Armistice 100


There but not there figure in Peterborough Parish Church

On Friday I had the honour of taking part in the reading of the names of the 1,180 men and one woman from this city who were killed during the First World War. This has been taking place on the steps of the Guild Hall over the past two days – it takes that long to read them with details of their address, place of death, age and burial place – if known. What stood out for me, in the brief section I was involved with, was the ages. So many, far too many, were either in their teens or early 20s. And the list just kept going on. The cost was enormous and so today, with its anniversary of relief that the guns fell silent, is a sobering day when we pause to take stock of all that had been and just what this had meant. One hundred years on, this is history, but it was moving to hear people reading the names of their relatives and therefore the direct personal link that this is our history, our ancestry, our heritage.

There have been a lot of programmes and column inches given over to stories about the First World War, analysis of its causes and what came from it. Some of these have pointed to the hidden stories. One of these was on BBC TV News last Sunday evening (4th November 2018). It told of servicemen’s bibles, given to them and often taken out and held by them as they lay dying. I have taken many funerals over the years of ex-servicemen who treasured their service issue bible and read it every day. They didn’t come to church, but there was a connection through these books to their sense that ultimately their hope lay in God. When you have faced the guns, the shells and the mud, the mind is focused on a higher purpose beyond the smoke of battle and cries of the dying. It is a moment of being completely exposed and beyond any rescue in this life.

There has been quite a bit of research into the role of army chaplains in the trenches. A long way from the poet Robert Graves slur in his biography ‘Goodbye to all that’, that chaplains were lazy and ineffective cowards, hiding away from the front line, so many stories have emerged of them being alongside their men. There are the famous ones like Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, affectionately known as Woodbine Willie for giving out that popular brand of cigarette to the men in the trenches, and many more. Some died along with their men either being hit by shells or snipers’ bullets or, like Revd Wilfred Harding, who died at Passchendaele whilst retrieving wounded soldiers from ‘no man’s land’ in 1917. In personal letters, collected by his granddaughter, under the title ‘The Half-shilling Curate’, Methodist chaplain Revd Herbert Cowl talks with matter of fact underplayed honesty of the dangers he was in. He describes conducting burials as shells landed near by and removing his clerical collar because it made him a target for the snipers. He was injured when a shell landed on the building he was in and very nearly died. On the way home his ship hit a mine 4 miles from Dover, in the same incident that sank the Lusitania as it went to their aid. It was his bravery in ensuring others found safety that won him the Military Cross.

In the summer, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe, we went to a performance of a play about Woodbine Willie by Searchlight Theatre Company. It told a very human account of his conversations about life, faith, fear and trust in God, in the mud and poor sanitation of a trench. He set up a ‘vicarage’ sign to show that he could be found there, brewed tea and gave out his characteristic Woodbines. We saw him discussing men’s hopes and love for their girls back home, their fear of going over the top, his comfort as a young man lay dying in his arms. Studdert Kennedy was also awarded the Military Cross for bravery in searching out the wounded while under heavy fire and helping them to the dressing station.

After the war, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy wrote a book called ‘The Hardest Part’. In this he ponders on where God was in those trenches. As an experienced priest he knew of squalor and urban poverty. And so some aspects found a ready place for him to assimilate – squalor in trenches and squalor in slums are different contexts but both bring suffering and despair. On the battlefield, though, the issues were more starkly drawn in the speed of life and death. The starkness of the horrid unblinkable vision into the depths of human destructiveness brought his thoughts to the fore. For him it was the cross of Christ that was the key to the heart of God in human suffering. God who is not willing in Jesus Christ to remain impassive and distant, but shares in our suffering and pain. It brings with it an invitation to live in a particular way. So for Studdert Kennedy, Christianity was not so much a collection of religious ideas as a ‘way’: a way of being as well as a way of living. Ahead of us lies the image of the New Jerusalem, the celestial city to which we travel and with that vision the bible ends – I spoke a bit about that last week. Now we live with the imperfection and at times horror of the evil humanity is capable of. Between these two, imperfection and heavenly city, stands the cross of Christ – holding, redeeming, opening the gateway to the heart, love and salvation of God. This is because God loves the world to the end.

