Guiding our feet into the way of peace

IMG_6065On the panels at either side of the church are a series of photographs by Wendy Aldiss of veterans of the Burma campaign during the Second World War.   These were taken to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of that war last year, a project which took her to the far reaches of northern Scotland. This might not seem the obvious place to start a sermon for our Patronal Festival, celebrating the Birth of John the Baptist, but John’s canticle is the Benedictus and that ends with the words:

“To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79)

Some of what those men endured has been brought to popular attention through films like ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ and more recently ‘The Railway Man’. I came across the latter walking along the town wall of Berwick-upon-Tweed in 2014 and finding an exhibition of the filming there. I bought the book and was gripped.

‘The Railway Man’ tells the story of Eric Lomax who was a prisoner-of-war in Japanese camps having been captured in Burma. He was forced to work on the Burma-Siam railway line. He was brutally abused by his captors and many of his companions died at their hands in dehumanizing conditions. Many years later, long after the war, he discovered that one of his torturers had dedicated his life to trying to make amends for how the Japanese army had treated their prisoners-of-war. He was so amazed that a man who treated him with such cruelty could do this that he set out to make contact. It is a journey in which he seeks to put to rest “demons” that have haunted both men over the years: the need to forgive and the need to be forgiven. The prompt came in the hint that he gets that the former guard has changed and is living a new life. It is not a tale of easy forgiveness or of pretending the consequences of the torture are easily forgotten. The pain is palpable and real, but the ray of sunlight, giving “light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death”, is the sign of a changed life and this makes him think it is a journey worth embarking on, worth the incredible emotional effort that will be required. Hated enemies turn into blood brothers. The book ends with the powerful statement “Sometime the hating has to stop” (p319).

So for me these pictures are a reminder of that book, of the journey for reconciliation and the call to have our feet guided into the way of peace. And it is not easy, especially when the emotions are high and the pain is raw. But being people of peace is what we are called to be. And this church is set in the heart of this city as a symbol and vehicle of the peace that comes through Jesus Christ. A major part of our call is to follow our namesake, to be John the Baptists, who point to that peace by living it, proclaiming it and making it tangible especially when there are heightened tensions around.

Yesterday there was one of the Great Get Together picnics to remember the murdered MP Jo Cox. It was delayed by a week because of the Heritage Festival last week. In her maiden speech in the Commons Jo Cox observed “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us”. That motto, “more in common”, now adorns her memorial in Parliament. And one of the surprising elements to emerge from recent terrorist attacks has been the signs of cohesion and community, of people pulling together, of people from all sectors of the community and from different cultures and faiths coming to one another’s aid. This is the very thing that the terrorists wanted to destroy, but they seem to have achieved the opposite. And there is a great mood to pull together, to stand together and ask what kind of society we really want to live in – one which is divided and hostile or one which aims to have its steps guided into the way of peace.

Now before that starts to sound too idealistic, there are differences of opinion and ideology, and these are real. They cover our political vision, views on economics and the story we tell. How we disagree well, rather than dysfunctionally and violently, so that debate can be fruitful and lead to robust outcomes, is a major question for our age. If we want to obliterate all who see the world differently, we will all die in a terrible blood bath. But disagreeing well does not mean that we pretend we don’t disagree either. John the Baptist was no diplomat, and neither was Christ. They were straight speakers who did not bury their message in the foggy tones of understatement. They were clear, unequivocal and direct, sometimes bluntly so. It did not always make them popular when their challenge was sharp and pointed. But they did meet with those they felt needed to change and clearly listened because they knew what the others said. The way of peace requires deep listening and understanding, pausing to take in what is being said, and then applying critical evaluation and having the confidence to share why we see it differently. The idea that those who voted to remain in the EU should keep quiet and fall in line is deeply flawed. The onus on those who voted to leave is to put forward convincing arguments and visions of how this can now be, and so far they are not doing a very good job of that. Winning hearts and minds is always a better option. The pen is mightier than the sword because it can inspire restraint, prevention of battles and the just peace we all long for. There are deep divisions here and they will not be brushed aside or bullied into silence. Our General Synod next month will discuss where we find ourselves after the General Election and what it means to walk in the way of peace.

