Places to Be

IMG_0874It was a privilege this afternoon to welcome Antony Gormley to St John’s Church in the heart of the city centre in Peterborough for a celebration of the installation of his three sculptures ‘Places to Be’. These have been placed on top of buildings around the church and the invitation to everyone is to #LookUp. They are casts of his own body, made of sheet lead on a fibreglass shell. They explore what it means to be, to be in a space and to be a space of dwelling – not least around the church, to be a place where the Spirit of God dwells, inspires and fills with grace.

There are three poses – one embracing the sky, even the cosmos. One looking out to see what can be seen and wonder. One on the move, walking to a destination, but on a journey. Three ways of being – embracing, looking, moving.

IMG_0876.jpgWe are each a place to be a person – created, loved and redeemed by God. Far more than just a thing, we are places where the image of God dwells.

The tagline #LookUp is both practical, you need to look up to see them on the skyline, and also metaphorical. They raise our sights and thoughts are we have to look from where we are to where they are and beyond them, even through them. We have to look up from our phones and take notice.

As is our custom in the church the celebration was begun with a prayer and this is the prayer I wrote this morning to reflect on ‘Places to Be’, being created in the image of God, looking up and God’s Spirit inspiring. It is my reflective response to these wonderful works of art in the city centre.

God of wonder,IMG_0882

as we lift our gaze

so may we find our hearts raised

to delight in the beauty of your creation,

the hope in Jesus Christ

and become a place to be

where your Spirit dwells;

to honour your image in one another;

to the glory of the Father. Amen.

© Ian Black 2018

 

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Power of Love shown at Pentecost

IMG_0685I don’t know if you have been using the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ material over the last ten days, from Ascension to today. This has been encouraging us to pray, to open our hearts to the life and love of God in Jesus Christ, to seek his kingdom above and in all things, to be longing for the life of the Holy Spirit, which we celebrate today. It has been a period of encouragement to share this hope and longing in all our meetings and relating, to long for others to come and share in this life of hope. Some aspects of the material have been deep and profound, beautifully worded and perceptive of how life can be and feel.

On Thursday the theme was ‘adore’, and adoration and praise is the response our hearts make to the love of God that gives our lives meaning and hope. The reflection that accompanied this, if you were using that resource, popped into my email inbox. And it started so well, reflecting on the lure of celebrity and fame, the illusion of adoration which can mask a deep-seated insecurity and actually feelings which struggle to accept that we are adored and adorable. My disappointment grew, though, when I read words which talked of us not ‘deserving’ this love of God and knowing for ourselves “that we’re not really that adorable”. Oh dear, I thought, that subtle comment goes against so much of what I believe to be true at a profound and fundamental level. It also undermines the message it was trying to convey – an unfortunate slip, but one that may well display more than is realised. Let me explain.

The point of Jesus Christ is that he shows us what God is like. And it is in the nature of God to love. We exist because of this love, and it is God’s gift and giving which is the source and goal of our life. We are held in that love or we are nothing. ‘Deserving’ is not in the equation at all. Worthiness is not in the equation, except so far as we perceive it. God reaches into our lives with a loving embrace. And that can be almost unbearable, and extremely difficult to accept, but that is our baggage and not God’s. “God so loved the world” that he came as Jesus among us. He didn’t come despite the world, despite our unworthiness. That is not part of the deal or even on the table. It is love offered, love given, love shared and poured out for us. And all because it is in the nature of God to do this. So no choosing beyond choosing to be who God is.

This tension between how we see it or feel it and how God is, is expressed beautifully and powerfully in George Herbert’s poem ‘Love bade me welcome’. You may know it from Vaughan Williams evocative musical setting in his ‘Five Mystical Songs’. The soul draws back because it knows it is ‘guilty of dust and sin’. But quick-eyed love observes this and invites the soul to be the guest, ‘worthy to be here’. It is too much for the soul who protests unworthiness. But for God this is not the criterion. God made him and love him. Love says that he should sit and eat. But the soul, accepting to join the meal, says he will do so as the server, only worthy in his own eyes to wait on tables. This is rejected. ‘No you won’t’, says love, ‘you are my guest’. The nature of God is to love and we thrive and flourish in that love. It is radical, transforming and changes people for the better.

Yesterday we saw the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as they are now known. Love has transformed their lives; brought them joy and completion, which is a delight to see. Neither has had to earn that love; they gave it to one another because it is in their natures to love. It is in all our natures to love and in so doing we display the image of the one who made us and reaches out to us in loving embrace. In his sermon, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, Michael Curry, quoted Martin Luther King.