And so the title of his collection of poems and reflections, ‘The Hardest Part’, is taken from his rhyme ‘The Sorrow of God’, written in dialect:

The sorrows o’ God must be ‘ard to bear

If ‘E really ‘as Love in ‘Is ‘eart,

And the ‘ardest part i’ the world to play

Must surely be God’s part. (quoted pxxxii)

For Studdert Kennedy only the cross can survive the battlefield. This is a theme that was picked up by the great 20th century German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. Reflecting on God in the trenches can only be done ‘within the earshot of the dying Jesus’ (pxxxiii). And he quoted Studdert Kennedy: “It’s always the Cross in the end – God, not Almighty, but God the Father, with a Father’s sorrow and a Father’s weakness, which is the strength of love. God splendid, suffering, crucified – Christ.” We need God as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – to hold the horror of the mud and guns and dying of the trenches. Anything else is just not present and therefore irrelevant.

We come then to our Gospel reading, this morning from Mark (1:14-20). This gave us Jesus proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom and the call to repent and believe in it. This is followed by calling fishermen along the seashore to follow him. Jesus goes to where they are, in this case at work by their fishing boats, but in Studdert Kenney and Herbert Cowl’s cases, and all the other chaplains, where the men were in the mud of the trenches. They are called with doctrine and faith – the Kingdom has come near – God in Christ is present with them, but also with a call to follow a way, his way. To be and not just believe.

On Remembrance Sunday our remembering is not just a roll call of death and loss. It is a sober pausing to reflect on what happens when we stray from the kingdom of justice and peace and travel a road that leads to so much destruction and death. It is a call to the ways of peace, to build social relationships where all are honoured and oppression is ended. That pause and call is as real and necessary today as it has ever been. When we have disagreements – and there are many not least with the mess we are in over Brexit and with how we care for the poorest in our society, welcome the stranger in need and protect from those who wish us harm in terms of organized crime and exploitation – when we disagree it is important to remember that those on the other side are our neighbours and fellow siblings in Christ. Battles destroy lives, but also the bonds that connect and build.

We pause and remember because God does not remain aloof, but calls as he comes close to us in his Son Jesus Christ, even into the darkest, most desperate places. It is the cross of Christ that gives the call the credibility and ultimately hope in the trenches, in urban destitution, when confronted with our mortality.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Remembrance Sunday 11th November 2018

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Prayers for Armistice 100

IMG_1918This weekend, as I lead prayers at the War Memorial in the centre of Peterborough on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, I will use two prayers which I wrote at the beginning of this commemoration in 2014.

The first reflects that, while we recall war with Germany, they have been our friends and partners for over 70 years. So, likewise we pray that those with whom there is conflict now we will come to share with them in a new tomorrow.

The second was written to mark the 100th anniversary of the events which led to war and warns that we take stock of that, the cost, and being mindful of the road that leads to death and destruction we don’t forget so that we don’t travel it once more.


100th anniversary of World War 1

God, who in Christ,

came to reconcile the world to yourself

redeeming all that had been lost in sin and division;

hear our prayer for all who fought,

from this nation and the Commonwealth,

and also from nations once our enemies

but now our friends and partners,

that those with whom we are in conflict now

may likewise come to share with us in a new tomorrow

where peace and concord reign

and all may flourish in the freedom and purpose of your love

through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Lest we forget

As we stand in solemn silence

and recall the terrible cost of war and conflict

give us courage to take stock

of all that led to the hour;

the evil intent,

the opportunities to step aside

and embrace a different path not taken,

the confrontation and aggression

with violence in the heart

that would not stop.

May we learn to build true peace;

to nurture the channels and bonds that unite;

to respect and honour all people,

however different they may be.

Keep us ever mindful of the road that leads to death and destruction

lest we forget and travel it once more.

For the greater love that lays down its life

in your Son, the Prince of Peace,

won for us eternal hope

and a Kingdom built on true justice;

we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


© Ian Black 2014

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Holiness let loose in human lives

IMG_8470It has become quite a well-worn observation that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city. People, and the biblical thread, find one another and set up camp together – for protection in numbers, support and companionship. We are not made to be alone, but for relationships and belonging. And when we want to know what it means to be human, we find this in our relationships with others, with the environment, with God. We and our brains are more than machines because we relate to our surroundings and those who trigger emotional responses in us. We are conscious and can make more than programmed responses. And so when we want to know what it means to be holy, to live a life that shines with the light and glory of God, we have to look to those who help us see this in their lives, in the way those lives interact with others and in the hope and joy we see there. These are the saints and we have just entered the church season of the saints, of the holy, of the light of Christ shining in human living.

