Living as citizens of heaven: making a difference and being seen to do so

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At the end of our gospel reading Jesus tells his hearers that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees they will not enter the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:13-20). This passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount. He has just given them the Beatitudes, when he explains what being a citizen of heaven looks like.  He then goes on to tell them that this citizenship is not something to hide. It is to shine out, like a lamp. It is to make a difference, like salt. And if we truly live as citizens of heaven then we won’t hide who we are and we will make a difference for good. This is the key to understanding that word ‘righteousness’, which is to exceed that of those who should be the experts to follow – the scribes and pharisees. As we know with Jesus in the gospels, he exposes hypocrisy and points out when those we expect to live up to high standards fail to do so. The standard is set high.

The root of the word ‘righteousness’ is in being just, in following the correct path. To do that we need to be reinforced in the road map and that comes through being deeply rooted in the teachings and wrestling with the faith that shapes us. For Anglicans that has long been the three pillars of Scripture (the Bible), Tradition (the journey that has brought us to this point) and Reason (how we bring in all of the things we know from other disciplines). We have brains, we have God given skills of evaluation and reason, and we should use them when working out what is true, what is just, what is right. There is no place for using faith as an excuse for thin thinking or bolstering prejudice. We are to let our light so shine that others may see our good works and give glory to God (v16).

There are some key debates bouncing around at the moment. Few people are looking to churches for answers not least because what they often hear does not make sense to them or connect with how life is. And there have been some spectacular failures of integrity and process, not least with safeguarding, which have damaged our image and reputation. Why should anyone listen if they see the gap between words and deeds. This should concern us deeply. In spite of this, I still find that there is a yearning for meaning and for faith to make sense. When we fail to speak into this, or fall short of what is expected, I think there is a great sense of disappointment. And when we do speak with faith-filled intelligence and behave as expected, there is a look of relief and deep interest. The challenge is to become known for thoughtful, intelligent comment and reflection, which actually helps people live righteously, justly and find the path that is life-giving. The challenge is to live with integrity and behave well.

If we are to enter into debates and discussions with the spirit of righteousness, being rooted and shaped by the path of faith, then this is not just a matter of repeating whatever we hear elsewhere.  There is a distinctive faith view which should help us see deeply into issues of concern and bring some fresh thinking to bear. There are some trends which are to be challenged and the church has been at its most vibrant when it is able to articulate why it takes a different view to what might be the dominant one. So in a culture which values people according to how rich they are and what they have, the path of faith will offer fasting, denial and restraint. Consuming more and more is not a good way to be, and we are learning this truth from the environmental angle, where we are encouraged to reduce, not just reuse and recycle. Living simply and with balance has long been a Christian virtue.

There have been trends that assume money is king and profit is the most important criteria for investments and trading. There is a growing interest in ethical investments and looking at the wider responsibilities which trade and investing brings. All trading enters us into a web of relationships, many hidden and far from sight, but should still be our concern. How much is the person who makes what we enjoy paid? What are their working conditions? How does the company care for the communities in which it operates, or does it just exploit them for its own ends? What difference does their trading make?

Tax justice came into my inbox this week as Bewiched, the independent coffee shop on Bridge Street, Tweeted that it pays more tax than Caffe Nero, a multinational brand. Tax dodging is not being ended and it denies communities vital funds. When our government is cutting services and councils are struggling with reduced budgets, tax dodging is not victimless. We suffer from it directly. The way of righteousness requires loopholes to be plugged, even more than they have been. 

Safeguarding has become a major area for ensuring that we live up to what we proclaim, that our righteousness exceeds. The disclosures and exposures over high profile failures, where even a former Archbishop of Canterbury has been shown to have failed to protect the vulnerable, these are not moments when the church has been seen to be righteous, just, honourable or true. There is a major challenge going on at the moment for it to get its act sorted and it needs to do this. I think this diocese is actually on top of this and we take safeguarding very seriously in this church. Megan, our safeguarding officer, and I recently sat down to review where we are and to check that we have everything in place that we need to ensure everyone is safe and looked after. There will be some follow up from this, as rules have changed, and this will require us all to catch up with role descriptions to be clear on the expectations, responsibilities and accountabilities for what we do, Disclosure and Barring Service checks so that we can prove we have done everything we could do. This is part of us letting our light shine – being transparent and open. No one is exempt. I have to complete a DBS clearance every 5 years and if I don’t then my licence to officiate as a vicar will be removed. I have to keep my Safeguarding training up-to-date otherwise I will be deemed to be failing in my duties. So I am no different to anyone else. Please don’t be surprised if you hear from us in the coming weeks asking for various things to be brought up to date.