“We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.”

Love changes us. As Michael Curry went on to say:

“There’s power in love. Love can help and heal when nothing else can. Love can lift up and liberate for living when nothing else will.”

And this is true because God is love and all loving is hardwired into that nature of God.

So we come to our gospel reading (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15). In these verses taken from John’s gospel, Jesus talks about the Spirit being sent and given, the Advocate, the Helper and Comforter, depending on your translation. ‘He will prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgement.’ This is the anti-thesis of having to earn and deserve God’s gift and love. The world is wrong about sin precisely because it does not understand who Jesus is and what he represents. He represents the nature of God who loves and gives and blesses because that is who he is. It is wrong about what it means to be righteous because it does not depend on deserving, on anything we might do, but on God’s grace alone. We can do nothing to change or affect it. Jesus is going to the Father. That means he is who he is and that gives the authority for what he says. It is wrong about judgement because we have hope. The ruler of the world, the effect of sin, the power of evil and rebellion has been defeated in Christ’s cross and resurrection, in his ascension. God is God and so we bask in that loving embrace in Jesus Christ.

And that brings us to Pentecost, the gifting of the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of the fuel needed to fill us with the life and love of being adored. It is the counter to all the false searching in places where there can never be true fulfillment – be it fame, the latest experience of a high however induced: partying, drugs or alcohol, or hollow relating. The Holy Spirit is the grace and charism of God, and that is by its nature infused and overflowing with love.

So we do not come here as unworthy creatures, even if that is how we feel, even if that is how it might look if we measured ourselves up against the perfection of God, fallen as we are. We come as beloved, invited by the love. We come as guests of one whose nature is to give and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon us, and in us, is that love being made complete. For we are not left alone, comfortless, or abandoned by an absentee creator-owner. We are filled with the spirit of the divine which makes love the most powerful force in the world. It changes hearts, puts down weapons and bridges divides – not least oceans between peoples otherwise divided by a common language.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Pentecost, Sunday 20th May 2018

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Megaphone vs Rolling Over? Faith Seeking Understanding

IMG_7967There is a question running through the gospel reading this morning (John 17:6-19) about how we relate to the world. How does Christian faith respond to or live with the world? The passage we heard is part of a long prayer of Jesus for his disciples and his reflection on what is to come as he is about to embrace the final journey to the cross. After this he is arrested and a sequence of events is set in train that leads to his death and he seems to know this. So he is anguished for his disciples, whom he knows he is leaving behind and it is natural to wonder what will become of them. Will they hold true to all that he has been trying to instill in them? Will they hold to the love and power of the good news he brought, or buckle and fall in line with the expectations of the world around them? And so, the central question running though this passage.

At one moment Jesus seems to be saying that there is to be a separation between them and the world, where the world is seen as being something distinct from those who follow Jesus (v9b), something to be protected from (v12). It seems to be the territory of the ‘evil one’ (v15). Jesus’ followers do not belong to the world (v16). In the next breath they are not to be taken out of the world (v15) and indeed are being sent into it (v18). So what are we to make of this and how should we approach what is being referred to here as ‘the world’? What is to be our approach as we hold to the gospel of Jesus Christ in a world that doesn’t always share the same assumptions or indeed understand them?

There have been a number of responses by Christian writers and thinkers over the centuries to this question and we find them in various guises now. At the two extremes are what I will characterize as at one end the megaphone approach and at the other the dog which roles over for its tummy to be tickled. The megaphone is shouty and proclaims loudly and without any reference to the thought patterns or arguments put to it. It sees itself as being distinct and the only really valid approach to the world is to mark out the clear distinction. At its extremes it uses the image of the Ark, where the drawbridge is to be raised so that the church, the Christian community, becomes a place of safety and protection, of remote holiness unbothered by the corruption outside. This starts to be seen when we hear claims that the church has to make sure it doesn’t bow to the ‘spirit of the age’, or sell out to modernity. It needs to proclaim a distinct Christian gospel and not have any truck with all this modern immorality and betrayal of truth.

It won’t be a surprise that I find this wanting. It doesn’t do justice to how life really is. And sets up a false barrier that we don’t need in those terms. It is also not incarnational, where God chooses to come among us in Jesus Christ and share the space with all sorts of surprising people as he walks and talks. Jesus is challenged for doing precisely this when he parties with tax officials, publicans and others of questionable character. The world is where we are and we have to relate to it just as Jesus related to it, indeed came precisely to do this. We are made of the same substance, so can’t ignore it. It is who we are and in that sense we belong to it. Hold that one, though, for a moment because that is not the complete picture.

