Elephant Toothpaste: Catalysts of the Kingdom

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After the online Patronal Eucharist last month, when we gave you the sight if not the smell of incense, we looked at the thurible – the incense burner. It has got very clogged with soot and tar residue, so we decided it needed a really good clean. I thought I’d consult the combined wisdom of Twitter and Facebook to see how friends clean theirs. Clergy social media is a weird place at the best of times, but it can come up with gems. I’ve soaked things like this in Coke-Cola before and it does shift grime.

One friend suggested Hydrogen Peroxide, which turns out to be a cleaning agent used with organic veg as well as sorting out your highlights. There are various strengths of it, depending on its concentration in a water solution. This friend then added, ‘of course if you add another ingredient you can make ‘elephant toothpaste’’. Well that was it, my attention was grabbed.

So here it is. The other ingredient is yeast, so see what happens when you add it along with soap and food colouring for a bit more interest.

If you want the science, the yeast acts as a catalyst to break down the hydrogen peroxide into oxygen and water. Soap will then mix with the oxygen and water, which turn into foam. The colouring is just to make it pretty. And it is pretty awesome. There is a much more dramatic version, but I couldn’t source the chemicals for that one.

Jesus used a baking image for yeast in the gospel reading (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52). He talked about adding it to the flour but the affect is the same – it causes the mass to expand and multiply in size. The yeast makes the dough rise: great for pizzas, great for bread. As a symbol of the Kingdom of God both show how it acts as a catalyst to make a difference. What you end up with is far greater than what you started with, but it works on the ingredients that you have.

This is not a magic solution that will create something out of nothing. Rather it takes what you give it and helps it work so that it transforms and changes. The mustard seed is the same image – a small seed turns into a giant tree, providing shelter for the birds.

What needs releasing in us to help us transform the world around us into a place where God’s kingdom is let loose and visible? What catalyst is needed to change us into people who bring Christ’s peace? Jesus tells us the missing ingredient, catalyst, is being open to the Kingdom of God, accessed and released through prayer.

We are in a time of great anxiety and speaking words of peace can be the catalyst that is needed. We might need more than that, to challenge injustice and events in London with the police officer kneeling on the neck of someone under arrest sparked a silent protest in Cathedral Square yesterday for the Black Lives Matter movement.

I saw a prayer yesterday, written by Caroline Beckett, a priest in Essex. It’s a prayer for putting on a face mask and to use it as a symbol of the kingdom, how we can be a catalyst for good. It prays that we guard the words that come out, are shielded from those which come to us that may assault, are mindful of the prejudice, judgement and thoughtlessness of which we are all capable. And prays for grace to mask my mouth and pin my ears forward for listening. I end with this prayer – may it help use this small act we are now all encouraged to do as a catalyst for God’s kingdom breaking loose among us and in our communities.

Lord as I put on my mask,

let it be a filter for my words to pass through as well as my breathing.

Let through only those words which are helpful breathings of love

and stop those things in my speech that will be harmful to others.

Protect me also, O Lord,

from the harmful things others may say to me.

Help me to realise that I may be a carrier of bitterness,

thoughtlessness, judgement and prejudice without realising,

and that some people are more word-vulnerable than others.

Give me grace to love those who cannot or will not filter to protect others

and special grace to them, because they go through the world unprotected.

Help me to be prepared to adapt and be brave and transparent

so that all may have chance to hear.

Lord, be a mask to my mouth

and pin my ears forward for listening. Amen.

Sermon for Trinity 7, live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 26th July 2020

 

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Stay Humble

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When I was a child one of the upsides of being ill was that I might get Lucozade. It was a fizzy tonic to pep you up a bit when you had a low appetite. Now it is much more of an energy drink for sports, drunk all the time rather than when not feeling well.

Shopping in one of the local supermarkets the other day, just round the corner from here, I spotted this special edition bottle of Lucozade fruit punch. On it the slogan “stay humble” caught my eye. Humility as an energy drink, I thought, there’s got to be a sermon in that.

This special edition bottle is a partnership between the makers of Lucozade and the world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua. He has a mantra, “Stay Hungry: Stay Humble”. It’s an inspiring phrase, especially when you dig into the story behind it. (This is a video of him explaining it.) He says he has known what it is to be hungry, but the hunger he is talking about here is about commitment to a cause, having ambition, motivation and being consistent; being hungry for the aim and goal.

Well, the apostle Paul used a similar image in his first letter to the Corinthians (9:24-25) when he spoke about running the race to achieve the prize, to reach the goal. The goal is the Kingdom of God, to be hungry for God’s kingdom and to be focussed and committed to it. Christian living involves this focus and direction, inspired by our love for God, by his Son Jesus Christ, powered by the true energy drink of the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, “Stay Humble”, which is on the bottle. Anthony Joshua was upfront about this. It comes from the Bible, he said. It is a reminder that wealth is found in our character not in material objects. And to remember that whatever we achieve, others have gone before us and we build on their work, on what they have taught us – we are not self-made.

