Called by name

IMG_0185Names are very important and our own name is deeply personal. It expresses so much of our identity, who we are and where we belong. We have our first name or names, what for those who have been baptized we call our Christian name, and we have our family name, taken from one or both of our parents. Some choose on marriage to combine these family names, others adopt one and stop using the other. We don’t choose our first name for ourselves, at least not at first. It is given to us by others, our parents or in some cases someone else who has the first care of us. If we later decide to change this, it is a major step to take and will reflect very deeply how we now see ourselves, otherwise it is what we have grown up with and become accustomed to. One of the things we do at baptism is give someone’s name an added layer of blessing. This is the name which is used as water is poured over us in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And there we have name being used again. What we do in this special moment is identified with the love and character of God, it is done in God’s name.

When Jesus used the image of the Good Shepherd in our Gospel reading (John 10:11-18), earlier in the passage it was taken from, before where our reading started, he says that the shepherd knows the sheep so intimately and closely that he calls them by name (v3). And the point of the story is that we are the sheep whom Jesus knows by name. It is an intimate image. We are not just one of a crowd, though we are part of a great company of followers who seek and have sought to live the Jesus way down the centuries and do so today. We are known for who we are and loved for who we are. When so many people struggle with who they are – be it body image, how they look, or with confidence and acceptance for not quite fitting in with the crowd, or coming to terms with something different about us to what had been expected – knowing that God loves us for who we are can be incredibly liberating. God knows you by your name, not someone else’s. And being you is to be the unique creation that God has made, blessed and calls to follow him. You are one of those beloved sheep that the Good Shepherd knows and calls by name.

And that is another side to baptism. With our name blessed we are called to follow Jesus. We are called by name to live a life that gives thanks to God for the love he gives us in Jesus Christ and to show that in everything we do. That might mean saying sorry on occasions for when we mess things up – and all of us do that, regardless of how old or important we become, in fact we probably do it more the older we get and the more important we become. This is why every service includes a confession; a moment when we can acknowledge that we have got it wrong, sometimes spectacularly, and we will show this by trying to live differently. God calls us by name and sets us free to walk on in a new life of hope and grace.

In a moment, Canon Sarah will show these three elements in the actions around baptism. The name is blessed along with the person as the sign of the cross is made on his forehead using special oil blessed for this purpose. Anointing is an ancient custom whereby someone is marked out as special and given a special job. Jack is special and his name takes on the extra special character as his Christian name. The special job is to be a follower of Jesus Christ and that requires a whole life commitment. He is young and will need to grow in that. As he does that, he will require help and encouragement, which is where everyone here has a part to play. He needs examples to follow and reflect on – that is your part, and parents and godparents have a particular privilege and responsibility here. Teach him, pray for him, pray with him, guide him and delight in him as he flourishes in faith and in life.

The second action is the water being poured over him, three times in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this just like we wash away the grime of the day at bath time we are reminded that the sins we do and will continue to do are taken from us by the only one who can, God in Jesus Christ. Baptism is a putting away of the grip of sin – for we pass through the water in a hope that life is not futile, but blessed, loved and held. The image used is of dying to sin, passing through the waters of death, and coming to share in the life and hope of Christ. It is a rich image. We are forgiven because we are loved. Sometimes the one who needs to forgive us most is ourselves and accept this deeply within ourselves. God sets us free to be and live as his beloved child.

The third action involves the Easter Candle burning here. It is a light to remind us that we live in the hope of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead at Easter. At the end of the service a candle will be lit from it for Jack to remind him and us that we are to shine as lights in the world to the glory of God. We have a calling, a vocation, to be people of that light and not people of darkness. There are so many ways that this can be and is expressed. But in short, we aim to be people who are blessing to those we meet and for whom the consequences of what we do is life-giving and life-affirming, which is at the root of the word blessing. Be light, be Christ light, wherever you go and whatever you do.

