Making the Ash for Ash Wednesday – A ‘how to’ post

IMG_7476Here’s another of those things they don’t teach you at vicar training school – how to turn palm crosses into ash for use on Ash Wednesday.  Last year’s palm crosses are burnt and the ash is used during the Ash Wednesday liturgy to make the sign of the cross on the forehead as a sign of our mortality and penitence for our sins.  There is a scene in the film Braveheart where the Scottish army are all shown with black crosses on their foreheads.  That’s the look, just without the kilts – well south of the border any way.

Step one: a few weeks before hand, ask the congregation to return the palm crosses they were given last year on Palm Sunday so that they can be burnt for use on Ash Wednesday.  This has a double benefit: it gets you a supply of palm crosses to burn and involves everyone in what is happening through supplying the raw ingredient.

Step two: find a sheltered spot – I use the barbecue in the back garden.  (I have done this in the front garden but it took some explaining to the postman as to why a vicar was burning crosses outside the vicarage!)  Take a metal bowl (tip: don’t use the best mixing bowl from the kitchen to avoid serious domestic strife).  Pile up the palm crosses and burn them.  If they are large, it might work better if they are cut up a little first, but if they are dry and it is not a windy day, they should burn pretty well as they are.

Step three: use a long gas/oil fire-lighter and set fire to them.  A blow torch will do the job even better.  The point is you may need to light them several times or keep the flame there for a while until they catch.  Palm crosses can be notoriously difficult to set fire to, but once the fire gets going they burn well.  You might need some barbecue tongues to move them around a bit so that all of them burn.

Step four: allow to cool!

Step five: spoon some of the ash into a small bowl and chop with a fairly sharp spoon.  The aim is to reduce the ash to a fine powder, or fairly close to that.  Rapid but gentle chopping movements work well and it will take several minutes to achieve the grade of ash you are after.

IMG_7478They are now ready for use.  Some people add a little anointing oil to make a paste.  I don’t, I just rub the ash between my thumb and forefinger and make the sign of the cross of the people’s foreheads with my thumb using the words:

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

This act is very powerful – for those receiving and those administering it.  It gives pastoral and sacramental ministry an edge.  It makes it real; all pretence is stripped away and we are all confronted with the raw reality that we are fragile human beings before God.   We get it right and we get it wrong.  We are caught up in all sorts of complications, some of which are beyond us to sort out.  We trust in God’s redeeming grace to bring all of this through to resolution.  We will die one day and our hope is in the loving mercy of the God who gave us life and will through Jesus Christ bring us to share in the life of his eternity.


Originally posted in March 2014 on my previous blog.

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Clouds – Mystery and Revelation

IMG_6048If we mention ‘the cloud’ today there is a strong chance that the first thing that will come to mind is a remote internet based storage system. Those of us who rely heavily on gadgets and mobile devices can’t escape it as the system of syncing our calendars, being able to access email on the move and sharing documents. The cloud is a cuddly way of referring to some very functional technology more likely based in an industrial unit in Swindon than in some skybase or even floating free. What seems just able to be plucked from the air is actually complex mathematics and electrical signaling. The cloud links us on the move, when we are not plugged into the main storage, and connectivity is a key aspect of it.

In the Bible clouds represent the mystery of God. They tell us that something profound is taking place and it is a moment when something usually hidden is being made known and revealed. It is a moment of revelation and that revelation connects us with the purposes and nature of God. ‘Connectivity’ is actually a term borrowed from a deep and profound aspect of faith. The cloud connects us with who God is and how God is known; it holds both mystery and revelation: God who is beyond our gaze also comes close and can be known.

The cloud is an important element in the story of Moses. He enters the cloud on the Holy Mountain to receive the 10 Commandments. Mystery and revelation are held. There is authority which comes from its profound connection with what is, with that which is beyond our gaze, and there is the very easy to grasp clear commands for the practicality of living. Elijah, in our Old Testament reading (2 Kings 2:1-12), is taken up by the clouds, into heaven. He disappears from sight and enters the mystery. The image intended here is a dust cloud created by dust being whipped up by the whirlwind swirling round and making sight difficult. It is a cloud that both obscures but also removes. He is taken from sight, not just obscured from sight. Mystery comes and mystery goes.