For Anthony Joshua this is also a reminder to have respect for all people, whoever they are: ‘whether they are the man in the street or the man on the hill’, as he put it. Everyone deserves and is due the same respect. Anthony Joshua went on to say this is why people fight for equality, they are hungry for it and humility inspires respect: respect of self, respect of others.

A similar point was made by the singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg in an article in the Guardian on free speech (‘Speech is only free when we all have a voice’ – Guardian 10th July 2020). In one of those sentences that I just want to frame he wrote:

“Although free speech remains the bedrock of a free society, for everyone to enjoy the benefits of freedom, liberty needs to be tempered by equality and accountability. Without equality, those in power will use their freedom of expression to abuse and marginalise others. Without accountability, liberty can mutate into the most dangerous of all freedoms: impunity.”

Liberty is tempered by equity and accountability to counter abuse, marginalisation and acting with impunity. A rich quotation that warrants reading over and over again.

In our Old Testament reading (Genesis 28:10-19a), we were given part of the story of Jacob. His journey to find a wife has brought him to a certain place where he decides to rest for the night. I can’t say I’ve ever found a stone a comfortable pillow, but that is what he uses. Here he has the dream of a ladder with angels of God ascending and descending. This place of vision becomes for him a holy place, blessed by pouring oil over the stones, and that vision inspires him. There is a goal and he is hungry for it.

The reading from Matthew (13:24-30, 36-43), brought us a farmer sowing seed and finding both grain and weeds. The obvious solution today would be to spray it with weed killer, but this farmer is an organic one and he decides to let both grow – perhaps with an eye to biodiversity, though that’s not quite the way it’s written up. The weeds here are seen as corruption and rebellion, but they are both permitted to grow.

The humility in this comes at the end with the judgement. All of the harvest will be assessed and some will measure up as having been hungry for the goal and some will not. The good seed is described as being children of the kingdom – which is justice, love and peace. The weeds are those in league with all that disrupts and works against that kingdom. And humility is the desire to seek the kingdom of God rather than our own. Remember, as Anthony Joshua put it, wealth is found in character not in material objects. And as Billy Bragg put it, free speech needs equity otherwise it will abuse and marginalise, and accountability otherwise it acts with impunity.

Staying humble keeps us on the edge and on guard because there is a measure against which to be tested and against which we are tested, and that is the Kingdom of God.

Stay Hungry: Stay Humble – hungry for the kingdom of God and humble in its service; and look to the Holy Spirit for the true energy to sustain you on the way.

Sermon for online live-streamed worship for Trinity 6, Peterborough Cathedral and Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 19th July 2020.

 

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Go, love, serve in the name of Christ

 

Did you see the video of the new Archbishop of York taking up his pastoral responsibilities on Thursday? (embedded above) Unusually, the legal ceremony, during which his appointment was confirmed and he formally became Archbishop, was conducted by zoom – everything happens by zoom at the moment. After this he walked into York Minster and took from the high altar the pastoral staff, the symbol of a bishop as shepherd of his people. He then walked to the great west doors and there rather than banging on them to be let in, as is traditional, be banged his staff on the doors to be let out.

The symbolism was strong and deliberate. He did this to show the church being open for people to come. It struck me, though, that, even if not intended, it was an act of setting the church free to go, love and serve in the name of Christ. He was then greeted by the crowd outside. This is where pastors and shepherds need to be, leading the church, the whole people of God in their vocation and ministry outside the walls, not just inside them; to go, love and serve.

One of the striking features of the past four months has been that while church buildings have been shut, the church has not been. We have had to think of different ways to go, and have reached out online, in loving and caring in so many acts of kindness and generosity of connecting and checking on one another and others in need. I have seen it as being important to fly the flag by walking around the city centre so that we have remained visible to those about. We are at our best as disciples and servants of Jesus Christ when we are outward looking and outward loving. The task is always to go, love and serve.

When we are in crisis, and we have certainly been in that recently, the task is to love: to show it, to be genuine in it, to live it. That can be difficult at times, especially when we are under strain and all of us can and do fall short at times. But love is the way, love is the truth and love is the life. Jesus commanded it, that we love one another, that we live his love for the world for which he died and rose again. By this we are known as Christ’s disciples. Without it we are not. Go, love, serve.

It is not a coincidence that we call worship a service. It is an act of service we give to God. We give the honour, the humble praise and thanksgiving to the one who is our source and goal. And that service is to be lived and not confined within medieval walls. We worship and follow the one who came as a servant and not only told his disciples to do this, he showed them by taking a towel and washing their feet in a remarkable demonstration of what it means to be like him. Washing feet means doing what is needed, however humbling it might be. It is a myriad of specific acts and not just a vague general principle. Go, love, serve.