This is one of the fastest changing areas of church life. The rules we work to change frequently and they are set nationally. Previously we were told we couldn’t DBS check our administrator because they weren’t engaged in what is called a regulated activity. This time round all of the applicants were asked to complete a confidential declaration and the successful candidate will be given a basic DBS check because of the responsibilities and trusted position they have.

Having given his hearers a statement of 8 ways that they can see what it means to be a citizen of heaven, the Beatitudes, Jesus pressed this deeper. He told them that they will display this by being seen as a light shines out and in making a difference as salt flavours food. In doing this they will live the righteousness of God – God’s justice and following the path of truth. Be seen, make a difference, follow the path of life and blessing. These things challenge us so that we have something profound to say to a world wanting to see integrity and hope. We are to be shaped by our citizenship of heaven and to live up to this by making a difference, and being seen to do so.

Sermon for 3rd Sunday before Lent, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th February 2020

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Peace, Prosperity & Friendship with all Nations: A 50p for Candlemas

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Have you received one of the new 50 pence pieces in your change yet? This is the coin that has been struck to commemorate our exiting the European Union at 11.00pm last Friday night. It contains the legend “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”. That phrase is based on a quote from Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural address on 4th March 1801 as he became the 3rd President of the United States of America. The actual quote is “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none”, with the Oxford comma after “commerce”. That comma changes the statement. As the 50p coin has it without the comma, ‘peace, prosperity and friendship’ are to be with all nations. Thomas Jefferson just gave honest friendship to all nations, with the use of his comma. There has been a bit of fuss about that – whether the comma should have been inserted or not, but it does change the meaning.

For peace this is not so significant since if you want peace you need it with all nations, otherwise you don’t have it. Prosperity for everyone is quite a vision and I don’t know if the designers of the 50p realise what they have committed us to.

The origins of Thomas Jefferson’s phrase lie in the American wars of independence and having the freedom to establish commerce, to do the things which independent states may of right do.  Establishing the rules of commerce is precisely what will occupy us over this coming year as we enter the negotiations in this transition period. Someone knows their history. 

Friendship with all nations was about not meddling in others’ affairs, not ‘entangling alliances’, not least because it endangered the peace and prosperity of the American people. Not treating the world as a political play-thing is a noble aspiration, and of course we have a colonial history to be wary of. But it is also one that is somewhat harder to maintain in a world where the likes of Huawei, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter, let alone the media empires and global traders make the independence of nations somewhat limited and rather a fantasy. Global warming is a stark reminder that what we do can affect others directly. When we pump out excessive levels of CO2 and endanger Antarctic ice caps, we are meddling on a very serious scale. Peace, Prosperity and Friendship with all nations has far reaching consequences. 

This last week the Church of England has committed itself to encouraging each of our churches to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045. Our City Council have been more ambitious in setting their goal at 2030. This will be a challenge but we know we have to take this seriously. Gas fired heating is on borrowed time and we are borrowing that time from the future. If we wish peace and property with all nations, then our environmental impact is a major area for us to address. St John’s Church in Cathedral Square signed up to work towards eco-church status last year and the diocese has followed suit. 

Today we celebrate Candlemas (Luke 2:22-40). That is a nickname for the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Purification of Mary, his mother. It brings a small child, just 40 days old, to the Temple for a sacrifice required for a firstborn male to be offered. The one offered for Jesus is the poor person’s option of a few pigeons, rather than the more expensive lamb. Jesus is placed among the poor at this special moment, and if we wish prosperity for all nations then the poor must be included, not just the powerful and rich. Meanwhile this ceremony brought his mother’s period of uncleanness to an end. At best that is a nursing mother’s protection, so that having given birth she has time to nurse unhindered, to recover, to be given the space she needs. This is the antithesis of seeing people as robots who can carry on as if significant events to the body don’t need to be taken into account. Again, those who are most vulnerable have peace and prosperity proclaimed to them. On the flip side, this is part of a system that sees women’s bodies as being polluting. There are some assumptions in Candlemas that need challenging. 

The candles come from Simeon, the old man who spoke of Jesus as the light to lighten the nations. Inner thoughts will be exposed, which is what happens when you wish for peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations – they can’t happen if we are being dishonest, deceitful and have hidden motives of meddling for our own gain to someone else’s detriment. In walks Anna, one of those people who are constantly at prayer in the temple, bringing her tears that won’t dry and her heartache that won’t sooth. She sees in Jesus redemption and hope.

