Matthew – Manifesto for living the Jesus Way

Window in Peterborough Parish Church

Today we are commemorating Matthew – called from his tax collecting to follow Jesus, became an Apostle and one of the gospels is named after him. It’s the latter of that list which is a bit problematic, being one of the Evangelists, one of the writers of the four gospels.

No one actually knows who wrote what we call ‘Matthew’s Gospel’. There is a second century reference to him as the author, but there are problems with that, so it’s not the most reliable source. At best the Apostle might have collected together memories and stories about Jesus that others stitched together along with about 90% of Mark’s Gospel and a source used also by Luke. But even that is not certain.

So which do we celebrate – the Gospel writer or ex-taxman disciple? Well, both because the themes in Matthew weave both together. In being called from the tax booth, Matthew acknowledges that there is something greater than his own self-interest and there is a higher authority than the Roman one he was serving through those taxes. He puts into practice the themes the gospel conveys.

Matthew sets out his stall at the beginning of his gospel. Jesus is the Messiah, the promised one longed for by the Hebrew people. He fulfils the hope. He is ‘Emmanuel’ because ‘God is with us’. He is to be called ‘Jesus’, which means ‘God saves’. So not just an earthly Messiah, but a divine one. With the Magi, the kings, a story only in Matthew, earthly wisdom and rulers, bow down before him.

Matthew’s gospel was a favourite of the early church in the first Christian centuries. It was seen as their manifesto, setting out who they are, what their mission is and where they find their life and hope. And if we are still wondering how we see this, as the story of Jesus ends with his death and resurrection, the story of the Church begins with the great commission to go, baptise, teach and make disciples of the whole world. Matthew wants his readers to live the story he tells, to see the story of Jesus continuing in his followers.

And there are major bits of teaching which have shaped the church down the centuries. He gives the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10) – the statements that begin ‘Blessed are’, followed by the peacemakers, the pure in heart, the poor, the humble, those grieving, the meek, those hungry for the holiness of God, the merciful and the persecuted. From these we can identify core values for Christian living.

  • ‘The poor in spirit’, brings humility and dependency on God;
  • ‘Those who are mourning’ brings longing for the Kingdom of God – back to those kings and who counts most;
  • ‘Meekness’ brings compassion and a quiet confidence in God, whatever comes – it’s a good value for pandemic anxiety;
  • ‘Hunger for righteousness’ brings a commitment to grow in Christlikeness, to be orientated towards God’s kingdom;
  • ‘Mercy’ brings with it justice and respect for all;
  • ‘Purity’ brings integrity where who we are is seen in how we live;
  • ‘Peace-making’ brings the call to restore relationships and that may well bring confrontation, challenge, and the need to reconfigure, to reshape;
  • ‘The persecuted’ brings a life which stirs up opposition because it stands in such contrast.

The Beatitudes, as with Matthew’s Gospel, set out what it looks like when we follow Jesus. It is what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven where God’s Messiah sets the tone because in him ‘God is with us’.

Matthew’s Gospel bridges the old, as in ancient covenant, and the new one, its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. Old doesn’t mean useless and of no use any more. The first Christians knew their Jewish roots and the very first were themselves Jews. Matthew is important in a time when Anti-Semitism is still being seen because it reminds us that we are brothers and sisters, and share sacred texts, we are part of a spiritual continuity.

Throughout this year we have been reading Matthew’s gospel each week as our set Gospel for the year. Slowly exploring it in small bite-sized chunks. The tax-collector who changed his life to follow Jesus, to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, has given his name to a gospel which asks us to do the same.

So when we wonder who we celebrate today – Apostle or Evangelist, well it’s both because the distinction is a false one in Matthew. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. We are invited too to learn what this means, remembering that Christ calls not the righteous but sinners, that they may become ones who orientate themselves to live the story he tells, to  become Christ-like.

Sermon for Feast of Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 20th September 2020.

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No church is an island: The practical benefits of ecclesiology

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One of the spin offs of the Coronavirus pandemic is that I have seen in a new way why it matters to belong to a big church structure rather than an independent one. Struggling to get my head round the latest government advice and how it applies to my churches I have not been on my own. The value of a national church has been direct – better brains than mine, ones with medical expertise, have worked out the implications, especially when government doesn’t always appreciate the nuances of what we do. This means I can harvest the fruit of their labours and adopt it – that responsibility remains mine along with the other leaders in the church (the churchwardens and Parochial Church Council), but I don’t have to invent the wheel from scratch.