Now if you are still wondering who this applies to, our Collect today is clear. Cast your eyes back at it if you have the Order of Service in a format you can do that with. In this we prayed for each of us in our vocation and ministry (another word for service). Each of us. So all of us are sent to go, to love and to serve. And we have the image of a new Archbishop banging on the doors of a cathedral from the inside to be let out.

When he stood on the steps his words were simple and straightforward, something Stephen Cottrell is known for. He said:

”I started off simply wanting to live and share the good news of Jesus Christ. And I look forward to doing it with you.”

Living and sharing good news together is not just the theme he gave, it is the theme of the Collect prayer for today.

The Gospel reading (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-end) was about seed being scattered. Some bore fruit, some did not. Some soil was well prepared and receptive, some was not. Some seemed to go well but didn’t have the staying power. And some of course flourished. This has long been taken as a parable of the church’s mission, of sharing good news. And it bears out in experience. Some places seem harder than others. But the sower is profligate. He just scatters with abandon because this is love spilling out everywhere.

So, the question for us is how can we be people who go, love and serve? How can we be outward looking and loving, not least if still shielding? How can we be people who love with the abandon and without restraint that we see in Jesus Christ? How can we be people who serve, do what needs doing to live good news?

Stephen Cottrell has started as a breath of fresh air. He has banged on the doors to let the fresh air in and go out into it. It is striking for its simplicity and inspiring as a sign of love being lived. Each of us has a vocation, a calling in Christ to go, love and serve.

Sermon for Trinity 5, live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th July 2020.

 

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Happy Birthday NHS

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The NHS is 72 years old today. Some of you may remember it starting; most of us won’t. We’ve grown up with it; it is part of how we think society should function. Free at the point of delivery, it is the basic assumption of our society that we care for one another, that we all contribute and in this great pooling everyone is cared for; that it is there for us when we need it. Like many of us I benefit enormously from the NHS. It is hard to imagine life in this country without it.

This is not the assumption of every country in the world and we saw this with the response in America to Barack Obama’s health care. I looked on with wide-eyed bemusement at the vitriol poured on him for this and the contempt some held it in. Why would anyone not want a health service like we have?

The fact that it is 72 years old today means, of course, that there was a time when we didn’t assume that this was how it should be. It had to be invented and that journey had its bumps. It was part of a reimagining of what life would be like, needed to be like, post war, the product of a Commission on Social Insurance and Allied Services chaired by William Beveridge. This reported in 1942 and proposed far-reaching reforms of the existing social welfare provisions.

It aimed to address what it called the five giants on the road to reconstruction of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness; to provide rewards for everyone’s sacrifices. There had been previous attempts with a 1908 Commission on the Poor Law. Attlee’s government picked this up in 1945 and the NHS was launched on 5th July 1948 with three core principles:

  • that it meets the needs of everyone
  • that it is free at the point of delivery and
  • that treatment is based on clinical need, not on the ability to pay.

The first of those principles, meeting the needs of everyone, is a very different prospect today, with medical science able to do far more than was envisaged in 1948. So, as expectations have risen, Clinical Commissioning Groups have hard decisions to match budget to medical need.

What we have seen over recent months has been just how dedicated those who work on the frontline of this service are. It is self-sacrificial, loving and deeply inspiring. But it is under significant strain and has been for years. Those of us who see it in action, be it as a patient, healthcare professional or visitor, know just how much it struggles to cope. Covid piled on stress to an already over stretched organisation.

Our readings this morning had a thread running through them of mutual care. In a desert country, providing water and hospitality to the stranger – to meet the human need – is a fundamental ethic. It’s an environment where everyone knows that they rely on one another for survival. So Rebekah’s kindness to the traveller (Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49) shows she is someone who behaves well, as expected and is a person of peace, rather than strife. We have seen with Covid that not everyone can be relied on and there are scammers and those who would take advantage of a vulnerable situation.

The darkness of not always doing what I want, but something destructive getting the better of us, was in Paul’s reflection in the New Testament reading (Romans 7:15-25a). It is in and through God’s love within that we will find a more gracious way to be. The ethic at work, again, is that there is an expectation to match up. With his mind being on the law of God and his actions a slave to sin, Paul is calling for an integration, to be genuine and authentic.

And then in Matthew (11:16-19), John the Baptist points out the hypocrisy of failing to match up again. ‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deed’. So put it into practice. Jesus follows this with his call for all who are weighed down to ‘come to him’ and find in him the rest and care they long for (11: 25-end).

The clapping for the NHS has attracted mixed responses, not least from the medical profession. Some have been deeply moved by the show of support and respect from people in their streets. Others have said don’t clap and then behave in a way that treats us with contempt. Sharp words for policy makers, funding allocators, and users of the service who risk spikes and risk one another.