Wherever you are with what happened on Friday night, we stand on the threshold of a new future. I know some will be filled with jubilation and  what they see as freedom, freedom to trade as independent nations can. Others here will be anxious at what we have done and what the prospects will be. Independence in a global world is limited. Congregations are no different to the rest of the country, they are split on this. Let us then take some inspiration from Thomas Jefferson and his phrase without the Oxford comma. And let us shine the light that lightens the nations into this analysis.

We seek peace. This means doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with God, looking for the genuine good for all people. Remember our inner motives will be exposed. It means peace that is rooted in justice, compassion, genuine good for all. Some have called for quick reconciliation and coming together. Others have pointed out that there are problems for families  made up of multiple nationalities. Those who see that they have lost need to have their pain acknowledged. In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, after the horrors of the Apartheid regime, facing the consequences was an important part of the peace-making. So for those who rejoice, they need to hear to cries. Those who suffer, need to hear what led to the vote. Peace is never easy peace, because that is often not really peace at all, rather it is someone being told to be quiet and put up with what the others have done. Inner thoughts are exposed, brought into the light of Christ’s blessing, redemption and hope, so that a new future can be truly embraced together.

We are encouraged to seek prosperity. This is not just for ourselves in selfish grasping, but for the betterment and flourishing of all people around the world. It is generous in its approach, in its aid when there is need, in its trading which seeks to be fair. It is a prosperity which has to be sustainable. There is an online tool which can help you work out how many planets it takes to sustain how you live. It is likely to shock. The average for this country is 1.75, with some using the resources equivalent to as much as 6 planets. Prosperity at that cost is not prosperity at all, but an assault on the world and on all its people, so no where near being for all nations, not even ourselves.

We seek honest friendship with all nations, to build bridges in which commerce can flourish and with it the exchange of ideas and cultural engagement. Trading can be a source of peacemaking, as many know the benefits of cultural exchange and the enrichment of outlook this brings. The bible is built on it and it was shaped by ideas being shared. 

A light to lighten the nations, bringing peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations, offers for us a way forward with hope and generosity. Without it we will be impoverished in the extreme. The global crisis that we face requires us to work together because our good is their good, and the good of the planet is the good for all of us. Peace built on justice, on inner thoughts exposed to the healing, redeeming grace of Christ, is a future to embrace. We are where we are, which ever way you flip the 50p coin. What we can do is shape where this goes for the good of all, which is actually our good too. May we truly seek peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations, for light to lighten all peoples. 

Sermon for Candlemas, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 2nd February 2020

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Let there be no divisions – Unity Week, Brexit, House of Bishops…

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This last week we have been praying for Christian Unity. That is why last week the clergy in the city centre moved round one place and swapped pulpits. I went to Westgate New Church and Fr Adam from St Peter and All Souls Roman Catholic Church came to preach here. The limits of this show of unity were displayed in Canon Rowan having to come to lead the service because only clergy authorised by the Bishop can take services in an Anglican Church. The same has applied when I have gone to St Peter and All Souls. It is about authority, the Reformation, some doctrines and good order of the church. Actually with Safeguarding awareness this has probably got stronger, since we are explicitly banned from allowing anyone to take services here who do not have the bishop’s approval – even clergy from another diocese have to be cleared first. I had to be cleared to go back to Leeds to officiate at our son James’ wedding last June. 

In our Epistle reading (1 Corinthians 1:10-18), Paul was clear. There are to be no divisions among the Corinthian Church, and by extension, among us. We are to be united in the same mind and purpose. He then goes on to say that they have identities associated with particular leaders that are getting in the way of their unity in Christ. It is Christ who died and rose for them, and it was in the name of Christ that they were baptised. This is the root of our Christian identity. Everything else is secondary. And yet we make it primary. It is a sin to be lamented and so we pray and work for unity.

This is a noble sentiment, but the differences are over quite profound disagreements of what authority looks like, how sacraments are seen, who can be baptised and even who can be blessed. And these disagreements exist within the Anglican Church itself let alone between us and other denominations. St Paul’s appeal, ‘Let there be no disagreements’ is both a challenge to reconcile and work to resolve the differences as well as being a bit naive. Differences of perception matter and it is through them that we grow and move forward, that things change. When the established view is hurting some, then it needs to be challenged and while that works through there will be disagreements. In these moments it is important to remember this passage, that Paul reminded the recipients of his letter that they are to hold to unity in Christ, because whatever else that is the primary unity that they are to hold to. It is to define them. They then can’t just write off those who are different to them, even if they want to. They belong together.

