Jerusalem: herald of good tidings

jerusalem-travelJerusalem has been in the news this week. President Donald Trump entered into a very sensitive area of international politics by backing Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its “united and eternal” capital city. This is highly contentious, disputed by the Arab and Palestinian populace and not recognized by the international community. The dispute goes back a very long way, not least to 1948 when the city was separated into a western Israeli section and an eastern Jordanian one. In 1967 Israel annexed the eastern section, an act still not recognized by the United Nations. East Jerusalem is also claimed for a future independent Palestinian state and most nations recognize the dual claims with Jerusalem as a place of special significance for both Israelis and Palestinians. So President Trump has trodden into a volatile space. And of course the city has sacred significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims, it has been fought over for millennia. The religious aspects add to its sensitivities.

Jerusalem has an iconic significance in Christian thought and imagery. We are used to hearing Old Testament readings, like today’s (Isaiah 40:1-11), which hold it up as a representative of the Hebrew people; the focus of its vocation and identity. It is comforted with tender words of hope. It is given a vocation to ‘herald good tidings’. Jerusalem stands for the people of God, for God’s presence and favour, and its fortunes are synonymous with the fortunes of the people.

In the Gospel reading (Mark 1:1-8), Mark begins his gospel with the people from Jerusalem going out to hear John the Baptist proclaiming the Kingdom of God and to be baptized by him. The people of Jerusalem means the people at the heart of the national life, the people around the city of David, the people who would expect to greet the Messiah and indeed the people who did do so at Jesus’ triumphal entry – which we remember on Palm Sunday. It is not accidental that John parks his metaphorical tanks on the lawn of the capital city to begin his warm up act for Jesus to follow, and he points towards Jesus as the one who is to come.

Later in the New Testament Jerusalem is used as the symbol of hope and salvation. The New Jerusalem is the image of the heavenly city and the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, ends with this vision. So it is very much the focus of identity, the home of the Messiah and the symbol of the redemption he brings. It, therefore, stands as a symbol of the Kingdom of God, of the place of justice and salvation, of peace and good fortune for all.

Enter then the reality of Jerusalem as the contested city, the multi-cultural and multi-faith city. Enter Jerusalem the place of conflict and tension. Jesus weeps over this city (Luke 19:41-44), referring to it as the place that rejects prophets (Matthew 23:37-39). It is the place of so much promise and focus, and yet so much falling short. It is a place of conflict, in the time of Jesus it was under Roman occupation, and had been built and destroyed several times over a thousand years before hand. After its destruction in AD 70 the Temple was never rebuilt again and all that stands today is the Wailing Wall, a place of prayer. The Temple was cleansed by Jesus for its corruption (Luke 19:45-46). Jerusalem is where he goes to confront the power structures and false allegiances which led to his crucifixion. It is the place where he is condemned and outside it he is crucified. It is the place where the resurrection takes place, where the New Jerusalem is brought about. Jerusalem is a place of high significance and stands as a symbol of so much.

One of the most popular hymns is known simply by the name of this city, Jerusalem. Set to Parry’s stirring tune William Blake’s 1804 poem has great resonance, even if the words are somewhat perplexing. Some of the imagery is biblical, for instance the chariots of fire (2 Kings 2:11), and some comes from Blake’s fantasy and imagination. The suggestion that Jesus’ feet might have walked ‘upon England’s mountains green’ is an Arthurian legend, with no basis in fact. The answer to all the questions in the first verse is ‘probably no’ and to the demands of the second verse ‘get them yourself’. There are two main interpretations of the hymn. One is as a lament against 18th and 19th century industrialization with the ‘dark satanic mills’. It is also a clarion call for a ‘mental fight’, an intellectual appeal against a narrow and cold rationalism, making a plea for intuition and imagination. Both of these, industry and rationalism, are seen by him as being soulless.   The second interpretation, more commonly held, is that it is a radical hymn calling for social justice. Both interpretations have a valid case: the dark satanic mills, the mental fight and the building of Jerusalem as a symbol of hope for all.