On the hillside, with his closest friends, Jesus is Transfigured (Mark 9:2-9), his appearance changes. It is a moment of revelation when they see the glory within and connect up the dots, or the dots are joined up for them. And while this is happening a cloud overshadows them and from it there is a voice. ‘Overshadowing’ is a strong word in the Bible. The Holy Spirit comes upon Mary and ‘the power of the Most High overshadows her’ (Luke 1:35) at the annunciation and God is made present in the most direct way that there can be, in the conception, growth and birth of Jesus. In the Book of Exodus, God’s presence overshadows the tent of meeting with a cloud and the glory of God fills the tabernacle so powerfully that Moses is not able to enter (Exodus 40:34-35). Overshadowing is the full power and glory of God present and at work. The word ‘overshadowing’ means this is serious. This is a moment of profound revelation.

So for the witnesses of the Transfiguration, they are in the presence of the very presence of God, the full force of God has touched the mountain and what is at work here is revealed to be of cosmic significance. They cannot comprehend it, so much so that Peter decides they need to build something to capture it, completely missing the significance which is far beyond their feeble power. This is God who made the heavens and earth and all that there is, who holds everything in being. The idea that this needs a shed made by him is just ludicrous. But that is what we do when something is too big to comprehend, we try to do something or build something so that we can contain it, define it and make it digestible for our minds. The Transfiguration is mind-blowing in its scale and a moment of seeing what otherwise cannot be seen and barely taken in.

The voice from the cloud, from the mystery, speaks words of connection and understanding. “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” In the presence of God, in the cloud, the only response we can make is to listen. Listen, listen, listen again. It is how the Rule of St Benedict begins. ‘Listen’. Connecting to the cloud and through the cloud requires us to be stilled and take in what comes. To listen with all our being. And that is probably particularly hard for us. The very technology that connects also distracts and bombards with information and stimulus. It can be difficult to find the reflective space to stop fiddling and responding, but to listen and take in. Breathe deeply and allow the life of God to fill our lungs and our minds.

I was struck a while back by a post online about how to improve mental health. I think it came from the Samaritans and was aimed at people feeling anxious and stressed. It talked about breathing and how controlling breathing helps calm us and diminish the anxiety. What came to my mind was the reflective way of saying the Psalms in Morning Prayer each day, where a breathing space is put half way through the verses. We stop, breathe out and breathe in, before continuing. What this breathing does is calm us and the net effect is to calm us deeply from any anxiety or stress, worry or concerns, from the rushing and over haste. It helps prevent us from being overcome by these pressures and helps to restore balance. The breathing space becomes an agent of listening.

I’m conscious of this when I find I’m in one of those conversations that start out seemingly routine and ordinary, and then suddenly I become aware that something profoundly significant is being said. It might be talking of a serious illness, distress or something that brings pain to the fore. There is a screech of brakes in my head and I need to breathe deeply so that I can allow the words to be taken in. Not to respond with anything other than attention because whatever I say will be like Peter saying ‘let’s build a shed to contain this’. And what is needed is just to listen and take it in. And that listening can be important for the other who needs to be heard, to find a still and reflective space to be held. I was aware of this a number of years ago when a young girl came up to me in a school play ground and after I’d been greeted cheerily she proceeded to tell me her father died the night before in a car crash.  It was as moment to take a deep breath, to listen deeply and not try to fill the space, but let her be held in it as she spoke.

Clouds are deeply evocative, from Roald Dahl’s ‘James and Giant Peach’ cloudbusting with his parents as they lie on the beach and imagine shapes and visions in the shape of the clouds, to being drawn into them so that they stand as a symbol of eternity and clearer vision. When in 2012 the young songwriter, Zach Sobriech, was given just a few months to live due to a terminal cancer diagnosis, he turned to music to say goodbye and treasure the moments he had. His song ‘Clouds’ has been viewed on YouTube over 13 million times. In it he talks about going up into the clouds where the view is clearer and where he will find eternity. He decided to embrace each day with hope and joy, to celebrate what he had, not what he was either losing or had lost. It is clearly a song that many find inspiring and helpful. And it is based around clouds.

