Prince Philip: Spotlight on service from the sidelines

IMG_6719We are used to focussing our attention on the main characters in a film or play or story. They take centre stage and much of the plotlines revolve around them. A lot of media and popular culture is star-studded and platforms like Instagram and TikTok make stars out of us all, at least in our own social media account. There is even a whole industry of ‘influencers’, whose claim to fame is that they have become famous.

Most of us are not really in the central role. We occupy a place at best to the side and may be even well at the back where it’s not always easy to see or hear, let alone be seen or heard. That’s why I like the scene from the Monty Python film, ‘The Life of Brian’, in a parody on the Sermon on the Mount, someone at the back can’t quite make out what Jesus has said, mishearing ‘peace-makers’ for ‘cheese-makers’. Why would they be singled out to be called ‘Blessed’?

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh brings the support roles, the ones at the side or even two paces behind, into the spotlight. That was his lot in life, the moment he fell in love with the young Princess Elizabeth, who he knew would one day become queen. And when it happened, he knew their life would never be the same again and his face is said to have revealed the horror when he heard the news of the death of King George VI. The implications for them both were enormous.

But those at the sidelines are vital. In fact the lime-light dwellers don’t actually really do as much as we give them credit for and none of it is status for status’ sake. That is something that the narcissism of social media does not understand. In contrast our Queen is well known for understanding that a life of service brings roles to play and each are important. If the last year has taught us anything it should be to value ‘key workers’, those often on the sidelines, never up front. Without them we would have collapsed as a nation.

The Queen has spoken of what Prince Philip did for her, describing him as her rock and sure ground in the unbearable buffeting of public gaze and sycophancy that they endure. It’s hard for anyone not born into this to understand and those not born into this culture will struggle even more. By all accounts, it’s hard for those who are born into it.

Over this coming week we are in national mourning for one of those who occupied a side line more than most. It is the one who can be a sounding board and speak honestly in a way no one else can. It is one who can provide support that enables the principle actor to perform. Behind every great person there is someone close who enables them to function, enables them to serve. 

Something of this common purpose and bigger story was contained in our first reading (Acts 4:32-35). ‘Everything being held in common’ can sound like an archetypal commune and there are models of living which hold to this, not least monastic communities. But it is a model of social living too, where private and individual gain is surrendered or moderated because it is known that there is a bigger goal which works for all. Our society has become grossly unequal and out of balance between the richest and the poorest.

A large part of his public sense of duty and service , which the Duke held, came from his deep Christian faith. Like Thomas in our Gospel reading (John 20:19-end) Prince Philip had a questioning faith. Far from doubting, as it is often described, this is faith that wants to know and so asks the questions that must be asked.

All of us are in a bigger story, one which we serve, rather than which serves us. Christ occupies the throne in this story and all of us pay homage before his throne of grace. All of us have a part to play, with our exits and entrances, as William Shakespeare put it in his Seven Ages of Man speech.

The bigger story, the metanarrative to give it its philosophical name, touches the biggest challenges that we face. The vaccine, which is being rolled out and I received my second dose yesterday, is the product of scientists working together so that each can contribute their part. We wear masks to protect not just ourselves, but more to protect others. We endure lockdowns because it is the loving thing to do to protect and reduce transmission. 

Prince Philip was an advocate of environmental concerns. He wrote a book in 1989 with the then Dean of Windsor, Michael Mann – Survival or Extinction: A Christian attitude to the Environment – they wrote it long before it was trendy or popular. And he had the power of drawing people together so that conversations would happen and the right people be in the room together. He set up St George’s House in Windsor, a place for different disciplines to talk and feed one another. A place for character,  for resilience in public life to be nurtured. We underestimate the value of that bringing together role, but it is a way the lure of royalty can be used to make a difference, a service which effects change.

So this week we honour the supporting actor role, the one who sits at the side, but not passively so. This is a position that can still be used to effect change, to make a difference, not for its own goals or ego, but to bring the bigger picture to bear. Power is always something to be used in service of a higher goal. Most of us are not in the centre of attention, but nonetheless have a role to play to bring about the kingdom of God. ‘All things held in common’ is about more than a commune; it is itself an outlook onto the bigger scene, expressed in lives of service.

As we commemorate Prince Philip, we shine a spotlight on the sidelines and thereby the bigger story which holds all our stories and is the true goal of all our life’s service.

Sermon commemorating HRH the Duke of Edinburgh who died on 9th April 2021, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 11th April 2021.

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Easter – New life in us, for us, among us, transforming the world

IMG_6708The link between Easter and spring is quite a long one. It is so close that the two get amalgamated and Easter becomes just a celebration of the cycle of life, new life with familiar images. I spotted this Easter Tree recently and picked up a few of the possible decorations available next to it – well I assume they go together. Having used decorations during Advent for the Great Os, I thought I do something similar for Easter.

Chicks – The first is the obvious one. Chicks come from eggs, and since there are probably more chocolate eggs around than anything else at the moment, clearly this one has rather cornered the market. We can take the chick coming from the egg as being new life emerging from the tomb. On Easter morning we remember Jesus bursting out of the tomb, his resurrection.

But chicks can make it sound like the resurrection is just ordinary, normal and expected. The broadcaster and chair of the Humanist Society, Alice Roberts, put out a rather provocative tweet on Good Friday, ‘remember the dead do not come back to life’. I find that comment, as I often do with militant atheists, very disappointing. They always take everything about religion so literally. Where is the nuance, the metaphor, the deeper reflection? The disciples didn’t expect Jesus to come back to life and that is not what we affirm at Easter. It is something very different, a disruption of what we expect, transformed and transforming. It is out of the ordinary. So the chick has to be taken with a bit of caution here.