The value of the Church of England is that it is an umbrella for the 42 dioceses, and no parish is an island entire unto itself, to misquote John Donne. The Anglican Communion gives it an international perspective. I have benefited from the Church of England’s digital training, which got me live-streaming right at the beginning of this pandemic. The training was excellent. They have provided musical resources in partnership with the Royal School of Church Music and St Martin-in-the-Fields, which meant that my meagre offerings online benefited from hymnic soundtracks, lifting the praise into song while congregations and choirs locally were silent. And they introduced me to the wonders of Zoom, which has been the staple of enabling meetings to take place so there could be shared governance, planning and praying, and we were able to innovate with a Zoom Bar after church council meetings, enabling the social and therefore human to breath.

These practical benefits are what happens when our structures function well. The New Testament scholar Tom Wright, when he was Bishop of Durham, once referred to these structures (actually General Synod) as being like looking after the drains. When they function we don’t notice them, but we sure do when they get clogged up.

Behind this is our ecclesiology, our theology of what we think the church is.  The church is more than an institution, a gathering, a club to which we belong, or even an historic building. It is what happens when God calls people to live in harmony with the Kingdom, to live the hope of Christ’s resurrection, and be ignited and inspired by the Holy Spirit. And it is a team sport not a solo performance. Inevitably it stumbles from time to time, but you have to hope that it will pick up and keep on course.

There are lots of churches, different denominations and even independent ones. At their core is a group of people who are trying to live their lives in union and harmony with faith in Jesus Christ. The shape they take has some direct outworkings and we only really notice these when things don’t go well or we stub our toes on a stone that has become a stumbling block rather than a cornerstone. All of them have their cornerstones and stumbling blocks.

I have my criticisms of some of the ways the Church of England has been progressing in recent years – if you want an example, see the latest press release from the House of Bishops with its dull management speak about workstreams strategising what should be a love-song. It is a poetic dead zone. This decade feels a bit like a lost one and the most recent available stats of church allegiance are not encouraging for all this strategising. And while I tear my hair out at it at times, during Covid the national response group and the digital training team have come up trumps. This is when belonging to a national church shows its benefits – the plumbing worked.

Gathering round a bishop, strengthening the sense of belonging to the Body of Christ, the church reinforces its universal nature. Its sacraments are not its own, its bible shared and its reflecting on how these live today draw on so many disciplines and experiences that shape the view. The divisions are a wound we inflict on one another and ourselves. They are to be lamented because we need one another and to see God’s gifting of one to another. Jesus prayed that we all be one, that we love one another as he loves. Individualism is the curse of our age. There are frustrations – as we struggle with different opinions and how these oppress when handled badly. When channelled well, they open up new possibilities and flourishing. It is much worse to be alone.

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Creationtide: Our rooting in Creation and Redemption

I must have heard that reading (Matthew 18:15-20), about two or three being together and God being in the midst of them, hundreds of times. Each time I have read it as an encouragement to small congregations and it is. When two or three are together God is there. And it would apply to our online worship too where we may only be aware of two or three others worshipping with us. 

May be this is you. Throughout lockdown and now as some continue to shield, Susan and I have provided two to add to your one and so together through the internet we have formed a basic community for God to be present. We may also be aware of all the others who join with us, though we can’t see them. Yesterday I heard about one of our number who loved watching this service on YouTube on her TV later in the afternoon, how special it was for her. So two or three gathered has taken on a new dimension in this pandemic.

Reading that passage again, I read it differently this time. It is set in the context of repentance and forgiveness. The two or three who gather with Christ present are two or three who are living differently and living to make a difference. It is an encouragement to the difference two or three can make in a world that likes to blame and condemn. 

There is calling to account – we hear of a quiet word, scaling up to a couple of witnesses, perhaps a mediation session, and escalating the process to full on public challenge. So this is not without consequences and confrontation. But the two or three are encouraged that living justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with God makes a difference because God is present, God is with us – a great theme in Matthew’s gospel.

We have today entered what in recent years has been entitled ‘Creationtide’. These weeks of harvest and ripening fruit and crops are a time when our dependency on the earth is particularly highlighted. This week we heard that the wheat crop is likely to be reduced due to the adverse weather conditions this year, so we can expect our daily bread to be a bit more expensive. And Extinction Rebellion have a campaign on at the moment to raise awareness of the environmental emergency. It may be that your daily paper was disrupted yesterday by this.

Whether you agree with their methods or not, and they are not without controversy, the issues are pressing. Perhaps Jesus can be taken here to encourage us that two or three can start a movement, can initiate change – and we need to change the way we live. I don’t know much about the sayings of the trade advisor, the former PM of Australia appointed this week, but the idea that trade and the environment are separate is surely bogus. How we trade and its impact is crucial for our carbon footprint and use of the land and animals. 

