Guarding the mind

IMG_2378There is a song, released in 1988 and again in 2000, by Bobby McFerrin, with the very simple message “Don’t worry, be happy”. It is one of those earworms which advocates just forgetting all your troubles and being happy. It is a whistling in face of adversity. The crucial part it misses out is ‘how’ and ‘why’ we should be happy. Just telling people to smile and cheer up is probably the worst thing you can say when anyone is in the pit of despair or feeling the dark clouds are gathering around them. We need more than a party animal pouring out the drinks. Paul, in that passage from Philippians (4:1-9), avoided the shallow by basing it in the gospel of hope. Because of Jesus Christ risen from the dead there is a reason to rejoice, to be thankful, to pray.

He begins by commending fellow workers in the gospel; thanking those who have laboured with him. They have earned a place in the Book of Life. He then gives a wonderful hymn of praise which advocates rejoicing and gentleness; he tells his readers “Don’t worry…, but in everything by prayer… with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God” (v6). There is a point to everything and God holds all our lives. So pray and be thankful, for it is in that that rejoicing flows.

He then talks about the peace of God, which is beyond our understanding, guarding our hearts and minds (v7). ‘Guarding the mind’ is an interesting phrase. It implies a protection from assault and a gatekeeping from thoughts that attack our mental state. The Archbishop of Canterbury in that GQ interview with former spin doctor Alastair Campbell, which seems to be being drip fed to us, has this week spoken about depression, what Churchill called ‘Black Dog’. Even when things might look like they are going well, the overwhelming feeling of being hopeless and useless assaults the soul, the depth of his being. Pressures can weigh on us and we need to guard our hearts and minds from their assault. Rejoicing doesn’t remove them, but it can help change the mental map because it introduces the reminder that God is God and we are held in his purposes and love, whatever.

On Friday we hosted a meeting here with our MP, Fiona Onasanya, and Superintendent Andy Gipp – the local police chief, on crime and policing. At the end of it Fiona thanked us for our prayers – she knew that we regularly pray for her and felt the ‘guarding’ of those prayers. And we do pray regularly for our MPs, both north and south of the river, and for the City Council. They have difficult tasks and we pray for them as they bear those responsibilities; for their support, to be sustained, to be strengthened and guided in the struggles they face. They need resilience in leadership, especially when in difficult circumstances. The City Council has faced an 80% cut in its budgets over recent years and there are hard choices ahead of them.

Paul ends with a wonderful passage commending a noble and gracious path. Whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure and commendable – think about these things. Focus on these things, be renewed and refreshed so that you may be strengthened and guarded by these things. There is so much to weigh us down, and that is not a new feeling, that the mental map needs restoring. That restoration stems from rejoicing with thanksgiving and in prayer.

The gospel reading (Matthew 22:1-14) gave us the image of a king who is throwing a party. He expects everyone to attend. It is one of those invitations that is not really a question. When I was in Holyrood Palace shop in Edinburgh last year I picked up a book called ‘How to greet the Queen’. I opened it at random and found a passage about accepting and refusing invitations. “Invitations from Her Majesty and from other senior members of the Royal Family are generally considered commands: it isn’t done to plead a prior commitment.” (p72) To refuse, for anything other than a very serious reason, is an insult and in the gospel reading this is not taken well. An army is dispatched to dispatch those who treat the king with contempt! Well, they did murder the various posties delivering the envelopes. It is an extreme image. Today is you receive an invitation to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party, there is a bit of checking which date you can make first, so that no one is embarrassed by turning it down.

We then get the unfortunate, sartorially challenged guest. Having turned up, he is not prepared. He hasn’t made any effort to be ready. This is not shallow ‘fashion police’, but rather a reflection of how serious this invitation is. The Kingdom of God is a command because it comes from God. We are to be ready for it, prepared, live lives focused on it. To do otherwise is to treat it with contempt and that is why conversion is regarded as being a dramatic reorientation, a turning around, from being focused elsewhere to being focused on God.

