Prayer after Communion – During Covid Pandemic

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I have been conscious that at Communion we are not all able to share in the cup due to the Covid restrictions – not able to receive the wine. It is only the president who does this ‘on behalf of everyone else’ so that it is present. I understand the reasons for this.

As an alternative to the ‘Almighty God we thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ’ prayer, I have written one that refers instead to sharing ‘in this foretaste of the heavenly banquet’. This may be preferred by some. If you wish to use it, you are welcome to do so.

Prayer after Communion

God of hope,

in your Son, Jesus Christ,

you always give the grace we need

for whatever we face.

As we have shared

in this foretaste of the heavenly banquet,

so fill our lives with your praise

that in rejoicing in your love

we may do justly,

love mercy

and walk humbly with you,

now and always. Amen.

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St Luke the Evangelist – Story-teller for all God-lovers

IMG_5918Today we commemorate St Luke, writer of two books in the New Testament: the gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles. There are moments in Acts when it sounds like he is present because the language changes from third person to first, as in our first reading which begins “They went” and then suddenly changes to “We set sail from Troas” (16:6-12). Paul describes Luke as the beloved physician, and given he had some kind of ailment bugging him, probably benefited from his care.

In his biography of Paul, the New Testament scholar Tom Wright, offers an interesting thought. He wonders if Luke wrote his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles either as a briefing paper or as part of Paul’s defence when he appeared on trial in Rome. Both are addressed to an unknown official whom Luke calls ‘Theophilus’, or ‘God-lover’. This person is being addressed as someone who takes the things of God seriously and so the two books dedicated to him are in turn addressed to all who love God, who are open to learn and grow in faith.

Luke is a great story-teller. He brings in details and his gospel and Acts are both page-turners. But he has a purpose. The charge against Paul was a serious one in the political turbulence of his time. He was accused of advancing a novel faith which was not approved. To do this was seen as an act of rebellion against the Roman empire. That carried the death penalty.

The Jewish faith benefited from an exemption, so its adherents could be excused the imperial cultic worship. The crucial legal point here was over whether Christianity was a novel faith, and therefore a deviation from acceptable boundaries, or stood in continuity with the Hebrew faith. The charge from his accusers was that his teaching deviated so far that he was espousing something new and deviant. Paul argues strongly in his letters, as does Luke in his gospel and Acts, that Jesus fulfils the hopes of Israel, so he does not stand outside them.

That may sound a moot point to us, who have grown up thinking nothing could be more English than Christianity, and yet of course Christianity is not English. It is Middle Eastern and stands in a very long thread. We need the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, to understand the New, the Christian. Luke tells stories so that Paul’s slabs of theology have a context, they fit a story which is easier to get the head round than abstract philosophy and theology. Story matters – it humanises the thought and the claims. It is more personal and direct.

All of us tell a story. The way we speak and the way we colour what we say has a story inside it. It might be one of despair and gloom, which would be understandable at the moment, but it might be one of hope and joy, of trust in God. The story we tell is how we make this good news of Jesus Christ live and breathe. How do we inhabit the story of Jesus and tell it to others? How does being a ‘lover of God’ show itself in how we are, who we are, the hope we exhibit? If ever there was a time when a narrative, a story of hope was needed, it is now. These times we are living in are anxious, even volatile. We miss those we would like to see but can’t. Travel is curtailed and plans we might be making or have made get put on hold. It is extremely frustrating.

Luke’s story is one that comes into a time of turmoil, of threat, of great dreams being frustrated in the political hopes of a nation longing for freedom from Rome and wanting a leader with an oven-ready plan. What they get is a small child, in a bed borrowed from the animals’ food tray. They get a marginal Jew, walking at 3 miles an hour, not flying in on a jet. Someone who taught and brought a Kingdom that went beyond the political, to the eternal and in so doing challenged the here and now more than any revolutionary could ever have done.

Luke’s stories reflect real life. We see the frustrations and there is no attempt to white-wash the internal struggles of Jesus’ followers or the church that grew out of them. We see the arguments when tempers get frayed. We see when good men and women misunderstand. We even see betrayals and the darker side of human beings at their worst. But we also see a common purpose, a bias for the poor rooted on the fundamental hope in Jesus as Lord. Because God is in Jesus Christ, nothing can overcome the hope we have in him. We are called to live that hope.

Luke portrays this in a series of tales that a Roman Governor or official would be able to access through the human and probably more likely to be taken in than all the finely tuned rabbinical study of a Pharisaically trained scholar like Paul. Luke’s story is the human translation of Paul’s deep theology. His gospel begins with angels, with Mary and Elizabeth greeting on another, with shepherds and child in a manger. The story connects and makes all the philosophy and theology come alive. We need both – the deep thought and the imagination to draw us deeper into living this good news.

So Luke is a physician of the body and also the soul. His stories expand our imaginations and then beg a question from us, how we will let his story work in us so that it becomes the story we use to guide our approach and response to the world, especially at a very challenged time. How will we tell a story of faith, hope and love rooted in Jesus Christ? How will we show that we are indeed ‘God-lovers’? Jesus is Lord, and so we can have confidence in God and proclaim that confidence in how we live, turning priorities upside down with good news for the poor and therefore everyone including you and me.