Clouds in the Bible stand for God’s mystery and presence. The mystery is the very root and power and hope at the heart of all things and beyond all things, even life itself. In it we find life and love and joy. When this mystery makes itself know, which it does supremely in Jesus Christ, the best response we can have is to listen, listen and listen again. Then we find beholding the mystery becomes a moment of revelation, overshadowing and inspiration.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 11th February 2018

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Anskar: Faithful persistence – a theology of resilience

Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 14.28.29Every now and then the Church of England’s calendar of saints and holy days brings up a commemoration that seems to resonate or be a good counter to a prevailing tone. Yesterday was such a day, as we remembered the not so well known Anskar, a 9th century missionary bishop in Scandanavia, Denmark and Germany. He sounds an unlikely candidate but he lived at a turbulent time when the fortunes of his missions were precarious to say the least, vulnerable and at the mercy of successive Viking raids. He relied heavily on the patronage of the King of the Franks and when this was withdrawn his mission failed. He found that he achieved very little that lasted in Scandanavia. It was 150 years later that another mission had to start again. He had more success in Hamburg, in North Germany and in Denmark, where he is their patron saint.

A comment in the biography notes for his day resonated. It said that he is an example of

“persistence in often discouraging circumstances… His successes were infrequent, and often short lived. In 845 all the gains that he had made for the gospel in Scandanavia were lost as that region was attacked by northern invaders and pagan beliefs and practices were re-established.” (Saints on Earth: A biographical companion to Common Worship, p24)

There is such an emphasis in the church at the moment on mission, growth and success, on reversing the decline in church attendance, that Anskar is an unconfortable saint to sit alongside that. He was clearly missionary, dedicated and faithful. He achieved growth but the lasting success was somewhat fragile and even not sustained. And despite lots of initiatives and programmes, events and much activity, many are finding today that their churches are not growing in the way a growth and success culture would like to see. Anskar confronts us with the need for a faithful resilience and a theology that can cope with results not being unreservedly successful.

Anskar’s experience is an uncomfortable one. It is shared by lots of people and it reminds us that the sea faith imagery, which Matthew Arnold used in his 19th century poem “On Dover Beach”, with fortunes waxing and waning, as with the rising and falling tide, and this seems to be how it is and has been.   It is also an experience that was shared here in Peterborough. The Saxon abbey here was destroyed by the Vikings and desolate for 90 years until a mission came to reestablish it. So Anskar’s experience echoes our own. And he requires us to have a bigger perspective on what constitutes success and failure, fruitfulness and indeed faithfulness. It is much harder to be faithful and hopeful when the results are not encouraging, indeed often discouraging. And most of us who have been around churches over the last few decades will have felt some of this; great efforts made but with far from spectacular returns. There are areas of the country where the church is in danger of disappearing.

That Anskar is remembered is quite remarkable. He would have been easy to air-brush out and concentrate rather on those who had the success when the times were more favourable. That gives so much more of an addrenalin buzz and rallying cry. It is not much of a rallying cry to say ‘come follow me and I will bring you questionable success and your achievements will not last’.

It is into circumstances like this that our Gospel reading was written (John 1:1-14). We can easily forget that first century Christian communities, which produced the gospels, were persecuted. So when John’s gospel talks about the light shining in the darkness and the darkness is not able to over come it, he was writing to a community that saw plenty of evidence of the complete opposite. The darkness did indeed seem to be overcoming the light and some of that light was provided by Christians being used as human torches to light the emperor’s garden. The persecution was grosteque and would make films on the Horror Channel look tame.

The writer of John’s gospel is convinced that the gospel he proclaims is not based on some fad or easy story, but on the architecture of the creation. The eternal Word, who was in the beginning, the very thoughts and purpose of God, became flesh and was present among us in the child and man Jesus. It is a startling and mind blowing claim. It baffles many people who just find they can’t accept it. And so it doesn’t matter how many gimmicks or programmes or plans or apps or events we plan, there is a fundamental incomprehension of this claim. That the architecture of creation might have been visible in a human being is extraordinary to say the least.

