Greater love shining through in darkness of terror

police lightsThere have been some very moving stories this week coming out of the inquest into the London Bridge terrorist attack in London in June 2017. These stories tell of how some people were caught up in it and couldn’t get away, how others went to the aid of those who had been injured and put their own lives at risk, and some losing them in the process. This is people behaving at their best and bravest. Some were uniformed officers, others were just members of the public out relaxing and enjoying a summer evening. They describe the horror and extreme violence. The advice we are given about terror attacks is to ‘run, hide, tell’, in that order – and that is on the poster on the noticeboards in both of our churches. First get away and to a place of safety. Hide so that you can’t be found and therefore remain safe. And then, only then, if it is safe to do so raise the alarm so that help can come. It is good advice all things being equal, but there is something in the human spirit that it doesn’t quite touch. Something profound is missing.

None of us know how we would respond in this kind of situation and I pray we never find out. Some of us may be more impetuous and rush in without really thinking about it, others more cautious and perhaps make the braver decision to go in fully aware of what might happen, others naturally scared and hide. But those who went to the aid of those who were bleeding or tried to defuse the situation, even picked up a baton or chair to try to protect, were doing something profoundly human and instinctive. It is the response that fits our Gospel reading this morning more closely than ‘running and hiding’ does. People are more complicated than that mantra implies and are capable of sensing that there is something greater at stake than even their own safety. Deep down there is a defiance that says ‘we are bigger than this’; ‘we are not going to allow your violence to define and control us’. ‘We are going to show that this is how we live, displaying love for friend and stranger, for our fellow human beings in their distress’. ‘You will not succeed in destroying our standing together’.

The Gospel reading brought us Jesus’ command to love (John 13:31-35). It comes from a much longer discourse at the Last Supper where Jesus gives teaching about loving service in washing their feet (13:1-20), talks of himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life (14:1-14), promises the Holy Spirit (14:15-31), refers to himself as the True Vine and that they need to abide in him if they are to be fruitful (15:1-11). Abiding in his love means that they show who they are. He then talks of no one having greater love than to lay down their life for their friends (15:13). This is a phrase I barely understood, thinking it to be about how Jesus gives his life, until I spoke with army veterans. It is of course a phrase used on countless War Memorials and at Remembrance occasions. This is the military way, when a comrade in arms will lay down their life for their comrades, and what is more they know their pals will do the same for them. That bond makes an army strong – it is a commitment to one another that realizes that they are strong together and divided they fall apart. The command to love is no soft option. It is a bond to unite even in the face of danger, especially in the life and death moments of battle, to belong to one another so deeply that we will even sacrifice ourselves for the other. And that is of course what Jesus is referring to, because he will give himself for the world.

So ‘run, hide, tell’, may be good advice, but there are moments when it cuts across this ‘greater love’ and the tendency we all have to go to the aid of another in distress. This can matter more to us. Those who went to the aid of others on London Bridge didn’t ‘run’ or ‘hide’ and some of them were themselves killed. They laid down their lives not only for their friends, but for strangers too, which is very open hearted. Love is what binds us together and it is encouraging that people care enough and have enough love in their hearts to go to the aid of another in such dire distress. When the chips are down, then the true defeat of terrorism is in that spirit of compassion and care, selfless love shining through.

This is an important bonding to hold as we are going through a divisive time at the moment. Talking with different candidates for the by-election, a number of them have spoken about how divisive and toxic our political discourse has become. We have to refuse to allow this to consume us. One issue, that of our place and connection with the European Union, must not destroy our common bonds. I suspect we may have to make another decision on this, be it a vote on whatever deal remains on the table, no deal or revoking Article 50. However that vote comes out – and we may get an indication this week with the European Parliament votes – we will have to work hard to heal the divisions and respect one another. There was an interesting programme on Radio 4 this week, where two political commentators, Matthew Parris and Isobel Oakeshott, were put in a room with a conflict resolution expert. The task was simple, listen to the other, summarise the other’s position and show them respect and honour, even if they didn’t agree with it. Honour and respect will be a vital outworking of the love we are called to, where we know we belong together. In this bonding we stand, without it we disintegrate.

The gospel reading presents us with a greater love that is to be the character in which we follow Jesus, show that we are grafted onto his vine. That love is the way even when we face the darkest moments, and especially when some would try to drive us apart in fear and dread. We show the human spirit, the power of love in our hearts when we refuse to let them. One of the most hopeful aspects of recent terrorist attacks has been the way love has shone through and people has shown that there is indeed no greater love than to lay down your own life for your friends, or even for strangers.