The Old Testament reading might sound like the absence of concern for these things (Exodus 12:1-14). Quite a lot of lambs are slaughtered, eaten and their blood used to daub a mark on door posts. It sounds like humans can treat the created order as its playground and all life with whatever contempt it chooses. But I think there is a deeper layer running underneath what sounds to us rather odd and may even offend our sensitivities. That deeper layer is more relevant to this gospel reading than it may seem at first glance.

The world view of the Old Testament knows no separation between being people, chosen and beloved by God, and being made of the same dust and elements as other creatures. All life comes from God and has the breath of God within it. That breath is what animates the life. So life being used for a sacrifice, for a marking for protection, is to this world view a sacred act which recognises the fundamental connection between us. As the Celtic writer Ray Simpson puts it in a new book on ‘Celtic Christianity and Climate Crisis‘, “there is a unity of all creation in the praise of God”. (Sacristy Press, 2020: p17).

We cherish creation because it has God at its heart. Any spirituality of creation will find that redemption is not far away. They are twins. The Cross, the Tree of death, the limits of time and body, which I spoke about on Wednesday during the online Night Prayer onlast week, becomes in Christ the Tree of life. And if you know the epic poem, the Dream of the Rood, this theme weaves around it as the gold leaves weave round the cross. It is a poem which is reflected in the giant cross in the cathedral and our preacher next week will be the Dean who will reflect on it for Holy Cross Day.

So the two or three who gather in Christ’s name, proclaiming redemption and calling us to account, take us to our rootedness in creation and our unity with all God’s creation in the praise of God. Creationtide goes much deeper than merely wanting to protect the planet. It takes us to the roots of who we are, of the call to make a difference and the encouragement that two or three can do that because “God is with us”.

Sermon for Trinity 13 and Creationtide, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 6th September 2020.

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Limitations of Time and Body

IMG_5733People have struggled to come to terms with how it is that we suffer for as long as anyone can trace. The earliest parts of the Old Testament include such wonderings and the prophets wondered why God allowed it. The Book of Job is often taken as the great essay on suffering, but I’ve never found that it provides a clear answer to the ‘why’. And that is part of the clue to understanding it – we don’t know. It is a given in how the world is and it’s more important to think how you will respond to it.

I was sent a newsletter the other day which included a link to the British Humanist Association website. In a moment of curiosity I clicked around it wondering just what they make of suffering, and therefore what Humanists might have to say to us in this pandemic. I’m not going to rubbish them, I found that there were many points at which I could agree with what they were saying.

Evil and suffering is a great head scratcher. Central in their arguments, in their questioning, is a series of questions or points put by Epicurus in the 4th or 3rd century BC. If God is willing to prevent evil but can’t, then God is not Almighty, not omnipotent. If God is able but not willing, then we question God’s morality. If God is both able and willing to prevent it, then where does it come from? These questions from Epicurus all assume that we know what is best and indeed can judge.

The Humanist website took these unreconcilables, or what they regard as unreconcilables, as being reason not to believe in God at all, or at least determine that there is no reason to believe in God – to draw an atheistic and an agnostic conclusion. Suffering is the great shaker of faith and for some destroys it. It also shoots down simplistic answers and that’s where I found myself nodding at some of what they said. But for me there were gaps in the logic and something very important was missing.

In the Book of Job, God is scripted with the lines asking Job whether he was there when God created the heavens and the earth, set the stars in motion and our reading was part of that script. It’s a long passage, lasting several chapters at the end of the book – he really gets it in the ear! (Job 38-42). In short was Job there when the creation was mapped out and set in course? The answer, of course, is ‘no’. The implication is therefore that he shouldn’t presume to know better. And neither should we. Our moral wonderings have to be approached with a degree of humility.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written another thoughtful piece this time for the New Statesmen. He points out that if we avoid facing the question of death and try to cheat it, if we think it shouldn’t exist, we end up also avoiding the question of birth. As we refuse to accept death and its reality, so we refuse to accept the limits of time and body. We are capable, he writes, of making a difference, but not all the difference. We depend on an agency and a gift beyond what we can clearly understand. There is mystery at the heart of birth and death and all that lies between. This is the perspective of deep faith.

We have to learn to accept our own limited place in the scheme of things. This is not to say that we don’t matter and that suffering doesn’t matter – there is no Buddhist denial of its reality here, but we are not the centre of the universe and if we don’t accept our own limited place, we don’t move over and give room for others, the new generation.

One of the things we are confronted with in our illness, weakness and mourning when we lose someone significant to us, is this limitation of time and body. Being mortal in a fragile and volatile world brings many risks and dangers, trials and disasters. The hope that comes through faith is that there is a purpose in this and we find it in the mystery of God.