So as we celebrate the NHS, we celebrate the ethic on which it is built, that of mutual support and care, of pooling resources so that all may benefit, not least in a hostile environment and a time of great threat. It calls on us to match words to actions, to join up the dots. It also calls on us to celebrate those who give so selflessly of themselves and for the benefit of strangers who stop by at their spring in need – the Rebekahs and others in blue.

Sermon celebrating 72nd Birthday of the NHS, Live-stream service, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 5th July 2020.

 

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20:20 Vision – seeing the pandemic

 

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Just on the eve of lockdown my optician sent me a reminder that it was time for my eyes to be tested again. I was rather pleased at first because I’d noticed that reading was becoming a bit tricky. The restrictions soon scuppered my plans and so I decided to hold off for a while. My eyesight, of course, didn’t improve and I found I was struggling with short-vision, particularly with reading the print in the bible during Morning Prayer; so many zoom, online meetings, live-streamings and recordings were not helping either.

Opticians aim to get us back to what they call 20:20 vision, when everything becomes clear again. Now that I’ve had my eyes tested, with my new glasses everything has become clearer, back in focus and I can read! Eyes are one thing, our sense of perspective and how clearly we can see what is going on are another.

It is a moot point as to whether we ever really get clear vision with what is going on. We struggle for so many reasons, not least some things just might not be in view which change the whole picture. It goes with life, it goes with faith, it goes with any matter we are trying to understand. And these times we are in can feel particularly foggy at the moment.

When we long for wholeness and healing, one of the things we may well need is to have our vision and perspective sharpened, our clarity of view of what is real, so that we can see more clearly.

The great New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, has just published a reflection on where we find ourselves, called ‘God and the Pandemic’. In this he reflects on where we find ourselves drawing on his immense biblical knowledge and scholarship. It’s quite short, just 76 pages long, short for him that is, but he aims to restore our vision, our perspective as we struggle with this virus and what it is doing to us.

Part of his aim seems to be to tackle head-on the apocalyptic theories with their cosmic struggle – the virus being a battle with evil – and those who like wallowing in God’s judgement seeing this as a punishment. He gives them quite short shrift. For Tom Wright, any Christian response has to be firmly rooted in God’s Kingdom, in the hope in and through Jesus Christ. We lament – that is a human, compassionate response to suffering, but we do this trusting in God.

One danger of looking at the bigger picture is we can be tempted to see life as being an illusion: what we are going to through is not real and there is a reality which means it doesn’t really matter. Hope goes deeper than that. The Kingdom response, the one which puts God in charge, always comes with a question – what are you going to do about it? And there the authentic church’s response has always been to roll up its sleeves and get stuck in.

Tom Wright traces this back to first and second century pandemics and the famines mentioned in the New Testament. The response of the first Christians was not to look for who to blame, to punish or even see it as a fight against cosmic evil, but to send relief or go and minister to those who needed help.

When we look for a Christian response we will find God has pitched up with those working tirelessly on the wards – and this weekend sees the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the NHS, staffing foodbanks and night shelters. We will find the God-response in reaching out to neighbours in need, friends in distress and those struggling as hope feels wobbly. It is holding the grieving and keeping services going. This is because there is confidence in the future; God can be trusted.

The result of this hope-inspired response has been that it has impressed. For Romans and others in the first century world, the poor and suffering were not where anyone with any status would devote their time. And it has been a persistent view. But each time those who follow Jesus roll up their sleeves and get stuck in, it makes others marvel at the devotion and dedication, the love in action.

It would make a good mission strategy, but only because it is to walk the authentic Christian way. It’s not a cynical PR ploy, but love in action and that always impresses and makes a difference. We can see it today. And it was one of the factors in the early church expanding and drawing people to join it.

Rather than a cosmic battle, in our reading, such a rich section from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul talked about creation groaning (Romans 8:18-28, 35-39). It is longing, as in labour pains, as it becomes what it has potential to become. Tom Wright goes on to talk of three groanings – first the world in its struggle and travail; second the church in response, lamenting with compassion and anguish at the suffering it sees; thirdly the Spirit groans as it helps us in our weakness to hold trust, to renew hope and confidence that nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. As the world groans, the church groans with it and the Spirit groans to bring about fulfilment of potential and promise.

With that comes 20:20 vision; the picture viewed through the lens of God’s Kingdom established in Jesus Christ comes into focus and we see as if for the first time.

The prayer of St Richard of Chichester is one to hold in this pandemic. It gives thanks to God in Jesus Christ for all the benefits won for us. It prays that we will see more clearly, love more dearly and follow more nearly, day by day. It does this because God’s kingdom is over all and that is the basis of our hope in pandemic and any adversity.

Sermon during Night Prayer with prayers for wholeness and healing, live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Wednesday 1st July. 2020.