So today we have a reminder in pictures on the panels around the walls that this church sits in the heart of this city as a place that speaks of peace and the light that shines on all who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. That is, of course, all of us. Our purpose is really quite simply to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, like John the Baptist to say ‘behold the Lamb of God’, to point to Jesus, and live his way so that the world around may see it and be guided into the way of peace. We start though with our own steps and our prayer is the Benedictus that light will shine and guide our feet into the way of peace.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist, Patronal Festival, Sunday 25th June 2017

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Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus

Follow me - landscapeIt’s quite a moment for an author when you actually get your hands on your new book.  E-books may be handy for travel but they don’t give me the same buzz, they don’t have the same feel or smell.  All the hard work of researching and writing, being edited and revising, checking references and making sure it actually says what I meant – in reality not as obvious as it sounds for a busy person, agreeing the cover design (and I am grateful to my son, Michael, for his very simple but clear illustration) and then finally it all comes together.  Today I launched my new book, “Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus” published by Sacristy Press.

One of the joys of my role is making connections between the church and different groups: city, commercial and artistic interests, cultural life, other churches and religions. The public square in which Peterborough Parish Church is set brings many opportunities to join up the dots and we welcome many into the church who come for different events throughout the year.  Over recent weeks I have shared the public platform with other faith leaders following terrorist attacks in the country.  I have been called on to speak into these atrocities from a Christian angle: to connect faith with what has happened.

Making connections is something we are all called to do. If we are going to work out what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ we need to make connections between how we live, in all its messiness and complexity, and what Jesus said.  We don’t live in the first-century today and so we have to fit the Bible to how life is now.  Some bits match closer than we might think, but some need more work to find the connection.  This book is the fruit of reflecting on this.  It is the distillation of quite a long process, actually over 24 years of ordained ministry and over 50 years of life.  It’s all been sloshing around in the soup in my brain and found a channel in writing this.

And writing it, as I have found with previous books, has reminded me what really matters in ministry.  It has taken me back to the heart of Christian living: to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and draw others into being his disciples today.  In all the activity, events and stuff that has to be done, it is vital to keep that in front of us so that we remember the calling to the profound and radical mission of declaring the love of God in Jesus Christ and drawing others to join in with what that means.

The book is based on statements in the gospels which set out what anyone needs to do if they are serious about being one of Jesus’ followers. It draws on Jesus’ words as portrayed in the gospels setting out what we need to do if we want to be one of his disciples.  These are grouped under eight themes: acts of loving service, the commandment to love, prayer, money, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, mission and the Eucharist (Holy Communion). Each chapter ends with a series of questions for private or group reflection and a prayer.

compass darkMichael’s cover illustration uses the image of a compass.  On the direction pointer is the
Chi-Rho symbol, one of the earliest Christian symbols.  The Greek letters Chi (Χ) and Rho (Ρ) are the first two letters of the title ‘Christ’ (Χριστος), stylised as a monograph.  In and through Jesus Christ we find our direction as people who seek to live in accordance with the purposes of God.  We find it in and through him because in and through him God makes his purposes known in a unique way.

Following Jesus, living the sayings of Jesus, takes us to the heart of what we are called to be. My prayer for everyone who reads the book is that it will enliven faith, increase hope and deepen commitment to grow in the likeness of Christ as they seek to live his sayings.  May that faith be based on firm foundations for resilient and healthy living as a follower of Jesus Christ.

 

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Prayer after Terrorist Attack

img_8037Yesterday (6th June) we came together again in the city centre for a minute’s silence following the London Bridge attack on Saturday night.  We gathered to do three things: to remember those who died, those who are grieving and everyone affected by the incident.  To be thankful for the police, security services who risked their lives to protect and medical staff who devoted themselves to save the injured.  We also gathered to resolve to live in peace and to nurture and strengthen the bonds that hold us together: to stand together.

These atrocities are deeply unnerving and can breed fear.  That so many are responding with acts of love, compassion, generosity, love, hope and grace is encouraging.  As the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his Letters and Papers from Prison, “evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease”. It is not a place that we are content to rest and will inevitably be overcome.

At the end of the silence I was asked to lead a prayer and below is the prayer I used.

God of love, compassion and justice,

refresh our hope and trust in you.

When evil strikes

strengthen our resolve to live in peace,

to hold and embrace the grieving,

to build and nurture the bonds that unite,

for all are children of your promise

and equally loved in your sight.  Amen.

© Ian Black 2017

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Pentecost – feast of the life-blood of the church

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Pentecost window in Peterborough Parish Church

There are two words particularly associated with the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Bible. One means ‘wind’ or ‘breath’ and the other means ‘fire’. We know the wind blows due to movements in air pressure. Anyone who has seen the isobars on the weather forecast knows the direction of travel is from high to low. As it moves it refreshes, it cools and it prevents air from getting stale. It shakes things up and moves much needed oxygen around to enable us to breathe. A very strong wind can be awesome in its power – knocking over trees and buildings, whipping up waves and buffeting what otherwise seems so stable. There is something exhilarating about standing on an outcrop of rock by the seashore and letting the wind blow through you. We become aware of the awesome power of nature, of the forces that sustain life and also how vulnerable that life is when confronted by them. When the wind blows we know about it. It is a vital force for life and renewal. Whenever it blows it brings change.