And many of us are used to holding this at different levels. There is the metaphorical, where this becomes a profound mystery of what life and creation is. God has infused it with a purpose and a value that touches the eternal. There is the sense that human life can be so in tune with this profound mystery that it is capable of immense creativity, resilience and insight. There is a looking into the stars and seeing there God’s vast and fathomless expanse, the greatness which gives sentient creatures the ability to reflect and delight, to love and sense. John’s gospel’s light shining is the light of the mystery that there is something rather than nothing, that there is life which has meaning beyond the transitory, beyond the fleeting fortunes of a moment’s success or failure.

And it is this that lies at the core of Anskar’s resilience and faithful persistence. It is why whether our church is full or empty is not actually the most important question, though we prefer it to be full than empty. It also doesn’t say ‘don’t bother with mission because there is no point, the tide is against us’. Quite the opposite is the case. It says dance and sing, be thankful and proclaim the love of God, the architecture of the universe present and redeeming, giving life and inspiring hope. Because ‘in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God. It came that we might have life and that life was and is the light of all people. It shines in the darkness and despite what might seem the case the darkness will never overcome it’ because it is the architecture of the creation.

What is at stake here is not about just being popular. The ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15-20) is not designed to be on trend, but reflect what is, what lies at the core of what is, and therefore what brings hope and meaning. The light shines and cannot be overcome, not because it remains popular but because it is truth. It is the foundation and goal of everything.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 4th February 2018

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Candlemas: A light for all peoples

IMG_0784Candlemas (Luke 2:22-40) is one of my favourite festivals. It has candlelight, a message of hope and promise fulfilled, and it comes as winter is giving way to signs of early spring, so new life is beginning to dawn. It also has the heart-warming scene of strangers delighting with new parents at the sight of their baby, just 40 days old. What’s not to like? And these themes are powerful and resonant ones for us.

We begin with the two elderly people: Simeon and Anna, both in the Temple when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus in to do for him what was required by the law. This was the requirement (Leviticus 12:1-8) of an offering being made for their firstborn son of a lamb and a pigeon. Alternatively, if they couldn’t afford a lamb, then they could sacrifice two turtle-doves or two pigeons instead. Within this there is a questionable practice of regarding women as being unclean and needing purifying after childbirth. This is compounded by the shorter period of uncleanliness applying to giving birth to boys (40 days) than to girls (74 days). So the rejoicing and the warm feeling excited by this scene has a darkness lurking which is itself brought under the gaze of this child. The light that shines, shines into this darkness too; the darkness of sacrifice and purity laws. More of that in a moment.

When Simeon sees the child he recognizes that this child is special and proclaims an amazing song of the fulfillment of promise, which as the Nunc Dimittis is familiar to many in its traditional form as used at Evensong.

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word…”

This child will bring the light Simeon has longed for, the hope he has longed for. His patience and his faithfulness have been rewarded. The same applies to Anna, who has worshipped in the Temple night and day. She seems to have been carrying a deep loss within her, having been widowed at a young age and spent the rest of her life around the Temple finding there comfort and support in her grieving. Another darkness, that of loss and unfulfilled purpose, dreams that never became, into which this light comes with love and affirmation.

This brings us to the second element I want to focus on, that of light shining in the darkness. It is a light that brings hope for all. While Jesus came to the Jews and was born into the Jewish faith, he expands the generous love of God to embrace all people. And it takes quite a while for his followers to realize this, but they do – not least in Peter’s vision of the sheet being lowered in a dream and being told to eat unclean animals, and Paul preaching to Gentile communities. This light, this hope is for all people.

More fundamental is the removal of the sacrificial system as a completely misdirected approach. In time the church came to see this as being the wrong way round. In Christ God has taken the initiative, always does, and in so doing builds a bridge. It does not depend on us. The grace at work in Christ removes the need for sacrifices because he opens the way to and from God: it is in because God reaches out to us that we are able to respond. Everything depends on God. All that is required is a heart that says ‘yes’. Even purity laws are removed because that access comes whether we are ready or not. God does not wait for us to be ready, to be acceptable, before taking the initiative. Indeed it is his initiative that creates the space for ‘worthiness’. So all that purity stuff is declared redundant. We can miss how radical and fundament a shift this is. The old covenant is made redundant. And it is announced right here by Simeon in his hymn. Salvation comes through God’s gift, not our actions. This is the light of hope for all people that shines at Candlemas and why we light candles as part of this service.