Today is All Saints Sunday. Keeping this on a Sunday is a relatively new development and it has taken an ancient festival of the communion of saints and made it a pivotal point in the church calendar; it has made it the beginning of a season focused on the Kingdom of God. With this, November is given a framework of light, hope and peace, and this is the lens through which we assimilate everything that is to come over the next few weeks. This means that when we commemorate next week – the horror, sacrifice and darkness of war – we will do so in the light of Christian hope which brings reconciliation, the pressure for peace and all that brings us together, to relate, rather than what divides and sets us against one another in hostility. We will do this in the light of redemption and resurrection where death and destruction do not have the final word. This came out in our Gospel reading (John 11:32-44) where death does not have the final word and Lazarus is brought back to life. When we remember those who have been special to us and have died, as we will do with the cards brought forward to be placed on the altar later in this service or at the special service in two weeks time, we do so in the hope that no life is lost and all are held in the love and redemption that comes through Jesus Christ. It is a season when we focus on God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness, of light shining in darkness.

The beauty of the saints is that they give us worked examples of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the messiness and complexity of real life. They are not impassive statues but, in their rich variety, are remembered because they managed to shine light into whatever challenges came during their day. For some it is the witness of their blood, as martyrs who refused to deny their faith even when threatened with death. For some it is their teaching which continues to inspire down the centuries and still speaks to us today. For some it is their writings and insights, which help us make connections or give words to express what we struggle to put into words. For some it is the challenge of prophetic witness, standing for justice and defending the weakest and most vulnerable, reminding the powerful of their responsibilities and obligations. For some it is the leadership they gave which was transformational and shaped a people. Saints help us see what it means to follow Jesus Christ in every aspect of our lives and because they have done it we are not let off the hook when we try to argue that it is harder for us. Yes it may well be hard, but it was hard for them too so in God’s grace we can rise to the challenge.

The saints say to us that to be truly healthy we need the Spirit of God. And in an interesting essay on healing, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, talks about healing as being filled with God [Holy Living: The Christian Tradition for Today (2017) p13-27]. The process is one of becoming a place that is inhabited, rather than one that is empty. Being empty we seek to fill up the space with other things – easy gratifications, possessions and things which don’t bring lasting value or pleasure. Rowan Williams draws us back to our biblical origins as creatures made of dust and clay, who have life breathed into us. This life is from the life of God and so we become who we really are when we accept that creation is inhabited by God. This deeper presence that the saints point to, we see in their faces that they have been and are inhabited by the Spirit of God. This is how we see lives transformed and transforming of those around us.

To put some more flesh on that, this means that the story of our faith is in the driving seat for lives lived in holiness. This is a story of purpose, of love and all that brings people together to live in hope and with thanksgiving. It isn’t mean, it isn’t grudging, it isn’t angry all the time, even if some things do make us cross. There is a gracious way of being which shows that love dwells inside, the house that is occupied is occupied by love. And that brings blessing, brings life-affirming embrace to all who come into contact with it. Transformation is a popular word at the moment, and we need to be clear about what makes something transformational. In the saints it is when the presence, call and power of God are made known and let loose. It is when we live in harmony with the story of faith, its central themes are given physical shape and form, and we bless the earth, setting people free and enabling flourishing.

So as the Bible begins in a garden, it quickly gathers people around it and it ends in a city. This was reflected in our Epistle reading where the vision of heaven is of a celestial city (Revelation 21:1-6a). This city is a place where people dwell together in peace. There is no death, no crying, and God’s presence is ever present. The saints are those in whose lives we have seen this reflected, who bring heaven to earth so that we see holiness shining as a light shines in the darkness. The calling of all of us is to be such people, whether it is in ways which seem great or small, and the small can make a profound difference as was shown in a recent episode of Doctor Who on Rosa Parks, the black civil rights activist from 1950s America. It was the power of a small action, like refusing to accept the racism which demanded that she give up her seat for a white, and the boycott of that bus company which followed. Small acts of kindness and being positive can be transformative where the tone and mood around might be otherwise. It brings light and hope, proclaims resurrection life, and that death, hatred and destruction do not have the final word.