The Church of England gives today an extra label. It is ‘Vocation Sunday’ and that means it is a day to ask how God might be calling you to live that light of hope and grace and blessing. It might be that there are ways you can do this in whatever it is you do for a living. It might be that there are ways to do this more fully in your home or among those with whom you live. It might be that God is stirring up within you a sense of a different role that aims to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and call others to follow him. That is what the church is called to be and do – it’s a very simple vocation that we have here – proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and call others to follow. Everything flows from this, whatever fancy words or statements we come up with – if it is not about this, it has missed the point. Vocations and calling in the church take many forms, some are ordained as clergy, some are not; some are to the religious life as a monk or a nun or in some other kind of community, some are not. It might be that there is another ministry that strikes a chord for us. God’s Spirit calls and stirs and it can take us a bit of working out just what shape it takes. But when God calls others will recognize it too and that is good way of checking out what is delusion and what is real.

God calls us by name and our vocation, our living out of this will take the form that fits us, and the form it takes may well surprise us. It surprised the prophets before us. And all of us who stand here wearing clerical collars began with our names being called by God, being blessed by God, by realizing that we had to die to sin and live for God, and to be lights shining in and through and for the world. Every baptism is a moment to be reminded of our own baptism, of our own calling, and of our own growth in faith and living out that faith. Pray today for Jack, for those who will help him grow, and for yourselves as you seek to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, to be light-bearers, to draw others to follow him too.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Easter 4, Sunday 22nd April 2018

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Broiled Fish – Security clearance to tell a story of peace and hope

broiled-fish_largeI don’t think I have ever eaten broiled fish. I had to look it up and the first recipe that came up was for broiled lobster, which made today’s Gospel reading seem very upmarket (Luke 24:36-48). Perhaps Jesus liked playing with his food too – I discovered a couple of years ago that if you stick your fork inside the claw of a lobster you can make the pincers move and this takes messing around with your food to whole new level. That said lobster is not actually a fish, but a crustacean, a free-living aquatic animal, so seafood but not a fish. One video told me that broiling is like upside down grilling, which was not necessarily helpful, or as another source told me, cooked over an open fire or under heat. It is cooked when the flesh is opaque and flaky, 145 degrees Fahrenheit or 63 degrees Celsius. So Jesus was given a very basic cooked food, which could easily be eaten with the fingers.

That it was hot or ready to be eaten means he turned up at dinnertime. The point of the broiled fish is to show that the risen Jesus was real and not a ghost or figment of the imagination. He really was there. They saw him in 3D and he ate with them. The point of the wounds is that this is not just someone who looks like him, but is him. See the nail marks in the hands and his feet. It really is him. And to make the point even further, he tells them stories of his teaching that only he and they would have known, things he had said before. It is like the secret word or phrase to let you know that the message asking you to confirm your credit card really has come from your bank or for you to get through telephone banking security clearance. So the details are there to make the point, this Jesus really is risen. Wonderful but scary. Wonderful because he was dead but is now there in front of them. They can’t believe this change of fortunes. The one they had lost is back with them. Scary for precisely the same reasons. The dead don’t do this, so something very odd has happened.

Having gone through security clearance and proved his identity Jesus gives the disciples a job to do. They are to be witnesses. They are to be ones who tell of this astounding news and live it. They are to be people who sing alleluia in everything they do, and to everyone they meet. The risen Jesus tells them to be witnesses of the resurrection life, people who proclaim new life everywhere they go. Death is no more; it no longer has a hold over them.

There are so many places where this becomes a moment to live and proclaim hope. Whatever the challenges that we face people of new life find ways to let new life spring up. It can touch relationships in surprising ways. It can breathe new life into otherwise gloom-ridden outlooks. In fact it changes the story that we tell, the song that we sing. There is a profound confidence in that broiled fish being eaten. This is the faith that we live regardless of whether anyone else takes any notice. And if that is what we do, then it will be infectious. People of hope have a way of changing the mood of a room or a place.

Every church building, which is the home of a community which sings alleluia, stands in its community as a sign of life and love and hope. St Luke’s may have a small congregation, but it sings praise every week and it matters that it gathers to do this. The venue is not really that important, though the sounds of singing coming from it make a statement every week the songs are sung. But it is a place of hope along the street and that matters. Soon [it/we] will be joined by the Mar Thoma Church in St John’s Hall and they will add to this witness. St John’s, standing in the city square, has a special vocation to be a place of hope and new life in the midst of so many events, shopping, hospitality and gathering. We pray for our city, for the city square and take the platform on occasions affirming that love is stronger than hate, that peace-making is our priority. That is Jesus’ greeting – ‘Peace be with you’.