Wombs and tombs, eggs as the gateway to new life, these have quite a resonance. In the faith of Easter, death becomes the midwife of new life and we are born anew into a living hope by the resurrection of the dead, as 1 Peter (1:3) so wonderfully expresses it.

So the first decoration to hang on the tree is a chick – symbol of being born to new life and death as the midwife of that new birth.

Rabbit and Carrot – The second is also well known. The Easter bunny somehow has got associated with delivering eggs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rabbit deliver eggs, so this does seem just a bit trippy. This rabbit has an enormous carrot. Bunnies are a sign of spring fruitfulness, as creation bursts forth. There is youthful fun and laughter in rabbits merrily hopping along the verge along a country lane or across a field.

Perhaps with the rabbit we can think of the ways new life spreads to transform the world. As our bishop has expressed this in his bulletin this weekend, the risen life is to be in us, through us, among us, and to transform the world.

The second decoration is this bunny with his carrot – symbol of new life spreading out to transform the world.

Lamb – The third is the most obviously biblical. The lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus as a lamb sacrificed for us with the banner of victory is a symbol of rich allusion. It stems from the Passover Lamb, the meal before the Israelite people fled from Egyptian slavery to find freedom and their land of promise. John’s Gospel has Jesus die on the cross at the same time as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed in the Temple to stress this point.

The Lamb stands for the saving gift of Christ, whose death and resurrection being a once and for all victory that requires no repeating. The sacrificial lambs were part of a system that was constantly repeated because God was not assuaged. But Christ brings that to an end and shows that the way to God is through God, the lamb imagery is that God loves us and makes sure the door is open for us.

So the third decoration is the lamb – symbol of hope because the door to everlasting life is open for us because God holds it open for us. Sacrifices are useless because God’s gift is all we need, given in and through Jesus Christ rising from the dead.

Beehive – The fourth image is perhaps a bit cryptic. A beehive does not have the most obvious Easter connection, through you might enjoy the honey. There was a report in the Guardian on Friday about how, while pesticides are now safer for people and used in smaller quantities, they have become more toxic to bees. That is seriously bad news because bees pollinate three-quarters of all crops. So if we have no bees, we starve.

It’s easy to look at Easter and think new life to come, in the eternal, is actually where our focus should be. It’s a short step from there to decide that what happens now is not so important. But from the earliest days, the Christian faith has taken the eternal, the kingdom to come, and applied it to how we live now. God gave us life and created life and our task is to live it in accordance with his will and the values of eternity. So care for the planet and the environment is a valid concern, it is a natural consequence of celebrating Easter joy, hope and new life.

So the fourth symbol is this beehive, with a bee – symbol of how we live the hope and values of the eternal life to come, now. We are to live in harmony with the Creator’s will and that means not poisoning the bees, among so many other things.

A tree of life, a tree of hope, a tree of celebration this Easter Day, helping us remember with joy and thanksgiving Christ’s new life to come and to be anticipated in how we live now. New life in us, through us, among us, spreading out to transform the world.

Sermon for Easter Day, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 4th April 2021

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Good Friday – Jesus’ #MeToo Moment

IMG_4832One of the less visited hidden areas of this cathedral is the gaol. Like all medieval abbeys, which were also the local Lords of the Manor, in our case the Soke of Peterborough, Peterborough Abbey had a gaol. It’s just on the righthand side as you come through the archway from Cathedral Square. There is even an old cell door in there. Fittingly it now houses our security team – not in the cell but in that area.

Justice is an important concept in the Bible. It occurs throughout and the people are condemned solidly in the Old Testament by the prophets for their failures and oppression, for corrupt weights and measures, and selling justice to the highest bidder. Injustice is incompatible with righteousness, being true to the calling to be God’s people. Holy lives are just lives. Communities of faith, built on faith, place justice at the top of the to-do list. It is how governments are judged. If they don’t uphold justice above all else, they fail and are roundly condemned for it.

The most chilling six words in Mark’s account of Jesus being judged by Pilate in that reading are: “So wishing to satisfy the crowd” (Mark 15:15). With those words justice is denied and Jesus is handed over to be crucified. Instead of assessing the evidence, which he seems to want to do, Pilate when no evidence is forthcoming, hears the baying crowd and gives in. We have laws to ensure that a fair trial takes place. And Magna Carta, which may well have had a first draft written in this abbey, or at least some of the preliminary notes and thoughts roughed out, is concerned to ensure that the accused are tried by their peers, by juries. The aim is to ensure fairness and impartiality. Justice matters and the peace of the realm, of any realm, is built on it

At the moment, the Knights Chamber is being used by one of the Nightingale Courts, the overspill courts. It feels appropriate at every level. Justice is being facilitated and supported.

Whenever there is a temptation to play to the gallery to effectively ‘sell’ justice for political popularity, great damage is done – to the accused and to the common life. A healthy community needs a healthy judicial system which needs to be independent from interference. That goes for sentencing too. And there are quite a few examples of people around the world being held without fair trials and so many regimes where justice is denied, as a means of silencing opposition or scrutiny. Myanmar is in turmoil as we see injustice upon injustice meted out.

The death of Jesus is brought about by an act of injustice and power abdicating its responsibilities. In Matthew’s Gospel (27:24), Pilate even washes his hands to show he is not to blame, which is nonsense because, whatever he thinks, it’s his judgement call.  I find a poignant echo in the priest washing his or her hands before presiding at the Eucharist. It always has a bite for me as someone with leadership responsibilities. How do I exercise the responsibilities I have and use the power I have?  How do I exercise judgement?