 

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Fathers Day: Parable of the Loving Father

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Today is Fathers Day, a day which started out as a greetings card occasion but give us opportunities. As we think about our own experience of fathers and for some of us, what it is like to be one, we can think about what we mean when we call God our Father. Calling God ‘Father’ is pretty much the default setting in Christian worship, though as we explored at the beginning of May with Julian of Norwich, God can also be thought of as Mother and quite a lot else.

The image of ‘father’ has deep roots in the Hebrew faith. The Old Testament is full of references to God as Israel’s father, to the loving and caring, nurturing and guiding, sometimes disciplining and teaching the way to go. How we see that balance will no doubt depend on our own experience and not everyone finds that easy.

It was only when I became a father that I began to understand its depths. The instinct to protect, the love and tenderness of holding a fragile new-born, the fun and laughter, the pride and delight which has continued with each stage and milestone. The proud parent moments which are legion.

Jesus used the image of a loving father in the parable we often misname as the prodigal son – and that is why I decided to change the gospel reading for today  (Luke 15:11-24). It’s not really about the son who goes off the rails. The central figure is really the father whose love will not abandon the son who strays. The loving father longs to embrace with a kiss, to welcome and restore. This is the image we need at the forefront of our minds when we think of God as Father.

Children as they grow need guidance and this comes from many sources. But they have primary carers. Fathering is about being a primary carer, who guides, provides stability for them – through wisdom and experience, shows them how to do things. It’s a shared task, but that primary relationships are the key ones because they have their roots in our genetic origins. There is something fundamental and foundational about being a father. When it goes well, we grow and flourish. When it doesn’t we are injured deeply.

Some years ago I was vicar of a parish with a lot of teenage mums and dads. It had a high rate of teenage pregnancies. The girls were often left fending on their own. A wise woman in the church looked at this and said she thought the young men were scared of the responsibility and the awesome task of being a dad. Some proudly pushed the pram, but many did not. Dads need help to be dads, just like mums need help to be mums. All parents need to be parented themselves otherwise the tasks can overwhelm.

When we look to God as Father, we see one who can cope with the responsibility, but who doesn’t try to do it all for us. This is a model of parenting that lets us make mistakes, and we sure do; who lets us fall because that’s how we grow and learn. The knocks and the bashes are part of becoming. The loving father in our gospel reading allows the son who goes off to do so. He has that freedom. When he asks for his inheritance, he gives it to him.

We might raise some eyebrows there, was that really sensible? Do you give the untrustworthy the resources to behave even more untrustworthily with? Responsibility and dignity require agency, the power to decide to spend or save, to invest wisely or squander. And with that a lot of other questions fly round the room.

The questions about the father in the story quickly become questions about God and how God behaves towards the world. God who does not control every minute detail, but leaves us the agency to decide, to learn and to become. There is a great becoming in being a child of God, in being a son or daughter of our heavenly Father.

Are we trustworthy with this sacred resource? The answer is, of course, ‘yes’ and ‘no’.  Human beings are remarkable in so many ways and a force for good. And yet we know that we also damage the world, damage its people, and damage so much of the ecosystem and other creatures. We are both sons in the gospel reading – the faithful one and the one who goes off. God is Father to both of us.

I caught a trailer when using Google as a quick concordance to look up a biblical text. The trailer was for an American crime drama series called ‘Prodigal Son’ (Advisory ⚠️), starring Michael Sheen. I won’t spoil it for you, but there is a line when the father says to the son “I will always love you because we’re the same”. There is that link that can’t easily be obliterated. Given the father is the serial killer and his son becomes a criminal profiler, that’s a tricky thing to hear.

This is something that Harry Potter has to wrestle with, that there is a link between him and Voldemort. And it takes the wise Dumbledore to point out that it’s not so much the similarities that define him, but in the choices that he makes. These determine the character and the path which can be similar or different. We look for those who will help and guide us as we do grow, to set our feet on firm foundations. We are similar, but we make choices in our becoming.

When we look to our heavenly Father, we don’t see one who makes clones, but allows agency, for us to discover and decide. There is guidance, there is love, there is nurture and there are consequences which we can take as markers for discipline – a more creative way of seeing this than punishments. The point of all discipline should be to help us grow, not beat us down – that’s the difference between loving and abusing.

So as we are encouraged to celebrate fathers and fathering, let us be thankful for those who have and do love us, guide us, keep us and teach us, whose nurture and discipline helps us grow and flourish. For in so doing, they reflect the love of the Father and the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. God loves us because we are the same – we are from his stock, and in his love we become as we choose and respond.

Sermon for Fathers Day, live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 21st June 2020.