So faithfulness has been rewarded as Simeon and Anna see their longing for salvation fulfilled. And in this they see light shining in the darkness bringing hope for all in a new and radical way.

Thirdly, Simeon and Anna are able to let go. Now is the time that Simeon feels he can depart in peace. He can lay down the burden assured that the future is secure in God’s hands. Letting go is a sign of deep trust and all of us have moments when we have to do this, ultimately when we face our own deaths in hope and assurance of God’s promises fulfilled in Christ Jesus. New generations come behind us and there comes a moment when we become aware that the next generation has indeed come of age and is ready. We can entrust whatever it is to them. Things will be different and yet they too will be held in God’s grace and providential care. Damage is done when we cling on longer to control and power when it actually needs to be let go. This has multiple branches coming out of it, from needing to take time off, to allowing others to take the lead or share in the venture. I have seen over the years serious problems when someone will not let anyone else share the burden or indeed step aside so that another can pick it up. The more I work with young people and watch them grow the more I see that they do indeed come of age and God has blessed them and will bless them as they take up the reins, even if they need help and encouragement to do so. None of us are permanent and the stories of Simeon and Anna remind us that hope and blessing existed before us and will continue after us. We can trust God’s providence.

So Candlemas represents a radical shift in faith and understanding. It takes us to the fundamentals of faith that the initiative comes from God and in this we can have confidence and trust. God brings promise to fulfillment. Light shines for all and that sets us free to let go and trust in God’s unfailing goodness.

‘Now, Lord, your word has been fulfilled,

for my eyes have seen your salvation;

a light for all peoples.’

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church and Peterborough Cathedral, Candlemas 2018

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The Christ who gathers: Christian Unity and the challenge of justice

IMG_7383This week a report has been published for the Church of England on the governance and management of Cathedrals. It makes helpful recommendations (65 of them!), many of which we have been implementing in our local cathedral over the last couple of years. And so this report comes as an affirmation of how we have been putting it right, sorting it out and making it fit for its mission today and for years to come. In this report there is a wonderful section on ecclesiology, the theology of what it means to be church. In this there is the notion of ‘gathering places’, the places where identity is shaped and people become the people of God in that corner of Christ’s kingdom. They quote extensively from an essay by Simon Oliver, who is Van Mildert Professor of Theology at Durham University. This is taken from a collection of essays called ‘Holy Ground’ (‘Holy Ground: Cathedrals in the 21st century’ Sacristy Press 2017).

Simon Oliver takes us on a journey of what it means to be gathered. And fundamentally we are gathered by the Christ who gathers: Christ who is the centre of all things. He is our mediator and advocate, as St Paul put it. So to be gathered, to be church, is to be gathered round Christ. This is because Christ prayed that all may be one as he and the Father are one. This is not an optional extra, but foundational and fundamental to who we are as Christians.

Now to root this, we have a sense of being united in space and time, in common affirmation. We have not just bobbed up, but are rooted in the faith and the community of faith that stretches back to the apostles and therefore the first calling, first gathering of Christ. How that is expressed today is of course part of the rich tapestry that our different traditions represent and some of that journey has been painful and fractured, but any church has to have a link with the whole body gathered round Christ otherwise it misses something profoundly important about who we are, what it means to be a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ. And we need this to hold us when there are differences between us; we have to hold to the more in common than divides. That more in common is the Christ who gathers, who prays the we will be united.

This gathering is expressed in multiple directions. I’ve hinted at time and space, reaching back to the apostles and Christ, and being rooted here and now, in this place. As mediator and advocate Christ links heaven and earth, indeed the notion of his ‘Kingdom coming on earth as in heaven’, which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, is heaven meeting earth and changing it, transforming it. And so the third direction is outwards around us, in the world. And that links us directly with the theme of this year’s Christian Unity Week. The linking around us, beyond us, in the world, cries out for justice. We cannot pray the Kingdom and not do this, not hear this, not demand it. And so whenever there is hunger, there is oppression, there is enslavement and exploitation, the gathering Christ is present and demands that we act.

