Jesus the motivational speaker – blessing, promise, challenge and call

IMG_2378Motivational speakers are in demand. People will pay to hear them speak and in some cases high fees. They can lift the mood of their audience and send them out feeling that they can take on the world, or at least rise to whatever challenge is facing them or they are struggling with. It is a gift that can change the psychological outlook and bring the possible to what feels impossible. The best ones do more than just give a buzz, they actually do give people tools to reframe how the world looks and so their message will last longer than the passing moment and emotional high. Some will even make you think, send you away puzzling on what sounds utterly ridiculous but deep down you know is on to something – a kind of brain worm, which acts like an ear worm, a tune you can’t get out of your head but in this case it’s a challenging thought. Today, our gospel reading gives us Jesus the motivational speaker (Luke 6:17-26).

And what he has to say is a brain worm. It sounds odd but you can’t get it out of your head and countless people through the generations have found the Beatitudes inspirational. The world is turned upside down. The ones who look cursed are blessed. The ones who look as though life couldn’t be better are doomed. It is a ‘you what?’ moment in the gospels and Monty Python caught it well in their scene in The Life of Brian where those at the back of the crowd don’t catch it correctly, mishear and think Jesus is blessing the cheese-makers, rather than the peace-makers. It is hard to hear what you are not expecting to hear or even goes against the grain. The mind has to be prepared so it is ready to hear it. I had one of those experiences the other day when someone I was talking to just couldn’t hear what I was saying. He thought the prayer I used before a play in the Cathedral had actually been written by Shakespeare, not by me, which was flattering, but really, no. We were born in the same town, but that’s as far as it goes.

Jesus blesses the poor, the hungry, those who weep, the hated, defamed, excluded, the scorned and the abused. If that has ever been your experience, if it is now for some reason, it does not feel like a place of blessing. It’s a pit and can feel a very deep pit where the sunlight has difficulty reaching. And it is into this dark and damp place, this place of exclusion, that Jesus reaches with blessing and hope. It is a promise of fortunes being transformed. All is not lost and there is a brighter day ahead. God does not abandon the oppressed and this was a radical message for a time when fortune was seen as being synonymous with blessing. The blessed were those for whom fortune had shone and the more riches you had the more blessed you were. Jesus turns this on its head and says we need to look deeper than the shiny bling and fast cars, trappings of apparent success. What he offers is hope because it endures and touches the root of life’s purpose and point.

We can also show this blessing now by how we regard those who are weighed down with troubles and struggle. I was talking with a former service user of Garden House this week – the day facility for the homeless. He referred to it as being “a place of peace amongst the chaos”, a place that “changes lives”. And it changes lives in two directions. It walks, even sits, alongside those who can’t fall any lower than where they are now and displays the love of Christ to them. This love changes them, fills them with a sense of purpose and hope, and lives change. When lives struggle in a dark place, light comes through those who radiate Christ’s love in action. It also changes those who volunteer and many are talking about the affect this and the Winter Night Shelter has had on those who are giving from their place of comfort. They too are challenged with the deeper purpose and point beyond the price tags and trappings. When you have nothing life is stripped back to its core components and hope has to be real to mean anything.

This is all looking beyond where we are now, beyond the dark pit to the bright hope that one day will come where fortune is restored or bestowed. This can sound similar to view that Jesus is overturning. We are blessed when things go well, so the hope of future blessing is really trying to connect the future with now, bring something of the vision of that brightness into the gloom now so that it bless with hope. It can sound like the promise of jam tomorrow. What about jam today? The question that nags away in my mind, the brain worm, is whether there is a blessing in the state of being in the pit – poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled and defamed? For the last group in that list – hated, excluded, reviled and defamed – these come because of allegiance to Christ. So it is martyrdom, suffering because of witness to faith in Jesus Christ. There is a longstanding view that sees martyrdom not as victim but as victor. The stand for truth is the stand for justice and it is blessing because it is to be united with Christ in his suffering and his death. We are in the right place, blessed, because we are in partnership and union with the Christ, who is God among us and is taken, goes to the cross. That is a hard psychological shift to make. God blesses us when suffering for the sake of the gospel comes. We are beloved and in union with him, connected to the purpose and point of the universe in spite of and in contrast to those who oppress. This is one of those brain worms that take time to comprehend and see. It is to abandon ourselves into the love and hope of God in Jesus Christ, fully and totally, even to face suffering for it as we are united with him in it.

The ‘poor, hungry and weeping’ are a bit harder to link up with blessing. There are different types of poverty. One is relative poverty, where we see others with goods we would rather like to have and feel excluded by not having. In this one, the challenge is to decide what really matters. As with Mary Poppins’ Return, Michael Banks realizes that he may have no money but he has everything he needs in the love of his children. Counting blessings rather than gaps. But there is a level of poverty, experienced by far more than often realized, where decisions have to be made between heating or feeding, where basic bills don’t leave enough to survive on. This is grinding and destroys any sense of self-worth or hope. Where on earth is the blessing here?

