Taming the tongue: Amazon, Wonga, Low Pay, Tax and the Archbishop

Screen Shot 2018-09-16 at 13.34.27Words have tremendous power. The old adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is complete nonsense. Bullies know this. Political campaigners and advertisers know this. The clever memes on social media know this. Name-calling, insults and lies spread about someone can hurt deeply and are designed to. They are an aggressive act, which is looking to do damage to their target. And in the same way, words of blessing and healing can do a tremendous amount of good. They can offer hope, sooth the anxious and isolated. They can mobilise others to action to make a difference and transform. Behind these is the reception they receive. Is the ground on which they fall fertile and conducive to their seed? Are those who hear them ready to believe the worst or the best, suspecting of conspiracy or knowing that sometimes things go wrong, even when there are good intentions.

There is a principle in moments of conflict and deep disagreement when we make a conscious effort to interpret what we hear in the best possible light. Our political climate and the way so much of the news reports come to us, do not encourage this. They look for the worst, for the base motives and the conspiracies at work. Sadly they often find them, but if a fruitful way forward is going to be found then giving the benefit of the doubt opens up the chance of finding a way through. Our paranoia needs to be bridled and kept in check lest it master us.

So our readings this morning all touch on the power of words. For James (James 3:1-12) it is that whether we bless or curse comes from our inner character. That character may be showing strain, wariness from past experience and suspicion, as well as temperamental predispositions. Those are not malicious in themselves, but can affect just how we respond or comment. The gospel (Mark 8:27-38) also touched on who we are being seen in what we do. Jesus asked who people said that he is and the response was based on what they saw and knew. Suffering being part of the way of Jesus came as a shock to them, with some sharp words for Peter, and being reminded that being prepared to be true to who we are and what we believe, even if this leads to suffering, are strong and difficult words. Have the courage of your convictions because if you truly believe in this, then nothing else matters as much. What will it profit to gain the world and yet forfeit the eternal? In the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 50:4-9a) courage in the face of beard pulling and spitting was held up for ultimate vindication.

None of this means that we can’t say something critical and the Bible has sharp words at times, especially when matters of justice and oppression are at stake. Words have power to call to account, remind and confront. Even when being critical their aim is to heal and bring a miscreant to their senses. Look carefully at the Old Testament prophets and we find this is what they were aiming to do. It is in this spirit that Archbishop Justin Welby got up to speak at the TUC earlier in the week. His fire was aimed at a major employer in this city, the online retailer Amazon. He criticized them for being a ‘tax dodging, employee exploiting parasite’. My paraphrase, but his words were strong. While the company are adamant they pay the tax required by law, that is not the same as what is fair when payments are made to parent companies in other countries, with lower tax regimes, and the effect of these being to achieve a substantial reduction in that liability to tax. With a turnover of nearly £2bn, tax of a few million seems rather low. If we do the maths, that gives them a profitability of something like 1%, which would imply frighteningly stark margins and doesn’t match their rising share price. They are not alone; many companies do this and we’ve heard a great deal about them over recent years. They are not contributing to the common life of the nation on which they depend.

The ‘employee exploiting’ refers to low pay and zero hours contracts. The morality of zero hours contracts very much depends on how they operate. There is a long standing and accepted practice of casual engagement as staff are needed on a temporary basis. And some work flexible hours, expanding and contracting as work is there. So if zero hours is casual work, and we take people on on that basis in the cathedral, it is a way of bringing in extra staff for one off occasions. The questionable side comes when there is a requirement to work and the risk being unfairly shifted to the employee who is not equipped to bear it. Employment brings responsibilities, even if orders come and go. If there is a requirement to show up each day then there should be a basic level of pay, with extra hours as available. This is a more responsible and just way to behave.

The low pay, to be legal, will mean that they only pay the government minimum wage, rebranded as the living wage, which in reality it isn’t. That is currently £7.83 per hour (a mere £3.50 for apprentices) whereas we pay the Living Wage Foundation’s level of £8.75 as a minimum. The parasitical element of this is that they are relying on the benefits system, funded by taxes they don’t pay fairly, to top up the living costs of employees who can’t make ends meet. Zero-hours compounds the problems. As we know universal credits are not going well and so many people on low pay find themselves at foodbanks, run by churches and other volunteers, and at debt advice, and going to loan sharks, like Wonga. Enter stage left, the MP Frank Field and his suggestion that the Church of England call together a group of ethical financiers to take over the loan book of Wonga. An imaginative idea and one I hoped would happen when Wonga went into receivership at the end of August, and Tweeted to that effect, so who knows the power of a Tweet, not least if others say something similar. It creates a groundswell for an idea to bed in.

