Baptism of Christ: heaven on earth

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Baptism of Christ – window in Peterborough Parish Church

January is a time of new beginnings and also facing reality. With the hopes of New Year resolutions this is the week when sandwich shops know that resolve weakens, so they buy in more stock and the more tasty stock at that. It’s also the week when those credit card bills start to pile in bringing home the reality of Christmas spending. New beginnings are not always as new as we like to think because the consequences of past actions come knocking. Even when we think we are reinventing, starting from a blank sheet, we aren’t. Last year I heard Archbishop Justin Welby refer to ‘traditioned innovation’, which means our fresh thinking comes out of where we are. It comes from somewhere in order to get somewhere. It’s a phrase I quite like, because it is rooted and reminds us that all those leaps of the imagination are actually from what we know and can see to what we can imagine is possible, or probable. 

The leap of faith is one of these leaps – jumping from the world we see, the hopes we have, the signs of awe and wonder, to what we think could be. This requires a degree of humility – we might be spot on, we might we wrong, and the test comes with the dawning of each new day. Does it stack up?

Our gospel reading this morning gave us Matthew’s version of the Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3: 13-17). This is the beginning of his public ministry. It is one that comes out of the hopes and dreams of all that has been and what could be. So Jesus walks out of the crowd, goes forward like everyone else to be baptised by John the Baptist. In doing this, Matthew says he fulfils righteousness. We might say he comes out of the tradition so that he can fulfil it. This makes what John the Baptist is doing a bridge between the old and the new. Jesus doesn’t just stand in line with the past, he also challenges it . The kingdom he brings is not quite what they are expecting. Humility will need to be switched on and this plays out in the coming pages. 

There is a dramatic moment with whatever is meant by Matthew’s statement that the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. It’s an image that sites heaven just above the clouds. It’s an image we might scratch our heads over, having penetrated the heavens, the skies, into deep space and there are no pearly gates up there with St Peter on the reception desk. This is an image that speaks to a pre-scientific age about the realm of God coming down to be seen on the earth. Another way of looking at it might be with ‘Dr Who’ special effects and the separation between this realm and another being ripped open so that the heavenly can be seen. The fabric of the universe is split and another realm crosses through. Or with Philip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ and the notion that you can go through a portal from one world to another – you need a gate. This echoes John’s gospel when it refers to Jesus as the gate, the way, the truth and the life.  Metaphor is powerful, we just have to find the language that speaks to our age.

The dove, which descends upon Jesus as he comes out of the water, takes us to the story of Noah, to his floating zoo and the longing for dry land, for a symbol of restoration and life. A dove is sent out and it returns with a twig. There is hope. A dove is sent out and it doesn’t return (Genesis 8:6-12). The dove is the messenger of peace, of hope of promise fulfilled. The tradition will move forward and the new beginning is one of blessing.

The voice that sounds echoes Isaiah’s in our first reading (42:1). There is delight in the child of promise. The Spirit is upon him to bring justice. and he will have resolve to see this through. This is no mere New Year wishful thinking. But there is resolve to make it happen. ‘The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this’ (Isaiah 9:7). Remember Matthew’s key theme, ‘God is with us’, so this resolution will happen. It will happen because God’s kingdom is here, ‘God is with us’, and it is his reign that is being announced. The heavens have opened and we see in him what we need to see.

In order to see this we have to look deeply into the story of Jesus. His call is to live as people who seek the kingdom of God, who aim to live in harmony with it. We are to be citizens of two worlds – the earthly but also with the barrier ripped open so that we live here in the light of God’s kingdom and heaven. This makes that word ‘justice’ become a much deeper concept than what happens in Law Courts, though these are heavily shaped by the Christian story. All judicial systems follow the principles of the culture which defines the laws, defines the rules of engagement. I am often very impressed by the reasoning whenever I read a  court judgement in full. Judges have a way of getting to the heart of the issue at stake; they weigh up the balance of the arguments using sound judgement.

There was an interesting post by the Bishop of Manchester during the week. He spoke about what we mean by the phrase ‘all things considered’. What he was arguing was that when there is a major weight of evidence, as with climate change, to give equal time to the deniers is ridiculous, it is to unbalance the evidence. The key question is to ask what is the evidence and  then to balance it so that the weight is given appropriately.  The Bishop of Manchester is the Episcopal Visitor for the Society of Ordained Scientists. Our concept of justice is based on a notion that it is something that enables all to flourish and this has a long history. If this is not the case, if we don’t all have a sense of winning through it, then in the often quoted phrase of Thomas Hobbes, life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. This happens when we lose our sense of balance, of what lies behind the principles of moral development, of what makes for justice. Justice needs to be based on who we are and how we understand that. This is shaped by our understanding of the kingdom of God, which we see in the story of Jesus, and our aim is to live in accordance with it. We are just when we do this.