Whenever we talk of blessing we are also talking about transformation. This is where God’s life and love make a difference and change the world. So the context of Jesus’ statement is his presence among them. God has come among them and that changes who they are and how they are to relate, indeed how the world is to relate. This is a challenge, no mere pat on the head. The Kingdom of God is theirs because God loves them and will not abandon them. The alternative is to long for oblivion. So rather than giving up, shrugging our laissez-faire shoulders, we are to work for changes where the interests of everyone are held to be important, not just those who hold the power and want to grasp more and more for themselves. The problem lies with an idea of who is on top, where life is always a completion rather than really being about cooperation and partnerships. Our success as a species owes more to how we bond and work together than it does to competition. Evolution is not just down to the survival of the fittest, but how we know we are mutually dependent and interdependent. So the poor are blessed because they are part of this interdependence and therefore part of the transformation that God in Christ brings. This is more than blessing to come, it is to bring to effect that blessing now and for all. Blessed are the poor calls for transformation and for values to be turned on their head.

Jesus motivates his crowd with the promise of blessing. When they suffer for what is right they are in the right place, the place he occupies and so share with him in his purpose and love. This blessing is to be lived and shown, it changes lives and is to change how we live together. The poor being blessed is statement and promise, challenge and calling. The Beatitudes are not just kind words, as with so much about Jesus, they recalibrate and turn the world upside down.

Sermon for the third Sunday before Lent, Peterborough Parish Church, 17th February 2019

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Cathedral Core Values: 1 – Generosity

IMG_2423If you want to build a house the first thing to do is to dig the foundations. Without good, solid and secure foundations the rest of the structure will not be stable and there will be a danger of subsidence or worse. Sometimes that requires a raft to be created to spread the load across particularly soft ground. Whatever the conditions, foundations matter. Over the next few weeks, in the run up to Lent, we are going to use these sermons to explore four key foundations for the life, stability and witness of this cathedral. These are our core values and ones we think are particularly important for the whole of this community and how we approach everything we aim to be and do. These core values are Generosity, Integrity, Inclusivity and Joy. I begin today with ‘generosity’. Each of the others will follow over the next three weeks.

For me the foundation of everything is gift. We only exist because of God’s gracious and generous outpouring of his very self in the creative process. The most remarkable thing about life, the universe and everything is that there is something, anything, rather than nothing. We have no right to exist, no right to expect anything to continue beyond death, and the more we explore the complexity and wonder of God’s incredible creation, the more amazing and astounding it is. And it comes from the love and heart of God, given freely and for the love of it. This is the foundation on which we are built. This is the secure ground of who we are and who we hope to be. Everything, absolutely everything is rooted and grounded in God’s gracious giving of himself and breathing life into what he has made.

I have a friend, a Franciscan sister, who asks quite simply and penetratingly where the gift is in any given challenge. There is always a gift even in the darkest moments, though sometimes it is harder to find than at other times. And it is in struggling in the dark recesses of a challenge that we are able to find where that gift lies. Even St Paul found that the thorn in his flesh, a medical ailment that bugged him, had the advantage of being the very sign and indication of his humanity and createdness, preventing him from being too puffed up (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). We are not just smart biological machines, but have passion, experience pain and long for purpose and a point. So what looks on the surface like being a curse can thereby be seen as a blessing and moment of God’s gracious gifting revealed. Seeing life as gift is no mere soft cushion; it has bite and is robust when the storms come.

Our Epistle reading reminded us that the heart of the Christian good news of Jesus Christ is God’s generous giving of himself (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). God is the source of our life and while we have no right to expect it, gives us new life and new hope in him too. The hope of heaven is not to be expected and taken for granted. There is no reason to assume our lives will continue. And so Easter is for us the most astounding news of generous love that we can hear and share. It disrupts what would otherwise be the case. The natural, logical sequence would be death and decay; the movement of the elements back to the core components so that they can be recycled. Christian hope is therefore astounding for its gifting of a part 2, after the break. God is generous and so we are to be too if we are to live fully in the light and hope he gives to us in Jesus Christ.

If we let this gifting, this generous love, loose in our lives then so much follows. The back page of the leaflet ‘Our Vision and Values’, which is being given out today, invites us to apply being generous to our judgements, our actions and the use of our gifts. This is a generous spirit which overflows with God’s grace so that there is no aspect of our being that remains untouched by it. So, briefly, a few reflections on each of these.