There are some significant threats around at the moment, global political – not least with Syria and Russia, just exactly where will the frosty relations over Novichok being used in Salisbury and the bombing response to chemical weapons being used in Syria take us. There are major uncertainties over what Brexit will mean for our relationship with our European neighbours as well as internally with a deeply divided country. There is deep anger and hostility whenever Brexit is mentioned. Some of the claims are easier to cut through than others are. We remember wars, not least the First World War, but I wonder if we remember what led to it and how peace has been built, which is arguably more important than the fighting. But the fighting gets the attention because of the deaths and the cost. But beyond the shock and wanting to honour the sanctity of the lives sacrificed, we need to understand what it means to say ‘Peace be with you’ and live it. There is a lot of effort put into supporting our armed forces. Let us put equal effort into saying ‘peace be with you’.

We have a challenge to provide longer term care for the homeless and their multiplicity of needs: emotional, psychological, the ability to cope and manage, to combat addictions and all that it means to rise up and raise your head when it feels too heavy to do. New life, resurrection, can come when hope is shared and made possible through loving embrace and being honoured as a fellow sibling before God. Out of the Winter Nightshelter there is some mentoring taking place to walk alongside those trying to rebuild their lives, people who are being agents of hope.

Remembering that we are fellow sons and daughters of God is a good place to start when being witnesses to the resurrection. Whoever is next to you this morning, across from you, behind and before you, is equally loved. Churches are remarkable places, because that is what we say by sitting here alongside one another, singing together, praying together, wondering and reflecting together. There are very few other places where this happens. And it is not actually understood by some agencies. They talk of our membership and assume that our boundaries are closely defined. But, actually, we have a very open door, so open (in St John’s) that it opens by itself as people come towards it.

So broiled fish, with or without seasoning and lemon juice, herbs and spices to flavour, hot and flaky, easy to eat brings a tangible sign of new life and hope. It is the security clearance for the one who announces his presence with the words “peace be with you”. And in so doing, sends those he greets as witnesses in word and deed, in the story they tell by being who they are. This is a vocation in which we share, which is given to us, and which we reaffirm every time we gather with alleluia in our heart and on our lips.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 3 – Sunday 15th April 2018

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Easter Fools Day

IMG_0369Today is a day for fools. And each year the newspapers play tricks on their readers with spoof stories, though some are harder spot than others and some real stories can make us check the calendar. Last year that major publication ‘The Beano’ revealed that it was going to produce an emoji only comic. Meanwhile Virgin Trains announced a new contactless ticket system called ‘Tick Ink’, where season tickets could be tattooed on the body of the traveller. And the Cornish Bakery released an egg shaped pasty – which was just a normal pasty photographed standing on one end. The prize though to my mind went to Amazon who produced a video showcasing what it called ‘PetLexa’, the voice activated personal assistant Alexa for pets. The best bit of the video showed a dog barking with the response “launching automatic ball throwing”, followed by a smash and then the voice announcing “ordering new picture frame”. As ever there were some bizarre sounding real stories to catch you out. Vodka was used to treat a cat that had drunk brake fluid because it turns out it counteracts the effect of the poison.

The jokes work because they take what we consider to be normal on a day trip into the realm of the absurd. And it’s absurd because it doesn’t fit what we are expecting. It’s a fun world of childish playfulness where normal is turned upside down: dogs quack, ducks moo and cows bark. Easter Day fits well with this world of nonsense and April Fools. It fits well because no one expected it and even after 2,000 years of faith we would be more than surprised if a body disappeared and an angel appeared with a mind-bending message that the deceased has been raised. The three women were surprised too. Mark talks about terror and amazement seizing them (Mark 16:1-18).