So we have sharp words mixed with ones of hope, which makes them a blessing. Words of challenge about the justice and consequences of actions – corporate, governmental because they create the legislative climate, and personal. Words of hope and blessing with the prospect of how we can make a difference. Just to add to the complexities here, it turns out that the Church Commissioners have investments in Amazon. And a superficial look would either accuse this of being double standards, of hypocrisy, or an embarrassing oops moment. Actually there is a more subtle judgement here. Investments can be used to change a company’s ethos and practices. The power of the shareholder to work with the board of directors is quite strong if the holding is large enough or they get organised. And I know that the ethical investments group does this. There comes a moment when a company refuses to listen and then a decision to disinvest comes. This is where investment money is used to work for good. And life is compromised, so sometimes there is a decision to work from the inside rather than shouting from the outside. So I don’t see an inconsistency here, it depends how it comes through. And there have been Church Commissioners who have made this point this week, not least the head the Share Centre.

Words have power and our thoughts this morning are taken to how we use them, to our assumptions and whether we are looking to build up and transform, or just attack and destroy. To my mind it should always be the former, and if I stray into the latter, then that means I have some work to do on what has wound me up so much. Anger that turns to aggression always has an injury in the background that needs healing. It may be the stone we need to pick up, hold and then place on the hand in the prayer station by the Lady Chapel. Let go of the burdens that weigh you down, that are too heavy to carry and need to be jettisoned for the sake of our health.

An encouragement from today’s readings is to watch our words and what they reveal about us. They are to be a means of blessing and healing, of challenge and grace in order that justice and freedom may ensue.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 16th September 2018

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More than spiritual ‘Red Bull’

IMG_2378Far be it from me to disagree with Jesus, but there are good reasons for washing hands and food before eating. The Gospel reading we have just heard is therefore one of those puzzling passages (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23). What is more we know that what we eat can affect our behaviour and our mental state. The chemicals can change our brains and so it can ‘defile’ and bring on all sorts of strange behaviours. And evil intent does not get into the heart without coming from somewhere else. People learn what they see and experience, and this changes us, be it from lacking the control to fight unhealthy passions and impulses, not having the strength of will or character to deal with these, or seeing as normal unhelpful ways of responding in situations and we could do with a better influence on us to help us learn a better way of responding.

Jesus is not actually talking about the psychological drives within us, or dietary balance for wellbeing and mental health, or basic food and personal hygiene. He is going deeper than this. He is challenging his hearers that words and rituals alone do not cut it or cover up when we are spiritually deficient. What is the tone and character that drives our thoughts and actions? Where are these really rooted? And here we enter one of those interconnected debates.

In the Hebrew faith, and we know it ourselves, rituals and actions can be a powerful force in shaping how we see the world. They reinforce through very subtle and powerful means what is important and have a symbolic function. So carrying the Gospel book in procession into the church at the beginning of a service says this book is important to us. But it only has any effect on us if we actually read it, mark it and inwardly digest it. Just carrying a book does not do much for us on its own. Saying certain prayers at certain times of the day or before meals or whenever, does not do much to us if it becomes formulaic and we are not really present in the moment that the words are said. Ritual alone may impose certain behaviour, or conformity, but it does not necessarily change our character, not on its own that is. It needs to be accompanied by a narrative, by a story and script that says this matters because… this is important because… we do this because it helps us see that this is where the sacred lies or it reinforces how to live in faithful trust. And that might be about the sanctity of life and every life, it might be that some functions and roles require respect and honour otherwise we have a deep problem.

Rituals pop up in all sorts of places. In court the judge holds the key position and is beyond contradiction. People stand when he or she comes into the room and the court is only in session when they are present. This affirms the absolute authority of law and that reinforces its importance for good order. Everyone must respect it and is subject to it. We have democratic processes to change the law and to challenge it if that is what we want to do. But in court we know that the judge has a role that places them in the seat where law is to be and is honoured. The judge, as a person, may well be flawed in various ways but they are expected to embody the law they uphold so that when they sit in that place there is integrity.

The same goes for clergy. While it is a longstanding principle that the efficacy of the sacraments is not dependent on the worthiness or unworthiness of the person who administers them, people want and expect to see reflected in them the standing they give to what they do. There has to be integrity, that they behave in a manner that is in tune with the gospel and ritual that is being espoused, all the usual limitations taken as read. So if there is a serious breach of trust there, then there are ways to deal with this. As with judges, they are expected to live in a way that reflects what they uphold. Integrity matters. The ritual and the character should match. The ritural on its own is not enough.