The House of Bishops this week issued what they called a ‘Pastoral Letter’ about Civil Partnerships, sexual relationships and blessings.  You may have seen reports of it in the press. It’s a bit technical but it has caused distress and hurt. It has upset a number of people, who are cross that it was issued. One reason is that there is a major study taking place into sexuality, relationships and how we live these out as faithful followers of Jesus Christ, as members of the same community of faith as brothers and sisters in Christ. The report will be published soon under the title “Living in Love and Faith”. It will inevitably expose some deep faultlines within our Church and there will be a period of discussion, debate and disagreement. Some of this will show the Church at its best and I have no doubt some of it will show us at our worst. In view of this, the Bishops letter crashed sideways into the process that is still underway. The last time this happened was back in September, over  a statement issued in their name on Brexit. It was later admitted that it had actually been the product of just three or four bishops and not all of them at all. There has been a hint from the Bishop of Buckingham that this has been the case again, so it is at best outside due process and this diminishes its authority and with it confidence in the House of Bishops. They have some repair work to do.

This is not good because it creates fertile ground to breed divisions and discord. The issuing of the statement and its tone seems to display signs of anxiety and fear, and I prefer to go forward in faith and hope. I have my moments when I can despair, but deep down I know history shows that the march of change won’t be stopped, especially if it reflects the developing of a common mind on an issue – an idea whose time has come. It will come through and in God’s grace a new horizon will unfold before us. Yes, bad things happen, but justice and flourishing have a way of working through. I have the same view of the mistrust of the Government, whom I don’t particularly trust and they don’t seem to like being subjected to parliamentary scrutiny, so, whether you support the Labour Party or not, as the opposition they need to get their act together to elect the right person as their leader for all of our sakes. Good government flourishes when there is a capable opposition sharpening its whits. Power always needs the counter blast, the balancing voices who confront it with the awkward questions and observations that they would otherwise overlook or just ignore.

So looking ahead there are going to be some deep divisions opening up with the publication of the report “Living in Love and Faith”. It will open up different approaches to the bible, to how we take account of understandings from other disciplines, as indeed we must, and some very deep, visceral emotions that don’t want to be exposed because there are vulnerabilities there. And this is where we are back to Paul’s appeal over divisions and disunity. When we walk into the conflict we enter sacred ground because it brings us to the cross we all bow down before in humble devotion, as fellow pilgrims placing there the vulnerabilities we find it hard to admit are there, even to ourselves, and certainly don’t want to admit to anyone else. It is sacred ground as we walk on the vulnerabilities of others and ourselves and in such a place it is important to tread carefully otherwise we will end up injuring ourselves as well as those with whom we share the name of Christ.

At the end of this week we have another area of deep division in our nation as we exit the European political union. There are people in our congregation who passionately agree with what is happening and others who are equally passionate in their objection to it. This division is sacred ground and we are all, whatever view we take  brothers and sisters in Christ, and we need to tread carefully with one another. 

‘Let there be no divisions or quarrels.’ Of course there will be, so remember that we share a primary unity, that of being united in Christ. With this when there are differences we stand on holy ground and need to tread carefully.

Sermon for Epiphany 3, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 26th January 2020

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Upon this rock

week of prayer for christian unity logoIf you go into Pizza Express in Cathedral Square you can sit next to a big picture of their founder, Peterborian Peter Boizot. Written on the picture is a simple play on words ‘Peter’s Borough’. And of course we know that this city is named after a Peter, but not the founder of Pizza Express and local philanthropist. Rather it is named after St Peter, one of Jesus’ first followers. The legend for Posh, our local football team, is ‘Upon this Rock’  – it is written on the crest on their scarf. Our second reading (John 1:29-42) gave us the source for this. Simon has his name changed to Cephas, to Peter, the Rock. We need to know the other gospels because they tell us that Jesus goes on to say that it is upon this rock that he will build his church, upon people like Peter. So, we are a town built on a rock, a follower of Jesus. And, of course, that is true since the Abbey was founded both on stone at the edge of the boggy fens and also on the rock of being a community of followers of Jesus Christ.

John’s version of the calling of Peter is different to the other gospels. There is no mention of a seashore, of Lake Galilee, but rather John the Baptist sees Jesus pass-by and tells the group with him that this is the Lamb of God, the one they are really looking for. He goes on and gives the account of the Spirit descending on him, he gives evidence for his statement. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, is one of those standing with John the Baptist when he says this. But note, it takes two goes. There is no hint of a response at the first statement, their first hearing. You can see them nodding wisely, thoughtfully, and taking it in, but not responding at that moment. Did they sit later that evening and think ‘that was a bit odd’, ‘what did he mean?’.

