I am currently on Sabbatical until October – an extended period to rest, reflect and renew.
I am currently on Sabbatical until October – an extended period to rest, reflect and renew.
Over the past few years I have written a number of prayers for various special occasions and moments when something specific has been needed – moments of celebration, moments of public grief, anniversaries and to accompany events or reflect significant moments of life. Until now I hadn’t actually written a prayer for here and on Tuesday I decided to put that right. So with your orders of service this morning you have been given the result. I thought I would spend a few moments going through it. It aims to capture the essence of who we are and what we aim to do here in our unique setting right in the heart of the city centre, in the public square. It reflects my key passions for the church’s witness today, what we are called to be. Writing prayers like this reminds me why I knelt in front of the bishop 25 years ago to be ordained as a priest into Christ’s church. So there is an element of me marking a silver jubilee of priesthood with this too.
It begins with a reminder that even when we celebrate a church that is now over 600 years old, God is older. All of our history sits within the eternity of God who is our beginning and our end. The world, the whole created order, is the result of his love and we see this supremely in the person of Jesus Christ. His life, death and resurrection is the source of our hope – hope for now and hope to come. When we seek to live this hope, to show it in who we are, what we do, what we say and how we love, we do not act in our own strength but in the grace of God, the outpouring of his love to guide, shape and direct us.
This grace pours out to welcome, to be open and hospitable to friend and stranger. There are so many occasions in the bible when hospitality is extended and in it and through it people are blessed – both giver and receiver. By oak trees for Abraham, on a beach after the resurrection, on hillsides and plains, with leaders and those of questionable virtue, the bible brings us time and again hearts being opened by this transforming loving embrace which comes through meals shared and a place set for even the most unlikely guest. A welcome for all is one of our core values and we will display it after the service with an open invitation to the party. That is a challenge for churches today to remember that all are welcome and we are not just a club for those we know. That clubbyness is language that can creep up on us and we have to remember that this is not just our church, but belongs to the city.
There are many occasions when we have the opportunity to reach out to friend and stranger, to those who will find their way in with relative ease and those who may need help. Later this afternoon I have accepted an invitation to speak to the Peterborough Pride Parade outside the Town Hall. Given the history and sometimes rejecting narrative that comes from others in the church, it is important to send out a different, more open and welcoming, message. Last year, when we invited the campaigner Jayne Ozanne to speak here, one person said to me that she didn’t realize there was a place for someone like her in a church. A sad comment for what she had heard elsewhere, but it was good for us to offer it.
The love which overflows with grace changes us and calls on us to change the world. We strive for justice and the good of all. We had a bit of a conversation at the PCC on Wednesday about this and whether there are times when protest and demonstration are required. If we pray for justice we have to be prepared to make a stand for it because it is truth in action, it is how God calls on us to live. There may come a moment when this choice confronts us. If we commemorate the D-Day landings, these are a form of protest against oppression and an aggressor. If we remember Suffragettes, they were far from silent and compliant in their advancing of equal votes. If we remember John the Baptist, after whom this church is named, he was not exactly the placid do-gooder some try to reduce sanctity to, calling leaders a brood of vipers, demanding Herod sharpen up his moral standards. The cry for justice can mean rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty.
In the power of the Holy Spirit, for there is no other power we can advance anything in, we aim to worship God but to do so in the high street as at the altar. In other words, prayers at the altar have to be lived. How we trade, how we relate, how we use our purchasing power are linked to the prayers we say. Our lives are to have integrity. It is also a reference to our setting, that the high street is around us. The altar is the place of thanksgiving so with thankful hearts we seek to bless the world.
John the Baptist pointed to Jesus as the Christ. ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ and he announced him. John did not want people to be his followers, for he knew that there was another who was greater than him. It is Christ’s kingdom that we seek to build, that we work for, not our own. And again we have no monopoly on God in Christ, but he is Lord of all the world, so when we point to him we do not just share our own belief but God who is the hope of the world. It is in that faith and trust that we pray the world will rejoice in his salvation. The call is to share faith, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, to give an account of the hope inside us, that the world may know the story to rejoice in, the hope.
The prayer is made through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. The heart of our faith is Easter, Jesus Christ risen from the dead. It is the bursting of death, the transcending it, that gives us hope that connects with the eternal, not just some passing relevance. And that takes us back to where we started, with the eternal God who is our source and our goal, our beginning and our end. This is the faith which caused this church to be built and which has inspired it and held it through the passing centuries. It is the faith which fires and directs us today.
you reveal your love for your creation
in Jesus Christ.