There is a great need for generosity of judgement at the moment. It is easy to assume the worst of others, especially if we have a disagreement with them. Instead, there is a concept of interpretative charity, where we give credit and assume the most positive and generous drive to be behind what another says or does. Sometimes this might seem naïve and politics is an area which seems to test this particularly, where dirty tricks are not unknown and there seem to be so many base motives at work. Being generous in judgements, though, raises the game. It presents a higher ethic which can be transformative in its gracious and loving welcome even of those who may have ill intent because it says that is not the norm on which we operate. This is because it is filled with love, which is itself the result of God’s gifting into the world. I know this is not always easy or even the first thought, especially if I am feeling tired and/or paranoid. But I have known the healing and transforming power of grace and generous judgements, which have seen beyond the pain that masquerades as hate or anger, and have reached inside me to embrace the soul that is longing for its healing touch. In it I have grown and been blessed.

The second area is about generous actions. This is where our loving will respond where there is need, step in to provide a space where the cold can find warmth, the hungry be fed, the lonely find welcome and the homeless shelter. It leads quickly into inclusivity, which will be the subject of another sermon to come. Generous actions are by definition hospitable and outward looking because they give, seeking no reward.

Thirdly, the generous use of the gifts and resources God has given us. This is more than money, but it is money too. It changes how we see possessions, our use of time and resources. When what we have is seen as coming from gift then it ceases to be ours, something we possess, and more something we have stewardship of. The martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, in a sermon in 1977 reflected on the biblical notion of property. This he said was ‘something that was lent to the user. Never absolutely given. Always to be used, rented from God.’ The more we have the greater the obligations on us, for everything we have is subject to God’s justice, to the values of Christ’s Kingdom which always turns our values on their heads. Listen the Magnifcat at Evensong and the rich don’t come off well because it is the poor who are exalted. Possessions are themselves gifted, and so not so much ours to hold but to use, to see as a resource for blessing and to make a difference in the world and to the lives of everyone.

We are generous because we know that we owe our very existence to the gift of God. We owe our salvation to his gift too. Everything is utterly dependent on God’s grace. This makes us a people with a tremendous treasure to share. And it makes us thankful, gives us a reason and focus for being thankful. God is good. The word Eucharist, the name of this service, means ‘thanksgiving’. We give thanks to God for food to sustain our living, food to sustain our hope, food to sustain our serving. It is the thankful who are generous and who in turn bless the world: generous in judgements, in actions and in the use of gifts.

So today we begin our reflections on our core values by checking the foundations. Those foundations are built on the heart of everything, God’s gracious, loving gifting without which there would be nothing and we would be nothing. To live in harmony with this, to be filled with this, brings a generous spirit because it is filled with the love that makes us, shapes us and gives hope to our being. And as we saw in the gospel reading, this is never fruitless, but brings blessings more numerous than we can imagine (Luke 5:1-11). Everything is gift and that gifting is our life and peace.

First sermon in a series on ‘Our Core Values’ at Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 10th February 2019

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Peter Boizot – Memorial Service

IMG_2409When I was thinking about which Bible reading to pick for this service, I thought about every time I met Peter and his enjoyment of a glass of wine. He is also responsible for starting places of hospitality where life is refreshed in the company of friends and loved ones. For us Pizza Express has been a favourite family restaurant, ‘dough balls dopio’ being a fun starter we can all dive into and enjoy the different dips. Like so many other, as a family we have much to be grateful to Peter for. So, a reading about the overwhelming generosity and abundance of God’s grace through the transformation of those six stone water jars into a fine vintage wine, seemed more than a little bit appropriate (John 2:1-11). We can raise a glass or two in his honour.

The quantity involved in that story is enormous, even excessive. Those who are particularly quick at mental maths may have already worked out that six jars, each holding 30 gallons of water, produces the equivalent of around 1,000 bottles of fine wine. That’s more than enough for most parties, not least when we consider this was only produced after the poor, embarrassed caterer had run out. So this speaks of generosity off the scale and of blessing, of filling life with abundant goodness. There is great joy and flourishing in this passage.

Generous is one of the words many have used when talking about Peter – Peter the public figure and also Peter in private. He was known as Mr Peterborough for his championing of this city and major institutions in it, from this Cathedral, the football club (POSH) and Broadway Theatre. There are also countless smaller and much quieter personal acts of support for individuals away from the public gaze, but which nonetheless made a tremendous difference to those lives; the people involved never forgot and were deeply thankful. He was a benefactor of this Cathedral, where he had been a chorister as a child and left his mark, not least in carving his name on the front stall on the south side where he sat. He had very fond memories of his time as a chorister. He was generous in helping the junior department of King’s (the Cathedral) School be established to support this generation of young choristers and it is fitting that the senior members of today’s front row are here singing at this service for one of their predecessors. Peter made a difference locally, nationally and internationally. That is not a bad legacy to leave and one which can inspire us. We have much to give thanks for.