So ritual speaks of the character deep within what is being honoured and declared. It might also fulfill a practical function too – like washing hands and food – but the primary focus for Jesus in this passage is the meaning behind it. It is no use just washing things without making sure that we look at what might need cleansing deeper inside how we are. This is why Jesus called some of those leaders hypocrites and in other places ‘white washed tombs’, and they didn’t take kindly to him for that.

This was expressed further in the Epistle reading (James 1:17-27). Ridding ourselves of sordidness, rank growth in wickedness, and instead welcoming with meekness the implanted word that has power to save our souls. Being doers of the word, not merely hearers. How deep does this go? What is the fruit that evidences this? And how do we really strengthen the character of grace and truth so that it penetrates, seeps deeply into who we are? Well, there is no quick instant ‘Red Bull’ like way to achieve this. Energy drinks cover up something else – lack of sleep, lack of energy for other reasons – and offer a pretense that all is well and we can function at a certain level, when in reality we can’t. And as we have seen this week with proposals to ban high energy drinks being sold to children, what goes into a person from outside does indeed change them, because the chemicals affect the brain. So it is the affect that we are concerned with not just the outward action. How is a particular act affecting our character and how is this bearing fruit for us?

This is why the central ritual act in our church worship – the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing of bread and wine – is an act of remembrance. Through and in it we don’t merely have magic food, a kind of spiritual Red Bull, but we are to remember through it and in it all that Jesus was, is, did and said: his life, his passion, his teaching, his resurrection and his affirmation of life in abundance. It is the whole act that counts, from opening greeting, through confession and absolution, songs of praise, words of hope, to prayer and blessing. Then we find, in the words at the end of the Epistle (v27), that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We are to be shaped by the Kingdom of God, which calls us to justice, hope and blessing, self-giving, thanksgiving and recognition that we serve a higher purpose than our own immediate gain. In calling to remembrance, this act becomes for us a moment to reinforce and reconnect with what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. May God give us grace to live the faith that lies behind everything that we do in ritual and for those rituals to be reminders for us of this vibrant and transforming faith. And don’t forget to wash your hands and food too!

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 2nd September 2018

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Space and the Cosmic Christ

IMG_1379We gather this morning within eyesight of an amazing object. In the north transept is Tim Peake’s spacecraft, in which he returned to earth in 2016 from 6 months on board the International Space Station. It is quite something and when you look at the science involved truly breath-taking. We talk of this building, this Cathedral, as inducing awe and wonder in those who come, built as it is employing the science of physics and maths, so that the forces and lines combine with stunning effect in astounding architecture. So many who come here are wowed by what they see and leave having been touched by a glimpse of something deeply spiritual and inspiring. Space travel is also remarkable, even though it is nearly 50 years since Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission. We might take it for granted, but the narrow margins for error are such that achieving lift off, let alone re-entry, is truly incredible.

A few days after opening our exhibition, Tim Peake was quizzed on BBC Radio 4 about science and religion (2:20 into the programme). His reply was that looking at the earth from space made him open to the possibility of intelligent design behind creation, and also that it could have been a spontaneous random event and have just come to be. Science and religion answer different questions. Science looks at how and what existence is in terms of maths, physics and chemistry. Religion asks different questions about purpose, reason for being and delights in wonder. Awe and wonder are the foundations of faith and what better vantage point than beyond the horizon, beyond the clouds, beyond the atmosphere. This is amazing. Faith is born in the wonder of that amazement as we contemplate and ponder what lies at its source and its goal, its purpose and meaning, its ultimate dependency. That we can do this is itself a further cause of that faith.

On 20th July 1969, just after the Apollo 11 landing craft had touched down on the surface of the moon, one of the astronauts, Buzz Aldrin contemplating all that had just taken place decided this was the moment for a ceremony of gratitude and hope. He wrote some years later in his memoir ‘Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon’ (2009):

“Weeks before, as the Apollo mission drew near, I had originally asked Dean Woodruff, pastor at Webster Presbyterian Church, where my family and I attended services when I was home in Houston, to help me come up with something I could do on the moon, some appropriate symbolic act regarding the universality of seeking… I settled on a well-known expression of spirituality: celebrating the first Christian Communion on the moon, much as Christopher Columbus and other explorers had done when they first landed in their “new world.”

I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out the communion elements along with a three-by-five card on which I had written the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon. My comments to the world were inclusive: “I would like to request a few moments of silence… and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” I silently read the Bible passage as I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given.” (pp25-27)

The wonder of space, of time, of how our small planet floats in the vastness of the universe, is a moment to be still and reflect, to be thankful. For viewed through the eyes of faith, this is a wonder to behold. That in all that there is, we have the life we have, of love and hope, passion and praise. That there is so much more to this universe than we can comprehend or have any inkling of. And deep within the science and the silence, there is the purpose of God who brings it into being and holds it; not just the first cause but the one on whom it depends. Space can feel empty, but it is not, it is the blanket of the eternal in which we are enfolded with the love of a creator who is far more magnificent than we can ever know. Without it we would not be.