We do this by focusing on whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is peaceful, with prayer and thanksgiving and rejoicing in the Lord always. By this we guard our hearts and minds, but also prepare ourselves and those we affect around us for the Kingdom of God.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th October 2017

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A straight man’s answer to a gay question

IMG_6710I’m a bit late to this particular party, but I have had a busy week.  I am spurred on to blog because of a leafleting campaign in the City Centre yesterday by a group who felt it was their duty to state why God does not approve of gays.  I feel it is my duty to state that they do not do so in my name.  What is more I have friends who in other provinces of the Anglican Communion are now solemnising same sex marriages, now that they are allowed to do so.  I have also been asked several times this week where would be a safe church for LGBTI people to attend and was able to say that my own churches are.  It is important to make this clear.

The Archbishop of Canterbury got into hot water last weekend over sin.  He was asked one of those questions that only a certain type of journalist expects a ‘yes/no’ answer to.  He was asked if gay sex is a sin?  Nice snappy question, which is designed to put him on the spot.  I have sympathy for him.  This is only a ‘yes/no’ answer is you can unequivocably say “yes it is because all such activity is inherently sinful” or “no it isn’t because what ever you do is fine”.  And define ‘gay sex’, if you really want to tie this down.

For everyone else there are complexities; life is more complex.  I don’t like the ‘charge sheet’ approach to sin – Wednesday I drove too fast, Thursday I was grumpy, Friday I drank too much…  Sin is a state of rebellion against God and all of us are caught up in it.  We are flawed, fallen, fallible and fall short of perfection.  Actions can be based in a cynical rejection of God’s justice and righteousness.  They can also be caught up in something more systemic and cultural, where influences bigger than us bear an influence we can’t overcome.  For some all of this is very clear.  For others it is more nuanced, with changed understandings of sexuality and how we live in grace, love and mutual giving, fidelity and commitment being seen to express themselves in different ways but nonetheless be real.

So in my mind faithful, loving, stable, committed relationships are life-giving.  And being life-giving they are a source of blessing because what blesses gives life.  They enrich everyone they touch. In contrast abusive, coercive, exploitative relationships do not bless.  They are inherently sinful.  Both of these are found in heterosexual and gay relationships – they are not inherent to one or the other, and neither are exempt.

So show me the relationship and then I might be able to comment more fully on how much they display ‘sin’ and how much they display ‘blessing’ – though no one really knows the secrets and reality of another’s relationship.

This is not a snappy soundbite, or even a ‘straight answer’ as Justin Welby tripped up saying.  Actually it is a straight man’s answer to a gay question.

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Giving, loving, serving: Christ-like Obedience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stress bananas, forgiveness and living the grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Calling to account: when two or three are gathered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Renewing of our giving: bare necessities and thanksgiving

IMG_5760Today I want to talk about money; your money to be precise! Money is a gift and can also seem a curse. Too much of it and we worry about keeping hold of it; about the value of assets rising and falling. The financial press is full of exchange rates, credit levels and the drivers of industry and commerce. Too little money and we worry about coping, having sufficient to make ends meet. It is estimated that two million people are addicted to gambling, not least online gambling, and much of this will be driven by debt and wanting to win enough to make ends meet. Money is a tricky subject for a variety of reasons. Few feel they have just enough and how we see that varies enormously. The more we have the more we see is possible to have.

The principle of Christian giving is that everything is gift and so we give out of the rich bounty that we receive, whatever level that might be. It is not supposed to be from the loose change at the end, but a proportional gift out of the good gift that sustains us; an offering of thankfulness. It is difficult to be precise about how much each person should give, but there are a number of ways of thinking about it.

One way is to impose a subscription: it costs £x to belong to this club. The rates are set to match the costs.   There is a national average level of giving. The latest figures available are for 2014, when the average overall across the country was £9 p/w. For those who give under Gift Aid – where we can claim back the tax – the average was a bit higher at £12 p/w. Being average figures, some clearly give substantially more and some give less. We don’t charge a subscription, deliberately so, not least because we don’t think about members, but all are welcome. The ‘sign-up’ comes through baptism when we give the whole of our life to Christ and in Confirmation affirm this for ourselves if it was said a long time before. So a subscription does not work for us and goes against who we are and the whole notion of giving in thankfulness for what we have received.