The Bible reading we heard was not really about what looks like a magic trick. Actually this is a story with a point, that God’s love makes a difference in such a way that his goodness and generosity overflow with abundance beyond anything we can expect. We often miss the humour in the Bible, but there is a joke here, a playful and fun reminder of God’s redeeming grace. The jars were for the rites of purification and these are turned into a symbol of the heavenly banquet. Wine comes from water set aside for washing, for cleansing; what better symbol of the abundance, of God’s favour! Our thoughts and anxiety about needing to match up are met with a party. Love greets us and embraces us, telling us not to fuss but know that we are loved and our lives are held in the grace and purpose of God’s love. It is easy to be drawn into a cycle of despondency and gloom, everything is not as it should be and so being angry can become the backdrop to so much around us with a big grump. Against this God stacks up 1,000 bottles of wine! Love is generous and brings us home. God is good to us in our own lives and also in the people we share it with. We are invited to be generous in turn.

Today we give thanks for Peter and the grace, love and mercy shown to him and through him. Yes, he could be difficult at times and yes he liked to control things. He could be maddening to those particularly close to him and also evoked deep loyalty and affection. He had his flaws as we have ours. Just like him, rather than getting bogged down in rites of purification, we are greeted with the bottles of wine of God’s love and grace. Forget the grump and delight in the abundant life held out to us in Jesus Christ.

Today we give thanks for Peter and remember him in the hope and assurance of the resurrection hope we have in Jesus Christ. Churches mattered to Peter – he was very fond of this one and also Peterborough’s Parish Church across the square. Both stand as signs and instruments of that gospel of hope and saving grace. Given, not earned, poured out for us because God is good to us. Hospitality is deeply set in the heart of the Bible.

So let us remember with thankful hearts and as we pray for Peter so let us pray that this generous, hospitable love will embrace us all. May we in turn show that generosity in lives that bless others.

Address at Memorial Service for Peter Boizot, Peterborough Cathedral, Friday 8th February 2019

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When praise becomes blessing

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‘You are loved’ in the window of Pandora in Queensgate, Peterborough

In an interview with the Christian broadcasting station ‘Premier Radio’ Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, revealed that he speaks in tongues when he prays first thing in the morning. This is a spiritual practice associated with the charismatic traditions of the church. It is a language unknown, a kind of ecstatic utterance in a state of praising, an emotional outburst in response to deep love for God. Not everyone does this by any means and those who do are no better or more holy than those who don’t. And that was a very clear message from our first reading (1 Corinthians 12). There has been research into what is going on in the brain while someone speaks in tongues and it seems that areas associated with rational thought and speech are less active, the emotional centres more prominent. It would seem to be a letting go into God in a deep way.

There is some evidence that speaking in tongues can be learned and indeed copied. Given that it springs up in certain traditions and cultural ways of being Christian would rather imply that there is something about those traditions that promote and encourage it. This doesn’t mean it is bogus or suspect, just that it might be a manifestation of something shared across traditions but expressed differently. There are different languages where the emotional and the creative can be let loose and allowed to set us free. For some it is music and the free flow of ideas expressing a deep hope and thanksgiving. For some the lines and colour pallet of painting and drawing give expression to something very deep. The creative process is a pouring out of our inner being and essence. I find this with writing prayers and finding words to hint at something much deeper but not try to define it, because it is beyond definition. But there is a mystical element connecting with the heart of everything. In all of these as well as tongues we push beyond the boundaries and limitations of language and form.

St Paul in his letter is clear that spiritual gifts are just that, gifts, and not signs of importance or superiority. And that passage with so many different gifts highlighted goes on to hint at a better way, the most important gift of all and it is not one that has been listed so far. That most excellent way, as he goes on to call it, is outlined and celebrated in the next Chapter (13) and that is his famous song of love, which begins “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” – an empty noise. This is the love which is patient, kind, hopes and looks for the best. Love which is the greatest gift of all, even beyond hope and faith.

And that love in action was celebrated in the passage from the prophet Isaiah, read by Jesus in the Nazareth Synagogue (Luke 4:14-21). Here, when the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him, it shows itself in good news being let loose for the poor. Captives are released, the blind find their sight, the oppressed are set free. This is a gospel of liberation proclaiming God’s blessing, his Jubilee – the year of the Lord.

The implication of this is that moments of praise and emotional outpouring, whatever form they take, are special and build us up, but what matters more is where they lead. Do they stay within or shower the world and those around us with generous gift and love? How do they transform the lives of those most in need and become a source of blessing? This blessing proclaims life, hope and love. So when we bless, when praise is expressed in blessing, then life, hope and love are proclaimed and advanced; the rejoicing is spread.

