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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Giving, loving, serving: Christ-like Obedience

IMG_2378We are in the season of party conferences. This week it is the turn of the Tories; we’ve already had Labour, the Lib Dems and the TUC. Many enter politics with high ideals and a desire to make a difference. They have a vision of a fairer, more prosperous, equitable society and want to do their bit to make that happen. There are differences about how that can be achieved – how big or little government intervention should be, how much faith can be placed in markets to achieve those ends, and what the balance should be between hand-outs, hand-ups, incentives and sanctions. We find deep social consciences across the benches. Then there is also a shadow side, where personal ambition and the lust for power for power’s sake creep in. As one of the Psalms puts it ‘sin whispers in the depth of the heart’ (Ps 36:1). The temptation for personal gain speaks to a dark recess in the psyche that can lure to the rocks.

Our readings presented us with contrasting images. In the Epistle (Philippians 2:1-13) Paul appealed for a sense of service modeled on Christ: looking not to our own interest but the interests of others. Meanwhile in the Gospel reading (Matthew 21:23-32) Jesus encountered the political scheming of the leaders, not giving a straight answer but rather assessing the likely fall-out first. That may reflect a good PR strategy, checking that there are no elephant traps for them before they give their response. But in this case it is based on a deep-seated deception, where there is an inherent distortion at the root of their approach. As with all deceit a lot of effort has to go into maintaining the line in case you trip yourself up. It is so much easier to defend a position built on integrity. There is here a reminder that just coming up with clever words will not convince if there is nothing behind them, or if the experience behind them does not match the pretended high ideals.

When I sit down with Council officers to talk about the issues facing our city, I find the churches’ credibility has been enhanced by our involvement with the foodbank and with responding to the challenge presented by the rise in homelessness, by the provision of drop-ins and debt advice. Where we are seen to be making a difference gives us a currency that is highly valued at the table. Because churches are so often key organs of community cohesion, quietly working and oiling the wheels of the social fabric, we have a voice with something to say. When we remain remote and detached, the credibility of anything we might have to say is not heard or recognized. And there are new kids on the block with this. I was at a meeting on Wednesday looking at modern slavery and how we can respond to it. There were some impressive stories being told by some of the newer churches in the city, who provide meals and it is in the conversations over the meal that people open up about their plight and need for help. It is when we are outwardly living and loving that we stand a better chance of being seen as relevant and worth listening to. So often the right to be heard has to be earned. It is when this is not seen that our voice is questioned and challenged, and rightly so. When we can back up what we say with real contact and real making a difference, then we have the power of authenticity.

And this authentic voice is not dependent on just church owned and run projects, though we have them. So many of those who are the mainstay of imaginative projects are regularly in pews on Sunday. And I know many of you are involved with so many areas. This involvement contributes to projects that draw a wider spectrum of people together to make a difference together. This is being the yeast that makes the dough rise, the salt that seasons and the light that shines, making the difference, bringing transformation. And Paul went on in the passage we heard to talk about Christ who didn’t remain aloof and remote but came among us, alongside us, emptying himself of all privilege and immunity, to become not just a servant but a slave. That meant giving up the power to direct and control, to aggrandize and serve self-interest, but to be at the mercy of whatever someone else might do and be vulnerable to the worst excesses of human depravity. Humbled, obedient to the point of death, emptied. It is only through this self-emptying and self-giving, this sacrificial love, that the exalting comes. Knees do not bow to a mere status symbol, but to one who has earned that honour.

And when we do similarly we live after his example and become representatives of Christ in these places, people who make a difference, inspired by faith. It is then that we ‘work out’ our own salvation (Phil 2:12), live it out in Christ-like obedience. For it is God who is at work in you, as Paul continued, enabling this. And this brings surprising company. People we might otherwise not expect to be on the right side are the ones whom Jesus describes as responding (Matthew 21:31), whereas the ones we’d expect to be champions are the ones scheming and more concerned for their own status and interests.

There is deep challenge in our readings today to those who would seek power. Power and influence have to be earned and have to have a clear vision that is for the common good, that is the good of everyone. The model of Christ is one who is giving, loving and serving. Without those we will not transform whatever issues we face. And this is true for the church, for politics and for our own involvement in a wide variety of projects. Being Christ-like makes a difference all round.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 1st October 2017

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Stress bananas, forgiveness and living the grace

IMG_4267There are all sorts of gadgets and toys to help with dealing with stress – stress caused by other people seems to be the focus. There are dashboard machine guns and missile launchers to blow the other drivers out of the way, punch bags to punch the aggression out, I even found a stress banana – which is as it says a stress ‘ball’ shaped and coloured to look like a banana. The internet is full of memes of witty slogans to deal with the stresses we find when relationships get strained or someone just irritates the life out of us. And if you say this never happens to you then I won’t believe you. People can be irritating; they can drive us completely up the wall and frustrate the life out of us. Actually we all can, which may be not a bad place to start.