Not only do we gather this morning within sight of a craft which has been in space, into this blanket which enfolds us, but we are also not far from the great mural in the ceiling of the Apse Chapel, at the east end of this great Cathedral. This depicts Christ as the vine with the 12 apostles on the branches. Around it is that text Buzz Aldrin read as he took Communion on the moon, from John’s gospel (15:5). “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” Those vine branches extend beyond the limits of our imagination. They reach to the moon and beyond. Nothing, no distance, can separate us from God’s love and presence, and however far we travel we remain within God’s universe, which is far bigger than we can fathom, enfolded in the blanket of the eternal.

The old argument that science and religion don’t mix is very stale. They mix, meet and inform our understanding, making it so much richer. When we talk about Christianity being a universal faith, space travel reminds us that if we take that seriously it will expand our gaze to places we never saw as being possible before. In the words of the 11th century Archbishop, St Anselm, faith seeks understanding: it is through the eyes of faith that we seek to understand more and more. This is not in conflict but rather the two, faith and science, enrich our understanding together.

Our gospel reading this morning, which came from an earlier part of John’s gospel to that text about the vine and branches (John 6:56-69), continued the passage where Jesus reflects on himself as the bread of life, that eating bread and wine we commune with the foundation of the universe. What better way to celebrate the awe-inspiring nature of space travel and the marvels it opens up. And even if this is too difficult for some, like Peter, after whom this Cathedral is named, we find that in Jesus are the words of eternal life for he is the Holy One of God (vv68-69). Or as we stand next to the space craft, he is the Cosmic Christ, the one who reveals what is both beyond the world and the very ground on which it depends. This is a deep moment of philosophy. The theologian Keith Ward, in a book on science and religion, encourages us to look beyond even big bang to what he thinks is the real question, that creation depends on God. God is not just the origin, but that origin, that creating is an expression of the dependency we have and creation is held by God as the foundation of all that there is.

Space travel expands our horizons and our theology with it. When we talk of Jesus as the vine and we being the branches, and do this on the moon, dependency on his life and love takes on a much deeper significance and meaning. In turn, to talk of him as the bread of life, is to say that in this Eucharist we commune with the foundation of the universe. And so I end with the prayer I have written to accompany this exhibition, which reflects on these themes and all that this space craft brings before us.

Lord of time and space,

all creation springs from your love;

earth, moon, stars and planets in their orbit.

You give order to this universe,

bringing life into being.

As we gaze in awe and wonder,

and discover more about the cosmos,

may we live in harmony with it,

be deepened in faith,

and rejoice with thankful hearts;

for nothing separates us from your love,

which reaches beyond every horizon;

through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 26th August 2018

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A Space-Inspired Prayer

globe-328140.pngTim Peake’s Soyuz Space Capsule has landed in Peterborough Cathedral and is proving to be a phenomenal draw. People are coming to see it in their thousands each day and the cathedral is alive with their excitement and wonder.

To help with a prayerful response to the questions, wonder and marvelling which this is raising I have written this prayer, which is being given to them free of charge.

It draws its inspiration from a number of themes and comments.

Space travel brings an altered perspective. From that vantage point the world is seen both in the wider context of the cosmos and the vastness of space, and also out of its usual horizons. It raises questions about faith and God as Lord of not just our planet but the whole of creation, which reaches far beyond our gaze and our comprehension. Tim Peake said on BBC Radio 4 (at 2.20 into the programme) on 14th August 2018 that from the vantage point of the International Space Station he could both imagine the possibility of the earth being the result of intelligent design and also it being a spontaneous random event. He was therefore agnostic about this, but open to both possibilities. He also saw no conflict between faith and science, they approach questions from different places and use different tools.

I have also discovered that Buzz Aldrin, one of the first men to walk on the moon in 1969, just as the Apollo 11 landing craft touched down on the lunar surface, received Communion, the bread and wine through which we remember Jesus, which he had brought with him. He asked everyone to be quiet for a moment, reflect on all that had taken place and give thanks in their own way. This prayer encourages us to rejoice with thankful heart. Communion on the moon affirms that even that distance, literally being out of the world, does not separate us from the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

My prayer begins with a clear statement of faith that God is the creator – the origin of all things and the one who sets the earth, moon, stars and planets in their orbit. The created order enables life to be brought into being, to emerge through evolution. Quest for knowledge deepens faith.