To some that will sound like an intellectual cop out. It’s not, but it could be taken that way. It is rather to stare into this limitation of time and body and find there profound hope and presence. There is in the silence at the heart of the universe a love which brings us into being, holds us through all our days and welcomes us into a kingdom of peace and joy. In a healing service we connect with this hope and strength whatever we are facing.

Sermon for a service of wholeness and healing during Night Prayer, Peterborough Parish Church, Wednesday 2nd September 2020.

 

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Cost of Discipleship: John the Baptist and the Way of Christ

IMG_5746One of the ways we tell the story of our faith is through the special days that we commemorate. These are either the lives of key people or events in the life of Jesus. Today brings us both, and it is a dark one. Today we remember the death of John the Baptist, our patron saint, his beheading. It is a tale of lust, of revenge, of hatred and contempt for life. It is also one with tender moments as John’s disciples retrieve his body for burial. And for Jesus it seems to have been the spur to crank his ministry up a gear.

John has a characteristic bluntness. He tells it how it is and that can be sharp. He is uncompromising and direct in his criticism. Herod seems to have both loved and hated this. He seems to have admired John but clearly got irritated when he was criticised, not least for his adulterous relationship with his sister in law. Added to that her daughter dancing and delighting him, makes him the dodgy step-dad. (The texts vary at this point as to whether she is his daughter or his wife’s – how dark do you want this story to get!)

Making a rash promise, fuelled by too much drink and unsavoury passions, the scene is set for John’s demise. Matthew’s version is shorter than Mark’s. It is Mark (6:14-29) who draws out the full intrigue and vile nature of it. When Herod makes his promise, Herodias suggests John’s head, but it is her daughter who goes that step further with adding ‘on a platter’, just to make it even worse. Contempt is being learned and emulated.

A guard is sent and John is beheaded with no further ceremony. In a first century prison death can come at any moment, without warning or preparation. As a prisoner you were at the whim of whoever had the power and life was cheap and disposable. I can see why we choose to focus our patronal festival on John’s birth not his death.

Thankfully we don’t face that kind of threat in this country, though political power reacts no less favourably to criticism. I know when I’m getting close to the mark with one or two local characters because they tell me I should not express a view or accuse me of virtue signalling and my inner John the Baptist comes to the surface. The church has a right and a responsibility to engage in democratic debate.

But Christians are being persecuted in other countries, with beheadings. Children and young women are subjected to lustful and abusive gaze from those who should protect and be safe for them. In 2018 the then Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, commissioned the Bishop of Truro to lead a review of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

In his report last year he estimated that one third of the world’s population faces persecution for their faith and Christians are the most persecuted group (Final Report p15). This persecution includes execution. Among his recommendations was for government to use its diplomatic and trade engagements to raise and advance these concerns.

Being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be a very costly commitment. A challenge for us in our relative comfort, is would we hold to it or dump it if the going was so tough? There was a fairly simplistic mantra circulating some years ago. If Christianity was illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict you? And that opens up a whole storehouse of questions about what would count as admissible evidence where ‘churchianity’ might mask real following of Christ in word and deed and devotion. It is so easy to be focused on the institution and confuse this with actually living the way of Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist takes us to passion and proclamation, challenge and call, faithfulness in the face of death and therefore the embracing of the life that is worth living. John the Baptist was the first to greet Jesus as he kicked in his mother’s womb. He pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God as he watched him walk through the market place. He witnessed in his death, summarily as it came, but with unwavering commitment.

A church named after him is challenged with how much of his story we are prepared to share. Do we delight in the presence of Christ where we see it? Do we point to him in how we live in faith, hope and love? Are we prepared when the going gets tough to say ‘this is where I stand’ and this is how I see the outworking of common life that proclaims justice, honour and equity: I can do no other? The powerful never like it when decisions are challenged and always bite back, especially if they feel threated by them. Are we prepared to stand up for the most vulnerable and face that?

So today we remember John the Baptist, the dark moments of his death and the light of hope which shone through him. May his delight in the womb be ours as we encounter the risen Christ in our hearts. May we with him point others to the Lamb of God, who takes away our sins and is our hope. May the light of that hope be our inspiration in whatever we face.

Sermon for Beheading of John the Baptist, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 30th August 2020.

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I am not a number

PrisonerNumberSIxIn the 1960s cult TV series ‘The Prisoner’, the main character, referred to as Number Six, lets out an impassioned plea, “I am not a number, I am a man”. I’m not sure when I first saw it, but it must have been one of the reruns a decade or more later; I’m too young to have seen it when it first came out. There are lots of strange things about the series. Set in the mock Italian Welsh village of Portmeirion, Number Six is an abducted intelligence agent subjected to mental torture and when he tries to escape strange white balloons come after him.

