoured. The other becomes the foreigner who is praised and we find that it is us who have missed something profound. So, we’ll stick with the thanksgiving and leave God to bless and challenge where he will. The warning is to have open eyes and open hearts, to see grace where it is at work and it is often in surprising places.

This brings a further challenge, especially if a community is heavily dominated by one cultural group and lacks diversity. It is the broadening of horizons to be open to those who are different that brings healing and blessing in these stories. When I was looking at what makes an organization function well, as part of my sabbatical, one of the factors that blinds people to what they might otherwise have been able to see is a lack of diversity. When everyone sees the world the same, we are in danger of groupthink, which is dangerous for critical thinking and observing. A truly diverse group brings different ideas and perspectives to bear and through the eyes of the other we start to see what we might otherwise be blinded to. The world can seem very different from where the other stands. We can assume that everyone is like us and of course they are not. Blessing can come from surprising places.

The third point to note from these readings is that the slave-girl is a witness to her faith. She is in a foreign place, with very different customs and yet the opportunity arises for her to speak of the faith that brings release and healing. She finds herself well placed to attest to the prophet Elisha and the God he serves, the one and only, true and living God. She uses where she is for good and to bring blessing, to bring life to flourish. For us the challenge is to look where we are and how we can do this in the life we are living. Wherever it is, whoever we are among, we can be living witnesses to the faith and hope that inspires and fills us with joy. The slave-girl recognized the treasure she had and was able to offer it with generosity and grace. There are a number of passages the letters to the Ephesians and 1 Peter where the writers recommend something similar in advising slaves to serve Christ where they are (Ephesians 6:5-9; 1 Peter 2:18-20). You might not be able to change where you are but you can change how you are.

Two healing stories in which we see the way to life and blessing coming from surprising places. Who’d expect the slave to have the key to release from such an ailment, but Naaman, or perhaps it was his wife, was prepared to hear what she had to say and that put him in a place to benefit from it. Who’d expect the one to come back and be thankful to be the outsider who no one would give time to and yet that is precisely what happens.

For us, where is the opportunity this week to bless those we encounter, to be a person of blessing and hope and peace? There may be more opportunities than we realise or are alert to. Once we have recognised the great treasure we have in Jesus Christ, how with a bit of generous, thankful and gracious loving it can transform lives in surprising places, we can be agents of it. We can be people who bring or show the flourishing of grace.

Sermon for Trinity 17, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 13th October 2019

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