When we want to see what this looks like, we have the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t drop from the skies, but grows out of the Old Testament tradition and the journey of a people whose grasp has at times been firm and at others flimsy. It is radical in getting back to the foundation of the universe and in challenging when we have misheard and  when we have corrupted it through false perceptions.  So ripping open the heavens takes form in the ordinary; it becomes embedded so that we can recognise it and live it.

As we mark the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist at the River Jordan, we mark a moment when the tradition was both affirmed and challenged. Heaven breaks through into earth , a gate is opened, and we are invited to live in harmony with that radical call. This brings hope for both the eternal but also a challenge to bring about justice, where the good of everyone is advanced. “This is my son, in whom I delight.” Pay attention and you will live in harmony with heaven on earth.

Sermon for The Baptism of Christ, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th January  2020

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Magi’s Gifts: Restoring balance with hope and thanksgiving

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About a decade ago various groups came up with the smart idea of looking ahead and thinking what would life be like in 2020. They went on to ask what they needed to do in order to be ready for this and then the next stage was to plan the route to get there. They called this having 2020 vision, which was not only the target date but also a play on the Optician’s perfect score for eyesight, having 2020 vision – seeing clearly the road ahead. On a good day I have it with my glasses on, on a bad day, when my eyes are tired, or the lenses need cleaning, it’s not quite so clear – and that is probably a good metaphor for vision setting too. 2020 is a date that has been in the distance for such a long time, but here we are, in the words of the SatNav voiceover, we have arrived at our destination. I don’t know what you thought 2020 would look like, but this is it. 

The future is very difficult to predict and I think we would all find it rather hard to crystal ball gaze 10 years ahead from where we are now. The pace of change is so fast and so unpredictable that we need to set our sights a bit closer in front of us.  The best way to plan is, of course, to have a good sense of what it is we think we are here for, to be clear on purpose and for those of us of faith, of the faith of Jesus Christ, it is to be someone whose life is governed and guided by the good news of the gospel. How does the story of our faith inspire, ignite and give insight into what we do? 

Just before Christmas I came across a spiritual discipline for reflecting at the end of the day, and it rather appealed to me. It was to sit quietly and asked three questions:

  • What has troubled me today,
  • Where have I seen a glimpse of glory and 
  • What do I hope for tomorrow?

What has troubled me, distressed me, been of concern? Where has the glint of sunlight broken through the clouds and made me aware of God’s loving presence and helped me see signs of God’s blessing? Looking to tomorrow, not ten years time or 20 years time, but simply what is my hope for tomorrow? If you are a journaller you can write this down, and according to mental health guides, this is a good way of helping with wellbeing. After I have downloaded the day, I have started asking myself these three things: what has troubled me, where have I seen glimpses of glory and what do I hope for tomorrow.

The other day I went through the photographs I’ve taken over the past decade and put together a selection. Looking back over these made me aware of the moments of God’s goodness blessing, things I had overlooked or forgotten. We are, according to an article I read on New Year’s Day, hardwired to see the negative because it is a defence mechanism. So spotting the blessings, the glimpses of glory and moments to be thankful for, was quite revelatory and restorative. 

These three questions fit with the three gifts brought by the wise guides who came calling on the infant Jesus which we remember today as we celebrate the Epiphany. Opening their treasure boxes they brought out gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Or to fit this reflective tool, in reverse, gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. 

Myrrh, as we know, is the medicinal compound. It heals, it cleanses, it soothes. It is perfect for the things that have troubled or distressed us. God brings to these healing and peace. What has troubled you, where do you need myrrh to pour over it and cleanse, soothe and heal? Each day will bring pains, small and great. It can be that these are the easiest part of the day to bring into the open, so the first treasure box to spring open. But we open it to seek God’s healing, possibly forgiveness, certainly grace. What has troubled you? What do you need myrrh for?

Frankincense, the sweet smelling odour of worship and adoration, brings us to bow down in worship. It is the perfect symbol for the glimpses of glory, for the moments when thanksgiving burst into song. It might be the catch on this box is a bit stiff and we have to ease it open so that we can see it, but persist, keep at it because there will be a gift in the day somewhere. Hard as it may be, it will be there. The film director Ridley Scott used the industrial landscape of Teeside’s chemical works as the inspiration for the opening shots of his 1982 film Bladerunner. He said, as he walked along the scene he found, there was a beauty in the darkness. In the most unpromising of places there can be signs of glory and blessing. It might be of course that this box springs open readily, and the signs of blessing are clear and easy. The song flows from a heart that is filled with joy. Be thankful for those signs, they are the gift to lift the heart and see us through the hours. Where have there been glimpses of glory? Where is the incense to burn for sweet fragrance of awe and wonder, worship and wellbeing?