 

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Looking for the people who inspire

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Window in north aisle, Peterborough Parish Church

Last weekend there was a big rally and protest in the city centre here for ‘Black Lives Matter‘. This followed the brutal murder of George Floyd by a police officer in America, sparking an international movement of protest at racism and injustice. So many stories have been shared of racist abuse suffered as part of the daily lived experience of those who came. ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a wake-up call, a demand for justice, for equality and respect.

As so often happens, movements spring out in unpredictable ways. A statue of a slave trader was thrown in the dock in Bristol, others covered and removed. There have been calls for so many figures from the past to be knocked off their pedestals. Some of this has produced an angry backlash.

In the middle of this, there have also been a number of reminders of people who inspire today, who acted in their own age and made a difference. I drew attention to a local one here earlier in the week, Peter Peckard, a former Dean of the Cathedral. He inspired abolitionists who went on to bring an end to the slave trade at the end of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries. This is someone who inspires today, provides a moral compass for us.

A few weeks ago we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, who revolutionised nursing and the care of the sick. The lady with the lamp, provided a lamp of light changing lives and inspiring a profession. Friends have been sharing stories of others from their areas – Finedon and Kettering – who also worked for the liberation of slaves.

When there are so many calls to dethrone, to tear down and loud calls of anger to destroy, an important way forward is to concentrate more on those whose lives inspire, who help us find the better way, than those who just wind us up, whom we want to remove. Of course there is valid debate to be had about whom we want to commemorate and who we really should move on from. At the same time, we must ask who the people are whose stories are worth keeping in the centre of our cities and parks and public spaces?

Our gospel reading gave us a list of names of people who went on to tell the story of faith, of hope and love in Jesus Christ (Matthew 9:35-10:8). We were given the calling of the 12 special disciples. There is a baddy in there, Judas who betrayed Jesus and we could concentrate on him if we wanted to get cross and find someone to focus our anger on, someone to tear down. How could anyone be so despicable as to betray Jesus?

But the Gospels don’t do this and Paul’s letters don’t either. They are clear that some are not to be followed, but their main focus is on those who made a difference and inspired others. And there were clearly more than 12 of them. We have to add in the women, not included in the list of the 12 men, Matthias and Justus who were up for election to replace Judas. Paul added to the witnesses in time and there are so many more who responded to the call to follow the Way of Jesus and in so doing made a difference for good.

We identify our call here to be a beacon of faith, hope and love. Our society needs people who are such beacons, who carry the light, the lamp of faith, hope and love. We can tear down statues and structures, but after they have gone splash or crash, what then? It is at that moment that inspiration is needed.

In our gospel reading, Jesus gives those whom he calls a job. He sends them to proclaim good news, to be story-tellers of hope, to point to the Kingdom of God, where the sick are cared for. They are to be people who build endurance, as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans (5:4-5). And by the Oaks of Mamre, in our first reading, Abraham met three visitors, who found in him hospitality which led to blessing (Genesis 18:1-15).

Who inspires you? Who helps you find the light for the lamp? If you could put up a statue in the heart of the city to inspire us today, who would you pick and why?

One person I celebrate is one my predecessors, depicted in a window here. Simon Gunton stayed at his post as vicar of this church during the Great Plague in the 1660s. He even wrote his thanks to God at the bottom of each page of the burial register, for preserving him and giving him the endurance that he needed in the struggle and fear of the pandemic he faced. A blue plaque will soon go on the wall of our house to commemorate him – he lived in a house on the same site, so it is fitting that it is the vicarage today.

Another person to celebrate is Peter Peckard, whom I’ve already mentioned for his inspiration of abolitionists, the call to justice. He did not just shout for ‘justice’, but made it, brought it to pass. Thirdly, Edith Cavell, the martyred nurse of the WW1, former student at the school in the Cathedral Precincts, and depicted next to Simon Gunton in our window. As well as caring for whoever was in need, whether they were allies or Germans, her words sing down the years: “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”.

Three people inspired by faith to make a difference, to point to the Kingdom of God, who proclaimed good news in word, in action and in being beacons of faith, hope and love for our city. Let us look for those who inspire, those whose memory will help us as we seek to respond to the call to follow Jesus Christ as his disciples and apostles today.

Sermon for Trinity 1, Live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 14th June 2020.

 

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Golden Hour – Triumphal Arch to the Trinity

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One of the things I love about this time of year is what many of us know as ‘golden hour’. This is when the evening sunshine hits the west front of the cathedral full on. It glows and the shadows of the arches line up perfectly with the windows. It is stunning and I don’t think it is a coincidence. I think the medieval masons knew just what they were doing and the effect they were looking to achieve.

If you look at the west front behind me, you can see that it consists of three arches and porticos. There are a number of theories about these, but one is that it is modelled on a Roman triumphal arch. These were built to record the victories and prowess of a general or emperor. This one, though, proclaims the power, the glory and victory of God and not some earthly potentate. God, who in the Christian faith, is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer; God who is beyond and awesome, God who comes alongside us and is the one who bridges what would otherwise be beyond reach, God who moves and unites and sets in motion.