Discovery about the cosmos, which brings awe and wonder, also brings responsibility to live in harmony with it. We are damaging our planet and the ecological challenge is great, even critical. The more we see of space, the more we become aware of the intricate balance that has led to our planet supporting the conditions for life and it serves as a wakeup call to unsustainable living.

It is an incredible privilege to have this space craft in the Cathedral, nearby where we say our daily prayers. It has the character of a sacred object, for it prompts profound questions about our place in God’s creation. It reminds us that God’s world is on a vastly greater scale than our small planet. Space is the blanket of the eternal in which we are enfolded and held in being.


A Space-Inspired Prayer

Lord of time and space,

all creation springs from your love;

earth, moon, stars and planets

in their orbit.

You give order to this universe,

bringing life into being.

As we gaze in awe and wonder,

and discover more about the cosmos,

may we live in harmony with it,

be deepened in faith,

and rejoice with thankful hearts;

for nothing separates us from your love,

which reaches beyond every horizon;

through Jesus Christ our Saviour.


© Ian Black 2018







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Gospels and Anti-Semitism

2a3a7e58bfe9aa948c47362c7a13911b--holocaust-memorial-day-holocaust-remembrance-dayThere are passages in the gospels which, as we read them today, can make us do a double take. One was in the reading we’ve just heard (John 6:51-58). It was subtle and you could easily miss it, but with the news over the past few weeks, any sentence that begins ”The Jews then…” can make us tense up and brace ourselves for what is coming. The Labour Party has been under the spotlight of the press for how it is dealing with anti-Semitism in the party, and in particular their non-acceptance of one or two of the examples in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. The definition itself is quite simple, anti-Semitism is anything that shows hatred towards Jews, be it words, actions or images. It then gives some examples of what this can look like and it is one or two of these examples that have caused the problems.

Most are obvious and easy to sign up to. So, for example, blaming all Jews for the actions of some is regarded as dehumanizing and stereotyping. It is discriminatory and prejudiced. It expresses an inherent hatred of a people as a whole. There are two, though which cause more reflection, even debate. This has included some Jewish people themselves who find them controversial. There is nothing wrong with criticizing the State of Israel for a particular policy or action as we would criticize any state for a similar action or policy and that is made clear in the examples. This is not hatred of a people; it is criticism of an action. The challenge comes when it talks about the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and what that means. The challenge comes in how this is working out, not least for Palestinians who question this particular policy where they are not treated as being equal. All should be treated equally within a state, whatever their racial background. So this one is not quite as straightforward as the definition implies. It is disputed.

Also disputed is the drawing of comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and that of the Nazis. This is crass insensitivity and would clearly cause offence given the Holocaust, but seeing it as hatred requires some explanation. It might be seen as an attempt to say, look the actions of the state are so oppressive and dehumanizing of Palestinians; the oppressed have become the oppressors. But it is a highly inflammatory way of saying it given the history. It will no doubt cause offence, and using that example shows a disregard for the other which could display anti-Semitic sentiments. It is unlikely that anyone with any level of sensitivity and regard would pick that comparison. So, some of the IHRA examples, which accompany the definition, have their critics, and some of those critics are Jews themselves.

And so we come back to the gospels. There are passages in them when if we are not careful we can find ourselves being asked to affirm comments that sound like they are attacking all Jews. And that should make us wince or at least put us on our guard lest they lead to a place we do not wish to go. When John’s gospel talks of ‘the Jews’, bearing in mind Jesus was a Jew, and so were the first disciples, he means something specific. He means the Jewish leaders and a particular group of them. This does not mean all Jews across all time and we need to be clear on that, especially in the light of so many centuries of anti-Semitism and reading the gospels this side of the Holocaust. As we have seen anti-Semitism is current and we need to be clear that these texts do not back it up; clear to our subconscious selves as much as anyone else.

Meanwhile, the Tory party has got itself into hot water over Islamophbia and the comments of Boris Johnson and others. There is a great line in the Church Times editorial this week. It says you can post a letter in a Burka, as long as you are wearing it as you walk to the post box. Again Boris’ comments on how a very small proportion of Muslim women dress were offensive. The same is the case with referring to nuns as penguins, which a writer in the Peterborough Telegraph this week seems to think is OK. No it’s not. That is offensive too. Good manners mean we treat everyone with respect, even if we think they are dressing oddly to our way of seeing things. If you don’t understand why they wear what they do, if you can, ask them. It is acceptable to say that you find it odd that you can’t interact with the people who are hidden behind their clothing and even that it seems to make their presence less present, but that is not ridiculing, it is engaging in debate, especially if there is an opportunity for the other to respond. We can also wonder at the cultural forces at work for them and on them. The same goes, though, for the forced uncovering of so many others from westernized dress codes and the body shaming that goes with it. This is severely affecting psychological health and wellbeing. And it is worth keeping a sense of balance here. It is estimated that only 1% of 5% of the population wear the Burka.