Sermon for Lent 5, St Luke’s Church, Peterborough, Sunday 19th May 2019

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Meeting God in the City Centre

IMG_2825City centre life is full of buzz and activity; it is never dull. Peterborough Parish Church, where I am vicar, is in the heart of the city square and provides the backdrop to so many events, to markets, teenagers hanging about outside McDonalds, buskers and people sitting on benches. People come and go, pass by noticing and not noticing.

As with so many other urban centres we have seen a massive rise in the number of rough sleepers, taking up residence at night in shop doorways and then moving on as the day begins, only to return after hours to bed down again. Some sleep in the church porch. We pick up the cardboard used as a mattress, sometimes sharps from drug taking, and clear away the urine and other signs of bodily functions. Finding God in the city comes in the thick of life, not as an escape from it. In looking at this I want to explore briefly four areas: the city as a meeting place, a trading place, an hospitable place and a vulnerable place.

Human beings are social creatures. We are not made to be alone or for isolation. The Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city. It brings relating to the forefront of our living and as the story progresses so it also brings to the fore tensions and conflicts, love and passion, care and neglect, plotting and cooperating. Meeting others is at the heart of a city centre; it is what the public square is for. So ministering in the city centre is one of encounter and welcome. We become a physical presence where we hope people will be able to say, borrowing George Herbert’s phrase, ‘Love bade me welcome’.

A place of connecting is also at the heart of who we are in our life in Christ. We connect to God and one another as we are well placed to exhibit a ministry of peace proclaiming and making. This reflects God who comes among us in Christ Jesus, connecting and linking earth and heaven. He is, as St Paul put it, the mediator, the one who enables at-one-ment with the Father. And so all the opportunities the public square offers to connect, reconcile, speak peace when there are tensions or moments to stand in solidarity as we share the public platform with those of other faiths and none, these are held and brought deeply into the heart of God.

One of the ways human beings connect and build bridges is through trading. The exchange of goods and services, supplying needs and enrichment of living, through the produce of creativity and skills, these have led to the crossing of frontiers and barriers of land and sea, rivers and hills. The market square is a further expression, even a vehicle and engine of the connecting and reconciling. When nations fall out, when isolationist agendas are propagated it is the traders who bring us to our senses with the drive and incentive to free up the flow of goods sharing the ‘work of our hands’, and with these encounters ideas travel in the conversation.

The city centre is naturally a place for cultural and thought exchanges. With the meeting and trading comes the chance to talk. There are those who come and shout at passers by – usually threats of damnation and how God will judge them! There are those who rant and make lots of noise, drowning out any hope of thought or encounter. But not all. For others a diversity of celebrations and commemorations (and we see a lot of them) is an opportunity to learn and listen, to delight in new insights and share from treasure boxes our greatest hopes and thanksgivings (gold), our prayers (frankincense), our pains and healing (myrrh). Magi still call by. They are an opportunity to listen and speak, for not so much ‘spiritual capital’ as ‘spiritual currency’ of exchange.

Cafes, restaurants and bars abound. People come and relax, making the most of hospitality to share stories and laugh with friends and colleagues. Teenagers eat burgers and chips, chicken wings and bring their joy for life. People sit enjoying the fountains – small children delight in the playful spurts. Last summer I met a couple who were exercising their pet dragon on the grass outside the church while they enjoyed a beer from a bar across the road! In a city day trading turns to night economy and at best God’s goodness is shared, refreshment found and settings are restored. “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest… for he gives sleep to his beloved” (Psalm 127:2). Re-creation is found in the heart of the city, the soul re-found, as trading place becomes hospitable place, and we reflect the hospitality and generosity of God.

Not everyone in the city, though, delights to be there or is there with purpose. Some, as mentioned at the beginning, are there because there is nowhere else to go. They sleep in shop doorways because they have no bed, can’t cope with the environment of the hostel or their complex needs are too much for them to handle. On my way to buy a paper at the beginning of the year I counted 15 rough sleepers in shop doorways around the city square. This is just the tip of a much bigger picture, there are so many more in tents by the river, in bushes and in the outlying streets. The churches have clubbed together to provide a pop up Winter Night Shelter which progresses round a different church or hall each night. A Christian charity of which I am a trustee, working in partnership with the city council, GPs, housing and benefits advisors is offering a pilot scheme for a day centre using a property in the Cathedral Precincts. As soon as it opened the need was clear, as was the commitment to make it work. Outreach workers spend time with those sleeping rough to help them begin that long journey from despair to hope, from abandon to purpose. And it is a long journey to travel from someone being in a place where they just don’t have the energy, the drive to summon the effort to rise up on their own. This does not come with a leaflet or a referral. It comes much more slowly and is helped by being truly present, truly alongside, truly incarnational. A church in the city square doesn’t commute or visit, it is there 24/7. It lives among those who share the space.