Peter, in our Gospel reading (Matthew 18:21-35), is clearly having one of those days when someone has tried his patience just one too many times. In exasperation he asks just how many times he needs to forgive. I don’t know whether 7 times sounds a lot to you and you would have drawn the line long before, or if it sounds rather intolerant and bad tempered. Just be a bit more patient – Peter was quite impetuous after all. What Matthew calls 77 times and other gospel writers give as 70 x 7 times, that is 490 times, sounds very patient. Something is clearly awry with such a person or the relationship, or with us for expecting them to go through hoops they can’t get through.

The story that Jesus tells is of a merciful king who expects mercy shown by him to be passed on. This piece of trickledown social policy does not work. The one reprieved uses his newfound fortune to oppress those in debt to him. Not a nice person. It’s not a unique situation, not least with trickledown policies. It doesn’t address some fundamental problems, not least that the person begging forgiveness was actually scamming – he wasn’t really sorry for anything other than being found out and his impending doom. In the film Toy Story 3 – yes the one where Andy goes to college, apologies to parents facing that – Lotso, the big bear, is helped to escape from the shredder in the rubbish dump only to use his freedom to send his rescuers to their doom. They get out by the way, in case you are worried and haven’t seen the film. In The Archers one Grundy brother receives a legacy that sets him up with a house and the stability he needs to thrive only to forget that his prosperity rests on good fortune. He treats his less fortunate brother with contempt. So often we overlook the sheer luck that enables one person to thrive and its absence which condemns another. It is so easy to label those who struggle or have fallen off the edge of society.

But forgiveness is complicated. It comes with an expectation that we will use the new freedom, the restored state, to change and live differently. And when we don’t, we throw away the gift. Again complex reasons come into play why some use a hand-up to climb up and some just sit on the rung until they drop off again. The climb can seem too daunting; can be greater than they can manage… so many reasons. The mercy, the help may not be enough to actually achieve the end, which is a problem with social care, benefits and other provision. If we don’t do enough and we don’t actually help someone change what can be deep-seated challenges.

When dealing with safeguarding matters and the challenge of how do we accommodate or assist those who have offended come back into the community, indeed when they remain on the register of offenders, how we put in place the safeguards needed for them and others, is by no means straightforward. In the church we have some fairly sophisticate procedures to deal with this and they are linked in with police, probation and other agencies. We don’t ignore past offences. Risk assessments are carried out and agreements reached and monitored about what is appropriate to do, or attend, and what is not. We sell people short, and make life more risky for everyone else, if we just wipe the slate clean. Forgiveness means the offer of a new way forward, but the offender has to recognize that they have to prove it and be assessed as a lower risk. And we know that some can be very devious in how they present themselves, taking years to win trust only to use their new freedom to abuse again. Something deep down has not been addressed, and it may be they have to learn to live in a way that helps them manage what they otherwise can’t manage. Some are never trusted fully again. And they have to recognize that.

So forgiveness is a very difficult area. It sounds so easy on the page, but my how hard it is in practice, especially if we have been injured and are wary of making ourselves vulnerable again to risk being injured again and for good reason. It takes time to heal the injuries of past conflict or aggression. A new way has to be lived and become a new normality. And it won’t bed in all the while there is the hint that we are only a hair’s breath from a relapse. A woman posted a picture, which was shared on the internet, of her lying with her pet snake placidly across her. All seemed calm – unless like me you can’t stand snakes. She got a shock when an animal behavioural expert contacted her to say the snake was not her pet, it was merely sizing her up to be its next meal. There is a good reason I don’t like snakes, and why Jesus said to be as harmless as doves and wise as serpents.

So we are bidden by Jesus to be forgiving, to be open to the challenges behind another’s behaviour and our own expectations; behind the mercy shown and whether there is enough there to enable them to find a different way of being and living. There the grace of God is always open to us if we allow it and the help is there to show us, lead us, support us into the new life on offer. Forgiveness has to be lived by both the one offering it and the one receiving it.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 17th September 2017

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Calling to account: when two or three are gathered

IMG_2378One of the themes running through the readings over the last few weeks has been about how we behave towards one another. The sections from Paul’s letter to the Romans have given wonderful advice on the quality of the relating. Last week we heard the appeal that love be genuine, to hate evil, rejoice in hope, be empathic in weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice, living generously, not being haughty (Romans 12:9-21). Today love is to be the defining quality that we live by and this fulfills the law, living honourably, quarrelling is to be put aside, debauchery shunned (Romans 13:8-13). And the reason all of this is mentioned is because these things were only too fragile and at times absent – otherwise why would Paul appeal for them? And then our Gospel reading (Matthew 18:15-20) gives us a disciplinary code for how complaints and grievances are to be escalated. Start one-to-one, take a couple of witnesses to press home the charge and then if all that fails it’s the whole church which is called in.