It is not surprising that St Paul at the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians, earlier on from where our first reading came, talked of the resurrection as being a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:22-25). It was a stumbling block to Jews because it is far from obvious and not expected. It was a stumbling block to those whom he described as wanting a sign because it did not fit the checklist of what they thought should happen and that didn’t include dying on a cross, let alone rising afterwards. So it just didn’t conform to the expectations of their faith set on clear boundaries. It breaks boundaries, quite literally, the greatest boundary that there is. It was foolishness for the Gentiles because for those who honoured wisdom it sounded like wishful thinking, where heart overruled the rational head. When the truth is unbearable, people will convince themselves of all sorts of things, believe more or less anything that avoids facing the hollow and raw reality of death and loss. So to those who see it as foolishness Jesus is proclaimed to have risen because his friends couldn’t bear the reality of him being gone.

This is a serious challenge, especially to our psychologically savvy times, and because we know some of the details in the gospels are picture language to tell the story in a way we can imagine. The challenge of wishful thinking and delusion needs to be taken seriously, especially when the Epistle reading talked of the risen Jesus appearing to 500. Crowds can be deluded. It is possible for false memory syndrome to play tricks and we’ve seen recent examples, not least the baby dropped four floors from the burning Grenfell Tower only to be caught below. What sounded unbelievable probably was. No one can find anyone who actually saw it, or find the child or the catcher. But people were adamant it happened. So for 500 to see the same thing, from this distance, mention of it in a first century letter, is not knock down proof.

The argument of psychological wishful thinking falls down at the first assumption that the disciples expected Jesus to have risen, that they had a ready made conceptual box to put this in, through which to interpret whatever the actual events were. But that is not how the Gospels talk of the disciples. The women have gone to the tomb because they knew what to expect: a dead body that needed embalming and anointing with fragrant spices to counter the odour of decay which follows death. They were realists and so what followed sounded like an idle tale to the other disciples who were not there, a twisted April Fools joke. And belief, rationalizing what happened, what they found, took time. Everyone scratches their heads on Easter Day. Easter turns our expectations upside down. It makes fools of what we think is sensible and normal. Life pops up where it shouldn’t, new hopes spring in places of despair. What can’t be comes to be.

Something profound happened to change broken, despondent people lost in grief and mourning into men and women who would proclaim the most bizarre nonsense from the rooftops. What is more these men and women were prepared to die for this belief. And even more bizarrely, men and women are prepared to die for it today and are doing so. There was a report on Good Friday of the world’s worst places for the persecution of Christians. Top of the list was North Korea, with Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan following close behind. For these people the risen Jesus is both hope and purpose, a reason to not conform where self-preservation would counsel wisdom. It is indeed foolishness to the worldly wise and a stumbling block that requires something earth shaking to overcome.

It is only when the life and love of the risen Jesus Christ fills our hearts that we know truly within us the joy and peace it brings. It is a conviction that goes deeper than mere assessment of facts or probabilities – what is likely to have happened and what we see flowing from it. It is to be filled with a deep hope that no matter what, our lives and the whole of creation, are held in God’s care, as if something precious in the palm of the hand. It is to affirm that life and love always triumph over death and hatred. That this is hardwired into creation and so the resurrection of Jesus is actually a breaking out of what is there because God has put it there. When we affirm that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead we affirm that the purposes of God cannot be overcome, however desperate and dark times may be or look. Not even persecution by some of the most cruel regimes on the planet can destroy this. The resurrection of Jesus Christ has the final victory.

So enjoy being a fool, on this day of fools. Proclaim this madness from the rooftops and live in love and joy and peace as you proclaim what to many is foolishness and a stumbling block but for us is the most profound hope that there is. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Alleluia!

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter Sunday 1st April 2018

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Feet washing and power

IMG_0330The Church of England has been under the spotlight recently. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has been hearing evidence about what went on in the Diocese of Chichester and it has made for disturbing reading. In reality it is not the Church of England as such but how senior people in various dioceses behaved, their failures to deal with complaints and concerns being raised. But for most casual observers that nuance is lost: Diocese means C of E. There are thousands of others who have acted with integrity and decisively in many cases. We have two advisers in this diocese who manage all sorts of cases from fresh complaints to ensuring those with convictions are supervised appropriately. It is an unpleasant area to have to deal with to say the least. The Inquiry led to the Archbishop of Canterbury speaking of his shame at what had happened and I am sure he feels it keenly.