Some are there because they are lonely and some are easily led astray or befriended by those who wish them harm, highly vulnerable to be exploited. There are those who cry out without words and who will only open up if they feel safe to do so. Chaplains with time to talk, with an imaginative piece of artwork that opens conversations stand a chance. But not all respond or are easy to reach. We pray for those who are around us, not knowing what the intention of that prayer is beyond their wellbeing, their life being held in and by Christ and God’s peace to bless them. Our prayers open a channel of grace as we intercede, connecting and sending the power of God’s love.

As we encounter the vulnerability of the others we learn about our own vulnerability. A market place of faiths and ideas means Christian presence has no monopoly or right to be heard even from an historic base; our voice has to be earned in the present. It is the compassionate heart that gives this voice credibility, not least with civic leaders. It is a presence 24/7 that abides in this place, not just during office hours or on fleeting visits. When everyone else goes home we are still here and often on the front line. Incarnational ministry means being there, this is our dwelling place, where we point to heaven and earth meeting in the buzz and loneliness, the hurrying and pausing, in the being rooted or having no where else to go.

Presence in the heart of the city is a beacon ministry, much of which we never see. It is one of making connections and facilitating connections, of meeting, hosting and caring, so that the reconciling love of God in Christ may breath out blessing and hope. God is found in the bustle and being present where it bites rather than at a distance or remote location. This ‘touching place’ is where heaven meets earth as it really is and where its need of redemption is clear.

First published in Franciscan, volume 31, number 2, May 2019

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Going viral – Refusing to be silent about hope in Christ

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Peter heals Aeneas (Acts 9:32-35) – tapestry in Peterborough Cathedral

Today our first reading (Acts 9:36-43) requires a geography lesson and a recap, or more to the point a fill-in. Last week we were with Saul on his journey to Damascus and today we have jumped to Peter in Lydda. Lydda is a regional centre, about 25 miles north west of Jerusalem on the road to the port of Joppa, which served as the main port for Jerusalem. Joppa is a further 11 miles west. Lydda is on the crossroads between two main routes, one going east-west from Jerusalem to Joppa on the coast, and the other going north-south between Syria and Egypt. It is then a major place, one where travellers meet and as with all marketplaces and intersections it is a place to exchange news and ideas as well as goods. So Peter is far from hiding, he has gone to a major place where he can’t help being noticed. These disciples are not keeping quiet as they had been instructed to do and are doing anything but keeping their heads down.

That brazen ‘out and loud’ approach is significant. Earlier in Acts (5:17-42) we hear of Peter being arrested and put in prison. Prisons in the first century were more like being on remand than a sentence or punishment in themselves. They were the place you were held until it was decided what to do with you. There were no provisions, so friends and relatives would need to bring you whatever was needed including food. This sheds a rather different light on Jesus’ teaching “when I was in prison you visited me”, you cared for those in a desperate plight. Prison could well have led to a death sentence. The charge would have been a serious one. The Roman cultic worship was obligatory and the Jewish faith had an exemption so if the disciples were charged with being outside this exemption and speaking against the cultic religion the sentence could easily be death. This pops up time and again in Acts. Paul spends long periods in prison with the threat of death over his head. A number of his letters were written from prison, which rather gives them an edge.

Acts describes a miraculous escape. Peter is freed by a visitor, a messenger from God, whom it calls an angel. A visitor is not unusual, because that’s how you get fed, so who knows what actually happened. He is freed and despite having been told not to speak, and even flogged to try to shut him up, he is found in the market place proclaiming his faith in Jesus Christ at the top of his voice. After this he travels, going ‘here and there’, as Acts describes it, and finds his way to Lydda. Again no hiding place, not a quiet backwater where he can keep his head down. These disciples are being defiant and confrontational. Why? Because they believe the message they have is so life changing that it can’t be kept quiet. It just has to be told and the best way to spread news is to go to the main east-west north-south crossroads. Today it would be posted on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and they would do something to get on the main evening news. They want this message to go viral.