Sermon for St Luke’s Day, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 18th October 2020

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Cultural change to prevent abuse – thoughts on IICSA

anglicanchurchinvestigationreport-coverimage2-20201013170418526_webThe publication of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) report last week brought no surprises. Much of it had been reported last year by Hattie Williams in this paper and released in the interim report, but in the words of the Archbishop of York in a response to Rosie Harper on Twitter, “I hope I’ll never stop being shocked and distressed until we have changed” (11th October). And there lies the rub, how to change?

We have policies – reams of them. We have procedures which are clear and have been clear for nearly two decades. All of the failures to act over the past 20 years went against these clear and agreed policies and procedures. I was clear as a vicar, why weren’t those in more senior positions? What went wrong? I think part of the answer lies in what psychologists call ‘wilful blindness’, not so much the Black Swan of the unexpected, but the Black Elephant of the unpalatable.

In a piece of research into companies where things went wrong, more than 200 CEOs interviewed admitted that the signs of the problem were there in the room, they just either didn’t see what was in front of them or chose to ignore it (Nik Gowing & Chris Langdon ‘Thinking the unthinkable’ John Catt Educational, 2018). The authors list a number of important areas which kept cropping up in the interviews, the reasons given for not seeing or ignoring the warning signs:

  • Short-termism (not looking long enough ahead or wide enough around).
  • Confusion (the pace of change being fast, volatile, complex, impeding seeing what is really going on).
  • Fear of career-limiting moves (being frightened to confront what otherwise should be confronted; someone is going to get angry).
  • Risk eversion (ironically given the outcome – a highly litigious context makes opening up a can of worms risky).
  • Purpose (a sense of existential dislocation).
  • Lack of inclusivity and diversity (and the blind spots this brings).
  • Groupthink and institutional conformity (the cultural pressure to fit in and not challenge accepted thinking).
  • Being overwhelmed (too much to think about – the brain doesn’t have capacity for this challenge).

These echo some of Margaret Heffernan’s work on ‘wilful blindness’. She was interested in why people don’t do what they were expected to do and see what they should have seen. Her book by the same name (London: Simon & Schuster, 2019) explores how our brains naturally edit the world in order to process it and therefore function within it. It is just too complex if we don’t and we form emotional attachments which mean that the consequences of seeing can be too great to confront, so we ‘don’t see’. New information is assimilated into what we expect to see or are concentrating on.

What is more we are biased towards that which makes us feel good about ourselves, preferring not to see that which disturbs. It is a preference for agreement, amplification and endorsement over fights and challenge. If we add in misogyny, sexism, homophobia, snobbery and prejudices of many kinds, and sprinkle on top the pedestals key perpetrators can occupy, indeed are very good at grooming everyone into ascribing to them, we have a dangerous mix.

When the attachments that we form are so strong that our identity rests on them, the ability to challenge may be fatally flawed. Margaret Heffernan highlights the case of a mother who doesn’t protect her daughter from the abusive partner because it will bring the world crashing down around her. Too much is at stake for her emotionally and she cannot confront. It is easier to swallow the cognitive dissonance and either blame the daughter or pretend it is not real. George Carey is quoted in the IICSA report as wanting it to go away, the ostrich affect.

Similar things happen with confronting religious institutions, except here what you might bring crashing down is God. That adds layers, more so where the church is identified with the Kingdom of God, then the whole purpose of existence and reality is at stake. The desire to protect the flag becomes very strong.

Unpicking these powerful drivers takes some very clear and determined thinking. Cultural change has to go much deeper than a few processes and procedures. It has to touch the very operating system that makes acceptable codes of conduct function or fail. In her book ‘Culture Shift’ (London: Bloomsbury 2019) Kirsty Bashforth identifies six different elements that are necessary to embed a culture:

  • Clear messaging, where values define the culture.
  • Leadership effort and commitment making it explicit and being called out if they slip up (accountability for bishops!).
  • Policies and processes linked in, setting out what is expected including a clear code of conduct.
  • Symbols, signals and practices making it visible and reinforcing it.
  • Everyone onboard however long that takes with “no one left behind”.
  • Guiding compass in decision making where culture is seen in action (or not!).

This is rather cheekily expressed in a scene in the film ‘Brooklyn’ (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2015). Set in 1950s Brooklyn a shop assistant is told to smile at customers to make them feel special. When she says she will try, her supervisor asks her if she had to think about putting her underwear on that morning (not quite how it is said). She replies that she didn’t, it was something that she did automatically. Similarly, she is told, the culture of smiling at customers should be so natural that she no longer needs to think about it.

This is where the symbols, signs and practices are crucial in how they reinforce and renew the desired culture each day. So, not so much without thinking, but it becomes ‘how we are’ in this place. In churches this will include worship, but not be limited to it, where values of the Kingdom are reinforced and prayed. Other badges and communication vehicles will be needed and everyone will need to be, and be willing to be, mutually accountable for it.