That second interpretation, as a radical hymn for social justice, has connected with movements for liberation. The poet Robert Bridges asked Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 to write his tune so that it could be sung at meetings of ‘Fight for the Right’, a movement set up to campaign for a better Britain for the millions of soldiers who would return home after the First World War. A land fit for heroes, if you like, where the New Jerusalem image is one of justice and freedom ‘builded here’. (Memo to self – remember this for Remembrance Sunday next year as we mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.) This hymn was sung at a meeting in March 1918 at the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate the granting of the vote to women. Millicent Fawcett, a leading suffragette, said to Parry that his hymn tune ought to become the Women Voters’ Hymn, and he responded with enthusiasm. It has become an anthem for women’s groups, not least the WI. It is an anthem of liberation and equality. It asks what kind of society do we want to be and holds before us the image of Jerusalem as a symbol of justice and peace, equity and dignity.

So Jerusalem has profound resonance for us. It has deep roots as the focus for identity, being the home of the Messiah, and the symbol of redemption. It stands as the place of justice and peace, flourishing and salvation. As a city today it is a contested city, a multi-cultural and multi-faith city. And so when we sing of it and pray for its peace we have to hold the challenges of what it means to live with difference and find the ‘much more that unites us than divides us’, for the common good. Justice and peace, equity and dignity do not rest on annihilation of another. The Old Testament is littered with the corpses from that. In Christ the New Jerusalem is a place for everyone, but also one where God’s kingdom reigns. That always brings surprises and challenge, the need for wills to bow.   So when we sing of wanting to build Jerusalem in our ‘green and pleasant land’ we are praying for a nation where all are honoured and valued and treated with the dignity they are due as citizens of the eternal city, all created and redeemed by the love of God in Jesus Christ. It is then that words of comfort can be found to speak tenderly to Jerusalem, that she can be a place to herald good tidings.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 2 – Sunday 10th December 2017

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Advent: super hero power of love

Screen Shot 2017-12-02 at 21.22.34If you fancy a trip to the cinema for a night out at the movies there is quite a variety on offer. From the heartwarming with Paddington 2 and Wonder (about a child with facial features that make him stand out and how he finds acceptance), a suspicious death mystery on the fast train from Istanbul (better known as Murder on the Orient Express), The Man who invented Christmas (about Charles Dickens writing his moral tale A Christmas Carol), and action thrillers where the struggle is for survival of worlds against seemingly overwhelming odds: Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League. And recently we’ve had Blade Runner 2049 with its play on artificial intelligence and a struggle in a world that seems to be the plaything of a megalomaniac industrialist: this is known as Transhumanism.

The action thrillers present us with crises that require superhuman powers. Thor is imprisoned on the other side of the universe without his mighty hammer. He is in a race against time to stop Ragnarok, the destruction of his homeland and the end of civilization. ‘Ragnarok’ in Norse mythology means ‘the doom of the Gods’. The race is to stop it. In the Justice League Batman and Wonder Woman join forces with Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash as a team of meta humans to stand against a threat. These films show a longing for a hero to come and sort it out with great power and might; to wield force and defeat the foe. Or in terms of our first reading from the 6th century BC prophet Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1-9). The threat is severe. No one is listening, or perceiving, or calling on the name of the Lord. What is needed is waving a big stick around to make them wake up and pay attention, to save them from their woes of oppression and exile: Thor’s hammer and the superhero powers.

The Bible carries this tension of themes between calls for dramatic action to stiffen the sinews and get the adrenaline rushing on the one side and a God of grace and love, who acts in a very different way on the other. The tearing open of the heavens does come, but in a small, vulnerable child born to a displaced family and laid in a borrowed bed visited by strangers with even stranger gifts. The family become refugees and as with Paddington would find their immigration status suspect and challenged. Paddington comes from Peru without a visa and in real life would be unlikely to be granted leave to stay.