The other extreme is the dog who roles over for its tummy to be tickled. This is where we so assimilate our thinking that there is no distinction at all with secular and other thought. We have nothing to contribute because all our reference points come from the same shared space as our culture and how the modern age sees it. The dog has lost its teeth so has no bite to offer. This is an ultra liberal agenda and I find it wanting for locking itself in the confines of the here and now, with no reference to anything beyond. While we live in the world and are made of the same substance, share the same cultural influences, we have a gospel to proclaim and that carries elements that look outside of what is current and popular. There is something counter cultural about the gospel. So I’m not content with the tummy tickled dog rolled over on its back either.

Another approach takes a midpoint, where profound faith becomes the lens through which we view and assimilate, access other disciplines and views. This is summed up well in a phrase from an 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm. He talked about ‘faith seeking understanding’, where being in the world, the world we seek to understand, we owe our true allegiance to a creator who stands beyond it, indeed on whom it depends. And it is the perspective of eternity that we use to try to understand, drawing on all of the disciplines that we can access in this: science, history, sociology, psychology, medicine to name a few. Faith seeks understanding in being the profound confidence and trust in God, and this being the solid ground from which intellectual enquiry and reflection is launched. We view the world through the eyes of faith and in that we seek to understand the world God made, cares for and loves. It is by no means merely a bolt on optional extra, which can be ignored or sidelined. It is central to the enquiry and the quest for understanding.

With this approach, when Jesus prays for protection it is a prayer for a profound rooting and grounding in the presence and reality of God. Strengthened and protected by this we have nothing to fear in where intellectual enquiry might lead us, even if it brings profound challenge to where we might be at the moment. And that is why the gospel is radical, because it takes us to the core of who we are and who we might become. It doesn’t just lock us in to where we are, or indeed seek to leave us where we are, but transform us in the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

On Friday I had the privilege to host Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, when he came to the Cathedral to talk about a past Dean, who was also one of his predecessors as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. During this he talked about education and one of its purposes being to equip people to ask lots of awkward questions. We do not want a civil society that is compliant and docile. We want one which requires those we elect to give account and justify what they do. It also needs to be grown up and recognize the difficult decisions they have to make and the limitations of their options. Too much of our politics is narrow and blinkered at the moment and only looks at questions in isolation, failing to join up the dots. It is one which seems to fit well with the megaphone that shouts without taking account of the context in which it is set and we need one which is more grown up.

So when Jesus prays that his disciples will be protected from the world, he also expects them to stay in the world and struggle with it and all it brings their way. Their faith is to seek understanding, their faith is to protect them from being lost and give them teeth when they need it to provide bite so that they have something to say and offer. Christ came into the world and did not stand aloof from it. Indeed he was about to embrace its pain and suffering in the rawest way that he could, on the cross. As we stand in these days between Ascension and Pentecost we can reflect on the challenge to be of the world and yet know that we view it with a perspective drawn from beyond it, even more deeply in it than the superficial. We are to be ‘sanctified in truth’ (v19).

We both belong to the world, for that is where we are and it gives form to our physicality, and we are not bound by it, for faith gives us a perspective drawn from eternity that seeks to be guided by the Holy Spirit of God. We are not restricted to whatever is fashionable, but also take the best of other disciples seriously. Faith is the place from which we seek understanding; it is not merely a bolt on optional extra.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 7, Sunday 13th May 2018

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Advisory: This sermon contains nuts – Julian of Norwich and the Command to Love

IMG_0555On our way back from an Easter break in Norfolk, we called in at the Church of St Julian in Norwich. This is where the medieval mystic Mother Julian of Norwich had her cell as an anchorite. This meant that she was walled up in the cell attached to the church for 26 years between 1390 and her death in 1416. Once she entered it, she was not allowed to leave on pain of excommunication. She literally lived in that room for the rest of her life and was not allowed to leave. It is likely that she was even buried under the floor. This was so stark that before entering she would have attended her own funeral Mass in the church and received the last rites. When she went in, the door was sealed with wax seals and her only contact was through a small window where she could receive food and Communion. It was a solitary life of prayer and reflection. Today the site of her cell has a deep stillness and peace about it – a place to sit and reflect.

While she was in there she wrote of visions she received when desperately ill some years before and these are known under the title of ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. They are a classic and she is remembered in the church’s calendar this coming Tuesday – 8th May.