Shortly after Peter arrives at Lydda, he makes news by healing a man named Aeneas, who has been bedridden for 8 years (Acts 9:32-35). His message is clear and evangelistic, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you”, and with that he gets up and makes his bed. This causes a wave of conversions. People see what has happened and are impressed.

Our reading this morning picked up the story as news arrived that a much-loved saint of Joppa had died (Acts 9:36-43). Tabitha seems to have been a skilled seamstress and as people do when a talented person dies they treasure their work. Someone who has worked wood, embroidered tapestries and fine needle point, knitted jumpers and scarves, even tea pot covers, these all go on display and link us to the one who has died. A number of years ago I took the funeral of young animator and when I visited his widow she showed me films he had made. It was his life on display and being treasured. Peter decides to travel the 11 miles to visit. Given how quickly funerals and burials happen in hot climates, this seems to happen very quickly, possibly the same day. If they set off straight away, the turn around at 3 miles an hour is about 8 hours.

What happens next is reminiscent of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. Just as Jesus calls “Lazarus, come out” as he stands at the opening to the tomb (John 11), so Peter says “Tabitha, get up”. Unlike the healing of Aeneas, he doesn’t bother with invoking the name of Jesus. As Jesus did, so his disciples are to do. As he said in our gospel reading: “My sheet hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) They show that they are his Apostles, sent by him, and that his message has credence by doing what he did.

That’s quite a challenge. I can take the implied call not to hide our light under a tub, to quote Jesus. We are to be people who will give an account of the light and hope that is inside us. If we don’t no one will know why we do what we do and so it will be a witness to nothing other than being nice (assuming we are being nice that is). And while Christianity is supposed to make us live graciously and generously, welcoming all with the love of Christ, as I’ve written in the newsletter this time, it is because this displays the light and hope we have in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead; it springs from this life and love, faith and hope. It is not just ‘niceness’. Anglicans are not known for the exuberance of their witness and talking about Jesus as the light within them. It’s a bit of a seat shuffler, being asked to do that. But developing a few natural phrases wouldn’t hurt to make this go viral.

So if we struggle a bit with giving an account of the light, healing the bedridden let alone raising the dead is going to take us to another level. And I don’t know of any occasion when I’ve raised the dead or healed the sick. I’ve blessed people who were dying and some have duly died, hopefully with a sense of peace, but some have recovered – dramatically. I’m too much of a liberal sceptic to claim the credit or even attribute it. So these are passages that make me scratch my head.

There is a film, called ‘Breakthrough’, being advertised in the cinema at the moment. We saw a trailer for it last Sunday evening while at the Showcase. It is about a 14 year-old teenage boy from Missouri who falls through the ice on a river and seems to drown. He goes into a coma with no pulse for 45 minutes. Everyone is encouraged to pray for him and he recovers. It claims to be a true story. The film has clearly been made as an evangelistic tool, but I’m left shuffling in my seat, uneasily slurping on my drink and eating popcorn, with full sceptical alarm bells going off in my head. How much of this has a natural explanation? What has really gone on here? The factors in his favour seem to have been the quick and skilled response of the medical team and that it was a cold water drowning. Here the physiological response to the shock, the bradycardic response, causes blood vessels to constrict, the heart to slow down and divert blood to vital organs that need it more. The brain cooling so quickly can also make it more likely to survive. Who knows what condition Tabitha was in as she lay assumed to be dead in Joppa in our first reading.

The word miracle means a marvelous occurrence that triggers faith. The world itself is such a marvel. Medical science is awe-inspiring. So I’m not looking for proofs, it is after all, as Jesus taught, a Godless and faithless generation that looks for signs. Rather I see those signs all around each day, and each day we are called to live as people who bring life wherever there is death or life is being sapped. That might be in aid, as with Christian Aid Week – which begins today, in the politics of hope and justice – as we call for in an election. It could be in the countless ways we bless and heal, comfort and show the love of Christ. Life is brought in the way we affirm God’s goodness in and through these wonders. Whatever it is, the call that comes out from Peter is to be prepared to give an account of the light and hope in us and proclaim the overarching sovereignty of God. This is God’s world, our life comes from God and we live it for God. That is the message we need to make go viral, by whatever means. God is good, the world is awesome, and in Jesus Christ life is sacred in his sight.