Gold is money and money makes things happen. One of the desires many of us have, ambitions if you like, is to make a difference. The church is called to do this, to be an agent of God’s grace and sign of his Kingdom. Our hope for tomorrow, whatever timescale we have in mind as we look, is to live in the light of God’s kingdom present and active now. In the words of Matthew’s central theme in his gospel, ‘God is with us’, so living in the light of this realisation is all we can desire. What do we hope for tomorrow, what change to  see happen or to see dawning?  This box may have a temperamental catch on it. The temperament may be ours – glass half full or half empty and how you see that will depend on whether you think you’ve drunk half and enjoyed it or drunk half so you’ve nearly run out! Having hope for tomorrow is the reason we get up. The day is worth embracing because there is hope in it. Find that and we might find we face the day with more of a spring in our step. The most important hope is that God is with us, his presence brings purpose and a point, we are part of his loving holding of all that there is, and so we can walk in confidence that whatever, we are held. More down to earth we may well want something more tangible, a sign of hope where the new day brings promise. What do you hope for with the new day? What is the gold you bring?

So at the dawn of a New Year, I commend a reflective practice which helps us face the pain and trouble, embrace the glory and blessing, and walk on in hope and joyful expectation. Around  this church in the city centre, high up on the surrounding buildings, there are three characters, Anthony Gormley’s statues – one is looking, one has arms outstretched, and one is walking: looking to face the troubles, arms outstretched embracing the glory and blessing, and walking in hope into the new day. Our three magi in the city centre with their myrrh, frankincense and gold. All held in the overarching purpose of God, in whose love we live and move and have our being. These three magi can help us restore our 2020 vision, to get life into balance with hope and thanksgiving.

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 5th January 2020

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O come, all ye faithful

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I don’t know what your favourite Christmas Carol is, but a popular one is the first one we sung this morning, ‘O come, all ye faithful’. It is a staple of Christmas services. It has a stunning descant loved by choirs and there is the final verse, which is only sung on Christmas day – for me one of the distinctive elements of today, not least having led so many Christmas services over the past few weeks – it is good to have something just for today. 

It is a carol that tells the story of Christmas. In the first verse, Christ is proclaimed as king of the heavenly beings, the angels. It bids us go on our journey to Bethlehem, to behold him and adore him. Then we reflect on who Jesus is, ‘God of God and Light of Light’, reflecting John’s great introduction to his gospel and his song of praise to Christ as God among us, the eternal Word or purpose of the creator, becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The middle verses tell of shepherds, magi and of Christ forgiving sins.  Visitors bowing down because this child will change the world for the better. Instead of being burdened and condemned, we are set free to live  with joy. Then the choirs of angels let rip, filling the air with their heavenly chorus. We are invited to join with them in this love-song of joy and hope. The final verse, only sung today, greets him on this morning, the day we celebrate his birth.

The hymn bids all come, but it has a somewhat less inclusive origin.  It was written in Latin in the eighteenth century, at a time when different factions of the church looked with distain on those who didn’t share their views. It comes from a time when those factions claimed they were right and everyone else was wrong, even dangerous for salvation. To be different was to be outside and wrong. The writer, John Francis Wade, has links to Roman Catholic resurgence, long before Catholics had freedom to worship and organise officially, so at a time when they were viewed with suspicion and effectively an underground community. With that, some think the carol contains a revolutionary code linked to the Jacobite rising of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, and the plot to restore a Catholic to the throne. It was a time of political unrest. So the faithful are those who follow a particular faction of the Christian church, not all who share the name of Christ as we would see it today.

The irony is that a carol that may well have its origins in a rallying cry to a particular faction of the Christian Church has become a popular song embraced by all. What started as a partizan anthem has been adopted by all, bringing all together. It calls on all of us to adore Christ because his love is for all of us. When we want God for ourselves, to own him and pen him in, he breaks free and embraces everyone, makes our concern wider and brings others round the table too. Christ is not the possession of any particular grouping, rather we, in our great diversity, belong to him and we can find ourselves in surprising company.

Who were the first to worship and adore? In Luke’s gospel, which we heard a moment ago, it is the shepherds (Luke 2:1-20). These are the night-workers, the ones the powerful don’t see because they work while they sleep. These are the ones who are at the margins of society and so not likely to be counted in when the invitation list is being drawn up. The list of who they are today is quite wide, but it is everyone the rest of us don’t see. Who are the faithful we need to include this Christmas when singing the invitation to adore him? Who would we assume to not be on the guest list? And have they sung this too?

The carol is a reminder that this gospel is for everyone and does not belong to the church or any particular group within it. Strangers and pilgrims gather round this table, at his stable, and are joined together into a great company. We have welcomed so many people to worship over the past few weeks, people who have come to worship and adore. Some have crept in when the services have finished to pray and light candles and those of us who have been clearing up have the privilege of enabling them to use the space too.