One of the Hebrew words for God is ‘Elohim’. It is a breathy word. As we say it air is expelled from the lungs. So we have to breathe in in order to be able to breathe it out. In saying it we literally breathe the name of God. And in so doing we become conscious of the breath of life. This is the word used for God in the creation story at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, where God’s Spirit moves over the waters and creation is brought into being – it is breathed into being by God. The allusion is strong and powerful. The life force is the breath of God and we connect with it in becoming aware of our breathing. It is one of the reasons when saying psalms we breathe in and out as we pause at the half way point of the verse, allowing God to be the breath in our reflecting.

The second word used in the Hebrew Scriptures for the Holy Spirit means ‘fire’. Fire warms, it consumes, it gives light and the flames dance with excitement and energy. Without the fire of the sun our planet would be too cold to sustain life. Without fire our predecessors would not have had light in the darkness and this has long been a symbol of hope. The Easter Candle is itself a flame which burns to remind us of the great hope we have in Jesus Christ. Candles are often lit as signs of this hope and of prayer. Again the energy involved changes things through the reactions that take place – wood is turned to carbon and smoke, food is cooked, the flame itself is a concentration of energy which moves on.

So the two words for Spirit, ‘wind’ and ‘flame’, bring us physical elements which are energized and bring change. They freshen, enlighten and display awesome power. It is not surprising that we use them as metaphors for how the Spirit moves in us and through us. We are not called to be mere spectators as disciples of Jesus Christ, but participants who live and breathe, who shine as lights and living flames to God’s glory.

To that end, our Gospel reading ended with a surprising and somewhat confusing reference to forgiving sins and retaining them (John 20:19-23). In John’s gospel this passage comes after the resurrection; in Matthew (18) there is a similar passage during a section of teaching about the importance of forgiveness and repentance. John places a different emphasis on this. After the resurrection the work of Jesus is to be continued in and through the disciples. That work involves the calling to account and being called to account, what we call judgment. Our response to Jesus’ call brings judgment on us for in this we become known for who we really are, who we have become. There is teaching on separating the good from the evil. There are none so blind as those who will not see and the unforgivable sin is the sin against the Holy Spirit, the decision to reject what is true over what is false. It is an outworking of where the heart and true treasure lies.

We sell our soul if we place anything other than being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ at the centre of our lives and for some power matters more than anything else. For some it is money and some it is fame or popularity. For some it is a passing pleasure where in our culture ‘now’ is what matters most; by definition a passing moment. And of that list, popularity is particularly difficult because all of us find there are times when we are scared to speak out or make a stand for justice because it will make us unpopular. I was reading this week about a former Dean of the Cathedral from the 18th century, Peter Peckard – the author of the inspirational abolitionist pamphlet ‘Am I not a man and a brother’. He admits in a sermon[1] in 1788 when in Cambridge that he hesitated over speaking out against slavery because it meant sticking his head above the parapet, but nonetheless he found the courage to do it. He moved beyond mere popularity now for something of more lasting worth and benefit. He became a prophetic witness, shining a light of hope, fired by the Spirit of God. That fire and light shines down the centuries to inspire us as we contemplate finding courage to stand for justice and liberation in our own times.

The wind and the flame of the Spirit of God bring courage to those who are scared. And this is what happened to the first disciples. After the resurrection, at first they hid, they met in secret and it was the gift of the Holy Spirit on that first day of Pentecost that gave these men and women the confidence and bravery needed to come out of the shadows and proclaim the hope that was inside them already. That is why today is sometimes called the Birthday of the Church, the day when they found their voice. It is not the birthday; that came with Jesus calling his disciples and the post resurrection challenge to be witnesses, which we heard last week. The beginnings are in their meeting to pray and reflect on all he had done and taught. Fire in our spirits, wind and breath to move us, the Holy Spirit is the life-blood of the church’s witness.

On Thursday we will cast our vote in the General Election. At the hustings here (St John’s) a few weeks ago three of the candidates professed their Christian faith and the fourth I know has much sympathy with the heart of the gospel we proclaim. So this is not a Parliamentary Constituency in which we can claim any one party has God on their side. Each of us can ask who will bring the kind of inclusive and just society that we need. Who will lead to the flourishing of all people; not just some, or even many, or just hard workers – all rhetoric we have heard – but everyone. The Holy Spirit will call us and inspire us to live justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. And we have to work out who best represents that.