The Gospel reading also brought us an image of calamity and tribulation (Mark 13:24-37). Into that comes the ‘Son of Man’, an intriguing title. Bernard Longley, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, who spoke at the Churches Together Advent Reflection Day which we hosted yesterday, reminded us that this title, ‘Son of Man’, is a way of expressing Jesus Christ’s solidarity with humanity. He does not stand outside us as a meta human, an artificially enhanced robot or cyborg, but as a fully human person, vulnerable and mortal, able to bleed and displaying unconditional love. He is the Son of Man who stands in solidarity with his people. The Church Advertising Network’s Christmas campaign this year depicts Jesus wearing a crown of thorns carrying a Christmas tree. It is a pastiche of his carrying his cross. It is a striking image and a clever play on iconography. The tag, which includes the ‘Christmas Starts with Christ’ logo, invites us to remember why. His coming among us is so much more profound than tinsel and very different to super hero tearing open of the heavens. The wood of the Christmas tree becomes the wood of the cross.

That first reading from Isaiah also spoke of people who don’t know the story – those who have not heard, who have not perceived, who do not know the name of the Lord to call on. Here in the Cathedral and also in St John’s, the city centre parish church, we frequently find ourselves greeting people who have not heard, have not perceived and do not know the story. And there are a number of responses we can make. We can shout louder, and there are some who come into the city centre, set up their stall in the square and do that. But aggressive shouting does not communicate, it makes people put up barriers and shut down. And then they don’t listen or hear. It is also not the way of Jesus. Rather we greet, we welcome, we allow them to come alongside us as we aim to get alongside them and see something of the wonder which delights and inspires us to live as followers of Jesus Christ. We let them see what it is that keeps us watching and waiting in hope.

On Friday at Evensong we had a lot of stallholders here setting up in the nave for the Christmas Market. And they were here too on Saturday during the morning Eucharist. A temptation could have been to grump in a corner and wish someone would shut them up so that we could get on with our private worship. What we did was welcome, explain what was going to happen with the services and relay them over microphone system so that everyone was included. It aimed to be an embrace to be alongside and include. It was an approach that stemmed from grace and knows that ultimately it is love that welcomes and draws us in, and not big hammers or super powers from meta humans.

Advent is my favourite season of the Christian year. This is because it watches in hope, it longs for the coming of Christ to bring love and salvation, not fear and dread. Our lives are held in this embrace between Christ’s coming among us in Jesus and his coming again when all things will be fulfilled and redeemed. We live in Advent; it is the season of where we are. The threats and warnings of turbulence and struggle are real and Advent reminds us of our humanity and our mortality. But it does this with the assurance of hope and the promise that we can trust in God’s providence. This is why the liturgical colour for Advent, purple, is also used at funerals, to emphasise the Advent hope, salvation dawning, love welcoming, and life sharing.

There has been some interesting research about the casual visitor to Cathedrals from the University of York. This has found that many of those who come here, and to our sister Cathedrals, find themselves having strange emotions stirred within them by the visit: the spiritual is triggered, and notably that goes for those who have no previous expectation of that or conscious affiliation. They are, I believe, surprised by grace. This fits with other research into those who self-define as ‘no religion’ in surveys and questionnaires. What they mean by ‘no religion’ is highly complex, but seems to mean that they don’t identify with a particular faith or story or religious institution; they are spiritual but not religious. And that is the group that is rising. Another recent survey reported that this group now accounts for 53% of our population and when these figures are analysed by age that number rises to 75% in those under the age of 25. The ray of hope comes in the being surprised by grace. Incidentally, the York research also said that there need to be books and publications for them to pick up in the shop to help them explore faith, the spirituality that has been stirred; a next step guide to go deeper. So my book “Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus” is timely – available from the shop very reasonably priced. It is there to help travel onto the next steps and explore what following Jesus through his teachings might mean for daily life, for loving, hoping and longing – all very Advent themes.

Today we enter the holy season of Advent. It is when we long for God to tear open the heavens and come to this turbulent world, to redeem it. He does this in a surprising way, showing the super human power of love rather than a hammer, of presence alongside rather than swooping in as a meta human.