This theme of enslavement and liberation is a live issue for us in this city and we know it only too well. At a recent multi-agency meeting of the Communities and Cohesion Group to look at slavery in the city, I found myself in the company of the British Red Cross, Citizen’s Advice and two trafficked women, as well as representatives from the Police and Council. The stories were horrendous. One told of being used as a sex commodity, only to find that when she sought help her immigration status became the primary focus. She had been exploited and trafficked, so of course her status was not in order. There was nothing about her being here that was ‘in order’, and her case is on-going. The British Red Cross, who work in areas of conflict and crisis, have an active caseload in our city seeking to help those who are used and abused, who find themselves abandoned and destitute, vulnerable to a system that fails to join up the dots. There were too many stories of how official structures push people into deeper desperation. This means that the fear of escaping their captors is understandably very high, because the nightmare is likely to deepen – frying pans and fires come to mind.

Our response to slavery, exploitation and trafficking needs to be joined up. It starts with basic human compassion that recognizes and honours the inherent dignity of each human life. No one is to be treated in the appalling way those who suffer abuse are. This makes a report in The Guardian back in October all the more disturbing (‘Police failing to tackle slavery, says report’ 24th October 2017). The police are struggling to combat the cases, not least because of the ‘not our girls’ factor. Those involved don’t come from round here, so compassion is diminished, people don’t tell. “In one case, the inspectorate were told: ‘The public view is, they are not our girls’.” We could add ‘boys’ too, because exploitation involves all genders. It seems that we are back to the debates of the 18th century and William Wilberforce and former Dean of Peterborough Peter Peckard’s campaign to end slavery.

Peter Peckard was a former Dean of our Cathedral and is buried at the east end. In 1788 he wrote the abolitionist treatise “Am I not a man? And a brother?”. Peter Peckard’s argument was that those being enslaved are worth the same dignity as everyone else, because they share the same humanity. He therefore described the slave trade as a ‘vile trade in human misery’. It was a case he had to make, because while he was writing his essay another tract was published arguing the case for slavery! It sounds astounding today, but it was not a self-evident, and it would seem it is not so self-evident today either. ‘Not our girls’ is a warning shot to us, especially in times when what divides us seems to be emphasized over what brings us together. We have seen this in so many ways before when those who are ‘not us’ are treated in dehumanizing ways, not least in the Holocaust and other genocidal atrocities. On Thursday this coming week representatives of the city and other faiths will gather here to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, the ultimate in dehumanizing and of what happens when the cancer of ‘not our girls’ takes hold.

The economics of sexual exploitation are sobering. The profit margin is enormous. According to a report in The Guardian back in July, the day after the Church Calendar remembered William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson (31st July 2017) modern slavery is more profitable than it was in the age of empires. The return today is 25 to 30 times higher than it was for the slave traders of the 18th and 19th centuries. The average is around £3,000 but for sexual exploitation it is around £36,000. With an incentive like that it is not difficult to see how the unscrupulous and callous can be attracted to it. It remains a ‘vile trade in human misery’.

Peter Peckard concluded his essay by reminding the legislature that they have a duty of trust, to do no evil and to do good.   “The happiness and misery of their fellow creatures is put into their hands, and they are by all means in their power to remove the one and to promote the other. They ought religiously to establish Justice…” (p85). Compassion is the first step, where ‘not our girls’ becomes ‘our sisters and brothers’, and the official structures need to have the systemic means to put this into effect.

We gather with Christ as the centre because Christ gathers us and prays that we will be one. As he gathers us, so heaven touches earth and the requirement of his kingdom is that this reaches beyond us and around us. The cry of justice is fundamental to who the church is because Christ gathers all in all, is the fullness of all in all (Ephesians 1.23). It is he who prays that all will be one as he and the Father are one. The unity brings an inherent dignity which all people share. The shame of the ‘vile trade in human misery’ is a rejection of Christ and his call that all be one. Christian Unity Week confronts us with the challenge and demand for justice too.

Sermon preach for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 21st January 2017

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A Paddington Christmas: bringing out the best in us

IMG_7015One of the biggest films this year was about a small bear, from South America, far from home, lodging with a family in London. Paddington, armed only with a marmalade sandwich under his hat and carrying that old brown case of his, spreads his particular magic wherever he goes. At the risk of spoiling anyone’s Christmas viewing if you have the film lined up for later, there is a scene in the film where he ends up in prison, for a crime he did not commit, the theft of a special pop-up book with clues to hidden treasure on each page. He is the victim of a miscarriage of justice and the Browns set about to clear his name and secure his release. While in prison, everywhere he goes his characteristic charm seems to rub off on those around him, even those intent on not liking anyone. As his Aunt Lucy taught him back in Peru, always look for the good in people and you will find it. He has a knack of bringing the best out of people, helping them flourish in grace and love.