One of her writings reflects on a hazelnut, which is why I have given these to you. As she looked at it in the palm of her hand she saw this as a powerful symbol of God’s love, holding creation as in the palm of his hand – and you might like to look at the one I gave you as it sits in the palm of your hand as I read this passage from her writing, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’:

“And in this he also showed a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… In this little thing I saw three properties: the first is that God made it; the second is that God loves it; the third is that God cares for it. But what is that to me? Truly, the maker, the carer, and the lover. For until I am of one substance with him I can never have complete rest nor true happiness; that is to say, until I am so joined to him that there is no created thing between my God and me.” (Chapter5)

God made it, God loves it and God cares for it – the Maker, the Lover and the Carer. The world, indeed the universe, is fragile and vulnerable. It is tiny in comparison to the vastness of space and eternity, even more so for us than for Mother Julian. But ultimately it is loved and that love is the source of our deepest hope in Jesus Christ. It is held, it is cared for by the maker, redeemer and sustainer of all things.

Our Gospel reading mentioned love seven times, in a short passage (John 15:9-17). As the Father loves the Son, so he loves the world. We are to abide in his love and outside of that we are estranged from the very purpose and heart of the created universe. And this love continues to move and touch. As we are loved so we are to love. The Commandment that Jesus gives is to love one another. And to ram home that point he repeats it, just in case the disciples haven’t heard him or weren’t listening properly. This is a direct command. We are who we are, who God calls us to be, when we abide in his love and the sign and outworking of this is the love we show for one another. Grumpy, gripey, grouchy and fractious as we can all be, love is the answer. And in that love we blossom and flourish. We know it for ourselves. We should know it for others.

Julian of Norwich went on in her vision of the hazelnut to talk about how much we are to be of one substance with God. We will never have complete rest or happiness outside of this. Or to use the language of John’s gospel, we are to abide in that love. This is where we are to dwell and know we dwell, where we have our home.

The poet William Blake also thought about the world being seen in something small and through it to see infinity.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.”

As we look at the hazelnut, resting in the palm of our hand, we find the love of God visible for us. Just as the hazelnut is small it has great potential to grow as a seed into a giant tree. The love which brings and triggers awe and wonder, delight and thanksgiving, brings a glimpse of the eternal and the hope that comes into this fragile and small world. We are looking at eternity in the palm of our hand, to the love of eternity and at the eternal love of the creator.

Julian of Norwich’s time was turbulent. The blackdeath had ravaged and disturbed people deeply. They were very conscious of the reality and ever presence of death. She would have heard the burial carts trundle past outside her cell. The Peasants’ Revolt led to many public executions and her bishop, Henry Despenser led troops to quell rebellions, including in Peterborough, so he was no quiet man of gentleness! A mob attacked Peterborough Abbey and Henry Despenser rode to the aid of the Abbot, leading to 400 people being slaughtered in what is now Cathedral Square, including women and children. So with that background her mystical and hope-filled vision of God loving, rather than hating and threatening, the created world is all the more powerful. It was a similar world to Jesus’, where public executions and summary reprisals could bring death at any moment. So the advocacy of love calls for a putting away of fear and panic, to rest secure and trust in God’s underlying and enduring love. Just like the hazelnut is held, so are we.

Jesus’ command is that we love one another. It springs from the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ. In that love we flourish and find our true fulfillment. As we gaze on the hazelnut in the palm of our hand we become aware that we are held in God’s love and care as maker, lover and carer. As we abide in that love so that love is to reach out to everyone we meet.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 6 – Sunday 6th May 2018

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The house where love dwells – Address to APCM 2018

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 21.29.07Thinking back over previous addresses to this meeting, I have reflected on the core values that shape us as a community and as we plan for what we aim to be. Today I want to celebrate these values through looking at what has happened over the last year. Much of this is captured in the reports from different groups. So I am going to show a number of pictures taken this year which capture this.

The bedrock of every thing we aim to be and do is our worship. Each week we gather to celebrate in word and sacrament the love of God in Jesus Christ and aim to draw others to follow him. That gathering together is central in who we are and who we aim to be. We do not just profess a faith in isolation, but being together is a crucial expression of being a follower of Jesus Christ who prayed that we be one and do not lose sight of our need of one another. We are communal and it is hard to have a banquet on our own, so we need to be together. It is a fallacy that we can be a Christian on our own. When Christ calls us to follow him, he calls us to join with others and we find ourselves in surprising company as we look at the rich mix that he calls to share his hospitality, to gather round his table. That may bring challenges at times, but we are called to struggle with it and be who we are in Christ together, in community.