Come Lord Jesus to our hopes and longing;

fulfill these with your loving embrace,

that all may be surprised by grace

and delight in your redeeming love. Amen.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Advent 1, Sunday 3rd December 2017

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Andrew: who follows, who goes deeper and who introduces

IMG_1353Today we celebrate one of our patron saints – Andrew – one of those after whom this Cathedral is named. This church is dedicated in honour of Peter, Paul and Andrew. Andrew has tended to be overlooked and lost, overshadowed by his more prominent brother Peter. But Andrew’s story is worth spending a few moments to reflect on. His cross adorns the south ambulatory by the site of Mary Queen of Scots former tomb here. The saltire, the white X-shaped cross on a blue background, is very familiar to us. The word ‘saltire’, comes from the Middle French ‘saultoir’ for ‘stirrup strap’ – the supports into which the feet are placed to help with riding a horse, based on the Latin ‘to dance’. Legend has it that Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross, as if straightforward crucifixion was not bad enough, and the x looked a bit like a stirrup, hence the word play.

This gives us the first of our aims to reflect with Andrew, a stirrup, to help with riding, with travelling in hope and faith and trust as we too seek to follow Jesus. Andrew responds to the call from Jesus to follow, straight away, and begins his journey into the unknown, in faith and trust. The saltire stirrup is a reminder that Christian faith is a journey, not a static resting place, but one that moves us in a dance of hope.

Andrew is mentioned in all four gospels, though the details vary a little. Matthew and Mark describe him as a northern fisherman, from Galilee, casting the nets with his brother Peter. Luke only tags him to his brother Peter. It is John who gives him a more prominent role. Andrew is one of those with John the Baptist when John exclaims, ‘look, here is the Lamb of God’, pointing to Jesus as he walks by (John 1:36). Those two disciples, the other unnamed, follow Jesus straight away. Jesus asks them what they are looking for. What do they desire so much. They ask him where he is staying, where does he abide, dwell, live. Rather than given them his calling card with an address just off Priestgate, one they can follow up later perhaps if they want to, he invites them to come and see, to come with him. Seeing is deeper than knowing. It is not just about having information to store in a file, but a call to enter a relationship, one which delights the heart and changes us as we journey with him and go so much deeper than would otherwise be the case. As we follow with Andrew, we are taken into the deep riches of faith, of what it means to be a disciple. The journey, which begins with stirrups, goes deep, has profound depths to be plunged.

Andrew’s next action is to go and find his brother Peter. It is Andrew, in John’s Gospel, who introduces Peter to Jesus. It is Andrew later to whom Philip brings some Greeks wanting to find Jesus and he effects the introduction. It is Andrew in John’s Gospel who finds the small boy with the expandable lunch box at the feeding of the 5,000. Andrew is the introducer. And our task if we are to be followers of Andrew, as he follows and journeys with Jesus, is to introduce others to know and love and follow Jesus, to dive into the profound depth as they come and see, as they behold the Lamb of God, as they are drawn into the relating with him.

As an introducer, who knows where that will lead those we introduce. So much missionary work, introducing others to this rich and profound faith, leads the other into places we see nothing of and can’t imagine. Who’d have thought that history would remember Andrew’s brother over him? We can be the agents of something beyond our imagining in God’s grace. It requires a bit of humility to let another flourish, to even take a role beyond ours. To do this our own pride and ego need to take a back seat, otherwise we build the wrong Kingdom. John the Baptist had to let Andrew go and follow. Andrew actually followed his first teacher’s example well. John the Baptist introduced him to Jesus and pointed beyond himself. Andrew does likewise. So his being over shadowed, overlooked is perhaps the third great example that he gives us. This is not about us, about me or you, this is about Jesus, of the hope of God we see in him, which comes through him and our call to follow him above and in and through all things. What we do here is not about stone and notes, candles and events. Important as these things are in helping us journey, find the stirrup to ride in faith, they are the introducers. And that is important to keep in front of us, we serve a risen Lord, to whom our true allegiance is due and like John the Baptist and Andrew we stand back and let him be the focus.

So today we celebrate Andrew, one of our patrons, with his X-shaped cross, reminding us to journey in faith; Andrew with his following Jesus immediately and going deeper as he finds where Jesus abides and sees; Andrew who is the introducer and reminds us that we are not the focus. May Andrew lead us in hope and faith and trust as we too journey into a deeper love and joy of the hope of God in Jesus Christ and introduce others to follow as well.