The Bible gives a different model. It talks about tithing, which it defines as 10% of the produce. It always strikes me that 10% of modest or seriously low income represents a much higher cost to the giver than 10% of significant riches does. However the principle is that everyone can afford something and should do so. Here we give according to our means.

To do that, we need to look at the necessities of life, the bare necessities – what I call the Jungle Book Model. Looking at our bank statements and our outgoings, what does our giving match? Some big-ticket items are probably spoken for before we get anywhere: rent, mortgage, food, fuel… but then life gets more discretionary. A daily paper, coffee at a café, that bottle of wine, eating out… comparing these to our level of giving can be telling about where our giving rests in our priorities.

Looking at giving can also help us to reassess how we live. Go back to Baloo and his song to Mowgli – I know you’ve all been singing it since I mentioned it – the bare necessities. What is basic, what is simple? The call and virtue of living simply is a spiritual discipline for life. It displays our dependency on God and not material possessions and comforts. We are encouraged to live sustainably, concerned for the fairness of the trading and therefore purchasing. This is based on the wisdom of the ages that comforts and possessions can deaden the senses to our mortality – all that worry and strife. The more we amass the more we can sit in denial of that reality. Living simply is about letting go of everything, even ourselves, for here we have no abiding city, but our true goal lies elsewhere.

This fits with our readings. The Epistle (Romans 12:9-21) was packed with advice for hospitable, gracious, generous living in peace and harmony with one another and the world. It even included a reference to contributing to the needs of the saints. And the Gospel (Matthew 16:21-28) was a reminder to live sacrificially, to take up our cross and follow; for self-giving love to be the character we live by. Sacrificial giving, an offering of ourselves that is costly, is in the title deeds of Christian stewardship and that includes giving.

Over the next few weeks, we are asking everyone to take away a pack – there should be one for everyone, if not please say and we will make sure you are not missed out. Inside this you will find three documents.

There is a letter from me, personally addressed and signed. As I wrote each one I thought and prayed about each person receiving it as I wrote your names. It was a spiritual exercise for me, to think and pray for you, but this is a spiritual exercise that we are asking you to do, so it is right that it has prayer at the heart of it.

The second sheet sets out the church’s finances. There is no getting away from it and you need to know where they stand. Costs go up – the parish share has risen substantially over the last few years as the diocese has changed the basis on which it assesses this, wages rise as the National Minimum rises, buildings and insurance costs, heating and lighting are all very difficult to reduce. And our income needs to match these costs. We have a gap, £298 per week, and we need to plug it. That sounds scary for one person, but not so scary when spread among many people and each do their bit.

Giving is our primary source of income, but we also charge for events and fees. There is some investment income, though that is reduced at the moment too. We have a group looking at events and how we can generate more income. But the task for you is to look at your giving, pray about it, think about what is an appropriate level for you – taking into account the bare necessities – and then please note it on the third sheet – the Response Form.

It helps us budget if we know how much we can expect. If you are able to sign the Gift Aid form for us to claim the tax back on your gift then it is important that only one person signs the form. Since the 1990s tax has been individual and couples are treated separately, so a separate form for each giver please.

This Response Form includes a bank standing order mandate. This makes giving simple and straight from your bank account on payday. That’s what I do. The diocese administers this and claims the tax back if applicable and we receive the whole amount without any deductions – that is a service they offer which is covered by the Parish Share we pay.

So read, pray, think about Jungle Book and the bare necessities, and make your response. Please seal it in the envelope provided and place it in the box in the church. They remain confidential to a small group who administer this and no one else knows.  All of the responses will be offered as part of our Harvest Festival Service, our offering of our gifts with thanksgiving for all God gives to us.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 3rd September 2017

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Who do you say that I am… Finding identity as children of God

IMG_2378Jesus’ question in the gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-30), “Who do people say that I am?”, has a strangely modern resonance to it. We derive our sense of who we are from a number of sources and there has recently been quite a lot of discussion about the affect of social media on our sense of self. We regularly hear about celebrities being subjected to vile abuse online and Rev’d Kate Bottley, known as the Gogglebox Vicar for her appearances on that programme, was one of the latest to talk about this after receiving what she described as sexual abuse through Twitter after appearing on Strictly. These attacks have a way of getting inside us, because they invade our private space via our phones and computers, and it feels like someone is in the room with you, which can be very unnerving.