It came to mind when I was thinking about the fiasco over A Level results last week. It was always going to be a challenge to work out what to do when exams were cancelled but I can only imagine the offence caused to teachers by telling them they couldn’t be trusted to behave professionally to prevent grade inflation. There are ways to moderate their assessments, to provide evidence for their judgements.

But beyond this, there is something more subtle that concerns me. Even though there has been a U-turn, the damage is done. A whole cohort of young people have been told that their individual efforts did not count and that in effect they were just a statistical unit, a number in a modelling exercise. The father of one student locally told me that his daughter had been predicted an A* but the algorithm gave her a B because no one has ever got an A* in that subject from her school before. She is an exceptional student. This arbitrary downgrading is not healthy and sets up a distrust and a disconnect between government and those who will all have votes at the next election. “I am not a number, I am a person”.

The same statistical depersonalisation has been present in some of the Covid responses. When some seriously suggested that herd immunity would be the best way forward they were prepared to treat real people as collateral and dispensable. That word, ‘collateral’, first entered our common language chillingly during the first Gulf War. It was used to refer to civilians who were ‘in the wrong place’, not the intended target but a cost worth paying. Just War theory does not take that approach. Two of its principles are that action is to be proportionate and protecting of non-combatants.

That is why many are so concerned about nuclear capabilities in weaponry. And I’m sorry that in all of the commemorations of VE Day and VJ Day we haven’t made the same of the anniversary of two atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the horrors these unleashed. We overlooked this, unfortunately. The film ‘Red Joan’, shown in cinemas last year, tells of a young nuclear physicist in the 1940s who in developing the atomic bomb realised its dangers. She decided that the safest approach was to make sure both sides had the knowledge, the British, Americans and Russians, and therefore neither would use it. So Joan shared it with the Russians. She thought, if both sides had the knowledge neither would dare use it. At the end of the film she points out it hasn’t been used since. Discuss.

One of the beauties of the gospels is that time and time again we see Jesus looking beyond the surface deeply into the person. We are known by name and honoured by name. More precious than sparrows, with even the hairs on our heads counted – with or without a lockdown haircut. Jesus calls us to follow him, loves us and knows that we have our own special gifts to share and use in the service of his kingdom.

The story of Moses (Exodus 1:8-2:10), begins with a despotic ruler who decides that genocide is a policy worth pursuing. Every male child is to be treated like vermin and murdered. The irony is that Jewishness is transmitted through the mother, but misogynistic and antisemitic Pharaoh does not seem to spot that. People again treated as statistical units of concern, depersonalised and disposable.

The gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20) has Jesus asking his disciples who they think he is. A great statement of faith comes from Peter that he is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. This is followed by warnings that he faces the cross, which shocks them, but Jesus identifies so much with humanity that he claims no exemption from its frailty and pain. If we face it, he faces it, embraces it and redeems it.

Next (chapter 17) comes his Transfiguration, and it was on the day we celebrate this, 6th August, that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima 75 years ago. A cloud of glory contrasts with a mushroom cloud of shame. After he comes down from the mountain the first thing he does is heal an epileptic boy. Not just a statistic and a number, but a person in need of healing.

This cloud of glory sees who we are and all of us matter. Jesus came for all of us, personally and together, but none of us are mere statistical units to be written off or ignored. That is quite a challenge when we try to live like him and share his good news. “I am not a number, I am a man”, or boy in this case.

May the love of him, who goes in search of the lost, the one sheep who is missing, give us hope and inspire us in our journey with him in faith and hope and love, for each of us matters and is precious in his sight. ‘I am not a number, I am a child of God.’

Sermon for Trinity 11, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 23rd August 2020

 

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Elephant Toothpaste: Catalysts of the Kingdom

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After the online Patronal Eucharist last month, when we gave you the sight if not the smell of incense, we looked at the thurible – the incense burner. It has got very clogged with soot and tar residue, so we decided it needed a really good clean. I thought I’d consult the combined wisdom of Twitter and Facebook to see how friends clean theirs. Clergy social media is a weird place at the best of times, but it can come up with gems. I’ve soaked things like this in Coke-Cola before and it does shift grime.

One friend suggested Hydrogen Peroxide, which turns out to be a cleaning agent used with organic veg as well as sorting out your highlights. There are various strengths of it, depending on its concentration in a water solution. This friend then added, ‘of course if you add another ingredient you can make ‘elephant toothpaste’’. Well that was it, my attention was grabbed.

So here it is. The other ingredient is yeast, so see what happens when you add it along with soap and food colouring for a bit more interest.