When we think of a partizan anthem, there are divisions and hostilities today. The other evening there was a report on the BBC News Channel about churches being closed and demolished in Indonesia. There ‘to come and adore’ is to face persecution and threats. A report recently,  commissioned by the Home Secretary at the time and chaired by the Bishop of Truro, highlighted that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world and Bethlehem, which we sing of how still it lies, lies far from still today. We are free to worship and therefore responding to the invitation to come and adore is easy. When some sing ‘O come, all ye faithful’, it comes with a harder punch. 

So today we are drawn as strangers, friends, people of wide differences, to come as faithful followers of the child in the manger, to worship and adore him. May we be mindful of those we share our place with. Some look different and may express their praises differently, some will struggle against greater obstacles to be there. What started as a partizan carol is now one which bids us all come, and adore him, for Christ the Lord draws us together, united in him.  

Sermon for Christmas Day, Peterborough Parish Church, 25th December 2019

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Love-song of the Angels

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There was a phrase in the second carol we sang at the beginning of this service, ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. It came in the second verse and referred to the ‘love-song’ sung by the angels. They bring this love-song to the shepherds in their fields. Frightened and surprised as they are, in the familiar tale told by Luke, the angels tell them not to be afraid. The message of their love-song is peace on earth and goodwill towards all people (Luke 2:8-16). It is a love-song because what might be remote and distant, beyond access comes close. The angels tell of God so loving the world that he came among it in the child Jesus. That’s a phrase from later in John’s Gospel (3:16), from which our Gospel reading was taken (John 1:1-14). The passage about God loving the world goes on. Jesus does not come to condemn the world, but so that it might be saved (John 3:17). These are words to inspire, to hold to. They came at a time of deep political turmoil, so they can speak hope to whatever challenges we face.

It is through the love-song that the gospel reading comes alive (John 1:1-14). What could be deep philosophy for a midnight hour, about the eternal Word, God’s thought and whole rationale for creation, becomes not just pure maths and physics and chemistry but the poetry of music and the sparkle of dancing atoms. There is wonder, there is purpose, there is a love-song.

This past year has brought its moments of fear and hatred. Terrorist attacks, abusive tweets and threats to MPs and wars and conflicts have wrought their violence. And a few weeks ago a disturbed ex-prisoner unleashed a frenzied attack on two young criminologists at Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge, killing Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, aged just 25 and 23 respectively. Their funerals were on Friday last week. Both of them believed in this love-song, that love overcomes hate and rebuilds lives, that everyone deserves a chance at rehabilitation. One of those who tried to fight off the killer had benefitted from Jack’s work and spoke of how his life had been turned around. The love-song, which brings redemption, changes us.

When our thinking and planning become remote and distant, this is the time to hear the angels sing, to be brought closer to the love-song at the heart of creation and redemption’s tale. This love-song is no soft touch. It brings the pain and shame of the cross, it takes on the darkness head-on and as John’s wonderful prologue puts it, the darkness is not able to overcome it (John 1:5). Love is the strongest force there is. It is the source of life, of creation, and in Jesus Christ we see that it is its goal too.

The love-song challenges us when things may seem uncertain, when we may wonder where events are likely to pan out. It is our calling at Christmas to be so filled with this love-song that it colours how we live for the rest of the year. It is grace to embrace. And break down barriers, to overcome hatred. Just like a dog, the love-song is not just for Christmas but for life.

I came across a poem the other day, by Maya Angelou, written for President Bush for the White House tree-lighting ceremony in 2005. It contains words of hope, the hope of Christmas, when thunder rumbles and the sky threatens. It reflects on the love-song of this night.

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes

And lightning rattles the eaves 

of our houses.

Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, 

falls upon snow to avalanche

Over unprotected villages.

The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.

What have we done to so affront nature?

We worry God.

Are you there? Are you there really?

Does the covenant you made with us 

still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, 

Christmas enters,

Streaming lights of joy, 

ringing bells of hope

And singing carols of forgiveness 

high up in the bright air.

The world is encouraged 

to come away from rancor,

Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.

Thunder ebbs to silence 

and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.

Flood waters recede into memory.

Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us

As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children

It rides on the shoulders 

of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.

Hope spreads around the earth. 

Brightening all things,

Even hate which crouches breeding 

in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.

At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.

We listen carefully as it gathers strength.

We hear a sweetness.

The word is Peace.

It is loud now. It is louder.

Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. 

We are thrilled by its presence.

It is what we have hungered for.

Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.

A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.

Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands 

and welcome the Peace of Christmas.

We beckon this good season 

to wait a while with us.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, 

we can create a language

To translate ourselves to ourselves 

and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, 

we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ

Into the great religions of the world.

We jubilate the precious advent of trust.

We shout with glorious tongues 

at the coming of hope.

All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices

To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortals, 

Believers and Non-Believers,

Look heavenward and speak 

the word aloud.