Cultural change requires clear values to direct it. If the values of a Christian church do not have protecting the vulnerable from harm carved at the top, then it has lost the plot, big time. We have to recognise that good people can be overloaded, can fail to see or hear when the voices advising are not sufficiently diverse and when there is a lack of accountability. If what is at stake is our identity, then the pressures against confronting can be immense. Bishops and Archbishops may be irritated when synods bite back, but they should thank God for it – there lies the health of a structure to protect the vulnerable, prevent harm and promote the wellbeing of all God’s children.

This article first appeared in The Church Times online on 14th October 2020. It is based on my Sabbatical last year looking at what makes a healthy church and the cultural inhibitors.

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Harvest – Celebrating Creation

The poet John Keats called Autumn a time of “Season’s mists and mellow fruitfulness”. It is also a time when seeds are falling to the ground. Near our garage there are lots of conkers which have fallen from a very large tree. This year there seems to be a bumper harvest of them. If left on the ground some of them may find their way to germinate and sprout, if the squirrels don’t run off with them first and there is quite a bumper gathering of them too.

These seeds and the new trees are part of the pattern of life and this rich biodiversity sustains other life as well as being beautiful in its own right. One of the largest trees is the Cedar of Lebanon. Mentioned in the Bible as a symbol of strength and stability, some of them live for thousands of years. They have capped Lebanon’s mountaintops and been used to build ships, the resin bought by the ancient Egyptians to mummify the dead. But they now face their biggest challenge, Climate Change.

These mighty trees, until recently covered an area of around 1,900 square miles. That’s roughly the size of Trinidad and Tobago, or more locally 2.5 Cambridgeshires, double the size of Northamptonshire and it equates to 14 Peterboroughs. With that size in our heads, this has been decimated to just 7.7 square miles, which is a reduction to 0.5% of its former size. 7.7 square miles is roughly double the size of Oundle, or about the size of Lake Windermere – a fraction of what it was.

The reason is shorter winters. Less snow affects the ecosystem. The seedlings normally stay buried in the snow for about 2 or 3 months, but are now germinating in February rather than April. This makes them vulnerable to further cold snaps. The Cedar is a slow grower, not producing any cones until it’s about 40 or 50 years old. It’s only after 100 years that it develops its distinctive shape with branches stretching parallel to the ground. It is a beautiful, magnificent sight.

I was given a sapling the other day as a way of remembering the Lebanon, its challenges of climate, economy, civil war and of course the recent explosion which ripped through the city of Beirut. It was in aid of Embrace Middle East, a Christian relief charity working in Lebanon. It will be several generations before this tree is fully mature, so I won’t see it. Hopefully someone will, but it can stay in a pot for a bit yet. That makes it a sign of confidence in God’s future, which extends beyond us, and therefore of hope for a troubled place.

When we celebrate harvest we give thanks for the fruits of the earth which sustain us. We also reflect on the world in which we live and the forms of life with which we share it. We give thanks for God’s provision and renew our confidence in God’s future. In a time of pandemic fear the restoration of hope in our troubled place is welcome. It is engendered through our thanksgiving for God’s promises, that life is sacred and blessed.

The Environmental Emergency facing us has now been so well publicised that it would require wilful avoidance to not know about it, the blindness of those who will not see. A piece on Radio 4 a few weeks ago caught my attention, because rather than being the usual warning shout of devastation and gloom, it turned the message round to be a celebration of the earth.

Martin Palmer was being interviewed about ‘Celebration Earth’, a project to tell stories of what it is we celebrate about the earth. The simple premise is that if something is worth saving it is worth celebrating and if it is worth celebrating it is worth saving. No one, he says, is changed by a pie chart. It is stories that change us, stories of how we can be and are different. Those turn us around and get us moving in a different direction.

So the warnings are needed to tell us how urgent it all is. But on their own they can paralyse in fear and despondency. Celebrating, being thankful for the earth and all that creation is, inspires a different way to be. Harvest brings us that opportunity. It is an approach rooted in that fundamental Christian vision of living the Kingdom of God, where we aim to be the future we long for and act as if it were already here. The Greek word for that is prolepsis, which means to throw ahead or anticipate and it is a device used quite a lot in the gospel of John, among others.

Harvest Festival is a celebration of creation, of all that sustains our living and the astounding beauty of all the good gifts around us. As we celebrate so we are inspired to treasure and live in harmony with it for the wellbeing of the earth, our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of all. 

No one is changed by a pie chart. What changes us is story, the story of how a seed becomes one of the mightiest trees. Celebrating the beauty and wonder of the story of creation inspires living in harmony with it to the glory of God.

Sermon for Harvest, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 27th September 2020.

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Matthew – Manifesto for living the Jesus Way

Window in Peterborough Parish Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No church is an island: The practical benefits of ecclesiology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Creationtide: Our rooting in Creation and Redemption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Limitations of Time and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I am not a number

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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