Today we celebrate the saints; the holy being seen and let loose in human lives. Holiness brings people closer, it does not make them isolated. It is a vision of a celestial city where we find who we are as we relate to others, to our surroundings and ultimately to God.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, All Saints Sunday, 4th November 2018

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Awe and Wonder, Generosity and Hospitality

IMG_1708It feels to me that there has been a change of atmosphere around the cathedral over the past two or three months and it has come from space. Tim Peake’s space craft and exhibition has proved to be phenomenally popular, with thousands coming to see it, to ponder on what it means to be a planet in the universe and on the fragility of human beings hurtling back to earth in what looks like a burnt tin can. Just as we are getting used to the questions and wonder, which that has brought, we have a giant model of the moon hanging under the central tower. It looks much better at night when its internal lights are not competing with the sunlight. People are coming in even greater number to see it, lie under it, take fun photos of it in their hand or propping it up. Again it makes people go ‘wow’ and everyone is enjoying walking round it to examine sides of the moon not normally visible from earth.

The chaplains on duty are reporting lots of questions and conversations which touch on faith and wonder, awe and delight. This has changed the story that we are tending to tell and for the better. For a cathedral that has been through several years of trauma it is so refreshing to be able to tell a story of wonder, of awe and of the majesty of God’s creation. And the people who come are ready to talk; these two features from space are fantastic icebreakers, opening up the conversations. That has made them transformative, even if they bring pressures on paid staff and volunteers coping with numbers far in excess of those we are used to here. Every day is a major event day and so please remember those looking after our guests in your prayers, that they will have the grace and strength they need to be the public face of our hospitality and inclusive welcome.

There is also a third initiative which is and will have a transformative effect on us, but much more subtly. This is the opening up of Garden House to be a centre to work during the day with homeless people in the city. It is not providing food, it is not providing shelter – those are available elsewhere. But it is providing a space where those whose lives have become unstuck in a major way can find some grip to help them get back up again. Housing officers, foot care and haircuts, primary medical services, benefits advice and help with filling in forms are on offer. They need some computers to help with accessing online claims, job searches and registering for housing and benefits, so if anyone has access to several desktops and laptops, we could do with them. This means that the Cathedral, which has itself known what it is to become unstuck and need to find some grip again, is reaching out to help those whose lives have also hit rock bottom by making this space available. It is a pilot scheme and we have yet to see where it goes. But the compassion, the deep faith and the praying heart there, displaying Christianity with its sleeves rolled up, I believe will seep out and change, certainly challenge our priorities. This is when we really do become a place where light, joy, peace and thanksgiving are let loose.

So two stories from around the precincts which are changing the story we tell. The first is about life, the universe and everything; the big questions springing from awe and wonder. This is giving us a joyful story to tell and telling it is uplifting and rejuvenating. The second is much closer to home, it is about the grit of living in all its messiness and complexity, moments of holding on and losing grip, moments when we need to give a hand up for the most vulnerable around us. And as we bless the poor we find we are blessed right back. This was expressed well in a prayer for Christian Aid week back in May:

Holy God,

in your Kingdom

the strong need the weak,

the rich are transformed by the poor,

the fortunate are welcomed by the homeless.

Your Kingdom is built by those

who expect their God to come.

The strong need the weak, the rich are transformed by the poor, the fortunate are welcomed by the homeless.

To our readings then. The first was from the 8th century BC prophet Amos (5:6-7, 1-15). He rarely minces his words and is direct in his challenge. Turning justice into wormwood and trampling on the poor are contrasted with establishing justice and seeking good. Someone who displayed this was the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, who was shot while presiding at Mass in 1980. He spoke with prophetic passion against oppression, using similar challenges to Amos. He told the government troops that they were killing their fellow campesinos and to stop it. This was not received well by the ruling military junta and he was murdered to silence him. He has been remembered as a martyr in the Church of England’s calendar for over 20 years and today he will be acknowledged by our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church as he is recognized as a saint by Pope Francis. We are to live the awe and wonder that we see, the hope that is inside us. In doing this we not only become agents of transformation in the world but are ourselves transformed.