At times I have had to sit in judgement in employment appeals – as a school governor or employer. Ensuring justice is done matters. People’s livelihoods and futures rest on it. Sometimes the needs of others have to be taken into account too. There is no washing away of the responsibility and knowing it’s my call. And many of us have these moments, from dealing with squabbling children shouting “it was his fault” to more serious judgement calls. Pilate can be an uncomfortable character in the passion narrative.

There is a twist in the power dynamic of Jesus appearing before Pilate. The gospels are at pains to make it clear that Jesus is no mere victim. He is not merely ‘done to’, but exercises agency in permitting it to happen, in embracing the passion. It is this willing act of self-sacrifice that turns an act of outrage and injustice, abuse of power and abdication of power, into one of redemption. The resurrection is not just a rescuing of a situation that went wrong, but the outworking and fulfilment of this moment of agency, accepting what is to come. In so doing, Jesus plunges into the depths of the darkness of human suffering and of violence. He delves into a place we all know well and comes among us fully.

In his appearance before the court of Pilate, Jesus turns the tables. He is neither victim nor is he passively ‘done to’, though he does embrace ‘victimhood’. That does not let Pilate off the hook with a mere hand-wash. Pilate has responsibility and he bows to the crowd, sending an innocent man to his death. Pilate, actually, doesn’t really care that much about Jesus. And that ‘not caring’ is his inditement as it is everyone’s who doesn’t care enough. Whenever it is expedient to let someone die or suffer, we pick the wrong side be it violence, racial abuse or denial of it being real, sexual exploitation or abuse or something else. And so it is precisely to Pilate, to us, that redemption comes calling.

In the gospel Jesus identifies with the victims and so the # MeToo has quite an ally. The Duchess of Cambridge laying flowers in Clapham Common for Sarah Everard spoke powerfully into that story, a story she could relate to sharing the experience of every woman. Jesus embracing ‘victimhood’, enters all our stories and it is played out here before Pilate and the baying crowd. He enters those stories to bring his redeeming love to bear because in an ancient phrase, the unassumed is the unredeemed. Jesus’ redeeming work takes in the whole scope of human endeavour, pain and abusing. Over this next few hours, there is no dark place that is left untouched by Christ’s saving work on the cross to which he is about to be sent.

For men, for white people, all of us have an uncomfortable challenge as Jesus stands before Pilate. Will we wash our hands claiming it is not our fault or responsibility? Or will we look to see where we do have agency, unacknowledged attitudes at work or decisions to make? Will we give in to the crowd, peer pressure? Or will we call it out when we see it, choose to be different? Will we, in effect, send Jesus to his cross?

Address for Good Friday, Peterborough Cathedral, 2nd April 2021

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Maundy Thursday – Bread & Wine, Water & A Towel: Foundations of Christian Living

IMG_7183Our readings this evening are full of drama (1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35). Maundy Thursday starts with a party but very quickly things turn sour and Jesus takes his last steps to the cross as he is betrayed and arrested. Before we get there, Jesus does two remarkable things at the meal which we know as the Last Supper.

One, he institutes what very quickly was adopted as Holy Communion. He also took a towel, a bowl of water and set loving service as the standard of leadership and authority. That was also picked up very quickly and was one of the characteristics that set Christians apart from the Roman culture.

Over this past year we have been largely starved of Communion. While Susan and I could have shared in this each week online, I remember talking with a former Dean of Canterbury, who had a holiday house in France. I asked him what he did on Sundays – I suppose, I said, he could just do his own thing. No, he said, that would not be correct because Communion is not private but corporate. It is an act we do together, when we gather together. So because you couldn’t share in it, we didn’t’ either.

The only exception was that there were occasions we gave you the image of seeing it, though knowing we couldn’t share it with you. This followed the online survey many of you completed last year saying you wanted to see it occasionally. So, for special days – Easter last year, Pentecost, the Patronal Festival, round to most recently at the beginning of Lent – we did. Some at home, some in the church.

We have broken bread, but also abstained because it is corporate to be shared in, not private and not just a spectator sport.  Strangely the highest views online have been when the service was a Eucharist and incense just boosted the ratings. It will be interesting to see what that those viewing figures and trends reveal. Appreciation of seeing signs of the familiar? A longing for something that looked like normal life was going on somewhere? May be a spiritual hunger for sacramental feeding? I am only beginning to reflect on this.

But I would like to think that somewhere, deep inside this is a connection with how Paul began that section from 1 Corinthians (11:23-26). “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread…” and he goes on to give the four-fold actions of the Eucharist: taking, giving thanks, breaking and sharing – we are to do these in remembrance of him.

The deep connection is, I think, that we know within ourselves, our Christian identity has been so shaped, that Communion is not a bolt on extra, just some kind of service from a menu of other options. It can be treated like that, regarded as something niche, which on one level it is.

The Eucharist, Holy Communion, is foundational to who we are because we are people who do the same: we are called, taken by Christ; we give thanks and are delighted over; we break, have to give sacrificially of ourselves in service of Christ as he did; and we share and are sent to share. It can be costly, often is, but it is the way of our crucified and risen redeemer. Communion, is foundational and identity shaping for Christian living.

And likewise, acts of loving service are not add-ons either. They are given in the same way as bread and wine. If we are to be his disciples, to be his people, then love is what we do. No one can do all the loving that is required or needed, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything. And the mystery is that when we join together the sum total is greater than the parts. God takes our gift and multiplies it.

Over the next three days we enter into the deepest mystery of the Christian life. This is where we find our identity shaped, formed and renewed. Today in bread and wine, and with water and a towel. Tomorrow we enter the darkness of Christ’s death and sacrificial living. On Sunday we celebrate the joy and hope of Christ risen from the dead.