Sermon preached on St Andrew’s Day at Peterborough Cathedral, 30th November 2017

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Remembrance: more than pressing ‘replay’

IMG_4954I’ve been looking into memory and how it functions. It was prompted by an interview on Newsnight on BBC2 recently on the Grenfell Tower fire. There were reports of an infant being thrown from the 4th floor and miraculously caught by someone on the ground. This amazing story of hope in the midst of disaster went viral. A reporter from Newsnight tried to track down the infant and indeed the person who caught them but found that no one knew who they were. The more the reporter went into this, they found that no one could confirm actually seeing it, yet everyone was adamant that it happened. It was beginning to sound like a false memory. They interviewed a psychologist, Dr Julia Shaw, who has carried out research into false memories and how the memory can trick us into thinking some things happened when they didn’t. She has written a book ‘The memory illusion: Remembering, forgetting and the science of false memory’. It is a particularly complex area of the mind.

The people involved are not lying. They believe what they are saying. They may be confused or mistaken, but there is no deliberate attempt to deceive. Another example hit the news in 2015. This involved an American journalist, Brian Williams, who said he was on board a helicopter in Iraq when it came under heavy fire. It turned out he wasn’t, he was on another one and the story related to the helicopter in front of his. The memory and trauma of the event had mixed things up. He was sacked from his job at NBC for ‘misleading the viewer’, his credibility in tatters.

Today is called Remembrance Sunday. And in light of the psychology of memory, it is a day to be careful. Most of us have no experience of war beyond what we see on TV; some of course do. And things can get reordered in the memory; the commonly accepted story can contain distortions and embellishments, confusions and errors. The memory is not like a video recorder, and recalling is not merely to press the replay button. Each time we recall something, or bring it to mind, we recreate it in some way and that act of recreation can change the original memory, corrupt the primary source if you like. What is more, when dealing with other people’s stories, third hand or further removed, this can be even more problematic. So today comes with a health warning. As we remember, be careful that this is grounded in reality. And what constitutes reality can therefore be rather tricky too.

All is not lost, we do have primary documents and in some cases news film that can be reviewed. Piecing these together is the job of historians who can then corroborate the records and the memories. That said how people feel about events and the past is itself an important aspect of what we hold today.

When we use the word ‘remembrance’, not least for today, we are in the same territory as how memory works. We bring into the present something that happened in the past and reflect on what it means. This is no mere replaying of events. Today’s remembrance is rooted in the counting the cost, the roll call of those who are no longer with us. And some of those names are carved in stone on the war memorials and other monuments. They have a stark poignancy that brings the human cost of warfare to the fore. We stand to count the cost and the best response is silence.

Out of that silence, out of that recalling and remembrance, should come a commitment to peace and justice. Warfare is not the place to live. It brings death, destruction and heartbreak. It is a breeding ground for hatred and the peace-making requires hatreds to cease, to be filled with love and willing the good of the other so that the good of all may come to the fore.

Our first reading from the prophet Amos (5:18-24) began with a stark warning of what elevating darkness over light means. Shallow festivals are shunned. In their place justice and righteousness are to flow. The commitment required is to live differently. Amos holds up a template for a different way of being and remembrance is a moment to renew and restore that.

And I don’t think it is stretching the Gospel reading too far (Matthew 25:1-13) to see in this a warning to be vigilant, in this context, to guard peace and the justice so that the oil of gladness and delight does not run out. The image of the bridesmaids with their lamps and oil supplies brings encouragement to be prepared, to be alert, to live in such a way that the light is always present.

So on Remembrance Sunday we do not merely press replay. Rather we bring to mind events of the past so that we can pause to take stock. The consequences of warfare are horrendous and the commitment to peace with justice is to be all consuming.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Remembrance Sunday 12th November 2017

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Reformation 500 (1517-2017)

lutherThis weekend many churches will be marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The trigger date is 31st October 1517 when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  This was a list of 95 points against the iniquities of the practice of selling Indulgencies (forgiveness from the Pope for sins in exchange for cash to help rebuild St Peter’s in Rome) and the aim would have been to trigger debate.  There is some doubt on whether he actually did nail the document to the door.  The church concerned was destroyed by fire in 1760, so we can’t check for nail holes today.