Each week I see a small group ensuring that there are flowers in the church. Key festivals are marked, and all through the year, there are fresh flowers here. They bring life and a reminder of community and communal life. A number of years ago a young girl brought some daffodils to my then church and said flowers are a sign that love lives here and so she had brought flowers for the church as a sign that love lives here. Out of the mouths of babes – she hit the nail on the head. This is the house where love dwells and where love calls, embraces and gives us hope.

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 21.31.16We find ways to proclaim this love to those around the church – to use our city centre location and presence. At Christmas we have made it clear that Christmas Starts with Christ – this is a church of a living faith, not just a pretty backdrop of built heritage in the heart of the city. It is the heart of the city, because it is a sign that love dwells here. And we make that clear in so many ways. Whenever we open our doors people come in to pray, to enjoy the peace – there are very few places where you can find peace in the city centre. People light candles when they can and it matters to them. We have the cross with the resurrection banner over it in the west doors at the moment as a witness to those who approach from St John’s Square. At Christmas we have put a crib there too.

One of the ways we are particularly good at showing love dwelling here is through hospitality and providing a place for people to come and spend time together, for strangers to find welcome and acceptance. Here community is made and it matters enormously. It happens in the café, when concerts and other events are being held on Tuesdays and at other times, at special celebrations as well as each week after the main services in both churches.

All of this has to be sustained. And the weekly and monthly pledges enable the churches’ mission to continue. Without it we would not be able to function. Each time we have invited one another to review their giving there has been a positive response. It has taken a while for some pledges to work through, but they have. It always takes a while for those who are new to join in, but one of the advances of so many giving by standing order is that even if attendance patterns are less frequent than they used to be because of people’s lives being much more mobile, we still have the background support we need. We are looking at how we can increase income through other means, but still the backbone is the planned giving each week. We have already looked at the accounts and seen that there continues to be a challenge.

IMG_0344We have promoted faith and celebrated faith. As well as the Holy Week services we kept the church open for reflection on Good Friday and this year Chris Duffett brought some of his art and painted a picture while he was here, opened conversations and provided a different way of reflecting. It brought a point of engagement, for conversations to take place.

Two groups explored a locally produced book in the autumn and those times of discussion were appreciated. It was a privilege to see faith being explored and shared so deeply. What was interesting for me was how the same text can prompt such different conversations but also the depth of faith being shared and reflected on.

Schools work continues to be important. We have welcomed young musicians from King’s School and The Peterborough School for concerts, visits from schools to explore faith and for us to explain how the church reflects our faith, assemblies led in King’s and the Peterborough School and there are a number of people involved as governors and trustees of a number of schools.

Faith has also been promoted for those prepared for confirmation at the Easter Vigil in the Cathedral. Some of them are easier to spot than others in the photo after the service.

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 21.36.30The built heritage, which speaks so profoundly to so many, has been cared for in regular maintenance and in significant repairs. The leaking roofs have finally all been recovered with the North side completed last year. Added to that some stone repairs and rainwater goods being kept in good order. Talking with the contractors they take great pride in their work. We have a new Architect, Stephen Oliver, who has taken over from Julian Limentani after he retired and Stephen is helping us take care of the buildings.

A sad part of where we are is that there is damage from time to time to the building from those who pass by. On Christmas Day in the early hours someone threw a traffic cone through one of the Stained Glass windows and this will be repaired shortly – adding to another repaired last year. At times we become the target or perhaps the recipient of untargeted aggression. It is a sad part of city centre life.

The organ repairs continue. Because generous donations to complete the 1917 specification came in when the repairs were almost completed, the work is still ongoing. They have been going on for two years now! We are waiting the final addition to bring the organ up to the specification originally planned but never actually completed. The new target date is the patronal festival on 24th June. One of the embellishments is 200 programmable memories for the piston settings.

The church is accessible and we almost take this for granted now. But it is important that people can make their own way, unaided, into the church and this makes us more inclusive.

We support democracy in action, providing a polling station in West Town at St Luke’s. Talking with the returning officers last year they valued being in there and found it an extremely good venue to be able to use. Opening the doors and welcoming people in shows there is a living community there. It increases visibility and presence. While we don’t take sides in party politics, indeed our congregations represent the spread of parties, we show that the work of our city council and national parliament are in our prayers by this, and they are regularly. Fiona Onasanya told me at a meeting with the Police Chief held in St John’s last year that she knows we pray for her and how much she appreciates this. We prayed for Stuart before her and also pray for Shailesh Vara, MP for the south of the city. It is an onerous responsibility that we give to them, and to our city councillors, and it is important that we pray for them and the officers who carry the burden of so much of the work.