‘Take this bread’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘eat and share in life with me,

with thanksgiving bless and honour

all the gifts to set you free.’

May this cup of hope revive you

on your journey through this world

filled with grace to follow justly;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

‘With this towel’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘I will wipe my people’s feet

washed in streams that flow from passion,

met at altar and in street.’

May the love that leads to service,

reaching out to all in need,

be a sign of Christ’s embracing;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

Hymn ‘Christ the Saviour’ Ian Black.

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Peterborough Parish Church, 1st April 2021

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Palm Sunday – More donkey, less war horse

IMG_6684This is the second year in a row that we have not been able to gather together for Palm Sunday. Usually we would read the long Passion narrative, the account in one of the gospels of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Instead we have concentrated today on the waving of palms and singing of hosannas. If you don’t follow any of the story over the next few days, you will jump from this to Easter morning. It will be a strange, filleted story – without its guts and innards.

On Thursday we will mark Maundy Thursday, the inauguration of Communion at the Last Supper, the washing of feet – without being able to wash any feet this year – and end with watching with Jesus in the garden for a short time online. You can of course ‘watch longer’ at home if you wish to sit quietly after the streaming ends.

On Friday, Good Friday, we would usually host those from other churches in the city as they come for hot cross buns in the church after the walk of witness. That is unable to happen this year, so we will join with the cathedral online for the hours of reflection from 12noon – the hours of the cross. Here, in a year of pain and suffering, we will be able to place at Christ’s feet all that we are and all that we have, all that we have been through and the suffering of the world.  We can place it there for his healing and redeeming love to work its saving grace for us all.

Without the depth of this story, Easter Sunday will feel hollow. Without it the juxtaposition of crowds singing in adulation turning to call for his death will be lost on us. Oh, how fickle the crowd seems to be – and if we are looking for a parallel, look at how the media can turn on a penny from praise to vitriol in a short step. That said, the shouts may well have been part of a festival remembering liberation from slavery in Egypt and the irony picked up by later reflecting back.

But pilgrims walked, as did Jesus in the rest of the gospels. It’s only here that a donkey is mentioned – so a visual aid for today is Carrots, my donkey puppet. This is not the sign of humility it is usually taken to be. A military king would ride on a horse for battle, but at other times, this is the 4×4 of choice. So it has kingly allusions. Jesus is making a point, or the gospel writers are in placing this triumphal entry at this point in their story. The shouts of Hosanna, which means ‘Save now’, is a shout for liberation from Roman occupation, but the gospel writers use this to announce the cross and resurrection.

We have a king, riding on a donkey, declining the military focus and aspirations, looking more to enter Jerusalem to save through his death and resurrection. So the donkey, while it may not be the humble beast, is a peaceful one. Where are the moments in our lives where the model of the donkey would ‘save’ much more effectively and fruitfully than the warrior’s horse?

When conflicts, big struggles come it’s easy to reach for the biggest weapons we can find – be they words or wooden. Christ on a donkey challenges us with peaceful saving, even if it requires great self-sacrifice in the process.

We’ve seen examples of this recently. Peaceful protests which have turned violent; policing, usually measured and restrained, has not always responded well. For those of us who are not completely pacifist, believing there are moments when force, even lethal force, is needed, Jesus on a donkey at the minimum calls for restraint and for such force always to be a last resort, to be proportionate, not the first response we reach for.

At its more challenging, it questions whether such force should ever be used. It may be my own fears that make that hard to swallow. You could argue, though, that death was defeated by a force stronger than it, the force of life and love, which redeem rather than destroy.

When wanting to respond to migrants coming to our shores, we can reach for a policy to create a ‘hostile environment’ or look more deeply into the complexities. Louise Hulland, from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, one of our Lent speaker’s this year, identifies in her book “Stolen Lives” how creating a ‘hostile environment‘ makes it much harder to help vulnerable, exploited and traumatised people; how they find their problems increase and continue, are even exacerbated.

Jesus on the donkey is a challenge to the realpolitik of our times, and actually all times. It is not easy to digest or trust. But when we show restraint, seek the words of peace – not appeasement, but true peace – we heal and build. Jesus didn’t hold back, though. This humble donkey ride is followed by cleansing the temple and he seems to go headlong into the conflict.

But it is not an armed struggle. He tells Peter to put his sword away in the garden. That was the moment they could have fought, but he doesn’t. He is armed only with unconditional, redeeming love. And our last Lent speaker, Steven Pettican from Garden House, spoke about that transforming lives and bringing hope. That’s the king we worship, on a donkey. On this unusual Palm Sunday, we can ask when and where we need more donkey and less war horse.

Sermon for Palm Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 28th March 2021

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Counting Stuff – the Cross subverts what we think matters

IMG_6634Today is Census Day. Today everyone is required to complete the National Census (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that is – Scotland has deferred its census until next year). This has taken place every 10 years since 1801 and provides a snapshot of the population. It aims to inform public policy and identify trends. This time we are encouraged to fill it out online, though paper versions are available for those who either don’t have online access or prefer to get a pen out. 

This time there are questions about national identity, ethnicity and voluntary ones on religion and sexual orientation. Question 17 intriguingly declares “This question is intentionally blank”, making me wonder what got cut, and the under 16s are invited to jump from question 25 to number 51 which says “there are no more questions” – they get to leave early. There is an option for people to fill in a private census form which will override what anyone else says about them in their household. That enables discrete honesty, if it is needed.