There has also been quite a lot of comment about cyber bullying and the pressures on young people to match certain images, and this can affect body image and a sense of self worth. Eating disorders and psychological health are closely related to these pressures. Add to this exam pressure, where over the last few weeks we have seen so many images of A* students and success, it’s a tough time for those whose results have not been so glittering, but actually may represent significant effort for that person, or even those who have not performed as they wished. Life is not over for them and in time different doors open, even if it requires a rethink now, but it’s hard to hear that at the time. I know this from firsthand experience – my own O and A Level results were not glittering, but life has a way of being a journey in God’s grace all the same.

So ‘who do you say that I am’ is a far more topical question than we might have thought just a few years ago.

I am reading at the moment a book about Dementia with the subtitle ‘Living in the Memories of God’. I’m giving it a slow read because I am taking it in as I go and reflecting on its insights. One chapter talks about our sense of self and draws on the work of psychologist Steven Sabat. He offers 3 aspects to our sense of self: personal identity, story and relationships. ‘Personal identity’ is about our ability to distinguish between this glass being mine and that cup being yours. It is the ability to distinguish between me and you, yours and mine. The second aspect, ‘story’, is about our biology, physical charateristics and experiences. What I have done, where I have been. The third is the one Jesus asks about, it is the ‘self in relationship’. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ ‘How do you label me?’ I am a dad, I am a husband, I am a role – Vicar, Trustee – and people respond to me in those roles, projecting their assumptions. I have no control over these projections. When I walk about the city centre wearing my clerical collar, people respond in all sorts of different ways, which come from within them and I have no control over them. Some of this is depersonalizing – they see the collar and don’t see any story or any inkling of how I might be feeling on any given day. That goes for so many people, in so many roles from checkout staff, to receptionists and baristas, medical staff and bus drivers.

For those suffering from a condition, like dementia, they can easily become the patient and cease to be the person who has a story. They get labelled by their medical condition and people can stop relating to them as a person with a story, and just as a collection of symptoms. A well-known pitfall of being in care is the institutionalizing that can go on through the lack of homely personal touches and surroundings, which are so important for our sense of who we have been and the story we carry. People coming out of the forces can find that they struggle to cope without the clear boundaries and expectations of rank and role, structure and procedures, they previously knew and felt so secure in. It is important to be called by name and for the story and relating to be kept alive, even if the person themselves has forgotten it.

As important as these definitions are – identity, story and labels – they do not define us completely. And no one’s definitions of us can completely capture who we are. The same goes for Jesus, people say what they say about him, but none of them can fully grasp who he is completely. That is beyond their defining, limited as they are to their limited grasp and vision. A missing aspect for us in the 3 aspects of self model is our status as children of God, which goes beyond the boundaries of story and label. It goes beyond the achievements which are valued and those that are unseen. It is unconditional love and it is a status that never leaves us, even if we forget the story and lose our relational status or it is overwritten by a new institutionalized one. We have a status as a beloved child of God, and we live in the memories of God, even when our grasp of memory may fade.

The twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer pondered on who we are in his poem ‘Who am I’, written while held as a prisoner by the Nazi regime in the 1940s. He begins by talking of different ways that he has been experienced by others in how he has related to them. Then he asks:

“Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I know of myself,

restless and longing and sick,

like a bird in a cage…

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today,

and tomorrow another?

Who am I?

They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God,

I am thine.”

(Letters and Papers from Prison p126)

Bonhoeffer was struggling with who he was and how his condition, his plight, was held and known. His profound faith shines through at the end with his assertion that whoever he is, he is God’s. We are children of God whatever our story, whatever our label, whatever our remembrance or forgetting.

When Jesus asks ‘who do people say that I am’ he is asking far more than what is the word on the street. He takes us to heart of the most profound question that we can grapple with. We are so many things in so many different places. Fundamentally we all know that ‘I am me and you are you’, even if some labels have fallen off. We have a story, which we may or may not remember – and at times all of us forget bits of our story or may actually need to forget bits to cope with the pain. We are in relationship with others and these labels pick up important ways we live and experience. But most importantly, and through all of this, we are children of God, heirs of his grace and beloved.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 27th August 2017

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