In our particularly rational, western culture, we have rather over emphasized the importance of logic and played down the emotional. Being emotional is seen as weakness and it is looked down on when issues are serious. This misses so much of the importance of how we experience life. A bit more emotion at times would not go amiss. It shows the importance, it shows how we really connect with issues and plans. It has been said that the last part of person to accept a change is the emotional side because it is the bit that connects much more deeply with us. So we can know the arguments, we can hear the stories, but deep down there is the language of being human which needs to be convinced and won over too. The heart needs to sing for joy along with the words.

The emotions is where our honesty lies. And with so many struggling with mental distress this is more important than we might think. The East Coast mainline seems to be regularly disrupted by someone being hit by a train. This week LNER tweeted that if passengers who were delayed by a fatality on the line wanted to they could donate their compensation to a listening charity. It’s not easy to admit you can’t cope and are struggling. Connecting with our emotions and feelings and knowing them means that we know how something matters to us and just how much it is part of our heart and soul. And then these become the drives for us to act and make a difference in the world.

So today we are reminded that there are many gifts of the Holy Spirit and connecting with our emotions is one of them. There are different means through which this can come. Whatever form they take the most excellent way is when they affect how we live, the impact we have on others and how our praising leads us to become blessing.

Sermon for Epiphany 4 at St Luke’s Church, Peterborough, Sunday 27th January 2019

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Transformed in God’s abundant grace

screen shot 2019-01-20 at 12.45.50There are some great magic tricks. The best ones leave us baffled as to how they do them. We know that they are illusions, tricks of hand and distraction, but when skillfully executed they draw us into a suspension of belief and take us into a world where strange things can happen. The magician who can put an assistant into a box, which we think we can see all the way round and yet with the wave of a wand, the box falls flat and the assistant has gone. Then, with no sign of moving, the assistant appears from the back of the audience. It’s impressive as a stage trick and we know deep down that there is something very clever at work, but nonetheless that no laws of nature have been bent really. It’s still fun to think they might just be able to collapse matter, transmit it and reassemble it somewhere else. And its more fun when you don’t know how it’s done.

We have no idea whether or not Jesus really did change water into wine at a badly prepared wedding reception, as described in that Gospel reading (John 2:1-11). Who runs out of wine at a wedding? To pull this off would make Jesus quite an impressive magician. Not only does the water change but it becomes really good wine at that. The best wine matures, is allowed to age in barrels, so this is even more remarkable. The quantities involved are enormous. Six jars, each holding 30 gallons, is the equivalent of around 1,000 bottles – red or white anyone? I don’t know how many people were at this reception, but that is likely to one massive hangover the next day – if you survive it. Chief Medical Officer health advice is that men drink no more than about 14 units a week and this is way beyond that. Is this a conjuring trick with grapes? Is this Jesus being able to manipulate the normal laws of nature so that the chemical structure of water becomes significantly more complex – H2O acquires something between 800 and 1000 more compounds, so complex that I can’t give you the chemical equation: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen elements in mind-bending bonds and polymers.

It does seem to stretch credibility quite a long way, but then so does the resurrection and creation for that matter, and life is pretty remarkable given the ingredients. So there is a miraculous aspect to existence and this story can highlight that. As ever, though, with John’s gospel there is a much deeper level to this than a mere conjuring trick with the Periodic Table. Wine is a sign of the kingdom, a sign of flourishing and rejoicing. It goes with good times and God’s favour being shown. So more is being said here than Jesus saving them a trip to the off licence. There are so many references to drinking wine in the kingdom in the bible, the famous phrase in Psalm 23 about cups overflowing and vineyards producing an abundant crop. These are a sign that God has redeemed his people. If we carry on with the section of Isaiah, from which the first reading was taken (Isaiah 62:1-5), down to verses 8 and 9, we find that their vindication is shown in being able to drink the produce of the vineyard. There will be sufficient stability and security that they will see their vines produce a decent harvest and then have time to mature into wine they can enjoy. God’s salvation is being announced in this amazing story.

And the quantity tells its own tale. This is wine in far greater abundance than they could possibly want or need for the party. Remember those 1,000 bottles. God is generous and provides from a bounty far more plentiful than we need, can imagine or comprehend. There is more than enough to go around. When Jesus is in charge of the catering no one goes hungry or remains thirsty. Five thousand are fed with meagre provisions and there is plenty left over. Do not worry about there being enough because with God we have more than we need, we just might need to think a little differently about how it is distributed and shared. In a world where many are hungry and some are over fed this story shames us into being hospitable, generous and making sure that everyone has enough. That may bring some sharp challenges, which brings us to the next aspect of this story.

The stone jars which were used for the water now wine are the ones for Jewish rites of purification, for ritual washing. By using these and showing God’s bounty through their transformation John has Jesus saying there is no longer any need for the old rites. Jesus is the one who makes us acceptable to stand before God. We don’t need to make ourselves pure, in fact we can’t. We need God’s generous, bountiful gift to bring us in his grace to that place where blessing brings life and hope. Jesus is showing in this story that he fulfills the hopes and aspirations of the ages. In him the better wine has come.