So, when the sun hits this west front full on, as it is doing now, the shining, the glowing, the alignment of shadows and arches, proclaims the awe, wonder and majesty of God. We are meant to go ‘wow’, as so many visitors do who come through the Norman Gateway from the square – they reach roughly outside our house, stop and you can see them mouth ‘wow’ as they take in this vista for the first time. The most dramatic are children who are stopped in their tracks. God is awesome, so an awesome building sings that praise in stone and form. And it does that whether the doors are open or shut and ‘golden hour’ usually happens when they are closed at the end of the working day.

The Trinity: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which we celebrate today, is the distinctive Christian doctrine of God. For all the similarities between faiths, the points of connection and mutual understanding, this is our major difference. It is both very difficult to comprehend, well how can anyone comprehend the fullness of God, and also we just know we need something of that complexity otherwise we’d be selling God short. 

Today is not a day for glib statements to try to tame God – just as Aslan in ‘the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is not a tame lion. Today is a day when we need a doctrine big enough to cope with what we are talking about. And I find that each tradition of the church has a shadow side that falls into error when it either loses touch with one of the persons of the Trinity, or over emphasises one of them at the expense of others. 

When we talk of God the Father (or mother, God who is utterly other), if we miss out the immanence of the Son or the dynamic power of the Spirit, we end up with a God who is like an absentee landlord. The world gets on with it without God, is completely separate from God, and we miss the personal, the relational and the loving. This leaves room for the angry parent out to get us. And I know many struggle with that picture. God is as he is in Jesus Christ, who is not out to get us, but came because of love.

When we talk of God the Son, if we miss out the Father who is present all along, and the Spirit’s fire, we can get confused when we look at the cross because in that isolation it can look like a deranged parent sacrificing their child. We rightly recoil because that misses the crucial point of who we are talking about. On the cross the one who gives of himself is none other than God in God’s fullness. In the Son, the Father is present and not separate. The Trinity has to be held together, especially in theories of the atonement, of what we say happens on the cross.

When we talk of the Spirit, if we miss out the Son we  will have some vague sense of being inspired, but we won’t have the rooting and grounding in living, loving and longing; the wind blows without purpose and point. The God who inspires, who is our source and goal, comes among us, is close up and personal in the Son.

So, the arches at the west front of this cathedral, glowing in the evening sunlight, speak of the one to whom all our thinking and acting is to praise. If we keep the three arches, the Trinity in unity before us, we will keep our sense of truth and hope in balance.

This triumphal arch is to God who is beyond our imagining, comes up close and personal, and sets our hearts ablaze with the fire of love. The writer, Janet Morley, expressed this as a dance, reflecting something dynamic and in motion, poetic and vital. And so I end with her prayer:

O God our mystery, you bring us to life, 

call us to freedom, and move between us with love. 

May we so participate in the dance of your trinity, 

that our lives may resonate with you, 

now and for ever. Amen.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Peterborough Cathedral online worship, Sunday 7th June 2020.

 

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Trinity Celtic Knot

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I’m going to begin this morning with a bit of craft activity. And if you would like to join in, this is when you need your piece of cord – 1m in length.

This knot is a symbol of the Trinity – God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It expresses the mystery of God being one and yet at the same time three.

There is one long piece of cord which we have twisted, and threaded and shaped into the three distinct loops but connected to the same continuous line. No symbol or metaphor works completely, but it reminds us that God is three and God is one. God is the source and goal – the beginning and the end; God is alongside us and with us; God is our inspiration and guiding power. We call this Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that connects with the story of our faith.

God the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer; God who is beyond and awesome, God who comes alongside us and is the one who bridges what would otherwise be beyond reach, God who moves and unites and sets in motion.

The Trinity: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which we celebrate today, is the distinctive Christian doctrine of God. For all the similarities between faiths, the points of connection and mutual understanding, this is our major difference. It is both very difficult to comprehend, well how can anyone comprehend the fullness of God, and also, we just know we need something of that complexity otherwise we’d be selling God short. So a complicated knot is rather fitting.

Today is not a day for glib statements to try to tame God – just as Aslan in ‘the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is not a tame lion. Today is a day when we need a doctrine big enough to cope with what we are talking about. And I find that each tradition of the church has a shadow side that falls into error when it either loses touch with one of the persons of the Trinity, or over emphasises one of them at the expense of others.

When we talk of God the Father (or mother – as we said when we remembered Julian of Norwich a few weeks ago, God who is utterly other), if we miss out the immanence of the Son or the dynamic power of the Spirit, we end up with a God who is like an absentee landlord. The world gets on with it without God, is completely separate from God, and we miss the personal, the relational and the loving. This leaves room for the angry parent out to get us. And I know many struggle with that picture. God is as he is in Jesus Christ – a favourite saying of David Jenkins, a former bishop of Durham – God is as he is in Jesus Christ, who is not out to get us, but came because of love.