The more worrying aspect of the comments is that they have demonised a group, made them more vulnerable, and assumed they are a threat, all for political motives and personal ambition. This is where it ceased to be debate and became aggressive. As with the Nazi comment for Jews, it has crossed a line of insensitivity to display an underlying hatred or at least a view that they don’t matter.

Earlier this week the singer Aretha Franklin died. One of her songs was ‘R E S P E C T’ and it told us to ‘find out what it means to me’. It was a response to an Otis Reading song, where the man in his song made it clear he was boss and expected to be shown respect by the woman. Aretha Franklin’s response was ‘if you want respect, you had better shape up and show it to me’. Finding out what respect means to someone else is not a bad thing to do. Why do some people find words which don’t matter to others offensive? They will have triggers, which cause painful memories and associations, and so using them is regarded as lacking respect and not treating the other with full dignity and love.

The ‘N’ word for black people is widely known to be offensive and President Trump is being accused of having used it on his American version of the TV show ‘The Apprentice’. It is offensive because of its association with slavery and the way some refer to Pakistani people touches similar buttons of their humanity not being honoured. Then we hear comedians like Reginald D Hunter, whose Edinburgh Fringe show includes the ‘N’ word in its title, and the singer Kanya West who uses it in his songs. This is them making a point about how they are seen as black men, and not encouraging its use as a term of endearment.

Showing deep honour and respect for all people, whoever they are and whatever their background is one of the characteristics we see in how Jesus behaved towards people. Those who ‘eat his flesh and drink his blood’ are the ones who receive eternal life (John 6:54), and that is not limited to any group or background or culture. It is not affected by a dress code and we have come a long way from the days of Sunday Best and hats. We are to be careful how we live, as our Epistle reminded us (Ephesians 5:15-20), with sobriety, with thankfulness and making the most of the time we have: to be people of blessing to all we meet and encounter.

We have to treat with care a number of passages in the gospels where they refer to ‘The Jews’. These are not licence or encouragement for anti-Semitism. The writer has a specific group in mind, not a whole people. After all Jesus was a Jew, as were his first followers. And by extension today there is no excuse for using language which dehumanizes anyone. All should be honoured and treated with ‘R E S P E C T’. All are welcome, invited under the same terms by a Jesus who honoured and respected all people.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Trinity 12, Sunday 19th July 2018

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Mary Magdalene: The First Apostle

IMG_1467Today we are celebrating the feast day of Mary Magdalene, one of the women who followed Jesus and took him seriously. She remained with him at the cross and in John’s Gospel she is the first to discover the empty tomb and encounter the risen Jesus there. This was a revelation that earned her an ancient title of ‘Apostle to the Apostles’. She is the first to announce, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). That title ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ first appears in the writings of a 9th century German Abbot, Rabanus Maurus, and was repeated by the great 13th century scholar Thomas Aquinas. She is not given the title ‘Apostle’, but ‘Apostle to the Apostles’. The implication is that she didn’t do any ‘apostling’ herself but she was entrusted a message and sent to the Apostles to tell them. If Paul can claim to be an apostle, even though he came on the scene later, the failure of the church over the centuries to give Mary Magdalene the same title and therefore full recognition is part of the checkered history we have. And it is only in recent years that there has been a fresh evaluation of the role of women in the early church, and indeed in all sorts of areas of history. If the only people you notice as being in the room when you write history are the men, then eyes get blinded to who else might have been present. The same goes for other differences – ethnicity, social background to name a couple. So Mary Magdalene is the First Apostle, who was also ‘Apostle to the [other] Apostles’.

Taking notice of who is in the room and who might just be shaping what happens is an interesting aspect of historical study and also noticing what makes things happen. Some people are very good at taking the credit for developments, projects and moving things forward, not least because they hold a particular office that gets attention. But behind them, even alongside them, and probably of more significance, are all those who make up the team; the others who contribute far more than they ever get the credit for.

So today, as we celebrate Mary Magdalene, we celebrate those who announce and bring into the room the crucial piece of a picture or information that means things can get moving. After all it is her news that made the male disciples get off their backsides and go to see. It is her news that changed an empty tomb into a visual aid of resurrection. Mary brings hope and new life into the room where they were in the grip of despondency, fear and death.