The miracle stories in John’s gospel are described as being signs. This is the first one and God’s glory in Jesus Christ is revealed through it. That is the point of miracles, marvelous occurrences, they are no mere magic tricks, but signs and moments of revelation where who Jesus is, is shown to us. They are visual aids that show the purpose and the point. God blesses in far greater abundance than we can ever hope or dream. Salvation is his gift and is here in Jesus Christ. And we are challenged to see that when we think there is not enough or no way out of a bind, God brings salvation to life.

I don’t know where you are with Brexit – bored, frustrated, despairing, longing for… well, who knows what. There doesn’t seem to be a clear way forward that has agreement, despite the cries of ‘the people have spoken’. Actually they haven’t, at least not with a clear voice. If they had parliament would be able to say this is the will and this is what we should deliver. On Question Time on BBC1 on Thursday the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart, spelt out just how parliament is split and the majority is unclear what they want. I suspect this is how the nation is split too – some wanting a second referendum and some for Brexit to be scrapped. Some wanting the hard option and not being bothered about a deal at all. Some, having voted for the deal that was on the table, possibly wanting that, but now it’s collapsed who knows. And the larger group not declaring where they are or what they want. Without some agreement we are in a party where the wine has run out. It’s easy to despair and for tempers to flare.

Our calling as Christians together in this city is to be people of hope, people who trust in God’s abundance and salvation. Our cup is neither half full nor half empty, but overflowing with God’s goodness. There are differences of focus and style between us, that is why our different churches exist. But the direction of travel over the last few decades has been one much more focused on the more we have in common than that which divides us, our sharing in the name of Jesus Christ and the hope we have in him. This gift is something that can make us generous to a world deeply divided by so many conflicts and different approaches. In our own country, which is deeply divided at the moment, we can remind in how we live and in what we say that our hope lies in delighting in the rich blessing and diversity of God. And I think we are going to need to be people of hope for our city, for our communities and for our nation.

So today Jesus brings salvation, generosity and hope to a wedding feast. As well as the wine, a wedding is also a sign of God’s kingdom, bringing two together into a covenant. Life is gift and in God’s grace it is transformed with an abundance beyond our comprehension.

Sermon for Christian Unity Week at Westgate New Church, Sunday 20th January 2019

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Jesus’ Baptism: time to sit up and take notice

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Baptism of Christ, Peterborough Parish Church

This period of Christmas through Epiphany to Candlemas provides us with an opportunity to reflect more fully on what it means for Jesus to be God among us, the heart of the the Christmas message. This is known as the ‘Incarnation’: the mystery of God coming into human life and sharing that life so that we may come to share in the divine life. It is mind bending, but then when we consider the wonder of the universe and all creation, so is the fact that there is anything rather than nothing. From that perspective the incarnation, God among us in human life, becomes a deeply profound statement about that nature of existence and everything. Rather than sitting outside of the created sphere, keeping distance and being remote, there is a deep presence at the heart of life, of existence, and that means nothing is outside of God’s concern. Everything we do, everything which touches human living and our impact on others, is brought directly into the presence of God. God interferes and makes our business his business and so should we. Faith and life go together at a deep level.

So as we move from the magi to think about God being present and making that presence known in Jesus’ baptism we have to let him grow up. Today we have an adult Jesus being baptized (Luke 3:15-22) and Luke helpfully pins this down as taking place at around the age of 30. Our awe and wonder has to move beyond the cute and star-lit, quaint crib scene. Jesus can walk into the desert, to the riverbank and find John. There has been a tendency over recent years to keep the crib scene on display in churches for this period, but I’m actually keen that we remove it precisely because we need to think about the incarnation beyond the safety of a baby’s gurgles and swaddled slumbers. We need to let Jesus grow up and with that deal with things as an adult.

There are three great themes for Epiphany, when we think about Jesus being made known as God present among us. They are the first ways the three gospel traditions present this and they are not the same. For Matthew it is the coming of the Magi – the wise men and their gifts. We thought about that last week. For John it is the changing of the Water into wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. That is next week’s gospel. Today it is how Mark and Luke present it, with Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. This is the beginning of his ministry and it is his great entry on the scene in those gospels (though Luke has already given him a bit of a starring role when wandering off at the age of 12 and after causing his parents grief being found debating with the scholars in the temple; an early indication of promise, but not a full making known). The hymn ‘Songs of Thankfulness and Praise’ sets out these three ways of Jesus being made known, being manifest.