Pentecost is the feast of the life-blood of the church. It is the breath that gives life. To say the name of God – Elohim – is to breathe God in and out. We are breathed into being. It is the fire that transforms and brings light to shine. Courage in darkness is found in the confidence it beings. Witnesses are able to burn with the brightness of God’s love and hope in Jesus Christ. May that Spirit breathe on you and ignite in you the strength you need to be a living witness of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Ian Black

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Pentecost, Sunday 4th June 2017

 

[1] Peter Peckard, DD, Master of Magdalen College Jusitce and Mercy recommended, particularly with reference to the Slave Trade. A sermon preached before the University of Cambridge Cambridge: J & J Merrill (1788) pxi. See also note at beginning of Am I not a man? And a brother? Published anonymously by Cambridge: J & J Merrill (1788)

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A narrative of hope: the treasure we share in the public square

imageMany people have found this a difficult week. The terror attack in Manchester on Monday, which killed 22 people, the youngest of which was just 8 years old, has shocked, appalled and deeply disturbed practically everyone. No one I have spoken to has not been moved in some way by it. And our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt have also suffered this week at the hands of violence and hatred with the shooting dead of at least 28 on a bus. This is one of those occasions when we as the Church of England come into our own. We are used to handling public mourning and so know how to hold vigils and moments of public grief. We are used to leading prayers in a public arena and finding a few words to hold the moment, though it was by no means easy to do. I was asked by Paul Stainton on his show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on Wednesday just how you find the words to say; many experienced journalists had said to him that they were rendered speechless.

We have a narrative, a story of faith, in which to hold and to be held when life is tough and it is this that we have to connect with in order to find words to say. And in doing this, one of the things I became aware of is that we have something incredibly important to offer the world. We have a gospel of hope. When the darkness closes in and we enter the rawest moments of life, when the horror is truly evil, we have a hope that in Jesus Christ crucified, buried, raised and now ascended, God does not abandon us. There is nothing that can happen that places us beyond the reach of God unless we choose that. And even then there remains a way back, something we see in stories like the Prodigal Son – or more accurately the forgiving father (Luke 15:11-32), the shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7) and the woman who does not rest until she finds the lost coin, so precious it is to her (Luke 15:8-10).

We saw the worst of humanity at work in the evil done and the death brought to what should have been a happy evening of teenagers and younger with their favourite singer at the Manchester Arena. We also saw the best of humanity in the compassion, love and care shown and repeatedly expressed. As a deep wound was cut into our body corporate what bled out was a strong sense that death and hatred, violence and fear are not how we want to live. We love, we want to be free, we want to flourish together. And in these simple acts of gathering and standing together, as we have done either in person or in spirit, we make it clear where we stand.

The darkness at work in the bomber though is very difficult to process and many have been left wondering just what leads someone to be radicalized to a point where normal empathy is lost and consequences not cared about, even justified. We are left with words like evil, which is when someone has dehumanized another in their eyes so much that they don’t care about the consequences for them and death is nothing to them, indeed they think they are doing ‘good’ by destroying those they see as polluting society. It is chilling and poisoned. But there are softer attitudes that lie in the foothills of atrocity. These are the ones that regard views they don’t agree with and certain ways of being as diminishing the worth of those who hold them. Think of some of the extreme political rhetoric we see aimed at those who take a different view, and we’ve seen some of this vehemently and venomously at work around the election, or how those of certain sexualities are seen by some as polluting society. These are ideological and that is broader than just individuals being deluded. When those attitudes meet an ideological system that reinforces their dehumanized attitude, then the poison seeps through the vanes and evil intent becomes evil action. Most people don’t take extreme action of random murder but the difference in attitude is only one of restraint. In the heart there is more common ground than we might like to admit.

This is where the Book of Common Prayer with phrases talking of the ‘evil that we do and the good we do not do’ capture what we need to face. Terrorism was described in The Spectator this week as a conversation with the body politick, that has a different narrative and those who don’t agree with the perpetrators are all seen as legitimate targets. So not so random. They don’t act alone but belong to a community and network where hatred has been systemistised. And religious language can be a toxin in the system, providing a narrative through which to interpret and view the other that becomes dangerous. The Old Testament has some pretty vile rhetoric against unbelievers or those who live differently. The people of Israel used their liberation as justification to annihilate the existing occupants of their ‘promised land’. Reading some of those passages this week has been uncomfortable, even repellent. These are passages to be interpreted carefully in the light and grace of Jesus Christ, who makes all people one in him. We greet with love not hate.