The story is based on one reference by Luther’s friend and fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) in a collection of Luther’s works.  Luther himself does not mention it.  As a stunt there is no evidence that it triggered a debate and what was more effective was his sending a copy to the Archbishop.  Luther refers to the date as being one of significance and it came to be taken by Lutherans as the beginning of his reforming.  The Reformation, however, was a movement, not a single event, it had deeper roots and a significantly longer period of development. So, 31st October is more a symbolic date than one marking the actual beginning of the Reformation.

The Theses are a list of 95 statements, challenging Indulgencies in the context of salvation theology, and they invite a debate. In summary, God forgives the penitent, to whom he gives a humble heart. If any penance is paid for sins this is not so much the fee to receive forgiveness but a sign of true repentance.  So to charge in advance is the wrong way round.  Luther argues that the Pope has no jurisdiction over purgatory, so the Indulgences are useless as a means to shorten any time to be spent there; they are a con, and later reformers removed purgatory itself as a doctrine.  A better use of the money would be to give it to the poor, for charity increases charity.  And what is more, if the Pope can forgive then he should just do it. St Peter’s would be better left in ruins than built on the back of this lie and shameful practice.  The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God, and expressed in devotion to the cross, the means of forgiveness. Luther encourages Christians to endeavour to follow Christ, the true head of the Church, and thereby hope with confidence to enter heaven.

This prayer draws on Luther’s 95 Theses and I have written it to mark the 500th anniversary of their creation and the Reforming focus which followed.


Reformation 500

God of grace,

our hope and confidence are found

through the cross of your Son.

You give to the penitent

a humble and contrite heart

and the assurance of sins forgiven.

May we live this indulgence

in acts of charity

and show our true treasure

to reside in the Gospel of glory and grace.

As we endeavour to follow Christ, our true head,

so may we come to the joy of your eternal kingdom;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


© Ian Black 2017


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Guarding the mind

IMG_2378There is a song, released in 1988 and again in 2000, by Bobby McFerrin, with the very simple message “Don’t worry, be happy”. It is one of those earworms which advocates just forgetting all your troubles and being happy. It is a whistling in face of adversity. The crucial part it misses out is ‘how’ and ‘why’ we should be happy. Just telling people to smile and cheer up is probably the worst thing you can say when anyone is in the pit of despair or feeling the dark clouds are gathering around them. We need more than a party animal pouring out the drinks. Paul, in that passage from Philippians (4:1-9), avoided the shallow by basing it in the gospel of hope. Because of Jesus Christ risen from the dead there is a reason to rejoice, to be thankful, to pray.

He begins by commending fellow workers in the gospel; thanking those who have laboured with him. They have earned a place in the Book of Life. He then gives a wonderful hymn of praise which advocates rejoicing and gentleness; he tells his readers “Don’t worry…, but in everything by prayer… with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God” (v6). There is a point to everything and God holds all our lives. So pray and be thankful, for it is in that that rejoicing flows.

He then talks about the peace of God, which is beyond our understanding, guarding our hearts and minds (v7). ‘Guarding the mind’ is an interesting phrase. It implies a protection from assault and a gatekeeping from thoughts that attack our mental state. The Archbishop of Canterbury in that GQ interview with former spin doctor Alastair Campbell, which seems to be being drip fed to us, has this week spoken about depression, what Churchill called ‘Black Dog’. Even when things might look like they are going well, the overwhelming feeling of being hopeless and useless assaults the soul, the depth of his being. Pressures can weigh on us and we need to guard our hearts and minds from their assault. Rejoicing doesn’t remove them, but it can help change the mental map because it introduces the reminder that God is God and we are held in his purposes and love, whatever.

On Friday we hosted a meeting here with our MP, Fiona Onasanya, and Superintendent Andy Gipp – the local police chief, on crime and policing. At the end of it Fiona thanked us for our prayers – she knew that we regularly pray for her and felt the ‘guarding’ of those prayers. And we do pray regularly for our MPs, both north and south of the river, and for the City Council. They have difficult tasks and we pray for them as they bear those responsibilities; for their support, to be sustained, to be strengthened and guided in the struggles they face. They need resilience in leadership, especially when in difficult circumstances. The City Council has faced an 80% cut in its budgets over recent years and there are hard choices ahead of them.