When we talk of God the Son, if we miss out the Father who is present all along, and the Spirit’s fire, we can get confused when we look at the cross because in that isolation it can look like a deranged parent sacrificing their child. We rightly recoil because that misses the crucial point of who we are talking about. On the cross the one who gives of himself is none other than God in God’s fullness. In the Son, the Father is present and not separate. The Trinity has to be held together, especially in theories of the atonement, of what we say happens on the cross.

When we talk of the Spirit, if we miss out the Son we  will have some vague sense of being inspired, but we won’t have the rooting and grounding in living, loving and longing; the wind blows without purpose and point. The God who inspires, who is our source and goal, comes among us, is close up and personal in the Son.

So, if as we look at the knot and use it as a way to keep the unity of the Trinity before us, we will keep our sense of truth and hope in balance. God who is beyond our imagining, comes up close and personal, and sets our hearts ablaze with the fire of love.

Another way of picturing the interweaving of the Trinity is to think of it as a dance. The writer, Janet Morley, used this image in her Trinity prayer, expressing the Trinity as something dynamic and in motion, poetic and vital. And so I end with her prayer:

O God our mystery, you bring us to life,

call us to freedom, and move between us with love.

May we so participate in the dance of your trinity,

that our lives may resonate with you,

now and for ever. Amen.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church live-stream worship, Sunday 7th June 202

 

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Black Lives Matter

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This Sunday, as well as being Trinity Sunday, marks the retirement of John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. He is the first black holder of that office. He has been known for being charismatic and uncompromising. He is a forceful person. He has been a passionate advocate for social justice and to transform the welfare of people in poverty. He has also been on the receiving end of vile racist abuse. As he retires, we give thanks for his ministry and pray for him as he enters a new phase of life.

I was listening to the comedian, campaigner and actor Lenny Henry being interviewed on ‘Grounded with Louis Theroux’, a podcast for Radio 4. He spoke about his life, his work and racism in the UK. The shock was how much racial abuse has been a part of his life – in the background, directly at him and through prejudice. He referred to racism still going on today, overt, not just hidden, but at bus stops and on the underground. For all we celebrate a multicultural society we know there is this darkness beneath the surface, and both Lenny Henry and Archbishop Sentamu can attest to that.

It can be so easy to ignore and pass-by at the casual and low-level end, but it’s not so easy when it is explicit. When a police officer in the United States thinks it is acceptable to kneel on a black man’s neck until George Floyd died of asphyxiation, there is no longer a neutral place to hide. To be neutral is to say that he acted in an acceptable way, which it most clearly was not, or to not care enough to take a stand. It is to become complicit in it or drawn to be complicit. Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it with characteristic punch when he said ‘when an elephant is standing on the tail of a mouse, your neutrality will not be appreciated by the mouse’. Neutral takes a side by default; it takes the side of the aggressor.

The hashtag and slogan #BlackLivesMatter, circulating at the moment, is an important reminder that racism can lie hidden behind blander statements like ‘All Lives Matter’. Of course, all lives do matter but the point of the specific is to challenge the prejudice, the hatred and the violence. It is to shine a light on the vice and call it out. ‘All lives matter’ can be a way of watering that down. We have inclusion as one of our core values but we have to spell it out at times, just where that rubs so that it is challenged. As Lenny Henry said in the podcast, someone has to take a lead to effect change.

On Saturday there is a demonstration planned to take place in Cathedral Square. Most of us will not be there – because we are still shielding or keeping distance from large gatherings as we are required to do. The church building will be there, though, standing as it does at the heart of the city. As it stands there it can be a symbol of inclusion and value or of indifference. It can be a symbol of standing in solidarity with those feeling unheard and discriminated against, even if we as its congregation are not able to do so physically, through a poster in the main noticeboard. As St Paul put it, in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, all are one (Galatians 3:28). Today he would highlight the racial unity and equality too. The equity needed spelling out then and it needs it now.

Even in lockdown and shielding, we can proclaim the light and hope of Christ. The political challenges continue and there are people who suffer at the hands of others’ hatred and prejudice. When we want to see a more compassionate and caring society, one that does show that all lives matter, it is important to be prepared to make this clear when others are behaving differently, to be specific. Being known by our fruit is more important than posing for photo calls outside churches – especially if the way has been cleared by rubber bullets and tear gas, as for President Trump this week. It’s not enough to hold a bible, we have to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it, then live it in justice, truth and peace proclaiming the love of God in Jesus Christ for all.

God bless, keep alert, and find ways to show the light and love of Christ in this coming week.

Opening Letter in weekly newsletter for Peterborough Parish Church, 5th June 2020

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