The hapless questioner in the gospel reading (Mark 10:17-31) found that seeking eternal life, to be righteous, would cost him far more than he thought. The comical image of a camel trying to get through a small space – be it a real needle or a nickname for a small gate – the point is still the same, it won’t fit. And trying to live in a way that grasps up treasures for ourselves and is mean rather than generous, hostile rather than hospitable, means we fundamentally miss the point of what living in hope and justice means. This doesn’t fit either. Those who saw blessing in terms of material goods get the shock of their lives when Jesus shows up. And when we come up with all sorts of excuses we are told ‘for God all things are possible’ for those who really live in hope and trust. Or put another way, when we are generous and sit lightly to possessions we find that we have far more than we thought we had and can make a far greater difference to others and also to ourselves.

As we ponder these things the awe and wonder was rooted in the Epistle reading from Hebrews (4:12-end). The word of God is living and active, and in Christ has made known the ultimate hope that we have. That hope spills out, won’t be contained and won’t be sidelined. Grace and mercy are given in abundance to match whatever the need. Just as the universe is beyond our calculating, this planet is blue and green, lush with life, where the moon is grey and dead, the majesty of God is awesome. The wonder of life is the glory of God.

If we are struggling with any of this the Post Communion prayer keeps the prodding going – you will find it printed on the opposite page to the gospel in the Sunday sheet. The holy mysteries of bread and wine – staple foods – are to open our eyes that we may know the way of life and walk in it without stumbling. In the context of our readings, that way of life brings challenge and hope. The eternal is to shift our perspective so that the generosity of creation is reflected in our generosity and grace. In the Collect, which we used at the beginning of the service, as we share the joys of eternal life the Spirit equips us to live it, to live the gospel of Christ.

Today, then, the story we tell in the cathedral has been changed by events bringing awe and wonder, and a project to help the poorest. As we bless them, so we are blessed right back. Hospitality receives in turn a blessing beyond money. We are being transformed in God’s grace. We are to live the awe and wonder that we see, the hope that is inside us. In doing this, we become agents of transformation in the world and find ourselves change and blessed in the process.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 14th October 2018

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Harvest: Food of the Body and the Spirit

IMG_1654Harvest brings a lot of different themes together and some of these come out of our readings this morning. There are three I want to spend a few moments thinking about: seeds and fruit, soil and growth and dependency and trust.

In the Old Testament reading, the prophet Joel proclaims hope to the soil, for animals in the field and trees bearing fruit (Joel 2:21-27). Rain comes in plenty to provide water, much needed for any soil and for life to grow. There is harvest in plenty as the threshing floor is full of grain and then the wine vats are full to overflowing; let the party begin! There is hope, for God will turn previous doom into joy and provision. It is a reading of assurance of God’s blessing.

In the Epistle, the first letter to Timothy, we were given the famous phrases about money being a root of all kinds of evil, that we bring nothing into the world and can take nothing out (familiar from funerals), and being content with enough – something I spoke a little about last week (1 Timothy 6:6-10). We can trust in God who provides but also who provides beyond the confines of this life, which starts from nothing and from which we can take nothing away. We are utterly dependent on God’s grace and love.

The Gospel from Matthew (6:25-33), reminded us that we can’t change anything by worrying, which is not actually much comfort to an anxious person, but he points out that there is more to life than food and drink, clothing and what we possess. There is a spiritual vacuum that tries to fill the empty space with things which neither bring happiness and fulfillment nor do they have any lasting value.

So to my three themes, first ‘seeds and fruit’. There are lots of conkers about at the moment. I have picked up 50 from round by our garage and that doesn’t include the squashed ones, or those the squirrels got to first. [I have changed the prayer station from pebbles to conkers, so you can pick up a conker and place that in the prayer picture later if you wish.] Conkers are hard when they land – they will dent a car roof and hurt if they land on your head. They start off in a spikey outer casing. When they land they break open and the seed bounces. This hard seed likewise breaks open so that it can sprout and put down roots. The shell protects but it has to open up so it can let the shoots come out.