Peace. 

We look at our world 

and speak the word aloud.

Peace. 

We look at each other, then into ourselves

And we say without shyness 

or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.

Peace, My Sister.

Peace, My Soul.

(From ‘Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem’ by Maya Angelou.)

The love-song of the angels brings a transforming stillness on the world and into it.  It brings the love of the creator, which is hardwired into the purpose of life. The covenant made with humanity is cemented in Christ. God has not and will not abandon us. May this love-song, this amazing peace, at the centre of creation through the eternal Word, fill us this night and always.

Sermon for Christmas Midnight, Peterborough Parish Church, 24th December 2019

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Advent 4: Jesus’ ‘Who do you think you are?’

Jesus genealogyEach of the Gospels approaches the story they want to tell about Jesus from a different place. For John, the Gospel for Midnight Mass, it is the deeply philosophical with the eternal Word and light shining in darkness. Mark plunges straight in with John the Baptist baptising in the wilderness and along comes Jesus to inaugurate his ministry as an adult at that point. Christmas does  not feature in Mark. Luke, on the other hand, starts with birth stories, first of John the Baptist and then Jesus. Both are miraculous – John to a woman beyond childbearing age and Jesus to a young woman miraculously through the Holy Spirit. Matthew has been watching BBC1. He sets out his own version of ‘Who do you think you are?’, tracing Jesus’ ancestry (Matthew 1:1-17). We tend to miss this out from our readings in church, presumably long lists don’t excite the ears of those who devise lectionaries, but it is an important list and it comes immediately before where our Gospel reading this morning would have begun if I hadn’t extended it (Matthew 1:1-3, 5-6, 16-25).

That genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel traces Jesus’ line back to Abraham in the Old Testament. The full version is in three sections, each with 14 generations in them and in that list there are a number of women who don’t fit the mould. There are also a few people missing, so we can assume that the symbol of the maths is more important than the complete list. Fourteen is double 7. Seven is the perfect number in Jewish thought, so three lots of 14 gives us 6 lots of 7, and if we are looking for significance, that is one short of the perfect number 7. So it might be that Matthew is playing a game with numbers. The list becomes a nerd’s highlighter pen. This Jesus will begin the age of the 7th grouping, so we are into the perfect realm now. God’s grace has dawned and we know this because the numbers line up – kind of, if we ignore those missed out. The point of this is that for Matthew the key to the Gospel he wants to tell is that Jesus fulfils the hopes and dreams, the prophecies of the past. His is a gospel of fulfilment and so throughout it what happens is punctuated with: 

“this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet”, 

as in verse 22, regardless of whether that prophet meant what Matthew used their words to underline.

A case in point is our gospel reading this morning with the virgin conceiving and bearing a son who is to be named Emmanuel, God is with us (Matt 1:23). As we heard in our first reading the prophecy referred to was about being saved from a very different threat to the one Jesus saves his people from (Isaiah 7:10-16). This section of Isaiah has been dated around 8th century BC and the threat was from an invading Assyrian army. Isaiah’s point is ‘don’t panic’, the threat will pass before the young woman’s child has been born and has been weaned. That might sound like it might take a while, but the point is the pregnant woman will deliver her child and it will grow. There is a future, there is hope, God is with us. This is the point that Matthew picks up on for how he chooses to tell the story of Jesus. Don’t panic, God has this, the plan is being fulfilled. We can trust in God’s enduring goodness and providence. God is with in this child to be born for us.

So what can look like a long, boring list for genealogy addicts, turns out to be a message of hope and surprise. The women included in the list are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, ending with Mary. Tamar was a Canaanite or Aramean. She married Judah’s son Er. He died and she was passed on to the next son Onan, so he could raise up children for his brother. You begin to see where the question about marriage  and the unfortunate woman, put to Jesus later in the gospel came from (Matthew 22:23-33). He also dies and Tamar is told to hang about until the next son, Shelah, is old enough! Tamar is not impressed with this idea and goes off. Meanwhile  her mother-in-law, Judah’s wife, dies. He goes off to sheer the sheep. Tamar is nearby, but in disguise. Judah thinks she is for hire and offers her a kid goat from the flock and with that she is his for the night, though he still doesn’t know who she is. Tamar becomes pregnant and is about to be burned for this when she reveals what has happened. The child is Perez, who  also appears in Jesus’ genealogy (Genesis 38). Put that in EastEnders and you’d say the scriptwriters have gone over the top.

Next up is Rahab another Canaanite (Joshua 2 & 6). She was a sex-worker in Jericho, who shelters the Israelite spies before they capture the city and slaughter everyone in sight. The bible says nothing of her marriage to Salmon, with whom she gives birth to Boaz, so there is a mystery as to where that comes from. She is, though, incorporated into the story of salvation through her assistance at Jericho, a gateway to the promised land and perhaps a link to the fulfilment of this dream and place of residing. 