Mary’s story is rather sketchy. She has been conflated with other women characters in the Gospels and the story of her being a ‘fallen’ woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with tears and fragrant oil, and drying them with her hair is wrong. This is not her, but her symbol has become the jar of oil for anointing. You can see it in the east window in the Lady Chapel [in St John’s] on the ground beside her as she kneels before the resurrected Christ. She is described as being someone from whom seven demons had been driven out (Luke 8:1-3) and that would make her a person who had known what it is be fragile and vulnerable. In the film Mary Magdalene, which was in the cinema earlier in the year, she is regarded as having a demon because she was feisty and refused to do as she was told. Disobedience was taken to mean she must be possessed. She is, accordingly, subjected to a healing ritual, in which she nearly drowns, and this looks very much like spiritual abuse. To try to heal what is not actually broken, but a sign of spirit and independent thinking, and to try to drive out demons which do not exist is an abuse of power and an oppressive act.

And there are churches which will do this. To carry out an exorcism is a very serious thing to do and requires the bishop’s approval. It should not be carried out by people who are not authorized to do this precisely to protect those who are vulnerable. They are so rare that they almost never take place, and not on people. Last year the Church of England outlawed therapies to heal gay people of their sexuality, and the government have announced that they will introduce legislation to make it illegal. The reason is simple, these people are not sick, so they don’t need healing, no more than the rest of us do, and not of their orientation. Jayne Ozanne, when she came here a few weeks ago, spoke about being subjected to such therapies and the singer Vicky Beeching has spoken about how such abuse drove her to edge of suicide. It has driven others to do so. Viewed from here the healing of Mary would be the liberation that comes with acceptance, love and welcome. We just don’t see the world in terms of demon possession, but the story can still speak to us through this kind of symbolic interpretation.

So Mary Magdalene does not stand for the ‘fallen women’ in the Gospels, but for those who endured much, those who were fragile and found an embrace and welcome into the community of his followers. She stands for all who have struggled with things which torment them or who don’t fit the boxes we want people to fit; those who may been subjected to much abuse and harmful behaviour by others who got their needs so wrong. She stands for those who despite weaknesses were entrusted to be storytellers of the astounding, world-changing, good news of Christ’s resurrection. She stands for those who are easily overlooked when deciding who has made the difference as the praise and the adulation are taken by others; those whose contribution is invaluable, whom we need to have in the room and see as being in the room.

There are many Mary Magdalene’s in churches, in fact many of us may find her story resonates with ours: damaged, in need of healing of the effects of pain and suffering, not least at the hands of others, and yet who are sent as apostles to bring vital news to change a room filled with death and despair into one of hope and resurrection life. Mary Magdalene is a real saint, overlooked, yet at the heart of the story. She is the ‘First Apostle’, the one who is sent to apostle the other apostles. True apostolic succession works this way as the ones who hear in each generation also receive healing and are enabled to tell the story to others, who in turn tell the story as they are set free to do. Her message is simple, “I have seen the Lord”. We can only tell what is real to us, of a faith that inspires, ignites passion and compels us to go out as we are set free to go. May Mary Magdalene be for us an inspiration as we look to be set free to tell the story of our faith, to be apostles of the love of God in Jesus Christ and so enable others to tell in turn.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Mary Magdalene, Sunday 22 July 2018

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Thorns in the side – real intelligence over artificial


Peterborough Hospital

On a late evening bit of channel hopping a few weeks ago, I stumbled across the film ‘Lucy’ on Film4. It is a sci-fi thriller about a woman who develops enhanced abilities of mind and body after a new drug is absorbed into her bloodstream. She is tricked into becoming a drug mule in Taipei in Taiwan. This puts her under the control of violent drugs traffickers who surgically insert a bag of these new mind altering drugs into her abdomen. At her destination these will be cut out. There is a violent incident during which she is kicked in the stomach several times and the bag bursts causing the drug to be absorbed into her system. The result is she develops heightened abilities of telepathy, being able to use her mind to move and manipulate objects, mental time travel and the ability to not feel pain or other discomforts. Her personality changes too as she becomes emotionless and ruthless. It has interesting moments and is an exploration of the potential power of the mind, of its untapped limits mixed in with some eastern mysticism too.

Towards the end of the film, Lucy advances so far that she can enter the computer networks – this is where the sci-fi elements become trippy. And the film ends with a statement that “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.” The implication is that transcending emotion, the limitations of pain and suffering, and being able to advance in mental abilities beyond those inhibited by these things makes us more fully who we can be. If you like, it is the cessation of emotion, cravings and attachments that makes us more fully who we have it in us to be. That is quite a claim and St Paul in our epistle reading sets out a very different understanding.