There have been other cases too, not least a Vicar in Oxford Diocese who was inhibited from ministry for spiritual abuse, which is the coercive use of power by one who has spiritual authority. And that is key to so much of safeguarding. The offences are more about power and coercion, and forms of aggression and oppression, than they are about sex. It is the controlling and diminishing of another’s freedom that seems to be central in the offending. And denying personal responsibility for has happened or what has been done is part of that power dynamic. Those who commit these offences do not look any different to anyone else. They are not monster-like, they do not necessarily creep you out. Having walked the landings of a sex offenders unit in a prison, it is deceptively normal, and much less violent in tone than the other wings tend to be.

Power has a central role in tonight’s commemoration. Jesus shows a very different model of power, that of loving service in taking the towel and washing feet. He gives a meal as the central symbol of his life and passion, one which makes all equal as they share in his hospitality round the common table and share the common cup. He is betrayed by a kiss from one wanting to force his hand or disillusioned because he didn’t turn out to be what he wanted him to be. He is taken by force by those with violence in their hearts and wanting to stamp their image on how events should proceed. And he will stand before Pilate, the Roman Governor with power, who takes a bowl of water to wash his hands to show he has nothing to do with what will happen. The guilt lies elsewhere; it’s not his fault.

That hand washing is a powerfully symbolic act. It is one that is echoed by the priest who presides at the Eucharist. Just before the Eucharistic Prayer I wash my hands using a small bowl of water and dry them with a towel. There are a number of bible verses that can accompany this, either out loud or silently said to the self. “Lord, wash me from my iniquity, and cleanse me of my sin” (Psalm 51:2). “I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord” (Psalm 26:6). Both of these are verses of humility and penitence. They remind the person presiding that we rely on God’s grace and mercy, goodness and blessing for the heart of this celebration, rooted as it is on this night.

Another thought is often in my mind too, though. And it is Pilate’s action. All of us have power to some degree and some of us have far more of it than others by virtue of being white, male, in positions of religious authority and office, with certain levels of education and financial security – however modest. There is a game that can be played where the participants line up at one end of a room taking steps forward to see how far they advance in the power stakes. And the steps are telling, because big people take bigger steps than little people. And men tend to be bigger than women. The facilitator will call out various criteria and each person advances depending on which they match or don’t. So power can be a hidden force, one we don’t realize we have or exercise. And that was one of the aspects to come out of the spiritual abuse case. The judge involved questioned in the Inquiry how clergy are helped to realize that they have and exercise power and need to be careful how it is used, and not abused.

The film Mary Magdalene, currently on release in cinemas around the country, has a scene in it of spiritual abuse. Mary refuses to accept the demands that the men are placing on her – she refuses to marry the man she is told to marry. Her father and brothers assume she must be possessed by an evil spirit because she is disobedient – otherwise she would be compliant – so they subject her to a ritual cleansing to drive out this evil spirit, and it is clearly distressing to Mary. Other women tell of rapes and beatings to suppress the rebellious. It is a #MeToo moment in the film. And her father clearly is distressed by it and calls a halt to it, but not before he has gone along with it. He has capitulated and thereby been complicit in the attack. He has effectively washed his hands not in innocence, but in guilt. And that is Pilate’s crime.

As I wash my hands, I am conscious of the power that I have, of the ways it is used and there is a sharp jab – do I always use it effectively, justly, fully for the good of all, especially the weakest and those most easily abused? It’s a sharp question and not always easy to answer. Sometimes it is, and sometimes big buttons have to be pushed to protect, to stand up to the bullying. And there can be consequences. Not everyone appreciates this. The vulnerable and oppressed don’t always appreciate it, if one consequence is for life to get harder for them. Look at how the Israelite slaves moaned at Moses when Pharaoh took away the straw to make bricks, so their job got harder in having to collect the straw before they could make bricks.