Boaz leads on to Ruth’s story. She is a Moabite who becomes the wife of Boaz after she seduces him on the threshing floor. She gets a book all of her own in the Old Testament.  Their child, Obed, is the grand-father of the shepherd boy David, the key figure in this Messianic sequence; an idealised ruler referred back to so that the Messiah is a new David, though he rather has clay feet. 

The fourth woman is Bathsheba, who was probably a Hittite and was spotted by King David while she had a bath on the roof top (2 Samuel 11). Bathsheba was married to Uriah who is described as a Hittite, so this gets awkward – though taking into account the previous stories it is probably on-message by now. Bathsheba becomes pregnant, so David’s response is to send her husband into the front line of a battle to ensure that he was no longer in the way. He is killed in fierce fighting. David is condemned by the prophet Nathan for this and the love-child also dies. Their second child is King Solomon, the one who is noted for wisdom and he succeeds David. 

This is quite a list of women but they each open up the story to include people from other nations, people whose stories are not exactly pure. The fulfilment of prophecy, so important to Matthew, comes through some surprising people. We are being set up from the beginning for a story that will bring plot twists and takes us to unexpected places. Buckle up, this is going to be quite a ride.

And the foreigners keep coming. Next up will be the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) and in Mathew it is these star-gazers from distant lands who come to worship and adore, not shepherds from the nearby hillside. This gospel fulfils the hopes because it is for all people. The people Jesus saves is all humanity. 

At the end of the list is Mary, a young woman who could so easily have been given a similar story to Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and Bathsheba. Joseph assumes she has, because he proposes to put her aside quietly, rather than subject her to public disgrace, shame and probably destitution. It’s not clear what cover story they had lined up, but just as the others were used in God’s plan in the story of the people, so Mary is too and Joseph recognises this.

Matthew sets Jesus’ story in the context of a long unfolding story of a people, a story fulfilled in Jesus. At each point God chooses people others would discount and even uses those who would be disgraced and shunned by our PR conscious age. They show themselves to be more open to the Spirit than those who present a more shiny and pure image are. If there is hope for them, there is hope for us. There are surprises and the story of Jesus will surprise more than any before; it challenges preconceived ideas. This gospel is for everyone who opens their hearts to it, for God is with us.

Sermon for Advent 4, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 22nd December 2019

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Advent 3: Good news for the poor

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What do you hear when that Gospel is read (Matthew 11:2-11)? Which words stand out most? Is it Jesus giving an account of what he has been doing? Is it John the Baptist, languishing in prison and pondering if he’s backed the right person; having an understandable wobble in that precarious situation, wondering if Jesus is the real deal? Prison was a mere holding place while someone’s fate was decided and as we know it ends violently for John the Baptist, who is beheaded on the drunken instructions of a lustful ruler.  Is it the powerful being in palaces, wearing fine robes, driving smart cars? Jesus says this is not where you go to hear the good news. Rather, he says, it is with the poor.  The heart of this gospel passage is the announcement of good news to the poor. That is the proof for John the Baptist to trust his judgement. This gospel turns the world upside down and with it our expectations of where to find the vibrancy we so seek. This passage has similarities with Luke’s account of Jesus reading out his Nazareth manifesto, when he says that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him because he has come to bring good news to the poor. And it this being fulfilled that shows his credentials to John the Baptist so that he can recognise who he is (Luke 4:16-21).

As we enter a new phase of our nation’s story, with a new government, this is a timely message, not least when so many areas of the country have crossed what seemed an impossible divide and voted for a party many of them had blamed for all their ills in the past. Some think this is turkeys voting for Christmas, others that it shows just how alienated they have felt, even from the party that is supposed to have placed their interests first. What does ‘good news for the poor’ look like? Is it a package of policies? It will certainly involve some and hearing the Prime Minister speak on Friday morning, he seems to have recognised that votes have just been lent him, so he has to deliver. Let’s hope he does. Is  ‘good news for a the poor’ a radical change where those who serve at tables, clean cars and offices, polish nails and pack online orders in warehouses are given fair reward, seen and heard as people of equal worth and value? Is it drawing them deeply into participation in their communities so that they become part of the solution, which is by no means an easy task given how we have become so isolated and privatised as individuals over the years, persons on our own rather than in community? This has to go deeper than just trying to cover up budget gaps and might require funds committing to make it work, skilled people who can guide and encourage.

Each of these areas is easy to say but requires a change of heart and attitude for them to truly come alive. Honouring means regarding as an equal. Policies need budgets attached, funds committing to make change happen. Participation needs to be nurtured so that communities can make decisions for themselves and shape their own neighbourhoods. This is actually the principle behind local churches in local neighbourhoods. Where they are vibrant is where they are in touch, connect and reflect that neighbourhood. It is also the principle behind the Near Neighbours project, funded by the Church Urban Fund to support work in local communities to bring people together. This marked its first birthday last week.