Tonight we celebrate God’s gift of Jesus, born far from home in a strange town and lodging with strangers. He comes to appeal to the best inside us, even help us find the best to connect with, to flourish in grace and love. Christmas has love running through its core, even if not marmalade sandwiches.

Our readings reflect this in subtle ways, and it is the theme that lies behind all the grand philosophy that they express. To the writer of the Hebrews, the child born this night is the reflection of God’s very being (Hebrews 1:3). When we want to know what that looks like, the central theme running through the Bible is one of a loving Father, a loving creator, a loving redeemer and sustainer, who never gives up on the creation he has made and set in being. From the rainbow and the promise to Noah never to give up on his creation, to the outpouring cry of the prophets that God can never give up on the people, such is his love, to the purpose of Jesus in John’s gospel to bring life in all its fullness, abundantly (John 10:10), and later in the Epistle of John that “God is love and those who live in God live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16). Being the reflection of the very being of God is to be love personified.

John, in his great hymn to the eternal Word, our Gospel reading (John 1:1-14), packed full of deep and profound philosophical thought, brings into the frame ‘life’. “That life is the light of all people” and it “shines in darkness” so powerfully that “the darkness cannot overcome it”. The light makes a difference to us because as we receive him, as we receive his life and love, we become his children (v12), and so like him filled with grace and truth.

And before we get too high level and remote, this is where Paddington comes in to help us connect this with our deepest selves, with our most profound longings and desires. Just as the bear has a knack of making a difference to how people behave, of appealing to the best inside them, so this light and life, this grace and truth appeals to the best inside us. It is an expression of the essence of that best. Its purpose is to make us into children of God who shine with the light of this love.

This disarming simplicity is a profound and radical message – radical in the sense of restoring factory settings. Rather than hardening our hearts, pursuing relentless self-interest, we are challenged with a generosity that gives and keeps on giving. It responds to the cold hearted with love; the greater the hostility, the greater the love. The tighter the pressure and scarcity of resources, the greater the miracle of generous provision. Five thousand are fed with a few loaves and this brings a wonderful teaching on how God feeds us with his life and love (John 6). Even those who desert him are offered restoration after a barbecue breakfast on the beach after the resurrection (John 21:15-19).

The power of Christmas, which the Paddington story displays so wonderfully, is how love can and does transform us, set us free and release within us a love that brings out the best in us. God in Christ does this because he believes in us and that we have it in us, in his grace, to be better and flourish in that love. It is a message that is so simple and yet so much we are exposed to seems to conspire to diminish this in is us, to appeal to the shadow side of our nature. The challenge of Christmas is to let love get the upper hand within us, within our relationships with others and in how we approach every aspect of our lives.

Christmas invites us to zoom in as close as we can bear, even closer than we might otherwise choose, to ground the high level philosophy and policy in the practical simplicity of loving, for that is what we see God doing in this vulnerable child. God comes as close as can be and while that may not involve marmalade sandwiches it does involve a love which aims to bring out the best that there can be within each one of us. Indeed, it aims to bring the best to us so that we can respond in like manner with grace and love and blessing.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Christmas Midnight 2017

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Mary and the call to be temples of God

IMG_6639We are used to hearing Old Testament readings that make the Temple in Jerusalem the special place for the Hebrew people, the focus for their worship and faith in God. So much of the writings of the prophets concentrate on how things went wrong when the people rejected this worship, as well as lament for the loss of the Temple when the people were carried off into exile. This familiarity means we can miss a thread which our first reading (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16) displays; one of ambivalence at best and even deep suspicion. Here God, through the prophet Nathan, expressed that he is not keen on it being set up in the first place. David’s grand plan to build God a house is greeted with bemusement: ‘what do I need one of those for, I’ve not needed one so far, why should I be missing one?’   But David builds one any way and God seems to smile on the plan.