So, day two and John is standing about with two of his disciples and points to Jesus again. This time they follow Jesus, presumably to see where he is going, what he is doing, curious about him. Jesus sees them following and asks them what they are looking for? As ever with John this takes us to the heart of our souls. What do we desire, what do we really want? With it comes a hint at something further. If you really want this, what are you prepared to do to find it? As we know, because we have read the story so many times, when Jesus asks a question like that, he is asking how far they are prepared to go for it, will they bear the cost that will be required? And that cost will be everything that they are and have because he has the words of life, where else can they go?

Their response is not to say ‘here is the list of our hopes and dreams’, this is what we are looking for, but “where are you staying”. It is more cautious and keeps their desires a bit hidden just in case. These are dangerous times they are living in. If they say, ‘we are looking for the liberation of Israel from these Roman oppressors’, being overheard can lead straight to  being crucified by the roadside and they prefer to avoid that, understandably. So they need to know who they can trust. This is a quiet introduction. Jesus’ response is to invite them to come on a journey where they can ‘come and see’. He will show them what they are looking for and then they will have to make up their minds if their hearts are in the same place as he is. That is always a challenge for all of us. Andrew goes to find his brother and then off they go together and  so the adventure begins.

I want to concentrate on three things that come out of this passage. Firstly, Jesus is spotted by John the Baptist who realised who he is and points this out to his followers. John is not concerned about his following, how many friends he has on facebook or twitter reposts. For him the focus is on God and he is preparing the way for Jesus, so when he walks by, what else would he do. It is Jesus that is at the heart of this, he is the one to follow. And John has to be persistent, resilient and just not give up at this. It takes him two goes to get his message across. And these were people who were already on the way, on the journey because they had followed him, so they were thinking in the right direction. How much harder is it, and indeed was it, for those who are thinking in a completely different direction? Just because people don’t respond, or act or pick up on what we are saying does not mean we stop pointing to Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Stick at it, take heart and don’t give up. The community of Jesus is built on some strange rocks, but they are rocks. So when pointing, when being persistent the simple focus is to be on Jesus who is the true goal of everything that we do. And that is an important message for all of us in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Secondly Andrew responds to John the Baptist’s signposting. He makes some initial enquiries to check out what he sees. John’s signposting is not taken without a few questions being asked. If Jesus really is the one, let’s see what he’s about. But for all the caution, there is a response. No one can do this for anyone else. There comes a moment when we all have to make it our own and make our own personal response. But our trust is that if what we are pointing to is genuine and holy, Godly, then it will attract and draw. 

Thirdly, Andrew goes to tell his brother. It is not Peter who tells Andrew, but the other way round. Peter’s place is brought about because his brother went to fetch him and brought him to Jesus so that he could be turned into a rock. The same is true for each of us. Even though we have made our own response, someone else has helped us in that journey of finding faith, of faith finding us. And as we know Peter turns into one of the first great leaders of the church. Who knows who we will help find faith, or have helped find it, but among them could be a future leader, someone who builds up the church and helps it find the vitality that it so needs. Peter is a rock, but he is one formed through the help of others.

So, this town, this city is named after Peter and built upon this rock. That rock is itself built on the help of others who guided his steps so that he could find Christ in the first place. And it is Jesus who is the true rock that we seek, that we show, and that we share as Christians together in this city built on the rock of our common faith. 

Sermon for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Westgate New Church, Peterborough, Sunday 19th January 2020

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Baptism of Christ: heaven on earth

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Baptism of Christ – window in Peterborough Parish Church

January is a time of new beginnings and also facing reality. With the hopes of New Year resolutions this is the week when sandwich shops know that resolve weakens, so they buy in more stock and the more tasty stock at that. It’s also the week when those credit card bills start to pile in bringing home the reality of Christmas spending. New beginnings are not always as new as we like to think because the consequences of past actions come knocking. Even when we think we are reinventing, starting from a blank sheet, we aren’t. Last year I heard Archbishop Justin Welby refer to ‘traditioned innovation’, which means our fresh thinking comes out of where we are. It comes from somewhere in order to get somewhere. It’s a phrase I quite like, because it is rooted and reminds us that all those leaps of the imagination are actually from what we know and can see to what we can imagine is possible, or probable. 

The leap of faith is one of these leaps – jumping from the world we see, the hopes we have, the signs of awe and wonder, to what we think could be. This requires a degree of humility – we might be spot on, we might we wrong, and the test comes with the dawning of each new day. Does it stack up?

Our gospel reading this morning gave us Matthew’s version of the Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3: 13-17). This is the beginning of his public ministry. It is one that comes out of the hopes and dreams of all that has been and what could be. So Jesus walks out of the crowd, goes forward like everyone else to be baptised by John the Baptist. In doing this, Matthew says he fulfils righteousness. We might say he comes out of the tradition so that he can fulfil it. This makes what John the Baptist is doing a bridge between the old and the new. Jesus doesn’t just stand in line with the past, he also challenges it . The kingdom he brings is not quite what they are expecting. Humility will need to be switched on and this plays out in the coming pages. 