There are many layers to Jesus’ baptism. It takes place at the Jordan, the place the ancient people of Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land. By taking place there, we are taken back to the title deeds of what it means to be chosen people, people of God, people who live in a covenant relationship with God. That means, people who belong to God and whose identity is bound up with this relationship with God. A new covenant is being brought about and it comes through Jesus Christ, through his life, his ministry, his death and resurrection. Entering into the waters of the river, being almost drowned in them, means that symbolically he passes through death and brings new life. Later on the cross and through the resurrection he will do this for real.

It is the coming of the Holy Spirit, descending like a dove, that makes this known, makes known who he is. There is the voice that proclaims him as being God’s Son. The dove image may take us to another water story, the dove which returned with the olive branch to Noah on his floating zoo. The olive branch was a sign of there being dry land and a new start opened up. Here in baptism we have a new start with God, with hope. The purpose of life is found in God and we are saved from the ultimate threat that there is to us, that of futility and life just being accidental, some kind of biologically conscious illusion. It is possible that there is nothing beyond death and to be honest it’s not much of a threat. We know the end will come, so if it does just run out of sand then there is nothing we can do about it. The amazing message of Jesus, of God being made known in him, is that there is a bonus. Beyond this life there is a new one on offer to us, held for us, and this one is blessed with so much more value. Being made, being alive, is itself a gift and in that gifting there is a purpose and a point that has a trajectory way beyond our imagining, even if we could travel to the farthest corner of the universe.

The dove moving therefore also takes us to the movement of the Spirit of God over the waters at creation. The origins of everything that there is, in this mythical story, lies in and with God. So Luke is making it clear that in Jesus this purpose is both present and to be taken notice of. He is the beloved and so by implication we are to listen to him. At the Transfiguration a voice is heard again and this time it spells this out quite directly: we are to listen to the beloved. What is made known in Jesus is not just some kind of high-level tourist, but God on a mission with a purpose. He is made known as being present so we are to sit up and take notice.

There is so much that we are to pay attention to and it takes a life-time, probably longer, to fully grasp this. But there is hope: life is not futile and so matters. That means everyone’s life matters and so is to be respected and honoured as such. We’ve reminded of this recently with appeals to ‘play nice’ over Brexit and when we disagree. We are to honour lives so that we behave with justice and there are some significant social policy challenges at the moment. I don’t think those who have created the universal credits mess actually understand how the poorest live. There seems to be no understanding of what it means to be without a financial cushion of savings to cover fluctuations in income, to be expected to manage money on a monthly budget when you are used and only have the resources to think weekly or even daily, to take account of changes when income fluctuates, to cope when you can’t cope and so a loan is really not the solution. There is more to this than just teething troubles and The briefing room on Radio 4 on Thursday spelt this out in the clearest way my simple brain has heard. The High Court has agreed.

The more I think about those who are sleeping rough on our streets, the more I think there is a perfect storm of a number of factors coming together which have made this crisis. They fall under the headlines of benefits challenges, mental health issues, landlords and housing, drug and alcohol dependency, people just not being able to access or entitled to certain things and therefore falling off the edge. It is highly complex but I think there is a collection of conditions that have made this crisis worse. I would really like to find a way to test this out, but this is how it is sounding to me talking with those in this area. A faith which is rooted in a child in a manger, in God who comes among us and is made known to us in the thick of life, makes tackling this crisis an obligation. We have to struggle with it and keep going until we get to the heart of it. It should disturb us because God is present in this and honours all lives equally. The challenge is laid before us.

Today we remember Jesus being baptized. He is made known in the waters of baptism as the beloved, in the Spirit coming upon him and we are to sit up and take notice, and we are to sit up and take notice. Human life, all creation, has its origin in the purpose of God. Faith and life go together at a deep level. When we are disturbed by the cry for justice, we touch and are touched by the presence of God, who is made known in the thick of life.

Sermon for Baptism of Christ, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 13th January 2019

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Epiphany: finding God in the world

img_6679I was listening to a podcast of a programme on Radio 5 Live the other day called ‘Losing my religion’. It featured Irish TV presenter and model Laura Whitmore. She grew up a Roman Catholic but has been questioning the faith of her childhood. The title was as much a question as a statement. Had she already lost her religion, how much persisted and what shape was her evident spirituality taking today? As the programme went on, I was left with a sense that what she was really experiencing was a coming of age, where she wanted a faith that fitted contemporary understandings, that could cope with complexity and uncertainty. Narrow and simplistic answers were just not doing it for her, and they don’t do it for me either. I couldn’t help thinking that if she came in here she would find a ready home of enquiring and thoughtful faith, one which takes the 21st century seriously with a spirituality and faith that can cope with, even embrace wholeheartedly, science, philosophy and the honest presence of uncertainty where some questions don’t get fully answered. Here the spiritual is expressed in language which doesn’t confine, but rather expresses for us glimpses of the vastness and greater scope of a creator. The mystery is bigger.