Sermon for Easter 4, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th May 2019

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Finding common ground: opening up a channel for new hope in Brexit

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Window in north aisle by the organ, Peterborough Parish Church, depicting John 21:1-14

This has been an historic week in this city. On Wednesday Fiona Onasanya had the dubious honour of becoming the first MP to be removed from office by a recall petition. This followed her conviction for perverting the course of justice and for an MP, whose job is to make law that made her position untenable. Truth matters and that such a large number of people signed the petition, 27% of the electorate, implies that people want MPs they can trust and respect. With all of the cynicism around about politics it is strangely encouraging that the expectations remain high, and by and large MPs are decent people. No doubt there was political opportunism going on too, but the conversations I’ve had showed just how disappointed people were in her actions.

We now face a by-election. And there is a great danger that we become a playground for national politicking and for others who are not really interested in this community and its challenges. Our politics is volatile and deeply divided. And our nation needs leadership which recognizes this. It is clear that Parliament does not have a consensus about how to go forward at the moment. And if anything shows the lie to the phrase ‘the people have decided’ it is this deadlock. When you have a vote that is so close – 48% to 52%, which ever way round it fell, as we did three years ago – we have to ask how we go forward when so many don’t share the commitment to the direction. It is not a good basis for a major constitutional change or indeed any change. But then again it also shows that the status quo is not stable either. The job of political leadership in this situation is not to tell half the population that they have to be quiet because that will not work and is not working. Ridiculous phrases like “Brexit means Brexit” are seriously misguided.

We actually have a very long history of handling division and disagreements in the Christian Church. From its foundations it has been set in a context of deep disagreement. Throughout its history there have been deep tensions over conflicting convictions and visions that have needed to be navigated, not least during the Reformation, and the best leaders have been those who have been able to find a course through these, to shine light rather than just create more heat. We face them today over sexuality, what form evangelism should take, how we read the Bible, and on Friday another erupted over pacifism, Just War theory and the place of nuclear weapons. There was a service in Westminster Abbey to mark the dedication of navy personnel in peacekeeping for the last 50 years, but the contentious part was it also marking the ‘continuous at sea deterrent’, which is code of Trident and nuclear capability. Placing these in the same sentence as peacekeeping pressed buttons in quite a number of people who just saw it as grotesque. There were others who took another view that these weapons exist and we have to learn to live with them, even if we don’t like them.

Our readings this morning contain a thread that places before us the call to build bridges and find ways through, to give people another chance. Saul breathes threats of murder against the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1-20). On his way, on the road to Damascus, he has a profound religious experience, one that changes him, quite dramatically. He has to find that there is another option. His is not exactly a live and let live conversion, he goes from persecutor to champion passionately advocating the position he had opposed, but it is one that aims to keep doors open. He goes into synagogues to persuade, to convince. He argues and tries to expand horizons. We see both his openness to finding a way to include rather than to write-off and the way he is embraced by Ananias who, though wary of a renowned passionate persecutor, is prepared to risk giving him a chance. Both find they are called out of their trenches and both are surprised.

In the Gospel reading we are presented with the risen Jesus meeting the disciples on the beach, with a barbecue breakfast prepared. Towards the end of this Peter is forgiven and restored (John 21:1-19). Having denied Jesus three times outside in the courtyard as he faced trial inside, on the night before Jesus was crucified, so three times Peter is asked if he loves Jesus and will therefore take up the task of shepherding the people. It is a moment of restitution, of being re-admitted as a disciple, as an apostle. Peter is commissioned with a clear message that is the key to life, so no mere optional extra. In being given this, it is the openness to restore, to embrace and bring on board which is pertinent to us right now. We can see in these passages an approach which can helps us as we struggle with deep divisions.

Whatever view we personally take on Brexit, there really has to be a decision to either stay inside the European Union or leave it. We can’t do both, even if there are halfway houses of whatever deal there may be, we are either voting members at the table or in some other kind of relationship where we are not at that decision making table. And what is also clear is we cannot just think that those we disagree with most here on the central point – in or out – can be brushed aside and shouted down. That is a recipe for deep conflict; it’s the kind of mindset that leads to civil wars because it has stopped seeing the other as being one of us, so they can be disposed of. We have to live together and we belong together, so we have to find a way through this. My disappointment is that there has been precious little attempt at the level of leadership over the last few years to recognize that these differences are real and need addressing. If they are not addressed, they will not go away not least because we have a generation coming through who by and large have a different vision of the future to the older generation. They are angry and they are seeing that they have real power if they chose to take it – they are seeing this on environmental matters and those are transferable skills.

So we need political leadership which will look to bring these deeply divided positions to hear one another and find a way forward together. I have no doubt that Brexit will be a major issue in the by-election here. We have a chance to say to the country we want an MP who will not just be partisan over this, but will recognize and honour those who profoundly disagree with them on the central issue. How will they aim to carry them with them, to build bridges rather than be divisive and potentially inflammatory?