In his second letter to the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 12:2-10) Paul discusses boasting. He talks about people who have experienced profound mystical spiritual experiences and been taken up, as he puts it, into layers of heaven, or spiritual insight most of us can only dream of. It is a heady place to be and one which could lead to boasting of how special that person is. And Paul hints at some of the causes he might have to boast. But he will not do this, because it would be to miss the point. He goes on to mention the thorn in his flesh, possibly a recurring ailment that bugged him and gave him jip. He looks on this as being an angel who serves to keep him humble. And it is a very different way of looking at suffering and pain. This is not something to be overcome in the sense of no longer feeling it or it not being a nuisance. This thorn, this means of torture as it could be translated, is rather a way that he stays grounded and remembers that he is creature and not creator. It is a reminder of mortality.

This is a very different understanding to that of the sci-fi film Lucy, where such sufferings are a weakness to be conquered. For Paul those weaknesses are the sign that we are fully human and rather than making us less emotional and less empathic, they increase these things and in them we find what makes us human rather than some form of biological robot. We feel, we sense, we know through experience, we weep and bleed. And it is in these things that we find a profound gift, the gift of life that is vulnerable, humble, precious and sacred. The quest for artificial intelligence will always be a pale imitation without the emotional and the ability to feel pain.

So Paul won’t boast of things that do not matter. He will boast of those which do, his weakness and the overwhelming love of God which takes this frail, fragile and almost futile-looking life and gives it the full honour of being regarded as his beloved children. In this is our true strength. And this makes intelligence real rather than artificial.

There is a similar thread in the gospel reading (Mark 6:1-13), but we have to read between the lines to find it. Jesus has gone back to his home town. Many are astounded that this carpenter can now talk with incredible wisdom and they wonder where he has found it. They thought they knew him. They thought they understood his place as a carpenter and here he is performing wonderful signs and speaking with such profound wisdom. Rather than just being amazed they take offence, which does seem a little odd. Can’t they delight in one of theirs coming of age? It is as if he has crossed a line he should not cross and they don’t like where this might lead. It is disturbing and unsettling.

But it is the reference to his mother, his brothers and sisters which provides us with the key to where this wisdom is shaped. As we hear and read the story of Jesus we find someone who is deeply compassionate, who understands the depths and power of human emotions. Last week (Mark 5:21-43) he responded immediately to Jairus whose daughter was dying. He healed the woman bleeding and who had suffered for so many years. This is not someone who is detached from the pain and anguish of real life. And wisdom is not either. It is not cold, it is not detached, it is not aloof. It is rather tried in the crucible of human passion and toil – a carpenter knows hard work, how wood has to be shaped and hammered into place; this carpenter understands life from the inside.

So when we want to know what to do with life, which has been 1 billion years in the making and shaping, it is not to be detached from the emotional and the visceral. These are an important and vital component of who we really are and provide the clue as to what we should do with this life. They are the signs of love and compassion. And it is out of love and compassion that the Christ comes. And it is in the pain and suffering, the struggle and gift of the thorn in the side that we understand more fully where love rests. Because without these we would be robotic and that would be emotionless, compassionless, ruthless and not a world we should aspire to. It would be artificial and not real.

Interestingly, the boys trapped in the caves in Thailand have sent letters to their parents. Emotional contact matters to their wellbeing in what must be unimaginably difficult circumstances. And on Tuesday we hosted a talk as part of Pride Week, by a leading evangelical Christian, Jayne Ozanne, who helped us explore through the power of her human story the complexity of human relationships and our emotional wellbeing. It was an occasion I was very glad we hosted because of the conversations I had afterwards with people who had not realized that they would be welcome in a church. This is because of the treatment they have had elsewhere. I don’t think I fully appreciated in advance just how important what we did was going to be. And it came through hearing real stories, shared by real people.

So St Paul, in what might seem an odd reading, helps us see that the purpose of life is not to escape it. We are not to seek a mental state that tries to pretend suffering and pain are not real, we are not looking for the triumph of the ‘rational’ over the emotional in a cold intellect. That is artificial and not real. What we seek is to be truly human, truly loving and loved, to know through the thorns in our sides that we are mortal and yet deeply loved by God. In this we find a fuller compassion and solidarity with one another. And that leads to transformation in so many ways. The sign of Jesus’ mission is the transforming and healing acts he did. It is not to tell people to pretend they don’t matter. This carpenter understands from the inside and it is through living life fully, even painfully, especially including the thorns in the sides, that we are able to truly be children of God.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Trinity 6, Sunday 8th July 2018

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