Good news is not just announced for the poor, something given to, but as it honours, listens, draws into participation, good news comes back in the other direction. One of the remarkable things to come out of so many projects seeking to improve the lives of those at the lowest points is that as we bless we find that we are blessed in return. Those involved in the Winter Night Shelter find this as they sit round the table and hear stories. I found that as I was talking to an asylum seeker during my Sabbatical, a fellow guest at a Franciscan house. Over a shared meal, he spoke about his life, his story. He could have been bitter about the length of time his case was taking, but as he expressed it so simply, each day he was there he was still alive and not enduring what had led him to leave in the first place. It could have been worse, he might now be dead. Hosting Garden House in the Cathedral Precincts blesses an organisation, the Cathedral, that has been so weighed down by finances recently and needs to find large amounts of money to be sustainable. There is a poverty in riches and a wealth in poverty that can turn the world on its head, as we give so we receive.

We see lives being transformed because priorities are being re-set and the masks of security, which actually just hide a deeper vulnerability, slip away to reveal our ultimate utter dependence on God’s grace and love. As the cash registers ring out their seasonal greetings, today on this third Sunday of Advent rather than promises of riches to the already prosperous, we are brought good news for and from the poor. ‘What did you go out to see’, asks Jesus. ‘Fine robes?’ Those are in palaces and the irony is that is not where good news resides.

It could be easy to romanticise about poverty. But it is hunger, debt, inadequate funds, cold and it grinds people down. In a debate in General Synod earlier in the year, Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, called it ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse: Universal Credit, low-paid work, food poverty and austerity’ plaguing so many lives (Church Times 1 March 2019). These are injustices and they need challenging – the new government needs them at the top of their in-boxes, each of the new ministers’ red boxes. If they don’t the communities that voted them in will turn on them and that will not end well. So poverty is no easy place of blessing. Rather it is that light shines in this darkness bringing hope where there could so easily be despair.

A lot of effort has been put into how to grow churches over the past few decades and the result is that we have seen steady decline. The statistics are clear. Philip North has a theory as to why this is the case. It is, he says, because the church has forgotten the poor. Renewal, he says, comes from good news for, with and from the poor, not in shiny projects that appeal to consumer culture in a different guise. It takes longer to grow, to embed, but in time it changes everyone. Providing coffee drop-ins, as we do, where the coffee is affordable, where people can sit with friends or just sit and feel welcomed, addresses this head on. Our cafe serves quite a purpose. One of the things which always impresses me so much about the Franciscan houses I stay in is that everyone is round the same table, whoever they are. There is no distinction and we all meet, share stories and find ourselves humbled and blessed in equal measure because all are guests of the same heavenly Father who loves us each equally and expects us to do the same.

Good news for the poor is actually good news for everyone. Social action and evangelism belong together because the words have to be lived and the words should be about justice, setting people free and bringing lives to flourish in God’s love and grace. If they are not, then they are rather hollow and empty. Jesus announced good news to the poor. When we do the same, we find that good news is for us too, whether we count ourselves as one of the poor or not.

Sermon for Advent 3, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th December 2019

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Advent Wake-up: Duty of Care for the Earth

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On Friday we remembered St Nicholas, the original Santa, usually noted for being nice to children and rescuing girls from exploitation. All very contemporary concerns. Far from the flying reindeer and benign smiling, he has a passion in his story that has bite for the issues we face today. He was also present at the Council of Nicea, when the Roman Emperor Constantine wanted to sort out a dispute between different branches of the Christian church over what we believe about God – how we hold together different persons of the Trinity: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our Creed, the Nicean Creed, has its origins in one which emerged from the end of this council and if you sometimes wonder how it came to be so important that it is recited during our services, remember that it is an agreed statement, setting out the results of deliberations and settling a dispute.  The one we use is actually a later draft from a subsequent council (Chalcedon in AD 451). At Nicea, with all the bishops gathered together in the year AD 325, Nicholas, as bishop of Myra in Southern Turkey, had a particular concern for truth, for Jesus being seen as fully God and fully human, what we express as 

“God from God, Light from Light, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father…” 

Things got heated and rather like in a recent episode from the BBC adaptation of ‘The Name of the Rose’, also set around a council to settle a dispute, there was a punch up. Nicholas crossed the floor to his opponent and slapped Arius on the face.  Remember, he knows if you’ve been bad or good! He was censured for this and had to repent of his behaviour. Passionate, strong and no bland affability, Nicholas was a force to be reckoned with.