To my mind the Brexit vote was reckless in 2016 – ill prepared, ill thought through, with no consideration of ‘what if’. It was more about party politics than a real decision being made. The time since has been squandered in shouting from trenches. As it stands this mess is irreconcilable and that is not a pleasant place to be, certainly not one we can be in any sense content with. The leadership we need is one which can be grown up and face this, to bring it together, not drive it apart. I’m not convinced this can be done without pressing pause on Brexit; an intentional pause to give time to find a consensus, not just aimless, floundering delay after delay, that serves to do nothing but wind everyone up. I am still waiting to hear a politician who has the statesmanship to hold this. This is a time that needs political giants to emerge. And the by-election is a chance to call for them.

So on this third Sunday of Easter, as we think of new life, of new hope where there was hatred, division, despair and deep guilt, the risen Christ opens up fresh possibilities. Hope is restored. In our political turmoil in this city, in the nation and the deadlock that is Brexit a new approach is needed, one which is concerned to find a common ground rather than the perpetuation of division and conflict. That will require space to be given for new life to be breathed into our political discourse. Then we may well find ourselves surprised by the new hope that emerges, as Saul was on the road to Damascus and Peter found in the forgiveness, restoration and new commissioning on the beach.

Sermon for Easter 3, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 5th May 2019

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Celebrating Easter, confronting ecological emergency

IMG_2711There was a succinct and brilliant affirmation of the heart of the Christian faith in a leader article in The Guardian on Wednesday. It was a thoughtful piece on the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I have become so used to seeing swipes at faith that it took me by surprise, so much so that I found myself reading the first sentence over and over again, not quite sure if I’d read it correctly. It said,

“To be a Christian is to be attentive to signs of God’s action in the world, and this is especially true in Holy Week and at Easter, when – the faithful believe – Jesus by his death and resurrection revealed the nature of God’s relationship with humanity.”

It went on a little further down to refer to cathedrals and churches pointing to truths that “are larger and more important than anything that can be fitted into a political struggle”. Wow, amen to all of that. Signs of God’s action in the world, Jesus’ death and resurrection revealing the nature of God’s relationship with humanity, churches pointing to values and truths far bigger than our parochial and political concerns. Welcome to Easter Day!

Today is the most important day of the Christian year. It is the day on which our hope and aspirations pivot on a scale and stage far bigger than anything else. We are put in our place and that place is within the heart of God. God relates to us his people with love. Passion and pain become hope and glory. What has been lost is found, what has been destroyed is collected together and restored in grace. God brings life into being and the end of that life is life beyond measure. Death has no dominion here; it does not have the final word. In Easter God reveals the purpose of his love as the gift of life.

When we look for signs of God’s love and those bigger values and concerns we need to find places where they become apparent to us. And we see them when we see them being lived out.

As that leader article pointed out, these structures, our buildings, with their soaring pillars of stone, provide one of the places where our vision can be helped to see, to reflect on those higher values and that love. They are not the only places but it is one of the gifts they bring, standing as representations, sermons in stone. They are built on a scale to lift our imaginations to begin to wonder and in that wondering to ask what response we are to make. As we sit here we connect with values that transcend our daily concerns and preoccupations, which undergird everything about us but also confront us with the inconsistencies and places where we fall short. A number of people have pointed out the inconsistency of being able to raise a billion Euros in a matter of days to restore a building when we can’t raise the same money or effort to end poverty, build peace and relieve those in need, even tackle climate change. And so what can point to God, point to higher values can also be a massive distraction, even displacement activity from the heart of who we are and what we are called to be, from what the building is meant to confront us with. At their best, though, these building stand as reminders of the soul of life, of the hope we have in Christ and of the values that stand above us and before us, calling us on and challenging us with the awkward questions. What is money for? Who is our neighbour? What do we really own and therefore how are we relate to our planet which we are damaging on an insane scale? The young who protest are being prophetic.

The burning of a cathedral in Paris could be seen as a sign and symbol of what we are doing to our planet. We are burning the very place where hope should abound and we see in it our vulnerability reflected back at us. This planet is burning in rising temperatures from carbon emissions and deforestation, and the climate is changing leading to the loss of species. If Notre Dame is a sign of the higher values, then these are on fire if we don’t adhere to them. I had to look up what Extinction Rebellion, the group behind the protesters in London and other cities, actually want because this wasn’t coming over in the press reports. Whatever you think of their methods, they are raising important challenges.