So the hand washing is a powerful symbol of how power is used and abused. It is a simple act, but can be taken in either direction. It can be a symbol of humility, of reliance on God and the need for God’s healing grace. It can be a symbol of complicity – realized and unrealized – and thereby of the sins we can be caught up in, even feel powerless to stop, or perhaps frightened to. Jesus took a bowl and washed feet; he demonstrated the way of self-giving love and said ‘do the same’. In a moment a number of us will do so. May all water poured out be for blessing and nourishment, humility and penitence. May it remind us of God’s grace and goodness.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Maundy Thursday, 29th March 2018

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Debussy: Passion and Resolution for Holy Week

DebussyToday is the 100th anniversary of the death of the French composer, Claude Debussy. Among his works are the well known La Mer, with its impressionistic harmonies depicting the rising storm waves, l’apres midi d’un faune, with its dreamlike quality, and Clair de lune, based on a folk song and again with that characteristic floating tone. His String Quartet was one of my A’ level set pieces, with its chromatic scales. At times his music can be discordant and seems to reflect the turmoil of his life, but always finds a resolution.  His life was marked by turbulence, growing up in a poverty stricken suburb of Paris, taken under the patronage of a Russian millionnairess who engaged him to play duets with her children, and his later love-life was not straightforward. He even escaped for a while to Eastbourne on the south coast of England. He was haunted by suicidal thoughts and as is frequently the case brilliance was accompanied by emotional turmoil, something he was able to channel so beautifully into his music.

It is a strange mix that passion, pain and creativity often find themselves in the same company. A quiet life does not produce the greatest works, or change the course of history. And so to desire a quiet life is really to desire no life at all. The range of emotions that touch us reflect how love and loss, living and dying, hope and despair, beauty and desolation, weave a pattern around us and in us and through us. We can see beauty, sometimes in surprising places. The rocky outcrop of the garden tomb depicted in the Lady Chapel main window has a few daisies and other plants growing beneath the angel who is announcing the resurrection to the women who had come to anoint a dead body. These flowers are signs of new life blooming where there was death. The daisies are reflected in the altar frontal and deliberately so. The best artwork brings the range of colour and tone to bear and reflects for us what life feels like from the inside, that we may glimpse what it can be beyond and ahead of us.

Passion, pain, beauty and brokenness, all combine as we enter this Holy Week. We journey with Christ from the shouting crowd, who seem to be wanting to herald the revolutionary leader that Jesus is not, through his picking a fight by overturning the money changers’ tables, a final meal, agony in the garden – will we watch with him for just one hour? – to betrayal, arrest, trial and execution. Holy Week is exhausting for the emotional turmoil it recalls, the range of passions it elicits from within us, and the hope it heralds. Because of this Jesus is no remote saviour who just descends from outside to deal with the mess, but one who shares the passion just like we do and so saves from the inside.

The story we are to recall and retell this week, over the coming days, is rooted in the life of passion and rich emotions that we live. So we can find ourselves easily in its narrative. Sometimes as affirmed and blessed, sometimes having to confront the darkness within and the less flattering attributes we might display at times. We can find our deepest moments of despair and loss, of heartbreak, brought centre stage for Christ’s redeeming touch.

Like the music of Claude Debussy, the turbulence of life, its beauty, passion and heartbreak, are brought to resolution in sounds of wonder and glory. Music provides a fitting sound track to the breadth of emotions of walking the way of the cross; sometimes it is the only language to really hold the depth of this passion. If the music ends without resolution we go away disturbed and unsettled. And God is good to us, because the passion of his Son comes with the greatest resolution that there is: salvation and therefore hope even in the most discordant moments.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Palm Sunday, 25th March 2018

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Mary Magdalene – cinema at a slower pace

42885103_403Critics have not been exactly gushing about the retake on Mary Magdalene, the new film in cinemas from this weekend. BBC Film 2018 described it as “thuddingly dull” and the Evening Standard made a play on the Oxbridge pronunciation of Magdalene as Maudlin, deciding it was somewhat introspective and banal. Having just seen it I’m not convinced those critics have completely understood it. It takes a slower pace, one which depicts the spaces between the action in the gospels. Where the gospels pile teaching upon miracle upon scene change, this film portrays cinematic journeys across vast expanses of rocky wilderness and grasslands. The pace is slower as befits first century life, where there are long moments of nothing much happening, of dark nights and journeys that take time. This is a film that shows what it means to travel slow, to have plenty of reflective space.