The section this gospel reading is taken from is about living peaceably together. The chapter starts with the disciples being haughty and puffed up, arguing about who is the greatest (Matthew 18:1-5). Power politics is never pretty and least so in a group which should not be interested in such things. But we are human and have our insecurities and vulnerabilities like everyone else. When someone tries to make me feel that they are clearly important and wants to get one up on me I often find there is a vulnerable, insecure person hiding behind this mask. And depending how confident I am feeling I will either brush it off or feel stung, with one of my buttons found and pressed. The most impressive people are the ones who make us feel special without their own qualities getting in the way. Jesus’ response to this little game of the disciples is to put a child in front of them and tell them that if they are going to act like children then they really need to learn that the humble are the ones who are closer to getting what he is about than the powerful are.

Then there is a warning about stumbling blocks (v6-9), and a call to look out for those who have strayed and are lost (v10-14). And so it is with this run in, this build up, that our gospel reading today has Jesus talking about what they should do if someone offends them. First point it out and try to resolve it. If that doesn’t work, take a witness or two who can also try to persuade them that they have caused offence. This witness is not a passive observer or peace keeper, their role is to help the offending one realize that they have overstepped the mark. Presumably some kind of investigation has already taken place and found which way guilt lies – not always as clear cut as this in my experience. If that fails, it’s to be brought up before the whole body. And if that fails, well, they join the ranks of those who are outside; they are treated as if they are not converts, those on whom the Good News has not stuck.

The ranking of the miscreant with tax collectors and Gentiles is interesting because this is not being consigned to outer darkness and written off. Jesus ate with those groups and a couple of weeks ago we heard of a Canaanite woman whose faith was commended by him over the holy people of Israel (Matthew 15:21-28). So these people are not shunned, but rather seen as those to whom grace expands and longs to call them home. In the game of spiritual snakes and ladders they go back to the start.

It is interesting in this small section that the initiative is taken by the one who has been offended. There is no sense of waiting for the offender to apologise; the offended makes the move and approaches them. There are times when this requires an incredible amount of courage, not least if the power dynamic is weighted against them.

During August I went to a show at the Edinburgh Fringe called ‘Kafka and Son’. It was a monologue where a Canadian actor played the Austro-Hungarian writer Franz Kafka and it explored the letter he wrote to his abusive father explaining his pain and why he couldn’t say all this to him because the damage made it so hard for him to express it, even form the words. It was incredibly powerful and deeply moving. The real letter was never delivered, so we can’t know what the actual outcome would have been. The writer of the play scripted his father’s reply, with mitigating arguments and counter claims. But the relational justice at the heart of this play’s outpouring was of the injured confronting their abuser.

Well some find a way of doing that and it produces a reconciliation of kinds. Some find it is rebuffed and they get nowhere, even more injured. Some can’t summon the strength to even begin – it is just too difficult and may be we can see the other witnesses mentioned in the gospel as being there to support and hold the hand of the weaker party. In grievance hearings a friend or colleague can be needed to support the one who brings the claim. One of the jobs of the church over the centuries, when it has not been concerned for status and power, for privilege and honour, has been to be the voice of the voiceless, to stand with the poorest and most vulnerable so that power and those who would easily ignore them have to hear them. It is what Archbishop Justin Welby was doing this week with his article in the Financial Times about how there is something sick at the heart of the way our economy is functioning for those who are losing out. It was on behalf of an interim report issued by a working group for the Institute of Public Policy Research. He was attacked by some who didn’t want to hear what he had to say, but he was and is right to speak out.

This appropriate adult status of the other witnesses shines a different light on the famous passage about when two of three are gathered together there is Christ in the midst. This is often taken as an encouragement for small congregations or prayer groups. If only a few turn up, it remains valid and that is true. But given where this statement comes in Matthew’s gospel, this is a reminder than when we stand giving voice to the voiceless, and the poorest, we have Christ alongside us. So even if the aggressor is very powerful and very frightening we can take comfort and be strengthened in our stance. The church is not alone when it stands for justice, for a righting of wrongs; Christ stands with it.

The readings today bring qualities for living well together with grace, generosity and in love. When that breaks down or is injured we have a grievance procedure for spiritual health. It comes with a reminder that the church is called to support the abused, oppressed and to give voice to the voiceless. The aim of this calling to account is not annihilation but to reconcile for justice and peace to flourish.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 10th September 2017

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