Like a seed unless we break open and risk putting out roots and shoots we will not grow spiritually, or emotionally for that matter. We do this by entering into sacred space, making the space we are in sacred by being still with God; allowing silence and stillness to enable us to reflect and be open to God. When we talk of the spiritual life as being like a seed, seeds do not just grow without the seed itself changing. If we do not do this, if we block it or stop it and hide from it, we won’t grow. There are so many ways we do block it, from fear, anger, hatred, sneering and rushing. Our lives are so full, we actually have to make some space for the seed to grow and it won’t do it instantly, it takes time and patience, and even persistence. It certainly requires commitment and a conscious decision of the will.

So we come to the second area which comes out of the readings, ‘soil and growth’. What kind of land does the seed fall on? This was a question opened for us by the prophet Joel, but it will also remind us of the famous parable of the sower with the different types of ground providing receptive or hostile environments for the seed. Joel tells the soil not to fear, for God has done great things. Some intensive farming damages the soil, chemicals strip it of its fibrous quality and rich nutrients. It needs to be fed, to lie fallow so that the grass can be ploughed back in and be enriched naturally. And so we need to feed, on word and sacrament, to allow the story and presence of God to work on us and in us. This is how we prepare the soil that is our inner being, allow the soil of our own lives to be blessed and enriched.

The third theme from our readings, ‘dependency and trust’. Both readings from Matthew and 1 Timothy spoke of this. We bring nothing into the world and take nothing out. We cannot change anything by worrying. Life is more than clothing, food and drink. Money, specifically the love of money above all things, brings woes and leads to what is actually fools gold. It has no lasting value and doesn’t fill the spiritual void within us.

So harvest is a time we give thanks to God for the soil that receives the seed – our bodies and lives; for the seed that grows, that brings fruit in character and makes souls; for our dependency on God and that we can trust in hope and God’s gracious provision. Harvest is a moment when thanksgiving is centre stage, the thanksgiving that should be with us all the time. We give thanks for food for the body and the spirit.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Harvest Festival, Sunday 30th September 2018

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Caring for Creation

astronomy-discovery-earth-2422We have entered the beginning of autumn. The leaves are starting to turn and fall, and round by our garage the conkers are dropping too. Harvest has been under way for some time, is being gathered and stored. During this time our minds naturally turn to all that sustains our life and our dependency on the earth. We are creatures who depend on all that God gives and enables to be provided, without which life could not survive. And so during this period, in which our harvest celebration next week will fall, we are encouraged to think about creation. Our order of service gives these weeks that flavour. Environmental concerns are probably the biggest threat facing the planet, and the damaging contribution of human beings to global warming has been and is devastating. The poorest will feel this acutely but so will we living in one of the wealthiest nations. We are seeing it in the weather and rising sea levels, which for this part of the country is not good news. Noah is seeming less like a story!

Our readings may not look that obvious to fit with this theme, but they carry a stark message and warning to us. The letter of James (4:1-3) warned of cravings at war within us. These are the source of conflicts and disputes, and lead to violent acts. It is the desire to have what cannot be sustained and the refusal to accept that we have to limit our cravings, our wants, that are damaging the very earth on which we depend. And for those of us who love the technological advances with electronic gadgets and the ability to travel, there are sharp realities for us to confront. The technology on which I depend in so many ways uses scarce and finite resources. Even solar power has its down side in that the components of the panels and the electronics have to be mined and processed. This too is not without an environmental footprint.

According to a report this week, across the country there are 39 different versions of what can be recycled by the local authority. Peterborough is pretty good, as local authorities go, since it recycle far more of our waste than many others do. But recycling is only one of the three ‘R’s of environmental concern. Reusing and repairing come above it. Crucial in this is another ‘R’ – reducing what we use and throw away. Plastic drinking straws and disposable, single use bottles have both recently been targeted. And quite rightly too. Even combustible disposable plates and cutlery still require use of land and power to excess. It is our excess and lack of moderation to feed our endless and restless cravings that have driven so much of the problem. For some of us this has been a lifetime’s concern and it feels like it has been a long wait for everyone else to catch up. At yesterday’s Diocesan Synod the diocese has joined the trend for reusable cups, sourcing a bamboo cup which can be bought for £7, branded with the diocesan logo.