Counting things comes up quite a few times in the Bible. There are the famous ones, as at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, when Mary and Joseph make an improbably long and awkward journey while Mary is heavily pregnant; this is most probably a device in the story so that Jesus can be born in Bethlehem and therefore claim the right identity. It can seem a bit of a pointless plot-line since being David’s son is achieved through Joseph but the story is at pains to point out this is by adoption not natural means. It sets up the cans on the wall so they can be knocked down as the story progresses. Time and again, Jesus subverts expectations, he doesn’t do box ticking in lots of ways, so the gospels subvert this approach subtly right at the beginning. The value of counting stuff very much depends on why you think it matters and as we see time and time again, Jesus has other ideas, points out that we are counting the wrong stuff.

There is an old adage that not everything that can be counted matters and not everything that matters can be counted. It’s a counter to management spreadsheets and targets identifying success or failure solely on defined measurables, useful as these things can be to plan and focus. Quiet conversations don’t necessarily have direct outcomes, but over time they build up to something really important. Much of a priest’s most valuable work is useless for census returns and statistical purposes.

Jesus subverts expectations and easy measurables in our gospel reading this morning (John 12:20-33). Philip met some Greeks visiting for a festival. They said ‘we want to see Jesus’. So he told his mate, Andrew – one of our Patrons here – and together they went to tell Jesus. His reply is rather surprising. He doesn’t say ‘Oh good, more converts for the annual return’. He doesn’t even welcome them in with trumpets and great acclaim, as we might expect. Instead, he goes off on a thread about grains of wheat falling, dying and thereby bearing much fruit. It’s a bit like when he tells his followers elsewhere that if they really want to follow him they have to deny themselves and take up their cross. That doesn’t look so good on the promo leaflets, though you can’t accuse him of mis-selling. You can hear Peter in the background, another of our Patrons, criticising his marketing strategy: “surely not you, Master!”. It’s as if Jesus is trying to put them off, or at least, warn them that this is no easy ride.

And yet, and yet, dying to live, being drawn to the cross is where our faith begins. It is here that we find the bite of life connects with the hope held before us. This is not a shallow marketing ploy, or instant access. This is life being valued much more fully and raw lives given meaning. This is where laws are written on hearts, not checklists, as in our first reading (Jeremiah 31:31-34). They will know God because they have seen, they have stared into the eyes of the one on the cross and found there that love stares back at them, knowing them more fully than they have ever been known before.

Censuses are valuable as long as the questions asked are the right ones and you know what you intend to do with the information. So if you are looking for a Messiah, Jesus fails to meet the expected mark. He’s not actually born of the House of David; he’s adopted into it. He’s not a military leader who will drive out the Romans; he’s nailed to a cross by them and dies. He doesn’t look to restore the fortunes of the political nation; he promotes a Kingdom with a much deeper allegiance. He doesn’t tell people to follow complicated rules; he picks up the theme of Jeremiah where the heart is the true test.

I have theory that we connect with this at a profoundly deep level. There is a point deep within us, which knows when the gospel being proclaimed rings true and when it is just box ticking. Most can’t recite the books of the bible in the right order, neither can I; I don’t have that kind of pub quiz memory. I don’t know my times tables either, but I can work them out – I know how to play with maths, and likewise I know how to play with the building blocks of the good news of Christ even if I have to look up where to find the books of Ruth, Esther and Habakkuk, and I can never remember which comes first – Philippians, Colossians or Ephesians. 

What seems to count is Christ in our hearts, inspiring us to live his way, to know that in his passion, his death and resurrection is our hope because that is real life and not idealised, fantasy life. That can speak into Covid which has been with us for a year now, it can hold the grieving parents of a young woman abducted and murdered on a south London street, and it can hold all of the #MeToo connections. It can hold us when we fall short because that is why Christ came, to restore us by grace – the title of a series of Lent Talks I organised through St John’s this year and it was good to see a number of friends from the cathedral join in online. 

Christ call us to proclaim his love through our lives in what we think, say and do. Censuses only measure what they ask about. Christ goes deeper into the heart of our living and our dying that he may bring us too into his rising. In so doing, he subverts expectations in so many ways, because they are looking for the wrong things, and thereby he surpasses them too. Our living, our dying, our rising are all held in the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. God is with us, even, especially in the darkness and most painful moments, holding and redeeming.

And so, in the words of an old prayer:

“We adore you O Christ and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

Sermon for Lent 5, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 21st March 2021

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Sons of Adam’s responsibility to the daughters of Eve

 

Screenshot 2021-03-12 at 21.36.25

Sarah Everard – BBC website

For the past few days, every time I have opened my internet browser, with the BBC website as my default home page, I have been presented with the smiling face of a young woman. She looks so bright and engaging and that makes the shock all the more acute that this is the photograph of a young woman whose body has now been found in woodland in Kent. As I write this I do not know the details of what happened to her. But I do know that a heart-wrenching tragedy has struck those who are close to her and now grieve with the deepest tears – and this is Mothering Sunday weekend. A mother weeps for her child.

The reaction to Sarah Everard’s murder has been striking. It has brought a torrent of stories from women online who have had to navigate unwanted male attention on buses, taxis, walking home, out jogging, in the office, oh the list is so long. They have told of the constant ways they adjust their own behaviour to take account of this and protect themselves when they should just be able to go about their business in assumed safety. And the stories have been accompanied by raw statements of ‘male violence’ and ‘mens behaviour’ towards women. It has sparked a reaction in turn of #NotAllMen, possibly well-meaning in attempting to show solidarity or ‘we’re not all like that’, but as one woman pointed out, of course you’re not, the trouble is we don’t know which are and which are not.