It also shows a Mary Magdalene who is not satisfied with the expectations and social conventions for a woman in first century Palestine – marriage and knowing her place. She is far too feisty for that, with spirit and intelligence. Where Mary challenges this she is regarded has being possessed by an evil spirit and in need of exorcism. A woman who challenges male power is assumed to have something wrong with her. The spiritual abuse that follows is distressing. When it fails, Jesus is brought in to make a house call but rather than conspire with the bullying he declares that there are no demons here. He sees her for who she is and the spiritual stirring within her. And this becomes a pivotal moment in the film as she joins his disciples as an equal, much to their surprise.

Mary Magdalene occupies the place of the disciple who actually gets what Jesus is about, where the others are looking for a revolutionary leader. For Mary, drawing on the Kingdom being like a mustard seed, it has to grow within each of us and we must let go of hatred. This is a different revolution, one which changes existentially and transforms the inner life. This Mary is much more of a nun than the prostitute later tradition turned her into and like most nuns she is not to be messed with, staring down a Roman soldier who backs off. She is accorded the place of honour at the Last Supper, with a nod to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and her place on Jesus’ right in the Da Vinci-esque seating plan. But there is no hint of a love child or sexual relationship between then.

There is feminist critique of a later male dominated church narrative. Mary is not demon possessed, she refuses her place as silent and subservient, she is given her role as ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ (an ancient title for her), as an Apostle in her own right. She challenges Peter with his assumptions about what Jesus was about, not being what he actually said. She displays mercy in a raw scene when she and Peter chance upon a village slaughtered by the Romans, and she cares for the dying. A midwife at birth in the opening is reflected in this midwiving death.

I was left wondering what someone who doesn’t know the story of Jesus, who isn’t familiar with the gospels, would make of the film. Would they follow it as well as someone who does? Will they be enticed to want to know more and there is a lot more to know? Who is this Jesus? Why does he appear and talk about the Kingdom? Is his teaching just about an internal, personal spiritual perspective? There are strange omissions from the final week – which seems to be condensed to just 24 hours. The Last Supper shows the breaking of bread with no reference to his body and there is no cup, so no reference to wine and blood. The resurrection is assumed after burial, but there is no shock at an empty tomb, no weeping Mary wondering where the body had been taken, no encounter “supposing him to be the gardener” – one of the tenderest passages in John’s gospel.

But Mary is redeemed from the centuries of slander as a prostitute, just an ordinary woman in a fishing village, who turns out to be extraordinary. The fallen woman image is a hybrid of other characters, and a corruption of the gospel stories. Mary stays with Jesus at the cross, where other disciples stay away. There is a rather preachy statement on screen at the end to this effect.

It is a film to be taken at a different pace to what we are used to and so it will probably not hit the mark for many. It needs to be viewed with a slower mood. Worth seeing, worth reflecting on, but it’s not the greatest film ever shown.

 

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Breathing fire into the equations of the universe

Elephant-4214115This week a remarkable man died. Actually it was a week with the loss of several celebrities including the comedian Ken Dodd. But by any assessment the life of the physicist Stephen Hawking was truly remarkable. To overcome his disability in the way that he did was incredible on its own, but to add to that his scientific achievements was just outstanding. It shows that the human spirit can overcome incredible obstacles with the will and he has inspired millions for how he managed to do this. Clearly he had the resources to have a team of people around him and that is itself a reminder that the great do not stand alone. The recent Oscar winning make-up artist from Peterborough is testimony to what lies behind the best performances, those who enable the others to shine. Stephen Hawking also noted it would be an empty universe without the people we love. We are all time travellers into the future and it is important to make that future worth visiting. Our brilliance is shared and corporate, not self-made.