We have partnerships with other churches, through Churches Together, but also developing with the Mar Thoma Church in working to lease them St John’s Hall. The Mar Thoma Church is an ancient church, in communion with the Church of England, tradition being that the Apostle Thomas went to India and founded the church.

81a1af_c8bec601d55b40589750d3957d84183eSo many events have taken place in the church this year – a growing number and far ranging. I now expect to find good reviews and stories in the Peterborough Telegraph each week of something that has taken place here and have to remind myself that this is a success story. It is a tribute to the work of Alun Williams in his programming work and also of Jonathan Hanley, our administrator, in coordinating and promoting St John’s as a good place to come to. Again this increases footfall and helps make connections with people who come through. These are important moments of and for mission.

We have hosted community events, like the ‘One Day with Us’ event, held to celebrate the diversity of our city and the contribution which this brings to enrich. It was held for the first time last year to counter the hostility many were feeling. It was wonderful to welcome local poets who explored the theme of belonging together and I am talking with the Poet Laureate about how we can bring some of these together in a collection.

Each year we host the Holocaust Memorial ceremony and and this is a moving moment when we confront the darkness of hatred and division, when fear and anxiety turns toxic and is projected onto particular groups. It is for that reason that I asked Alun to represent us at the Peterborough Pride plans so that we can stand alongside another group who so often experience hatred, not least from churches. We need to make it clear that we do not condone or support the prejudices and hatred.

We have seen extreme violence and there is a tense atmosphere in the country. It has been an honour to speak into the public square on these, after terrorist attacks and speak words of peace and lead a prayer. I found myself holding these events and the city was grateful that I did this.

I find myself being invited to lead prayers at a number of remembrance commemorations through the year, not least on Remembrance Sunday. And this year, being the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 will be a particularly poignant and important one.

The list of events is a long one, from talks as part of Tuesday till Two, Piccolo – music for the very young, which has proved extremely popular, classical concerts of voice and choral works – including local choirs, talented musicians delighting us by using the city Steinway piano, some young musicians beginning their careers, to new audiences with the acoustic set from local new band Austin Gold and opening the church to a new group of people who don’t usually come here. We have held tea dances, with Henry’s band – or the Peterborough Concert Band as other’s know them. We are a popular location for exhibitions, such at the Burma Star photograph project we hosted last year, the regular photographic and art exhibitions. It is a large number and no one person can be present for all of them, but together we can cover them, and need to because this is how we connect with people.

IMG_0610A particularly special event was Sponge, which was a touring show for those aged 4 months to 4 years. This took place over 3 days and we were able to welcome several hundred people in for the various shows. The organisers commented on how easy it had been to work with us, which is a tribute to Jonathan and those who helped host the event, and they are keen to use us again. They said that this is not their experience everywhere so that will encourage them to come back and as they spread the word of their positive experience this will be far more effective marketing than anything else we could do. Reputation matters enormously.

That is a snap shot of some of the events that have taken place inside, we are also the backdrop to so many events outside not least the extremely popular Heritage Festival, events aiming to promote community celebrations and cohesion, markets and so much more. We welcome young cadets who come here for the RAF’s Battle of Britain service. In the summer two performances of a mystery play took place on St John’s Square, Mary and the Midwives, and they were very pleased that I welcomed people before each performance and began it with a prayer. May Day is often marked with Morris Dancers and there are other occasions when they entertain in the square. At Christmas and New Year, the church is prominent as the city gathers for the lights switch on and for the fireworks to mark New Year. Our bells also announced New Year, ringing out the old year and celebrating the new. They provided presence to what would otherwise be an empty moment.

This year we have also said goodbye to a number of people who have been part of this community for many years – Beryl Albon, Deborah Crawford, Betty Baxter, Keith Nelson and others from the city too. We remember and give thanks for them as we commend them to God.

Socially we are acutely aware of the challenge of homelessness and this is reflected in the charities we have supported from the Café profits. We support the Light Project, who run the Winter Night Shelter, through me being a trustee, hosting their trustee meetings in the church, and working with the city on this difficult and complex issue. Indeed homelessness is much more an umbrella term for a highly complex collection of interrelated issues.

This is a vibrant and exciting place to be. There is so much to celebrate here. It is easy to over look it all and not notice it, especially if you are not around outside of the main service times. Our reach into the city and and around it is far greater than might be realized. And today, being our annual meeting, is an opportunity to pay tribute to so many people who make this possible and make the witness here a living one. At its heart is the praying and worshipping. We are a church first and foremost and exist to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and to draw others to follow him. Everything else flows from this. This is the house where love dwells and where love calls, embraces and gives us hope.