That struck home. Of course they don’t. Because rapists, gropers, coercive controllers and bullies are not bar-coded. As a curate in Maidstone in the 1990s I regularly visited the prison as a chaplain. As I walked on the sex offenders wing I would meet men you would not suspect of anything if you passed them in the street. Many had used this ‘safe appearance’ to groom and win trust which they then abused. And so on the surface, the woman who said ‘we don’t know which are dangerous and which are not’ is right. She doesn’t.

This shouldn’t surprise those of us who are involved in safeguarding because we are used to keeping an open mind and always being on the alert for behaviour that seems iffy. One safeguarding officer described this simply as ‘does it pass the sniff test’? In the world of safeguarding we don’t know who is safe and who is not and so we make sure there are measures in place to reduce risk. I wish it were otherwise, because a constant state of vigilance is quite wearing.

I am also used in church circles to having to make it clear that we are an inclusive church, who welcomes everyone regardless of gender, sex, sexuality, race, education or social background, politics or conviction of faith. I know we have to make this clear that this is a safe space because I know not everywhere is, and have been told so many stories to reinforce this observation. I know that I have to demonstrate trustworthiness because it isn’t assumed. And that means I have to make sure I don’t do things which make others uneasy or project a message that makes them feel unsafe. And sometimes we have to be reminded because sometimes we forget.

For men the reaction to Sarah Everard’s murder is a reminder that we have to adjust our behaviour to show we are safe, and that means not invading space, not following a woman in the street in a way that could be unnerving or seem creepy. It may mean crossing the road if walking at night. It means not making inappropriate comments that demean or objectify. And it means calling it out when we see it in others. ‘That’s not cool’ or find a way of making clear that that wasn’t right. This is assuming that not groping and not abusing is commonly accepted. 

And then there is the over simple reassurance of #NotAllMen. Quite simply, are you sure? All of us have grown up with assumptions drummed into our heads and it runs down the generations. As a child of the 70s I know that the cultural wallpaper included Miss World, women draped over cars, the general assumption of availability and assumed willingness rather than checking consent. Of course this cultural backdrop met the cold reality of real encounters with real girls. It’s what happened next that makes the difference. Never mind ‘no means no’, this was more likely to be ‘not interested so back off’. And it is what happens next that separates those who got the message from those who didn’t or were not remotely interested in being sensitive to it.

Cultural change comes slowly. Developing a counter-cultural ethic comes when cultural assumptions meet an alternative being articulated that is understood and a more healthy way of being emerges.

When I think of how far we have travelled it was a shock to discover Hip hop and later cultural scenes bringing similar challenges for later generations. The assumptiveness did not go away. The culture of rap music with scantily clad girls draped as trophies and disposable accessories feeds young minds in a very unhealthy way. TV news reports still frequently make sure there is a pretty young woman walking down the street, strangely framed in the centre or as the focus of the short shot. Sports events scan the crowd looking for the ‘eye candy’. All reinforcing objectification and commodification of women for men’s enjoyment.

The prevalence of pornography affects minds in how others are seen. There is a reminder in ‘The Professional Ministerial Guidelines’ document for the Church in Wales that “pornography demeans a person who is a child of God into a disposable object” (2007, p4). While legal, it is not without consequences for shaping the mind and is not conducive to healthy relationships, attitudes and behaviour. That this is spelt out is telling. When looking for lives modelled on Christ, treating others as less than fully human, as an object is not compatible.

Sexual attraction is not the same as coercive, violent, abusive and aggressive behaviour. Just because someone is attractive does not mean that they are fair game for unwanted attention. Self-control means that not everyone tries to jump every attractive person. And remembering they are a person, not a thing, is a start. Sex within relationship rather than casual enjoyment is also one where boundaries are set and nurtured. The key here is relationship – two people with mutual and consensual intimacy.

All of us are shaped by the cultural framework around us, especially as we grow and develop. These attitudes can feed us well or poison the system. And we rely on others to help us assess them and make the changes accordingly. Listening to the experiences which have been triggered by the murder of Sarah Everard is a sharp reminder that how we as men behave can make someone feel safe or reinforce fear developed through so many other experiences. That so many women have effectively said #MeToo means we men have to up our game here.

All are beloved children of God, heirs of grace and carriers of the image of the creator. It is incumbent on us all to make sure those we encounter are honoured and not demeaned. Given the context, the sons of Adam have a responsibility to the daughters of Eve. 

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Commandments and Jaffa cakes – Placing God at the Centre

IMG_6603Rules and regulations have been more at the front of my mind over the past year than is usually the case. Yes, there are all sorts of procedures and legal obligations I have to work with every day, many just sit in the background of my mind – I’ve internalised them. But this past year we’ve had different levels of Covid restrictions to read, assimilate and put into practice.

Some of them have been advice, it would be good if you did, but some have been in the ‘must’ category, something required by law with sanctions. Last weekend a number of people from Peterborough were fined for going to the seaside to enjoy the sunshine. There have been quite a lot of these regulations and they keep coming as we navigate our way through the changing landscape of this pandemic.

Laws are written down and are set until someone changes them. Some have to be interpreted by the courts deciding how they apply in particular circumstances. My favourite bit of case law concerns Jaffa Cakes. Are they a cake or are they a biscuit? Cakes and biscuits are treated differently for VAT. As a cake and therefore staple of food, they would be zero rated, as a biscuit they would be a luxury and so the standard rate applies. In 1991 HM Customs and Excise ruled they were biscuits. This was challenged in court by McVitie’s, the maker of Jaffa Cakes.