During the programme Laura Whitmore spoke to an alternative spiritual guide who talked about a spiritual pathway to help with climbing the ladder to reach the divine. The implication was that we have to go in search of God and it is through our efforts, through climbing spiritual ladders, that we find God, as if God is playing a game of hide and seek, sitting in an out of the way mountainside, high above. If these practices and methods are followed God, the divine, comes into view and within reach. We need to know the right techniques and hit the right buttons to know how to ascend the spiritual ladder. There are many people in the spiritual market place offering programmes and techniques to deepen our awareness and help us rise up the mystical ladder. This idea of a ladder to climb is the opposite of what Christianity teaches.

Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany. This is when the wise men called by with their gifts for the infant Jesus. The wise travellers had set out on an incredible journey, guided by a star which made them wonder. They set off to find, but the God they searched for had already made himself known. Far from hiding, far from being up high, he was there in the child in the manger. And just in case they couldn’t work out where he was, there was a great big star in the sky; the equivalent of a flashing arrow pointing down over where the Christ-child was waiting for them. Today with them we open our treasure boxes and lay the symbols of life before the Christ-child, the divine coming close to us, rather than expecting us to get close to him. Today and indeed over the whole of this Christmas to Candlemas season, when we particularly reflect on all of this, the Christian faith says something very different to the spiritual ladder guides about how we find God. It is not down to our efforts, to follow clues if we can just decipher them to find the right practices to open up the mystery. God is not playing hide and seek, not making it hard for us to find him. Quite the contrary, this season gives us a story where God comes to us, breaks open the heavens and turns out to be much closer than we thought.

This goes much deeper. The presence of God in the midst of life means that we don’t find spiritual fulfillment in escaping the world. In fact we will find that the deeper we go into real living the more we find God present and made known to us. The world is God’s creation and so there is something profoundly spiritual and divine in the material, in the substance of matter. Because we know that everything has a finite time to it, then for God to bother with this means that there is something of the inner purpose of God in the world and in the created-nature of the world. This is a deep expression of what John’s Gospel refers to as ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. The Word that was in the beginning, and through whom everything that there is came into being, the product of this is a deep expression of the heart of God (John 1). This is mind-blowing and yet at the same time this is the only kind of God worth bothering with and who has anything worth hearing to say to us in the midst of life. Epiphany shines a light on the divine within the material, where we are now, present and not hiding.

So when we want to find God, we don’t go digging on other planets, seeking what we can see beyond the stars, but we look more deeply at where we are and who we are. A great former Archbishop of Canterbury, and author of the welfare state, William Temple described Christianity as being the most materialistic of all religions because God is in the midst of us, the spiritual comes close. He is made known to us and ‘making known’ is the meaning of the word Epiphany.

Some of this came home to me when astrophysicist and theologian David Wilkinson gave a talk in the Cathedral last year on science and faith. The vastness of the cosmos, the fragility and transitory-ness of life and the universe – it has a beginning and will have an end – this raised the very natural question of why the divine would bother with something time bound when God is eternal. Big questions arise when following stars. The far side of the moon is being explored and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has flown past Ultima Thule, a lump of rock 4 billion miles away. As we reflect on these mind-expanding missions, that God bothers with our planet and human life, is a wonder. There is something about our transitory existence that reveals something very deep about the purposes and passion of God.

The wise men capture this in their journey, in their worship, in their gifts. Gold is a precious metal, valued and it has been the basis of trading for millennia. It brings our striving, our planning, our creativity and the business of getting on with life to the crib, to be laid before the origin and purpose of this activity. Frankincense, a sweet smelling resin, is burnt to freshen the air, rise as a symbol of prayer and give a sense of mystery to worship. It raises our aspirations beyond the mundane and in the ordinary invites us to look so much deeper in order to find there the presence and purpose of God. Myrrh is a compound with wide-ranging healing properties. It is for embalming, it is for curing, it is an anesthetic. So with myrrh we bring the pain and passion, the very things that make us human and not just robots or biological accidents. This is what separates us from artificial intelligence and leads to so much creativity, sense of urgency and ultimate sense of dependency on God.

So today we join with the magi, as they gather at the infant Jesus, offer their gifts, and with them rejoice that God comes close to us, we find God by looking more deeply where we are, rather than through special techniques. God is made known by God making God-self known, not by our efforts and questing. The wonder of mystery may call us to go looking, but only because God has already come close, indeed the created universe is the product of this coming close. The spiritual quest is not to find a hidden God but to get us into a place where we can notice what is at our feet all along. So if you want to find God or grow spiritually, you will do this by looking deeply into where you are, into life as it is and be surprised by the star light shining, because God is already present and waiting for us.

Sermon for Epiphany, preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 6th January 2019

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