Address to the Annual Parochial Church Meeting for Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 29th April 2018

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The Vine – connecting with God

IMG_0539Go into any church and there is a strong chance that you will find images of vines. It appears as decoration around screens, in windows, on altar frontals. The weaving foliage, often ripe with fruit, provides a good coverage for large areas and carries the eye along. Here’s a game for you – see how many places you can spot vines weaving around the church. There are quite a lot in St John’s, more than you might have thought. The vine is an ancient image in the bible for the people of God and how they belong to God. Just as branches cannot survive without being connected to the root so the people cannot survive without being connected to God. Isaiah (ch 5) used it to talk about God having a vineyard and dressing it and caring for it, looking for it to bear fruit. So the image is clear, if we are not connected to God in some direct and vibrant way we wither and die spiritually. We need to abide in God, to be connected.

So it is not surprising that Jesus uses this image to talk of himself in our gospel reading (John 15:1-8). He is the vine, the one we need to be connected with, and God the Father is the vine-grower. It is through Jesus Christ that we find our connection with God and that comes through a variety of ways.

It comes through prayer. Without prayer we run on our own strength and lock the world into its own references. This becomes a truly secular outlook. Prayer takes us to the vision of heaven, of the divine and that expands us to all it means to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’. Prayer is the life-blood for us and it brings the spiritual blood that we need pumping round our spiritual system. We need to pray to be in any way connected with God through Jesus Christ.

Very quickly, though, we find this needs a story to be focused through. And this is where the vine being Jesus becomes critical. As we look at his story – at his life, teaching, death and resurrection – we have the lens through which to interpret the world. Being connected to the vine means being connected to the story of Jesus, to the radical challenge and grace in action that he brings. Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christ Church Oxford, was speaking at the Theological Society on Wednesday evening. He described Jesus as ‘God’s body-language’. Through observing him we see what we can observe of God. So those subtle cues we pick up, the actions and presence, reveal to us the character we are to observe and follow. And we cannot abide in him, be in any way connected with the vine of God, if we do not connect with the story of Jesus.

We are about to enter the period of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost. This begins a week on Thursday, 10 May, and runs for ten days. For the past few years there has been an invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury to use this as a time to pray for God’s kingdom to come. It is a moment to focus on being connected to the vine and wanting to connect others to that vine too. It is a moment to spend in deep prayer to be renewed in hope, in grace and thanksgiving. And these can change the world. Being people of hope and grace and thanksgiving is a radical move at the moment and one the world needs deeply.

There are a number of resources available this year to help us journey through the period of prayer. Two have been produced by the Church of England: a prayer journal and book of reflections. This year the 10 days also coincide with Christian Aid Week and they have produced a prayer booklet with the challenge from developing countries to have our sights and our priorities expanded and deepened. Copies of these three booklets are available in the church. Please pick up which ever appeals to you most and use it as an aid to prayer and reflection on the story of Jesus and how this works out in real life. They have been provided free of charge.

Connecting this with Christian Aid week means that prayer for the kingdom is linked with the cry for justice and relief of suffering and poverty. It comes with a challenge to how we live and how content or otherwise we are with the plight of the poorest people on the planet. Being connected with the vine is no mere comfort zone, it can be disturbing and requiring action for justice, liberation and pursuing the wellbeing of all people.

So look around the church and see how many images of a vine you can spot. As you do remember that this is an image of being connected with the God, with the story of Jesus and the cry for justice. Far from being a comfortable image of rural tranquility it is rather an organic symbol of the growing kingdom of God where the hungry are fed, the homeless find shelter, the lonely embraced and justice is the foundation of our common living.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 5 – Sunday 29th April 2018

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Called by name

IMG_0185Names are very important and our own name is deeply personal. It expresses so much of our identity, who we are and where we belong. We have our first name or names, what for those who have been baptized we call our Christian name, and we have our family name, taken from one or both of our parents. Some choose on marriage to combine these family names, others adopt one and stop using the other. We don’t choose our first name for ourselves, at least not at first. It is given to us by others, our parents or in some cases someone else who has the first care of us. If we later decide to change this, it is a major step to take and will reflect very deeply how we now see ourselves, otherwise it is what we have grown up with and become accustomed to. One of the things we do at baptism is give someone’s name an added layer of blessing. This is the name which is used as water is poured over us in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And there we have name being used again. What we do in this special moment is identified with the love and character of God, it is done in God’s name.