The legal argument came down to biscuits go soft if left out on the plate, cakes go hard. In our house this legal argument would fail because Jaffa cakes do not stay on a plate to be left to dry out! But if you do manage to leave a Jaffa Cake on a plate you will know they go hard, which is why you don’t leave them. McVitie’s won. The court ruled they are cakes.

Our first reading gave us laws (Exodus 20:1-17), ten of them, Commandments which come in the ‘must’ category. But the implementation of these ends up with lots of ‘ah buts’ how does it apply in this case, not least because coveting our neighbour’s donkey is not that relevant for our world. The book of Deuteronomy contains a lot of this kind of thinking.

Some of the arguments put to Jesus were in the ‘what about’, ‘give us your legal judgement’ category. ‘Don’t work on the Sabbath’ got qualified as ‘but you can rescue a goat from a well if they are about to drown’. Or in other words, don’t be so legalistic that you lose all compassion and sense of perspective.

Equally making idols today may sound a bit odd. We don’t tend to worship bits of wood and stone, have our little gods on a shelf, or sacrifice to false gods. Well, we don’t literally, but we do in so many ways. We make idols out of money, out of status, out of buildings, out of position and career, out of political ideology, out of possessions and so much more. We put so much in the place that should be given to God alone. And we trip up.

This is not the same as finding some places special places where the resonances and the aesthetics speak powerfully to us – though it can be if we decide God can’t speak anywhere else. It’s also not the same as looking at money as a resource that can used to make a difference – though it can be if we regard the pursuit of money as being the most important thing and above everything else. Even companies, which need to make a profit to survive, know that they have other obligations to community, suppliers, customers, workers and all impacted by their trading.

The pursuit of pleasure, in an hedonistic way, is regarded as idolatry in the New Testament. It comes in the category of thinking that life is food and drink, sensual pleasure, clothing and the finer things of life. Jesus was tempted with this in the wilderness and also ticked off the crowd who came searching for him after he fed 5,000 of them. They weren’t interested, he said, in the deeper things of life but that they ate their fill and wanted another free lunch.

One of the things the pandemic has highlighted has been the startling inequalities in the country, not least with food poverty. Despite knowing about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for a very long time, it took the footballer Marcus Rashford to point out what every teacher knows, you can’t teach hungry children. If we are going to look higher, there are some basic needs to be met first. Denial of self is different to being desperate.

Working up Maslow’s pyramid table, the challenge for emotional needs comes when we are stressed and wanting something to make us feel better, be it wine or chocolate, even Jaffa cakes. Lockdown has been one of those times when keeping on track has brought its difficulties. The injunction against idolatry is a reminder that there is more to life than mere existence and satiating cravings. Psychologists know that cravings can make us unbalanced and driven in ways that become destructive. Emotional needs need to be met more appropriately.

Idolatry may not seem the most obvious commandment to reflect on, but it brings us to confront where our lives are out of balance and in danger of being derailed. With placing God at the centre everything else follows because it brings justice, valuing of creation and our fellow creatures – human and other species, it brings us to seek God’s kingdom first and last and always.

So as we journey through Lent, I’m going to enjoy a Jaffa cake as a reminder of keeping God before my mind: it could even be a symbol of the Trinity – sponge, jam and chocolate. Then again I may be stretching that one, so leaving them on the plate may help me with this more.

Sermon for Lent 3, Peterborough Parish Church online, Sunday 7th March 2021

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Remembering and Forgetting

IMG_4832When to forget and when to remember? It’s a question that is bouncing round at the moment, not least because of Black Lives Matter and a reaction to debates around monuments to those who have what we now regard as chequered pasts. The past may be a different country where they do things differently, but it can play on us in the present and how we remember, how we forget, how we make conscious decisions to be inspired and how to be different are topical.

I was struck some time ago by a phrase in a Remembrance Service praying for ‘those who remember because they can’t forget’. And trauma which is not acknowledged can play on our minds, not least when it is triggered by something to remind us of it. We may well find that some of this past year will affect us like a trauma, especially if it has damaged us. Mental health is a serious worry not least for the young – those whose schooling and university time has been so disrupted. What we have been through may take some working through.

Our second reading, today, talks about forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13). There is a time to put things aside and move on. We cannot undo what we did or what was done to us, but we can come to a place of peace with it. It will be to let go of it, particularly its hold on us, and realise that Christ Jesus has made us his own and so in his grace there is a new beginning for us (13:12).

Neil Oliver, the archaeologist and broadcaster, was talking on ‘Any Questions’ on Radio 4 a couple of Fridays ago.  A question was asked about the past, history and what to do with statues. His response was that we need more history not less and things should be in plain sight, so we don’t try to hide or cover up. He spoke about the twin dangers of trying to take credit for what our ancestors have done, a kind of toxic nationalism, where we assume we are superior, and on the other hand punishing for the past, because it wasn’t us or whoever the successors might be.

What matters, he said, is what we do now in the present. So the past is there to enrich and inform us and we should pay attention to it and its lessons, but we have a future to live. So forgetting what lies behind, does not mean no history, it means not being defined by it. But if we are going to be different we have to say we are, because the reality is that those who have kept our ancestors’ calling card will not know there has been a change of outlook unless we say it, demonstrate it and prove it. So, I think some statues need to go, others be interpreted.

If we believe that Christ has made us his own, then pressing on towards the goal, as Paul put it, involves living in light of this. It means looking to Christ to define who we are and where we are going, and not be bound to the past. Paul had to come to terms with this dramatically for himself.

No one should think that this happens in an instant. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was pretty instant and dramatic. But there is gap in the story and we don’t have it. Between that moment and him emerging as a champion of the gospel he disappears for quite a while, around 10 years. The great New Testament scholar, Tom Wright, speculates in his ‘Biography of Paul’, about what might have happened in the missing years.