There is a dramatic moment with whatever is meant by Matthew’s statement that the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. It’s an image that sites heaven just above the clouds. It’s an image we might scratch our heads over, having penetrated the heavens, the skies, into deep space and there are no pearly gates up there with St Peter on the reception desk. This is an image that speaks to a pre-scientific age about the realm of God coming down to be seen on the earth. Another way of looking at it might be with ‘Dr Who’ special effects and the separation between this realm and another being ripped open so that the heavenly can be seen. The fabric of the universe is split and another realm crosses through. Or with Philip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ and the notion that you can go through a portal from one world to another – you need a gate. This echoes John’s gospel when it refers to Jesus as the gate, the way, the truth and the life.  Metaphor is powerful, we just have to find the language that speaks to our age.

The dove, which descends upon Jesus as he comes out of the water, takes us to the story of Noah, to his floating zoo and the longing for dry land, for a symbol of restoration and life. A dove is sent out and it returns with a twig. There is hope. A dove is sent out and it doesn’t return (Genesis 8:6-12). The dove is the messenger of peace, of hope of promise fulfilled. The tradition will move forward and the new beginning is one of blessing.

The voice that sounds echoes Isaiah’s in our first reading (42:1). There is delight in the child of promise. The Spirit is upon him to bring justice. and he will have resolve to see this through. This is no mere New Year wishful thinking. But there is resolve to make it happen. ‘The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this’ (Isaiah 9:7). Remember Matthew’s key theme, ‘God is with us’, so this resolution will happen. It will happen because God’s kingdom is here, ‘God is with us’, and it is his reign that is being announced. The heavens have opened and we see in him what we need to see.

In order to see this we have to look deeply into the story of Jesus. His call is to live as people who seek the kingdom of God, who aim to live in harmony with it. We are to be citizens of two worlds – the earthly but also with the barrier ripped open so that we live here in the light of God’s kingdom and heaven. This makes that word ‘justice’ become a much deeper concept than what happens in Law Courts, though these are heavily shaped by the Christian story. All judicial systems follow the principles of the culture which defines the laws, defines the rules of engagement. I am often very impressed by the reasoning whenever I read a  court judgement in full. Judges have a way of getting to the heart of the issue at stake; they weigh up the balance of the arguments using sound judgement.

There was an interesting post by the Bishop of Manchester during the week. He spoke about what we mean by the phrase ‘all things considered’. What he was arguing was that when there is a major weight of evidence, as with climate change, to give equal time to the deniers is ridiculous, it is to unbalance the evidence. The key question is to ask what is the evidence and  then to balance it so that the weight is given appropriately.  The Bishop of Manchester is the Episcopal Visitor for the Society of Ordained Scientists. Our concept of justice is based on a notion that it is something that enables all to flourish and this has a long history. If this is not the case, if we don’t all have a sense of winning through it, then in the often quoted phrase of Thomas Hobbes, life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. This happens when we lose our sense of balance, of what lies behind the principles of moral development, of what makes for justice. Justice needs to be based on who we are and how we understand that. This is shaped by our understanding of the kingdom of God, which we see in the story of Jesus, and our aim is to live in accordance with it. We are just when we do this.

When we want to see what this looks like, we have the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t drop from the skies, but grows out of the Old Testament tradition and the journey of a people whose grasp has at times been firm and at others flimsy. It is radical in getting back to the foundation of the universe and in challenging when we have misheard and  when we have corrupted it through false perceptions.  So ripping open the heavens takes form in the ordinary; it becomes embedded so that we can recognise it and live it.

As we mark the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist at the River Jordan, we mark a moment when the tradition was both affirmed and challenged. Heaven breaks through into earth , a gate is opened, and we are invited to live in harmony with that radical call. This brings hope for both the eternal but also a challenge to bring about justice, where the good of everyone is advanced. “This is my son, in whom I delight.” Pay attention and you will live in harmony with heaven on earth.

Sermon for The Baptism of Christ, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th January  2020

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Magi’s Gifts: Restoring balance with hope and thanksgiving

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About a decade ago various groups came up with the smart idea of looking ahead and thinking what would life be like in 2020. They went on to ask what they needed to do in order to be ready for this and then the next stage was to plan the route to get there. They called this having 2020 vision, which was not only the target date but also a play on the Optician’s perfect score for eyesight, having 2020 vision – seeing clearly the road ahead. On a good day I have it with my glasses on, on a bad day, when my eyes are tired, or the lenses need cleaning, it’s not quite so clear – and that is probably a good metaphor for vision setting too. 2020 is a date that has been in the distance for such a long time, but here we are, in the words of the SatNav voiceover, we have arrived at our destination. I don’t know what you thought 2020 would look like, but this is it. 