When Jesus used the image of the Good Shepherd in our Gospel reading (John 10:11-18), earlier in the passage it was taken from, before where our reading started, he says that the shepherd knows the sheep so intimately and closely that he calls them by name (v3). And the point of the story is that we are the sheep whom Jesus knows by name. It is an intimate image. We are not just one of a crowd, though we are part of a great company of followers who seek and have sought to live the Jesus way down the centuries and do so today. We are known for who we are and loved for who we are. When so many people struggle with who they are – be it body image, how they look, or with confidence and acceptance for not quite fitting in with the crowd, or coming to terms with something different about us to what had been expected – knowing that God loves us for who we are can be incredibly liberating. God knows you by your name, not someone else’s. And being you is to be the unique creation that God has made, blessed and calls to follow him. You are one of those beloved sheep that the Good Shepherd knows and calls by name.

And that is another side to baptism. With our name blessed we are called to follow Jesus. We are called by name to live a life that gives thanks to God for the love he gives us in Jesus Christ and to show that in everything we do. That might mean saying sorry on occasions for when we mess things up – and all of us do that, regardless of how old or important we become, in fact we probably do it more the older we get and the more important we become. This is why every service includes a confession; a moment when we can acknowledge that we have got it wrong, sometimes spectacularly, and we will show this by trying to live differently. God calls us by name and sets us free to walk on in a new life of hope and grace.

In a moment, Canon Sarah will show these three elements in the actions around baptism. The name is blessed along with the person as the sign of the cross is made on his forehead using special oil blessed for this purpose. Anointing is an ancient custom whereby someone is marked out as special and given a special job. Jack is special and his name takes on the extra special character as his Christian name. The special job is to be a follower of Jesus Christ and that requires a whole life commitment. He is young and will need to grow in that. As he does that, he will require help and encouragement, which is where everyone here has a part to play. He needs examples to follow and reflect on – that is your part, and parents and godparents have a particular privilege and responsibility here. Teach him, pray for him, pray with him, guide him and delight in him as he flourishes in faith and in life.

The second action is the water being poured over him, three times in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this just like we wash away the grime of the day at bath time we are reminded that the sins we do and will continue to do are taken from us by the only one who can, God in Jesus Christ. Baptism is a putting away of the grip of sin – for we pass through the water in a hope that life is not futile, but blessed, loved and held. The image used is of dying to sin, passing through the waters of death, and coming to share in the life and hope of Christ. It is a rich image. We are forgiven because we are loved. Sometimes the one who needs to forgive us most is ourselves and accept this deeply within ourselves. God sets us free to be and live as his beloved child.

The third action involves the Easter Candle burning here. It is a light to remind us that we live in the hope of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead at Easter. At the end of the service a candle will be lit from it for Jack to remind him and us that we are to shine as lights in the world to the glory of God. We have a calling, a vocation, to be people of that light and not people of darkness. There are so many ways that this can be and is expressed. But in short, we aim to be people who are blessing to those we meet and for whom the consequences of what we do is life-giving and life-affirming, which is at the root of the word blessing. Be light, be Christ light, wherever you go and whatever you do.

The Church of England gives today an extra label. It is ‘Vocation Sunday’ and that means it is a day to ask how God might be calling you to live that light of hope and grace and blessing. It might be that there are ways you can do this in whatever it is you do for a living. It might be that there are ways to do this more fully in your home or among those with whom you live. It might be that God is stirring up within you a sense of a different role that aims to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and call others to follow him. That is what the church is called to be and do – it’s a very simple vocation that we have here – proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and call others to follow. Everything flows from this, whatever fancy words or statements we come up with – if it is not about this, it has missed the point. Vocations and calling in the church take many forms, some are ordained as clergy, some are not; some are to the religious life as a monk or a nun or in some other kind of community, some are not. It might be that there is another ministry that strikes a chord for us. God’s Spirit calls and stirs and it can take us a bit of working out just what shape it takes. But when God calls others will recognize it too and that is good way of checking out what is delusion and what is real.

God calls us by name and our vocation, our living out of this will take the form that fits us, and the form it takes may well surprise us. It surprised the prophets before us. And all of us who stand here wearing clerical collars began with our names being called by God, being blessed by God, by realizing that we had to die to sin and live for God, and to be lights shining in and through and for the world. Every baptism is a moment to be reminded of our own baptism, of our own calling, and of our own growth in faith and living out that faith. Pray today for Jack, for those who will help him grow, and for yourselves as you seek to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, to be light-bearers, to draw others to follow him too.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Easter 4, Sunday 22nd April 2018

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