Their first and major ‘demand’ is for the truth to be told about the climate crisis, the ecological emergency that we face. So many people over so many years have been saying this, and it has to be faced. Concern for the integrity of creation is one of the Five Marks of Mission in the Anglican Church. So this is not just the preserve of a wacky group of eccentrics, it is the concern of all of us who proclaim Easter as the foundation of our faith. God gives us life and we are very ungrateful if we abuse it and treat it with the cynical contempt that we are doing as a species or are allowing to be done. Few of us can claim to be squeaky clean here – we all use and benefit from technology and other developments that pollute or use up non-renewable resources, so are by definition finite and will therefore run out one day. There are challenges for us all to face on the small scale and on the larger scale.

The second demand is about how quickly we can effect change. This one is less clear. Extinction Rebellion want it done by 2025 – within 6 years. Some working in this area think 2050 is more likely. Others have said we may well be beyond the tipping point now. Whatever timescale is picked, time is tight and the urgency critical.

Their third demand is for a political consensus which can transcend short-term party political interests. They express this in terms of a Citizens’ Assembly. The method may well be open to debate, but the need to make this a political issue beyond the short-termism of party popularity is equally urgent if it is going to stand a chance of being taken seriously and enacted.

So one burning issue, which reflecting on the higher values of God who gives life and treasures life, is the ecological emergency we face. As we sit in these buildings and reflect on creation, on redemption, on the hope of God, a challenge comes back to live the risen life in ways that are thankful. We don’t live thankfully in squandering what we have been given and in damaging it for short-term gain. Easter faith means that the values of heaven have touched earth. So it would be a mistake to think this new life is only about what happens when we die. The whole of our existence is under the lordship of Christ. So when St Paul says that ‘if it is only for this life that we hope in Christ then we are of all most to be pitied’ he doesn’t mean that the world is of no concern (1 Corinthians 15:19). For Paul Christ brought about a new world order, where the values of eternity join with the values of the earth, change the values of earth. We have been raised up and blessing comes to us for we have been redeemed.

On this Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the heart of our faith in Christ rising from the dead, when ‘Alleluia’ is our song, our imagination is to be lifted and with it the challenge to live in tune with the hope of heaven. Easter reveals to us how God relates to humanity: created, loved and brought into the embrace of his kingdom. He gives life and treasures life. Among the many practical and direct ways this can be seen is in confronting the ecological emergency we face, which is a spiritual challenge in how we honour the gift that is life. Easter celebrates the life at the heart and purposes of God and calls on us to show that celebration in every area of our living. Then we can join together in the Easter acclamation in word and deed, for Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Sermon for Easter Day, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 21st April 2019

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Cross shining through the gloom

Notre Dame CrossOn Monday evening, as I suspect so many of us did, I watched the pictures coming live from Paris in a mixture of shock and disbelief as Notre Dame Cathedral blazed. The more I watched, the worse it looked and when an aerial shot was shown of what looked like an empty shell only filled with burning timbers, it looked like total destruction. What we couldn’t see was the stone vaulting was holding out. It was the total destruction of the roof timbers, but not of the whole building. A hole was punched through that vaulting when the central spire came crashing down, but that is minor in comparison to what might have been and we now know that they were within only half an hour of losing the whole cathedral. Of course the smoke and water damage will be significant, and Peterborough knows this all too well from the fire in the Cathedral two decades ago now. Five years to restore it seems an ambitious target to me.

I remember walking past St Peter’s Eton Square in London 30 years ago, walking from Victoria Station towards the office where I worked just the other side of the wall from Buckingham Palace tennis courts. The church was ablaze. An arsonist had set fire to it first thing in the morning. When I got to work many were in shock and it affected even those with little or no church connection. Churches stand as symbols of stability, security and the soul of life; they stand and represent spirituality in its widest sense. Many more associate with them and connect with them than ascribe to the narrative of the faith they represent. To see one on fire shakes more of us to the core than we might expect.

Tonight we pause to reflect on the events of the day. A service in the evening on Good Friday is a moment after the events. In our real time journey, this is a moment when the shock begins to hit home. The body has been buried and the first disciples were left with grief, may be numbness. Tonight reminds us of our mortality, where we come from dust and ashes and return to dust and ashes. We do this reflecting not in despair but in the hope of the resurrection that comes through Christ. And so our Good Friday is different to how it seemed to those at the first Good Friday. We know what is coming; they did not.