Stephen Hawking’s science is mind-warping. A Brief History of Time is often referred to as the most unread bestseller, not everyone makes it to the end. That level of science and physics takes most of us well and truly outside our comfort zone but it also defies simplistic conclusions. It destroys both a ‘God of the gaps’ theology and also the nonsense that science disproves religion. ‘God of the gaps’ is a shrinking faith, where as scientific discoveries increase so the room left for God decreases. This is the view that uses God to fill the holes in knowledge. So the more we come to know, the smaller God gets. Stephen Hawking’s explorations into the Big Bang and a single starting point change rather than destroy faith. God is not a blue-touch paper lighting creator who goes off for a rest once the creation is set in motion, hands free and absentee. Neither is God the unseen puppeteer manipulating parking spaces and directing every action. Rather to hold together science and faith we need a concept of God holding creation as it were in the palm of his hand and it existing because of God and in God, not being the plaything of God. Scientists like Stephen Hawking require us to raise our game in how we make sense of what there is. People of faith have to grow up.

For Stephen Hawking there was still wonder. He wondered profoundly on what it is that “breathes the fire into the equations that makes a universe…?” Why, quite simply, is there something rather than nothing? That there is anything requires something to cause it and that remained for him elusive. For those who hold science and faith it is not so mysterious, though it is a source of incredible wonder. For the theologian Hawking uncovered deep mysteries and wonders of how what there is comes to be and is given its shape, its order and its dynamism.

Last week the announcement was made that Tim Peake’s Soyuz spacecraft will be coming to the Cathedral in August and remain on display until November. This has generated phenomenal interest and it will provide opportunities to reflect on how science and faith sit together. The notion of going up in a spacecraft and expecting to see God is incredibly simplistic, but because we know this so much of our language that talks of God in heaven above and nasty stuff below us is challenged. Bible stories, like that of the Ascension, just don’t wash today at the literal level. They fail fundamentally, not least where precisely the SatNav is set for. A space rocket Jesus, ascending into the sky, to us just brings the question of ‘what next’? Left at Mars, right at Jupiter? Science changes how mythology works and the metaphors we use, though it doesn’t necessarily remove what lies behind that mythology and the metaphors that we use to talk of God as the source and goal of all things.

What we don’t have in the world of faith is knock down proofs. And actually, when science gets to the Hawking’s level, we don’t have that many knock down proofs there either. Both start with what we know and can see, and make leaps of the imagination into what we can believe could be. And when extrapolating mathematical equations about how the universe developed billions of years ago, where we can’t go back in time to revisit what happened (as Stephen Hawking was clear to say), we have some level of uncertainty, we are looking at outworkings and projecting backwards. Theoretical physics is called theoretical precisely because you can’t test some of it, just draw conclusions from what we see and fill in some gaps. The ‘God of the gaps’ has shifted his address. Scientific theories change with each discovery and consequent refinement.

Time was a theme in the inner workings of our readings this morning. For Jeremiah, the covenant displays God’s providence, God’s holding of the universe in the palm of his hand, God’s rule as Lord of time and eternity (Jeremiah 31:31-34). There is only a point to a covenant, in a relationship which shapes and holds identity, when it is held in the purposes and commission of God. Outside of that it is meaningless.  So the covenant assumes that God is the source and goal of existence, the one who gives meaning and purpose, and so having a relationship, being in a special place with God matters and gives authenticity to who we are. It is an assumption that God is the one who breathes the fire into the equation, the one who makes something exist rather than nothing.

Time also cropped up in the gospel reading. Jesus agonised in the garden and cried out to be saved from ‘this hour’ (John 12:20-33). The great scope of the universe and several billion years timeframe is distilled into a moment of passion and personal distress. The grand purpose is the reason for ‘this hour’, it is not random suffering, but part of order and commitment to the covenant that expands to embrace all creation. In this embracing of self-giving love, of the cross, the Lord of Time and Eternity takes all that is fallen and not perfect, that suffers, and brings mortality into the heart of God. It is a moment of profound revelation and cosmic significance.

There is no contradiction between science and faith; it is a bogus conflict. Scientific discoveries require us to look more deeply into the mystery that is created life. The breathing of fire into the equation remains a profound moment of wonder and that wonder is the beginning of faith and hope in a universe of purpose and therefore hope. Christ can commend ‘this hour’ because it is a moment of God’s love concentrated and focused. The bigger the universe gets, the more space occupied by scientific discoveries, the greater we see the love of God to be.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Lent 5 – Sunday 18th March 2018

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