The future is very difficult to predict and I think we would all find it rather hard to crystal ball gaze 10 years ahead from where we are now. The pace of change is so fast and so unpredictable that we need to set our sights a bit closer in front of us.  The best way to plan is, of course, to have a good sense of what it is we think we are here for, to be clear on purpose and for those of us of faith, of the faith of Jesus Christ, it is to be someone whose life is governed and guided by the good news of the gospel. How does the story of our faith inspire, ignite and give insight into what we do? 

Just before Christmas I came across a spiritual discipline for reflecting at the end of the day, and it rather appealed to me. It was to sit quietly and asked three questions:

  • What has troubled me today,
  • Where have I seen a glimpse of glory and 
  • What do I hope for tomorrow?

What has troubled me, distressed me, been of concern? Where has the glint of sunlight broken through the clouds and made me aware of God’s loving presence and helped me see signs of God’s blessing? Looking to tomorrow, not ten years time or 20 years time, but simply what is my hope for tomorrow? If you are a journaller you can write this down, and according to mental health guides, this is a good way of helping with wellbeing. After I have downloaded the day, I have started asking myself these three things: what has troubled me, where have I seen glimpses of glory and what do I hope for tomorrow.

The other day I went through the photographs I’ve taken over the past decade and put together a selection. Looking back over these made me aware of the moments of God’s goodness blessing, things I had overlooked or forgotten. We are, according to an article I read on New Year’s Day, hardwired to see the negative because it is a defence mechanism. So spotting the blessings, the glimpses of glory and moments to be thankful for, was quite revelatory and restorative. 

These three questions fit with the three gifts brought by the wise guides who came calling on the infant Jesus which we remember today as we celebrate the Epiphany. Opening their treasure boxes they brought out gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Or to fit this reflective tool, in reverse, gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. 

Myrrh, as we know, is the medicinal compound. It heals, it cleanses, it soothes. It is perfect for the things that have troubled or distressed us. God brings to these healing and peace. What has troubled you, where do you need myrrh to pour over it and cleanse, soothe and heal? Each day will bring pains, small and great. It can be that these are the easiest part of the day to bring into the open, so the first treasure box to spring open. But we open it to seek God’s healing, possibly forgiveness, certainly grace. What has troubled you? What do you need myrrh for?

Frankincense, the sweet smelling odour of worship and adoration, brings us to bow down in worship. It is the perfect symbol for the glimpses of glory, for the moments when thanksgiving burst into song. It might be the catch on this box is a bit stiff and we have to ease it open so that we can see it, but persist, keep at it because there will be a gift in the day somewhere. Hard as it may be, it will be there. The film director Ridley Scott used the industrial landscape of Teeside’s chemical works as the inspiration for the opening shots of his 1982 film Bladerunner. He said, as he walked along the scene he found, there was a beauty in the darkness. In the most unpromising of places there can be signs of glory and blessing. It might be of course that this box springs open readily, and the signs of blessing are clear and easy. The song flows from a heart that is filled with joy. Be thankful for those signs, they are the gift to lift the heart and see us through the hours. Where have there been glimpses of glory? Where is the incense to burn for sweet fragrance of awe and wonder, worship and wellbeing?

Gold is money and money makes things happen. One of the desires many of us have, ambitions if you like, is to make a difference. The church is called to do this, to be an agent of God’s grace and sign of his Kingdom. Our hope for tomorrow, whatever timescale we have in mind as we look, is to live in the light of God’s kingdom present and active now. In the words of Matthew’s central theme in his gospel, ‘God is with us’, so living in the light of this realisation is all we can desire. What do we hope for tomorrow, what change to  see happen or to see dawning?  This box may have a temperamental catch on it. The temperament may be ours – glass half full or half empty and how you see that will depend on whether you think you’ve drunk half and enjoyed it or drunk half so you’ve nearly run out! Having hope for tomorrow is the reason we get up. The day is worth embracing because there is hope in it. Find that and we might find we face the day with more of a spring in our step. The most important hope is that God is with us, his presence brings purpose and a point, we are part of his loving holding of all that there is, and so we can walk in confidence that whatever, we are held. More down to earth we may well want something more tangible, a sign of hope where the new day brings promise. What do you hope for with the new day? What is the gold you bring?