One of the most remarkable images of Notre Dame in the smoky gloom is that of the cross at the East end shining through, shining out this message of hope and presence. That cross is a symbol of stability and hope while all around it is in turmoil. The cross, in its life through death, in its hope in the darkness and calamity, is a reminder that God has this and whatever ashes come, new life, new hope, new possibilities will come.

Good Friday holds our sorrow and real grief. Some will feel that particularly acutely at the moment, not least those connected with those killed on our roads in recent days. And grief has to be held, not covered up or brushed aside as we rush to Easter. We mourn because things, people matter to us and we have to adjust to their loss. Good Friday holds the loss and pain. But Good Friday is held by the life-giving, life-restoring power of Easter: we can’t celebrate it without that, indeed wouldn’t call it Good Friday without it.

For all who mourn and grieve, may this be a journey from death to new life, in the hope and love of God in Jesus Christ. May that cross, shining in the gloom and destruction, shine for us a new.

Sermon for Good Friday, Peterborough Parish Church, 19th April 2019

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All are Jesus, all are disciples…

IMG_0330This service is packed with symbolism and poignant moments, so much so that we could be forgiven for feeling sensory overload. It began with the oils to be used in the church’s sacramental ministry being received having been blessed by the bishop earlier today. This links their pastoral use – anointing at baptism, confirmation and when in need of God’s healing grace – with the wider family of the church. We are not alone, we are joined together with all who bear the name of Christ and carry that light together. In a moment a few of us will symbolically reenact Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. More of that in a moment. After the meal, the Eucharist, in which on this night of all nights we remember that it was on the night before he died that he gave bread and wine to be symbols and instruments of his presence, his grace and his feeding in word and sacrament. And then we end as he did, by going to the garden to watch with him for just one hour, in our case to the Lady Chapel. And to remind us of what followed the church is stripped of all ornamentation, representing his humiliation before the court, before Pilate, before the crowd, on his way to the cross.

So back to the feet. Who washes feet tells its own story. It was Jesus who did it and his act astounded his disciples who thought this an unusual moment. Washing feet was no one’s job, not even that of the lowest slave. Water was provided for guests to wash their own feet, as we are reminded when the woman bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and Jesus told his outraged hosts that they had not even provided him with water to wash his own feet. So who represents Jesus in this act? Is it the highest-ranking cleric – the vicar, or bishop or whoever? Well that misses the crucial point. All of us are called to be like Jesus so when he says ‘do you know what I have done, do likewise’, that is a commission to all of us to live this life, this action of service, of care, of humility. All of us are to be like Jesus.

All of us are also called to be his disciples, so all of us need to have our feet washed, at least in spirit. It can be ticklish, it can be soothing, it can feel odd and deeply personal, it can feel a little weird padding around at the front of the church without shoes and socks on, not least when the fear strikes – have I got holes in my socks? But all of us need to receive ministry and care from one another, to allow others in the church community to care for us and these are the moments when a church is seen to really be a church, when it cares for one another. And we do, and you do. So we are all Christ’s disciples who receive his blessing of this gift just as we are all called to be the ones who emulate him and give it.

The Queen doesn’t wash feet; instead she gives out money, the royal Maundy Money, to deserving pensioners of limited means nominated by churches in their dioceses. Again though, the same question arises. Who gives the money? Is this a small act of benevolence and patronage from the local lord and monarch? Is this act restricted to patronage, or are all of us called to join together in generosity, recognition of our duty to the common purse? If we recognize the importance of taxation, where each pays according to their relative wealth into the common fund which is then spent according to democratically accountable procedures, then it becomes more about mutual support than private philanthropy. Tax justice challenges the status quo and rich retaining control, placing the money under the control of the common will. Giving money to the common decision-making requires a letting go of the control, of power to share it and commit to the common endeavour and good. Gifting with strings is not really gift at all.

Who pays and how they pay then, says a lot about how we see our common life being organized. Support for the poor and weak is not just about random acts of kindness but carefully thought through policies, restoring and bringing about justice.

So on this Maundy Thursday, we gather called to be like Jesus and to follow him. We are Jesus to one another as we represent him to one another and to the world, and we are his disciples receiving his healing touch, his blessing of gifts shared, mediated through one another. We wash feet, we contribute to the common fund. All share and bear the responsibility and solution to the need. Maundy Thursday is named after the Latin ‘mandatum’, after the new commandment to love. And love is the key to seeing and understanding the mystery of these coming days.

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Peterborough Parish Church, 18th April 2019

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