If you want the science, the yeast acts as a catalyst to break down the hydrogen peroxide into oxygen and water. Soap will then mix with the oxygen and water, which turn into foam. The colouring is just to make it pretty. And it is pretty awesome. There is a much more dramatic version, but I couldn’t source the chemicals for that one.

Jesus used a baking image for yeast in the gospel reading (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52). He talked about adding it to the flour but the affect is the same – it causes the mass to expand and multiply in size. The yeast makes the dough rise: great for pizzas, great for bread. As a symbol of the Kingdom of God both show how it acts as a catalyst to make a difference. What you end up with is far greater than what you started with, but it works on the ingredients that you have.

This is not a magic solution that will create something out of nothing. Rather it takes what you give it and helps it work so that it transforms and changes. The mustard seed is the same image – a small seed turns into a giant tree, providing shelter for the birds.

What needs releasing in us to help us transform the world around us into a place where God’s kingdom is let loose and visible? What catalyst is needed to change us into people who bring Christ’s peace? Jesus tells us the missing ingredient, catalyst, is being open to the Kingdom of God, accessed and released through prayer.

We are in a time of great anxiety and speaking words of peace can be the catalyst that is needed. We might need more than that, to challenge injustice and events in London with the police officer kneeling on the neck of someone under arrest sparked a silent protest in Cathedral Square yesterday for the Black Lives Matter movement.

I saw a prayer yesterday, written by Caroline Beckett, a priest in Essex. It’s a prayer for putting on a face mask and to use it as a symbol of the kingdom, how we can be a catalyst for good. It prays that we guard the words that come out, are shielded from those which come to us that may assault, are mindful of the prejudice, judgement and thoughtlessness of which we are all capable. And prays for grace to mask my mouth and pin my ears forward for listening. I end with this prayer – may it help use this small act we are now all encouraged to do as a catalyst for God’s kingdom breaking loose among us and in our communities.

Lord as I put on my mask,

let it be a filter for my words to pass through as well as my breathing.

Let through only those words which are helpful breathings of love

and stop those things in my speech that will be harmful to others.

Protect me also, O Lord,

from the harmful things others may say to me.

Help me to realise that I may be a carrier of bitterness,

thoughtlessness, judgement and prejudice without realising,

and that some people are more word-vulnerable than others.

Give me grace to love those who cannot or will not filter to protect others

and special grace to them, because they go through the world unprotected.

Help me to be prepared to adapt and be brave and transparent

so that all may have chance to hear.

Lord, be a mask to my mouth

and pin my ears forward for listening. Amen.

Sermon for Trinity 7, live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 26th July 2020

 

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Stay Humble

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When I was a child one of the upsides of being ill was that I might get Lucozade. It was a fizzy tonic to pep you up a bit when you had a low appetite. Now it is much more of an energy drink for sports, drunk all the time rather than when not feeling well.

Shopping in one of the local supermarkets the other day, just round the corner from here, I spotted this special edition bottle of Lucozade fruit punch. On it the slogan “stay humble” caught my eye. Humility as an energy drink, I thought, there’s got to be a sermon in that.

This special edition bottle is a partnership between the makers of Lucozade and the world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua. He has a mantra, “Stay Hungry: Stay Humble”. It’s an inspiring phrase, especially when you dig into the story behind it. (This is a video of him explaining it.) He says he has known what it is to be hungry, but the hunger he is talking about here is about commitment to a cause, having ambition, motivation and being consistent; being hungry for the aim and goal.

Well, the apostle Paul used a similar image in his first letter to the Corinthians (9:24-25) when he spoke about running the race to achieve the prize, to reach the goal. The goal is the Kingdom of God, to be hungry for God’s kingdom and to be focussed and committed to it. Christian living involves this focus and direction, inspired by our love for God, by his Son Jesus Christ, powered by the true energy drink of the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, “Stay Humble”, which is on the bottle. Anthony Joshua was upfront about this. It comes from the Bible, he said. It is a reminder that wealth is found in our character not in material objects. And to remember that whatever we achieve, others have gone before us and we build on their work, on what they have taught us – we are not self-made.

For Anthony Joshua this is also a reminder to have respect for all people, whoever they are: ‘whether they are the man in the street or the man on the hill’, as he put it. Everyone deserves and is due the same respect. Anthony Joshua went on to say this is why people fight for equality, they are hungry for it and humility inspires respect: respect of self, respect of others.

A similar point was made by the singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg in an article in the Guardian on free speech (‘Speech is only free when we all have a voice’ – Guardian 10th July 2020). In one of those sentences that I just want to frame he wrote:

“Although free speech remains the bedrock of a free society, for everyone to enjoy the benefits of freedom, liberty needs to be tempered by equality and accountability. Without equality, those in power will use their freedom of expression to abuse and marginalise others. Without accountability, liberty can mutate into the most dangerous of all freedoms: impunity.”