So at the dawn of a New Year, I commend a reflective practice which helps us face the pain and trouble, embrace the glory and blessing, and walk on in hope and joyful expectation. Around  this church in the city centre, high up on the surrounding buildings, there are three characters, Anthony Gormley’s statues – one is looking, one has arms outstretched, and one is walking: looking to face the troubles, arms outstretched embracing the glory and blessing, and walking in hope into the new day. Our three magi in the city centre with their myrrh, frankincense and gold. All held in the overarching purpose of God, in whose love we live and move and have our being. These three magi can help us restore our 2020 vision, to get life into balance with hope and thanksgiving.

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 5th January 2020

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O come, all ye faithful

Screenshot 2019-12-10 at 17.22.23

I don’t know what your favourite Christmas Carol is, but a popular one is the first one we sung this morning, ‘O come, all ye faithful’. It is a staple of Christmas services. It has a stunning descant loved by choirs and there is the final verse, which is only sung on Christmas day – for me one of the distinctive elements of today, not least having led so many Christmas services over the past few weeks – it is good to have something just for today. 

It is a carol that tells the story of Christmas. In the first verse, Christ is proclaimed as king of the heavenly beings, the angels. It bids us go on our journey to Bethlehem, to behold him and adore him. Then we reflect on who Jesus is, ‘God of God and Light of Light’, reflecting John’s great introduction to his gospel and his song of praise to Christ as God among us, the eternal Word or purpose of the creator, becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The middle verses tell of shepherds, magi and of Christ forgiving sins.  Visitors bowing down because this child will change the world for the better. Instead of being burdened and condemned, we are set free to live  with joy. Then the choirs of angels let rip, filling the air with their heavenly chorus. We are invited to join with them in this love-song of joy and hope. The final verse, only sung today, greets him on this morning, the day we celebrate his birth.

The hymn bids all come, but it has a somewhat less inclusive origin.  It was written in Latin in the eighteenth century, at a time when different factions of the church looked with distain on those who didn’t share their views. It comes from a time when those factions claimed they were right and everyone else was wrong, even dangerous for salvation. To be different was to be outside and wrong. The writer, John Francis Wade, has links to Roman Catholic resurgence, long before Catholics had freedom to worship and organise officially, so at a time when they were viewed with suspicion and effectively an underground community. With that, some think the carol contains a revolutionary code linked to the Jacobite rising of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, and the plot to restore a Catholic to the throne. It was a time of political unrest. So the faithful are those who follow a particular faction of the Christian church, not all who share the name of Christ as we would see it today.

The irony is that a carol that may well have its origins in a rallying cry to a particular faction of the Christian Church has become a popular song embraced by all. What started as a partizan anthem has been adopted by all, bringing all together. It calls on all of us to adore Christ because his love is for all of us. When we want God for ourselves, to own him and pen him in, he breaks free and embraces everyone, makes our concern wider and brings others round the table too. Christ is not the possession of any particular grouping, rather we, in our great diversity, belong to him and we can find ourselves in surprising company.

Who were the first to worship and adore? In Luke’s gospel, which we heard a moment ago, it is the shepherds (Luke 2:1-20). These are the night-workers, the ones the powerful don’t see because they work while they sleep. These are the ones who are at the margins of society and so not likely to be counted in when the invitation list is being drawn up. The list of who they are today is quite wide, but it is everyone the rest of us don’t see. Who are the faithful we need to include this Christmas when singing the invitation to adore him? Who would we assume to not be on the guest list? And have they sung this too?

The carol is a reminder that this gospel is for everyone and does not belong to the church or any particular group within it. Strangers and pilgrims gather round this table, at his stable, and are joined together into a great company. We have welcomed so many people to worship over the past few weeks, people who have come to worship and adore. Some have crept in when the services have finished to pray and light candles and those of us who have been clearing up have the privilege of enabling them to use the space too.

When we think of a partizan anthem, there are divisions and hostilities today. The other evening there was a report on the BBC News Channel about churches being closed and demolished in Indonesia. There ‘to come and adore’ is to face persecution and threats. A report recently,  commissioned by the Home Secretary at the time and chaired by the Bishop of Truro, highlighted that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world and Bethlehem, which we sing of how still it lies, lies far from still today. We are free to worship and therefore responding to the invitation to come and adore is easy. When some sing ‘O come, all ye faithful’, it comes with a harder punch. 

So today we are drawn as strangers, friends, people of wide differences, to come as faithful followers of the child in the manger, to worship and adore him. May we be mindful of those we share our place with. Some look different and may express their praises differently, some will struggle against greater obstacles to be there. What started as a partizan carol is now one which bids us all come, and adore him, for Christ the Lord draws us together, united in him.  

Sermon for Christmas Day, Peterborough Parish Church, 25th December 2019

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