The counter to such hatred and dehumanizing contempt is to reinforce hope, love, joy, compassion and respect each day. A simple version of this can be found in the Lord’s Prayer with its various petitions for God’s kingdom, daily bread, forgiveness for others as we receive it for ourselves, deliverance from evil. We need to be renewed each day in the grace of God. A few years ago I wrote a prayer for the day ahead and it is the last prayer in ‘Prayers for all occasions’.

Give me grace, O Christ,

for this day,

that I may be a person of

praise and thanksgiving,

rejoicing and delight,

compassion and understanding.

May I be blessing to all I meet

and be blessed in them;

for your name’s sake. Amen. (p152)

 

The problem of international terrorism can seem overwhelming; indeed that is one of its aims. The best response we can make is to live the words of Gandhi:

“Be the change you want to see”.

If you want a world of peace, live it. If you want caring and compassion, love, hope and joy to flourish, be a person who displays them. This should be the light that shines out from this place in this community, standing as it does in the heart of the city. My experience this week is that this is what many people want to see from us and have delighted in hearing being proclaimed. It is the gift we offer as seek to be a transforming presence.

In our first reading, Jesus told his disciples, as he was taken from them, that they were to be witnesses (Acts 1:8). We are to be people of hope, of love, of compassion and blessing. We live by a narrative of hope. This witness is much needed and longed for. It is the precious treasure we have to share in the public square and doing that, living that, makes us people of the gift.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 7, Sunday 28th May 2017

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Silence for Manchester

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The Ascension in the East Window, St John the Baptist, Peterborough

Today (25th May) is the feast of the Ascension and the beginning of the Thy Kingdom Come wave of prayer.  It is a day to be reminded that this is God’s world and we can have complete trust and confidence in God’s enduring love and goodness – whatever happens. A timely message to hold the grieving and fear, the responses of compassion, love and hospitality over the past few days. Love always wins through. Alleluia.

It was a fitting day to be asked to lead prayers at the Minute’s Silence for the victims of the Manchester attack on Monday (22nd May). This is the prayer I wrote to bring that period of silence to a close, drawing on the Ascension hope.

God of love, compassion and justice,

on this day that we celebrate

the Ascension of your Son Jesus Christ

refresh our hope and trust in you.

When evil strikes

strengthen our resolve to live in peace,

to hold and embrace the grieving,

to build and nurture the bonds that unite,

for all are children of your promise

and equally loved in your sight.  Amen.

 

© Ian Black 2017

 

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Praying for Manchester

IMG_5857Today (Tuesday 23rd May) I led prayers at a vigil in Peterborough city centre for those affected by the bomb attack in Manchester yesterday (Monday 22nd May). No one I have spoken to today has not been affected and deeply moved.  The attack targeted fans of an American pop singer, Ariana Grande, and the youngest victim was only 8 years old.

This atrocity displayed the worst of humanity, where evil intent poisons the heart to breed hated and set in train the violent destruction of both self and others chosen at random.  Lives have been irrevocably changed, and ended, and Colin Parry, whose son was killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington in 1995, wrote today in the London Evening Standard about the affects this will have on the families.  It is a dark act of deep-seated evil that sends shock waves through so many with such lasting consequences.  This does not negate the complex delusions and indoctrination that lie behind it, but evil is an act which intends the worst without caring.

Last night we also saw the best of humanity on display and this is the overwhelming response to the hatred.  Strangers went to the aid of those in distress, hospitality was given to those in need of it, taxi drivers took people to safety at no charge.  There were queues to give blood.  Arms of loving embrace were wrapped around victims and the grieving, hands extended across communities refusing to be divided. The human spirit is not evil, but filled with love and compassion, and this gives us signs of hope.

Today we stood united in defiance of hatred, shining a light of hope, love and peace, refusing the give way to the forces that want to drive us apart.  It was an honour to share the platform with politicians and leaders of other faiths, including Muslims equally outraged by the atrocity.

My day began presiding at the Eucharist in the Cathedral.  At the east end there is a candle stand prayer station for Victims of Violence, which we set up after a serious exploitation case from the city went to trial a few years ago.  It seemed appropriate to light a candle there before hand as a symbol of the hope and confidence in Christ’s redeeming love for those whose lives have been changed by this atrocity and those who went to their aid.

Love is stronger than hate. Terrorism tries to advance a lie because it is essentially the proclamation of death and that can achieve only its own destruction.  In Christ we proclaim life in all its fulness.  Today we have seen just how deeply rooted this is in the human spirit, shared by friends of others faiths and none and that is a sign of just how true it is.

Spirit of God, unite us in honouring the gift we are to each other.

Spirit of God, breathe into the whole of your creation the peace that comes from you alone.

 

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