For all of the importance it gets, there are long periods when the people have to get on without it and they seem to manage, not least when in exile and since its final destruction in AD 70. As far as I know there have been no plans to rebuild it. God can set up his home and his shrine wherever he chooses. And with this we have a reminder that great churches and chapels, like this one, exist for our benefit, not God’s; they provide us with a focus, a place to concentrate the story of our faith and become symbolic for us of all our faith calls us to be.

This is an interesting reading to have on this fourth Sunday of Advent as we think about Mary’s role in the nativity, in the coming of the Christ-child among us. It’s clearly a vital role, one for which she is most highly favoured (Luke 1:26-38). And the implication of placing these readings alongside one another is that Mary is in some way being seen as the new Temple, the place that enables God to be visible and known among us in the birth of Jesus. And again this is not a role that exists for God’s benefit but for ours. God does not need to have this vehicle and mode of arrival, but chooses to do so. It is God’s will and choice to enter among us by entering into a partnership with one of his beloved, favoured, human beings. So beloved and favoured are we, that God honours our humanity to the full by being born of a woman, of Mary, just like the rest of us. The great mystery of the incarnation, of God among us, which we will mark in just a few hours time as our Christmas celebrations begin, is that God who could make himself known in any way he wished, chose this one, chooses to be present in human life so that we may see what it is to be fully human and beloved by God, that the life we have becomes a dwelling place for the sacred, for the holy of holies, becomes a temple of his presence.

Mary stands as a symbol and example of what it means to say “yes” to God, to join her in her response of “let it be with me according to your word”, for ”Here am I, the servant of the Lord” (v38). And as with all temples she points us to Jesus and helps us find a focus on God. She is not the object of worship in herself and should never be made into one. Any honouring that we do, and she is honoured in the story of our faith – and by Muslims too as Mariam, any honouring is for her response and therefore for the example that she gives us. We too are to be temples of God, temples of the Holy Spirit, so that we too can be a life consecrated for God’s glory and a place where others may see something of the grace of God at work in the world. Works in progress as we are, imperfect and in need of forgiveness and redemption, but nonetheless works of grace.

Mary has been made into a trophy over the centuries, an unreal ideal of womanhood, which detracts from the power of her story. It is likely that she had subsequent children because there are references in the New Testament to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and they are not figurative references. I don’t find titles such as ‘Queen of the Heaven’ at all helpful, though wearing crowns is something all are called to, crowns of glory as we serve Christ the King and we thought about that at the end of November on the Feast of Christ the King, at Oliver’s baptism. But we don’t have three gods as the Qur’an mistakenly asserts: God, Jesus and Mary. Mary is not ‘Mrs God’. God is one, known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and all that those stand for. Mary’s place remains subservient to that of God.

So to understand and honour Mary we need to keep the balance and perspective of our faith. And easily overlooked passages like our Old Testament reading this morning, can and do help us recall just what the purpose of various key aspects is. All our buildings, all our saints, are there to point to the love of God in Jesus Christ, to keep this focus before our eyes and help us see more deeply. It is Mary’s ‘yes’ that gives her the honour and displays her favour. It is this ‘yes’ that makes her a consecrated shrine of God’s presence and favour. And it is a calling for all of us too.

This is picked up in the New Testament in 1 Peter, where we are encouraged to be ‘like living stones, built into a spiritual house, holy, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 2:4-5). We are to be consecrated temples for God. I wrote a prayer this week for the 900th anniversary of the Cathedral’s rebuilding which began in 1118 after the previous structure was reduced to ashes in a fire two years previously. In that prayer I played with this notion of being living stones, precisely to remind us that the building is there to serve the mission and call of Christ to his church. My prayer was and is that we may be “formed into living stones who sing [God’s] praises, live the faith of Jesus Christ and risk all in his service”. This concept is central to Mary’s call, Mary’s response, and Mary’s challenge.

So let us ‘sing we of the blessed mother’, hail her full of grace, because in her we see the call to be consecrated, living stones, to the glory of God. And in this we see God’s favour for us as his beloved children, heirs of his grace. May this help us enter more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation and celebrate with joy, hope and great thanksgiving, as temples of the presence of God.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 4, Sunday 24th December 2017

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