Paul ends with a wonderful passage commending a noble and gracious path. Whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure and commendable – think about these things. Focus on these things, be renewed and refreshed so that you may be strengthened and guarded by these things. There is so much to weigh us down, and that is not a new feeling, that the mental map needs restoring. That restoration stems from rejoicing with thanksgiving and in prayer.

The gospel reading (Matthew 22:1-14) gave us the image of a king who is throwing a party. He expects everyone to attend. It is one of those invitations that is not really a question. When I was in Holyrood Palace shop in Edinburgh last year I picked up a book called ‘How to greet the Queen’. I opened it at random and found a passage about accepting and refusing invitations. “Invitations from Her Majesty and from other senior members of the Royal Family are generally considered commands: it isn’t done to plead a prior commitment.” (p72) To refuse, for anything other than a very serious reason, is an insult and in the gospel reading this is not taken well. An army is dispatched to dispatch those who treat the king with contempt! Well, they did murder the various posties delivering the envelopes. It is an extreme image. Today is you receive an invitation to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party, there is a bit of checking which date you can make first, so that no one is embarrassed by turning it down.

We then get the unfortunate, sartorially challenged guest. Having turned up, he is not prepared. He hasn’t made any effort to be ready. This is not shallow ‘fashion police’, but rather a reflection of how serious this invitation is. The Kingdom of God is a command because it comes from God. We are to be ready for it, prepared, live lives focused on it. To do otherwise is to treat it with contempt and that is why conversion is regarded as being a dramatic reorientation, a turning around, from being focused elsewhere to being focused on God.

We do this by focusing on whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is peaceful, with prayer and thanksgiving and rejoicing in the Lord always. By this we guard our hearts and minds, but also prepare ourselves and those we affect around us for the Kingdom of God.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th October 2017

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A straight man’s answer to a gay question

IMG_6710I’m a bit late to this particular party, but I have had a busy week.  I am spurred on to blog because of a leafleting campaign in the City Centre yesterday by a group who felt it was their duty to state why God does not approve of gays.  I feel it is my duty to state that they do not do so in my name.  What is more I have friends who in other provinces of the Anglican Communion are now solemnising same sex marriages, now that they are allowed to do so.  I have also been asked several times this week where would be a safe church for LGBTI people to attend and was able to say that my own churches are.  It is important to make this clear.

The Archbishop of Canterbury got into hot water last weekend over sin.  He was asked one of those questions that only a certain type of journalist expects a ‘yes/no’ answer to.  He was asked if gay sex is a sin?  Nice snappy question, which is designed to put him on the spot.  I have sympathy for him.  This is only a ‘yes/no’ answer is you can unequivocably say “yes it is because all such activity is inherently sinful” or “no it isn’t because what ever you do is fine”.  And define ‘gay sex’, if you really want to tie this down.

For everyone else there are complexities; life is more complex.  I don’t like the ‘charge sheet’ approach to sin – Wednesday I drove too fast, Thursday I was grumpy, Friday I drank too much…  Sin is a state of rebellion against God and all of us are caught up in it.  We are flawed, fallen, fallible and fall short of perfection.  Actions can be based in a cynical rejection of God’s justice and righteousness.  They can also be caught up in something more systemic and cultural, where influences bigger than us bear an influence we can’t overcome.  For some all of this is very clear.  For others it is more nuanced, with changed understandings of sexuality and how we live in grace, love and mutual giving, fidelity and commitment being seen to express themselves in different ways but nonetheless be real.

So in my mind faithful, loving, stable, committed relationships are life-giving.  And being life-giving they are a source of blessing because what blesses gives life.  They enrich everyone they touch. In contrast abusive, coercive, exploitative relationships do not bless.  They are inherently sinful.  Both of these are found in heterosexual and gay relationships – they are not inherent to one or the other, and neither are exempt.

So show me the relationship and then I might be able to comment more fully on how much they display ‘sin’ and how much they display ‘blessing’ – though no one really knows the secrets and reality of another’s relationship.

This is not a snappy soundbite, or even a ‘straight answer’ as Justin Welby tripped up saying.  Actually it is a straight man’s answer to a gay question.

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