We are stewards of the earth. We have evolved and developed into sentient, intelligent and highly dexterous creatures. We subdue the earth, harness it and shape it in ways no other creature or species can. This brings with it responsibility to manage what we do in a way that doesn’t just consume with no regard to the consequences or impact. As moral creatures, we have to be aware of the effect what we do has on everyone and everything. This planet can be damaged. The rich and delicate eco-balance can be tipped to a point when it will no longer sustain us. And then it will continue without us. And it is incumbent on us to pass on to future generations a world we would like to have inherited, not one used up and polluted. This moral and spiritual imperative is one of the 5 marks of mission: to care for creation, to treasure, to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

To do this, we have to master our cravings and learn some self-discipline and self-denial. As we grow up we have to learn to moderate our desires and our consuming. If we don’t we get into trouble and that has been a problem with the economy as well. Endless consuming does not lead to our wellbeing. We need to develop and strengthen the concept of ‘enough’, sufficient and no more.

So when Jesus tells his squabbling disciples, arguing about who is the most important, that they should be like children, we might spot the irony (Mark 9:33-37). They are after all behaving like spiritual infants, who haven’t learnt how to control their cravings and their gluttony for power, prestige and position. But what he does is to take a child, embrace it and set this person of low status and not power, prestige or position into the position of honour. Welcoming the unimportant, being concerned for the one of lowest status, having regard for those we can’t see and who can’t do anything for us, is how we welcome and honour Christ. Caring for the environment is a key way we do this. It honours the poorest, who suffer most. It honours those who come after us and don’t want to have to clear up our mess or worse reap a whirlwind from our carelessness and disregard.

So in our church seasons sits these few weeks at the beginning of autumn. In these we are to be mindful of God’s creation on which we depend so greatly, of our stewardship responsibilities to treasure creation and be mindful of the effects of what we do. Into this embrace we will hold our harvest celebration next week. We will be thankful for all the good gifts around us and show that thankfulness in lives that bless and treasure, that are satisfied with enough, that seek to live in harmony and balance with the natural rhythms which sustain life on this planet. This is a moral and spiritual imperative and a mark of Christian mission.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church – Sunday 23rd September 2018

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Taming the tongue: Amazon, Wonga, Low Pay, Tax and the Archbishop

Screen Shot 2018-09-16 at 13.34.27Words have tremendous power. The old adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is complete nonsense. Bullies know this. Political campaigners and advertisers know this. The clever memes on social media know this. Name-calling, insults and lies spread about someone can hurt deeply and are designed to. They are an aggressive act, which is looking to do damage to their target. And in the same way, words of blessing and healing can do a tremendous amount of good. They can offer hope, sooth the anxious and isolated. They can mobilise others to action to make a difference and transform. Behind these is the reception they receive. Is the ground on which they fall fertile and conducive to their seed? Are those who hear them ready to believe the worst or the best, suspecting of conspiracy or knowing that sometimes things go wrong, even when there are good intentions.

There is a principle in moments of conflict and deep disagreement when we make a conscious effort to interpret what we hear in the best possible light. Our political climate and the way so much of the news reports come to us, do not encourage this. They look for the worst, for the base motives and the conspiracies at work. Sadly they often find them, but if a fruitful way forward is going to be found then giving the benefit of the doubt opens up the chance of finding a way through. Our paranoia needs to be bridled and kept in check lest it master us.

So our readings this morning all touch on the power of words. For James (James 3:1-12) it is that whether we bless or curse comes from our inner character. That character may be showing strain, wariness from past experience and suspicion, as well as temperamental predispositions. Those are not malicious in themselves, but can affect just how we respond or comment. The gospel (Mark 8:27-38) also touched on who we are being seen in what we do. Jesus asked who people said that he is and the response was based on what they saw and knew. Suffering being part of the way of Jesus came as a shock to them, with some sharp words for Peter, and being reminded that being prepared to be true to who we are and what we believe, even if this leads to suffering, are strong and difficult words. Have the courage of your convictions because if you truly believe in this, then nothing else matters as much. What will it profit to gain the world and yet forfeit the eternal? In the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 50:4-9a) courage in the face of beard pulling and spitting was held up for ultimate vindication.