Another character, not exactly remembered for being affable and calm, is John the Baptist. In our Gospel reading (Matthew 3:1-12) he had some very choice words for those who wanted him to make them feel better by dipping them in the river. His was a baptism for repentance, to prepare for God’s kingdom about to dawn in Jesus Christ. He looks at the Pharisees and Sadducees, the leaders of the faith, who have also gathered for this purifying, ‘count me in’ ritual and he decides they are hypocrites. He calls them a “brood of vipers” and if they didn’t quite catch that, he tells them that an axe is lying next to the tree to chop it down. And, to spell it out further, they are the tree. If they don’t bear good fruit, this tree is to be cut down and burnt. They are not bearing good fruit, so, ipso facto, they are for the chop.

These are two uncompromising men. They don’t mess about; they say exactly what they think, with no edit button at all, and most of us would not find them at all comfortable. There would be complaints, shouts that they are alienating people, driving division and not at all the kind of people we expect clergy to be today. This Santa would be a bad Santa!  But a theme of Advent is the call to wake-up, to pay attention and get a grip. When we are in a doze something dramatic may be needed to get through our inertia. 

Speaking out, when we feel we have to do so, is partly a matter of working out how we will be heard. And thinking how something will land is well worth a moment’s pause before that late night tweet or email. At least Nicholas had the humility to apologise for his behaviour even though he stood by the stance he took. He had a night in the cells to thank for that cooling off and reflection. His target was a concern for truth, just like John the Baptist was trying to wake up his hearers to take spirituality seriously. It is something that requires a response from us, not just a warm feeling. It requires us to pick it up and live it, to put it into practice, but above all to give our hearts to it. Right faith goes with right practice. We are to do as we believe, to live it. To issue the necessary challenge calls for courage to speak, especially when the hearers may prefer not to be disturbed. So just because someone gets a bit annoyed does not negate the issuing of the challenge.

Something I reflect on from time to time is what it means to speak into the public square. This can be a tricky challenge. It is not always an easy judgement call to decide when to take a stand and when to keep neutral. When we are benign santa, everyone loves us – well, at least they don’t get annoyed at us. When we get a bit uppity, even if we don’t slap anyone physically, sharp words are not usually wanted. There are times to be neutral, recognising that there are people of good will in all political parties. But there are times when being neutral is to take a side and the environment is one of those areas. We are facing such a serious challenge that unless we all change our ways we will sink. What is more, some of the poorest people on the planet will sink first because they live in low lying areas, though living in an area of the country largely made up of reclaimed bog land, and the 18th century drainage programme caused the ground level to drop, if sea levels rise we are in trouble. I saw a map recently which showed that if this happens the Cathedral Precincts will become the beach. The new university site and the development on Fletton Quays will be under water.

Yesterday we hosted a stand on behalf of Peterborough Eco-Faith Network to draw attention to the climate crisis. It is still there if you would like to add your message or get creative over coffee. It is timed to coincide with the United Nations COP25 Climate Change Summit taking place in Madrid. In the Old Testament book of Genesis human beings are set as stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). We are failing in our duty of care. It is time to wake-up, to change how we live and reduce our impact on the planet before it is too late, to live more sustainably and achieve a position where we have net zero emissions. 

On Tuesday at the Hustings here for the General Election, none of the candidates really picked up on the radical timescale needed for achieving this net zero emissions. Paul Bristow mentioned the Conservative target for carbon neutrality, but the others didn’t pick up on this even though I fed them the line. Each of the parties has a different target date for reaching net zero carbon emissions: 

  • Green Party, not surprisingly, sets the most ambitious target at 2030 – 10 years time.
  • Labour had been aiming for 2030 but have changed that to something more nuanced at ‘setting a path towards net zero emissions’ by 2030. Not quite the same thing.
  • Lib Dems, along with the SNP believe that is not realistic, so have gone for 2045 – 25 years time, a quarter of a century.
  • The Conservative party goes for 2050 – 30 years time, a generation away.

The Environment Agency considers 2030 to be the stark diagnosis for standing a chance of averting the crisis, but even then some think that is too late. Whatever date is taken and acted on, the moment to change our ways is actually now and that means each of us reducing by at least 7.6% a year. If you take this seriously, what changes will you make to how you live when thinking about your New Year resolutions?

Insults don’t tend to get people to change their ways, so we live in very different times to John the Baptist, and a violent slap, as with Nicholas, is very much not encouraged either. But telling truth to power has been a noble aspect of Christian witness, since the days of John the Baptist and the long prophetic tradition in which he stood. His key prophetic call was to take faith seriously, to live it. One of the ways we do this is to be faithful stewards of the earth, to exercise the duty of care that we have for the planet and all its inhabitants. Advent is a time to wake from our sleep, to pay attention, to get a grip and to change our ways. Just as it applies to the spiritual, to make it real, that faith is to be lived out, not least in our stewardship of the earth for the sake of all God’s creatures, great and small.

Sermon for Advent 2, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 8th December 2019

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