Liberty is tempered by equity and accountability to counter abuse, marginalisation and acting with impunity. A rich quotation that warrants reading over and over again.

In our Old Testament reading (Genesis 28:10-19a), we were given part of the story of Jacob. His journey to find a wife has brought him to a certain place where he decides to rest for the night. I can’t say I’ve ever found a stone a comfortable pillow, but that is what he uses. Here he has the dream of a ladder with angels of God ascending and descending. This place of vision becomes for him a holy place, blessed by pouring oil over the stones, and that vision inspires him. There is a goal and he is hungry for it.

The reading from Matthew (13:24-30, 36-43), brought us a farmer sowing seed and finding both grain and weeds. The obvious solution today would be to spray it with weed killer, but this farmer is an organic one and he decides to let both grow – perhaps with an eye to biodiversity, though that’s not quite the way it’s written up. The weeds here are seen as corruption and rebellion, but they are both permitted to grow.

The humility in this comes at the end with the judgement. All of the harvest will be assessed and some will measure up as having been hungry for the goal and some will not. The good seed is described as being children of the kingdom – which is justice, love and peace. The weeds are those in league with all that disrupts and works against that kingdom. And humility is the desire to seek the kingdom of God rather than our own. Remember, as Anthony Joshua put it, wealth is found in character not in material objects. And as Billy Bragg put it, free speech needs equity otherwise it will abuse and marginalise, and accountability otherwise it acts with impunity.

Staying humble keeps us on the edge and on guard because there is a measure against which to be tested and against which we are tested, and that is the Kingdom of God.

Stay Hungry: Stay Humble – hungry for the kingdom of God and humble in its service; and look to the Holy Spirit for the true energy to sustain you on the way.

Sermon for online live-streamed worship for Trinity 6, Peterborough Cathedral and Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 19th July 2020.

 

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Go, love, serve in the name of Christ

 

Did you see the video of the new Archbishop of York taking up his pastoral responsibilities on Thursday? (embedded above) Unusually, the legal ceremony, during which his appointment was confirmed and he formally became Archbishop, was conducted by zoom – everything happens by zoom at the moment. After this he walked into York Minster and took from the high altar the pastoral staff, the symbol of a bishop as shepherd of his people. He then walked to the great west doors and there rather than banging on them to be let in, as is traditional, be banged his staff on the doors to be let out.

The symbolism was strong and deliberate. He did this to show the church being open for people to come. It struck me, though, that, even if not intended, it was an act of setting the church free to go, love and serve in the name of Christ. He was then greeted by the crowd outside. This is where pastors and shepherds need to be, leading the church, the whole people of God in their vocation and ministry outside the walls, not just inside them; to go, love and serve.

One of the striking features of the past four months has been that while church buildings have been shut, the church has not been. We have had to think of different ways to go, and have reached out online, in loving and caring in so many acts of kindness and generosity of connecting and checking on one another and others in need. I have seen it as being important to fly the flag by walking around the city centre so that we have remained visible to those about. We are at our best as disciples and servants of Jesus Christ when we are outward looking and outward loving. The task is always to go, love and serve.

When we are in crisis, and we have certainly been in that recently, the task is to love: to show it, to be genuine in it, to live it. That can be difficult at times, especially when we are under strain and all of us can and do fall short at times. But love is the way, love is the truth and love is the life. Jesus commanded it, that we love one another, that we live his love for the world for which he died and rose again. By this we are known as Christ’s disciples. Without it we are not. Go, love, serve.

It is not a coincidence that we call worship a service. It is an act of service we give to God. We give the honour, the humble praise and thanksgiving to the one who is our source and goal. And that service is to be lived and not confined within medieval walls. We worship and follow the one who came as a servant and not only told his disciples to do this, he showed them by taking a towel and washing their feet in a remarkable demonstration of what it means to be like him. Washing feet means doing what is needed, however humbling it might be. It is a myriad of specific acts and not just a vague general principle. Go, love, serve.

Now if you are still wondering who this applies to, our Collect today is clear. Cast your eyes back at it if you have the Order of Service in a format you can do that with. In this we prayed for each of us in our vocation and ministry (another word for service). Each of us. So all of us are sent to go, to love and to serve. And we have the image of a new Archbishop banging on the doors of a cathedral from the inside to be let out.

When he stood on the steps his words were simple and straightforward, something Stephen Cottrell is known for. He said:

”I started off simply wanting to live and share the good news of Jesus Christ. And I look forward to doing it with you.”