What is likely is Paul had to work out how to handle his past as a Pharisee, as a persecutor of the church, as someone steeped in a particular way of thinking. Now, in light of his spiritual experience, he had to work out what he did with all of that. And we see this being worked out in some of the more agonised and tortured phrases of his letters. There we see Paul’s workings dragged from the margin into the text as he calculates the answer.

I’ve sometimes wondered about what it means if a leader from today apologises for abuses of the past which took place long before that leader came into office or had any involvement with the organisation. For the apology to mean anything it has to mean that changes have been made so things are now different. The conscious decision has been made. This is not how we behave now. So we don’t trade in slaves and we do treat everyone with dignity and equally. If we don’t or are not yet where we would like to be, then we commit to make the changes needed. What no one wants is an empty apology, which means nothing.

All of us can think back to things from the past that make us shudder – either what we did in our ignorance, our immaturity or foolishness, or even wickedness to our shame, or what was done to us, the traumas that are triggered to be re-lived. We have to find a place that allows us to press on and not be turned into a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife who looked back when told to look forward (Genesis 19). She got frozen in time and that has all the fleshy malleability of rock salt.

The past can inform us, but all of us, in our different ways, have to decide if holding to it will help us live better or turn us into rock salt. Christ came that we may have life, and that prize, as Paul referred to it, is what we press on to attain.

Sermon for Lent 3, Peterborough Cathedral online service, Sunday 7th March 2021

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What’s in a name?

IMG_6574What is in a name? It’s Juliet’s famous question as she bemoans Romeo belonging to her family’s sworn enemy as a Montague. A rose would smell as sweet if we called it something else. Physically it would, but the reality is that naming things changes how we see them socially because words are social constructs and as such reflect culture, values and assumptions. These are largely taken for granted, working in the background, like an operating system for our psyche.

So names matter and the old adage of sticks and stones breaking bones but words never hurting is of course rubbish. Words hurt very deeply and bullying is often reinforced through words, name calling and the abuse that comes with it. So Juliet’s teenage angst is her coming to terms with a reality her dreamy love affair will crash into. And we know it has a disastrous outcome.

Names can also be used to bless. I had a letter from the daughter of a woman who had received a small gift from a trust I am involved with. She had read the letter to her mother and it began, as I do without thinking too deeply, by addressing her by name. The woman’s response was

“He used my name! No one uses my name any more – I’m always Mrs and never called by my name.”

It had felt personal, direct and brought more blessing, it would seem, than the cheque which accompanied it.

Mary Magdalene on the first Easter morning is brought up sharp when Jesus calls her by name, “Mary”. It cuts through the tears and grief, the darkness of the early morning just like the sunrise breaks through the night. Jesus had used name changing as a confirmation of calling. Simon becomes Peter, the rock on which the church will be built. And Justine Allain Chapman, in our first Lent Talk on Thursday, spoke about Peter and how although he falls. Jesus is faithful restoring him for service so he becomes fruitful once more.

Abram and Sarai in our first reading (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16) both have their names changed. It seems a small thing, no one really knows what the difference is between the names. Abram and Abraham mean the same thing – exalted father or father of many nations. Sarah means the same as Sarai – princess or joy and delight. I think two things are happening with their name changes.

Firstly they are having their status, their calling and vocation, confirmed. Yes, they really will be those things. Abraham will be the father of many nations and Sarah will find and become joy and delight. Abraham is part of the common heritage of Christians, Muslims and Jews. Through him we can regard ourselves as being spiritual siblings, brothers and sisters with a common heritage and therefore who look to a common goal in God’s grace, one that bridges divides we would otherwise see as being insurmountable.

Secondly Abraham’s name gets bigger. It’s a literary joke. It is just an elongated form of the same name. Abram short for Abraham. Tim short for Timothy, Jenny short for Jennifer. The bible is full of little jokes, that brighten up the text and make the story sparkle with playfulness.  It acts out the message: a bigger name to show the bigger vocation.

There is more blessing in our gospel reading (Mark 8:31-end). Peter gets it wrong again. He refuses to accept that Jesus’ vocation can be to die, not having caught the great twist in the story which comes to light when Jesus meets Mary that first Easter morning in the garden. This time Peter is not called ‘rock’ but ‘Satan’. His mind is in the wrong place and so he needs to give his head a shake to let the grains of sand in there settle again.

The real name, the real vocation we all have is not to high status but to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Whatever we do, wherever we are, however much responsibility is given to us in whatever form that comes, it is our primary calling and trumps all others. Someone sent me an email this week asking about how you come to be a Dean and asking in effect about ambition.

I wrote back about true ambition being to make a difference for the sake of the gospel, not about personal advancement. There is always an ego lurking under the surface and scaling the greasy pole is always a spiritual danger, not least as the titles get longer – Rev to Canon to Very Rev. It could go to your head if you let it. But my real name remains ‘Ian’, which is what I was baptised and that remains the true vocation.

The real ambition, which Peter must learn, is to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, crucified and raised for us, to become an agent of God’s kingdom advancing faith, hope and love wherever and with whomever we find ourselves. Different places just bring different challenges and opportunities, and in God’s grace the gifts the meet them.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, but only because of what it carries. So Juliet is quite right. The rose smells sweet, so we need our language to reflect that, to see and affirm its blessing and not hide or hinder it. Enjoy the jokes of Abram becoming Abraham, Sarai becoming Sarah, but see the true source of the exalting, the joy and delight within them – God’s love for us. And use this season of Lent to grow in that love, that joy and that delight.

Sermon for Lent 2, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 28th February 2021

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