None of this means that we can’t say something critical and the Bible has sharp words at times, especially when matters of justice and oppression are at stake. Words have power to call to account, remind and confront. Even when being critical their aim is to heal and bring a miscreant to their senses. Look carefully at the Old Testament prophets and we find this is what they were aiming to do. It is in this spirit that Archbishop Justin Welby got up to speak at the TUC earlier in the week. His fire was aimed at a major employer in this city, the online retailer Amazon. He criticized them for being a ‘tax dodging, employee exploiting parasite’. My paraphrase, but his words were strong. While the company are adamant they pay the tax required by law, that is not the same as what is fair when payments are made to parent companies in other countries, with lower tax regimes, and the effect of these being to achieve a substantial reduction in that liability to tax. With a turnover of nearly £2bn, tax of a few million seems rather low. If we do the maths, that gives them a profitability of something like 1%, which would imply frighteningly stark margins and doesn’t match their rising share price. They are not alone; many companies do this and we’ve heard a great deal about them over recent years. They are not contributing to the common life of the nation on which they depend.

The ‘employee exploiting’ refers to low pay and zero hours contracts. The morality of zero hours contracts very much depends on how they operate. There is a long standing and accepted practice of casual engagement as staff are needed on a temporary basis. And some work flexible hours, expanding and contracting as work is there. So if zero hours is casual work, and we take people on on that basis in the cathedral, it is a way of bringing in extra staff for one off occasions. The questionable side comes when there is a requirement to work and the risk being unfairly shifted to the employee who is not equipped to bear it. Employment brings responsibilities, even if orders come and go. If there is a requirement to show up each day then there should be a basic level of pay, with extra hours as available. This is a more responsible and just way to behave.

The low pay, to be legal, will mean that they only pay the government minimum wage, rebranded as the living wage, which in reality it isn’t. That is currently £7.83 per hour (a mere £3.50 for apprentices) whereas we pay the Living Wage Foundation’s level of £8.75 as a minimum. The parasitical element of this is that they are relying on the benefits system, funded by taxes they don’t pay fairly, to top up the living costs of employees who can’t make ends meet. Zero-hours compounds the problems. As we know universal credits are not going well and so many people on low pay find themselves at foodbanks, run by churches and other volunteers, and at debt advice, and going to loan sharks, like Wonga. Enter stage left, the MP Frank Field and his suggestion that the Church of England call together a group of ethical financiers to take over the loan book of Wonga. An imaginative idea and one I hoped would happen when Wonga went into receivership at the end of August, and Tweeted to that effect, so who knows the power of a Tweet, not least if others say something similar. It creates a groundswell for an idea to bed in.

So we have sharp words mixed with ones of hope, which makes them a blessing. Words of challenge about the justice and consequences of actions – corporate, governmental because they create the legislative climate, and personal. Words of hope and blessing with the prospect of how we can make a difference. Just to add to the complexities here, it turns out that the Church Commissioners have investments in Amazon. And a superficial look would either accuse this of being double standards, of hypocrisy, or an embarrassing oops moment. Actually there is a more subtle judgement here. Investments can be used to change a company’s ethos and practices. The power of the shareholder to work with the board of directors is quite strong if the holding is large enough or they get organised. And I know that the ethical investments group does this. There comes a moment when a company refuses to listen and then a decision to disinvest comes. This is where investment money is used to work for good. And life is compromised, so sometimes there is a decision to work from the inside rather than shouting from the outside. So I don’t see an inconsistency here, it depends how it comes through. And there have been Church Commissioners who have made this point this week, not least the head the Share Centre.

Words have power and our thoughts this morning are taken to how we use them, to our assumptions and whether we are looking to build up and transform, or just attack and destroy. To my mind it should always be the former, and if I stray into the latter, then that means I have some work to do on what has wound me up so much. Anger that turns to aggression always has an injury in the background that needs healing. It may be the stone we need to pick up, hold and then place on the hand in the prayer station by the Lady Chapel. Let go of the burdens that weigh you down, that are too heavy to carry and need to be jettisoned for the sake of our health.

An encouragement from today’s readings is to watch our words and what they reveal about us. They are to be a means of blessing and healing, of challenge and grace in order that justice and freedom may ensue.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 16th September 2018

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