Living and sharing good news together is not just the theme he gave, it is the theme of the Collect prayer for today.

The Gospel reading (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-end) was about seed being scattered. Some bore fruit, some did not. Some soil was well prepared and receptive, some was not. Some seemed to go well but didn’t have the staying power. And some of course flourished. This has long been taken as a parable of the church’s mission, of sharing good news. And it bears out in experience. Some places seem harder than others. But the sower is profligate. He just scatters with abandon because this is love spilling out everywhere.

So, the question for us is how can we be people who go, love and serve? How can we be outward looking and loving, not least if still shielding? How can we be people who love with the abandon and without restraint that we see in Jesus Christ? How can we be people who serve, do what needs doing to live good news?

Stephen Cottrell has started as a breath of fresh air. He has banged on the doors to let the fresh air in and go out into it. It is striking for its simplicity and inspiring as a sign of love being lived. Each of us has a vocation, a calling in Christ to go, love and serve.

Sermon for Trinity 5, live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th July 2020.

 

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Happy Birthday NHS

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The NHS is 72 years old today. Some of you may remember it starting; most of us won’t. We’ve grown up with it; it is part of how we think society should function. Free at the point of delivery, it is the basic assumption of our society that we care for one another, that we all contribute and in this great pooling everyone is cared for; that it is there for us when we need it. Like many of us I benefit enormously from the NHS. It is hard to imagine life in this country without it.

This is not the assumption of every country in the world and we saw this with the response in America to Barack Obama’s health care. I looked on with wide-eyed bemusement at the vitriol poured on him for this and the contempt some held it in. Why would anyone not want a health service like we have?

The fact that it is 72 years old today means, of course, that there was a time when we didn’t assume that this was how it should be. It had to be invented and that journey had its bumps. It was part of a reimagining of what life would be like, needed to be like, post war, the product of a Commission on Social Insurance and Allied Services chaired by William Beveridge. This reported in 1942 and proposed far-reaching reforms of the existing social welfare provisions.

It aimed to address what it called the five giants on the road to reconstruction of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness; to provide rewards for everyone’s sacrifices. There had been previous attempts with a 1908 Commission on the Poor Law. Attlee’s government picked this up in 1945 and the NHS was launched on 5th July 1948 with three core principles:

  • that it meets the needs of everyone
  • that it is free at the point of delivery and
  • that treatment is based on clinical need, not on the ability to pay.

The first of those principles, meeting the needs of everyone, is a very different prospect today, with medical science able to do far more than was envisaged in 1948. So, as expectations have risen, Clinical Commissioning Groups have hard decisions to match budget to medical need.

What we have seen over recent months has been just how dedicated those who work on the frontline of this service are. It is self-sacrificial, loving and deeply inspiring. But it is under significant strain and has been for years. Those of us who see it in action, be it as a patient, healthcare professional or visitor, know just how much it struggles to cope. Covid piled on stress to an already over stretched organisation.

Our readings this morning had a thread running through them of mutual care. In a desert country, providing water and hospitality to the stranger – to meet the human need – is a fundamental ethic. It’s an environment where everyone knows that they rely on one another for survival. So Rebekah’s kindness to the traveller (Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49) shows she is someone who behaves well, as expected and is a person of peace, rather than strife. We have seen with Covid that not everyone can be relied on and there are scammers and those who would take advantage of a vulnerable situation.

The darkness of not always doing what I want, but something destructive getting the better of us, was in Paul’s reflection in the New Testament reading (Romans 7:15-25a). It is in and through God’s love within that we will find a more gracious way to be. The ethic at work, again, is that there is an expectation to match up. With his mind being on the law of God and his actions a slave to sin, Paul is calling for an integration, to be genuine and authentic.

And then in Matthew (11:16-19), John the Baptist points out the hypocrisy of failing to match up again. ‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deed’. So put it into practice. Jesus follows this with his call for all who are weighed down to ‘come to him’ and find in him the rest and care they long for (11: 25-end).

The clapping for the NHS has attracted mixed responses, not least from the medical profession. Some have been deeply moved by the show of support and respect from people in their streets. Others have said don’t clap and then behave in a way that treats us with contempt. Sharp words for policy makers, funding allocators, and users of the service who risk spikes and risk one another.

So as we celebrate the NHS, we celebrate the ethic on which it is built, that of mutual support and care, of pooling resources so that all may benefit, not least in a hostile environment and a time of great threat. It calls on us to match words to actions, to join up the dots. It also calls on us to celebrate those who give so selflessly of themselves and for the benefit of strangers who stop by at their spring in need – the Rebekahs and others in blue.

Sermon celebrating 72nd Birthday of the NHS, Live-stream service, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 5th July 2020.

 

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