Give us grace to live this hope
in the welcome we show
to friend and stranger,
in our commitment
to justice and the good of all.
Send us in the power of your Holy Spirit
to worship you
in the high street as at the altar.
May we, after John the Baptist,
point others to their Lord and ours
as we announce him
in faith and trust,
that the world may rejoice
in your salvation;
through Jesus Christ our risen Lord.
Ian Black © 2019
Patronal Festival Sermon for Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 30th June 2019
There is something remarkable taking place today, which has almost escaped notice. Not this civic service; that happens every year. Not even that this year our Mayor is a Muslim and taking his seat in a Christian cathedral; we have welcomed and installed Muslim mayors before in this cathedral, though there was a time when this would have been remarkable and so we should use this as an opportunity to note how far we have come. No the remarkable bit is that, as a Christian priest, I have been invited by our Mayor, who is a Muslim, to be his Chaplain for the year. It is worth pausing for a moment to take that in because it is a sign of just how good relationships in this city are across differences and cultures and creeds. We almost take it for granted but given certain elements of the media emphasising division and conflict; this is something to celebrate about this city. It is also a reminder of the role of a national church in holding the common sacred ground, as I do so often at commemorations in the city centre. This is a special vocation and an honour to fulfill.
We have an added layer today, because today is Trinity Sunday. This is no ordinary day in the Christian calendar. It is the day we mark our particular understanding of the nature of God, revealed in the Bible as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is not a doctrine, a belief, shared by any other faith. It is what marks out a distinction between us and brings into the centre of the stage a reminder that there are differences and some of them are profound. Noting and holding these is a sign of maturity in cross-cultural, cross-faith working.
We are no strangers in this cathedral to extending a welcome to people who take a very different view to us about some fundamental issues. A few weeks ago we provided a space for an Iftar breaking of the Muslim fast during their holy month. The food was provided by Muslim friends and they invited people of all faiths and no faith to the party. Hands of friendship and common civility were extended across boundaries and barriers. Friends can share in one another’s company and hospitality, and be able to recognize differences, while also realizing that there is a deep bond that unites and holds them.
Our first reading reminded us that we are not just friends, but siblings. Both of our great faiths trace our spiritual family trees back to Abraham and that Old Testament story expresses the fundamental brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity (Genesis 15:1-6). Anthropologically, go back far enough, and we all come out of the same African ancestors, probably somewhere around modern day Ethiopia (Alice Roberts, Chapter 1). Adam and Eve have more truth in their story than the writers would have any comprehension of when they wrote it so many thousand years ago, though the geography may be a bit awry. All human beings share an ancestry that makes us siblings and cousins.
Go back even further and we find our origins in the same hypothermal vents where the chemical exchanges in the waters brought the spark of life that led to the building blocks of amino acids and the basic elements which in turn led hearts to start to beat. When we say there is more in common than divides us, little do we appreciate sometimes just how deep and foundational that is. We share ancestry in the planes of Africa, chemistry in the deep waters of birth; we are creatures of the same heavenly Father.
It is as we have made sense of life and revelation, experience and spiritual yearnings that our stories have varied. Qur’anic and Biblical meet at points, but there are differences, not least around how we regard Jesus Christ and our doctrine of God. But at the heart of the Trinity is a deep awareness that mystery meets humanity, that the divine beyond comes close to make himself known and call us to live in harmony with how he intends. When we want to know what that looks like our second reading gave us timeless values and virtues (Philippians 4:4-9). Thanksgiving turns to prayer. What is honourable, just, pure, commendable, these are the things to fill our hearts and let them be the gateway to the peace of God being with us.
In this service and in the invitation extended by our Mayor to welcome a Christian Chaplain, and those who will stand in for me while I take a Sabbatical over the summer, in this is a prophetic sign of what our nation needs. There are differences and yet the hands of family ties – spiritual, human and elemental – are extended. Bridges are built and strengthened. This builds on long working and commitment from all sides in this city. This has been recognized by others including national government. We have a wonderful story to tell in this city; a commitment to each other to be proud of.
We have just had a by-election, which followed on the heels of the European Parliamentary election. Living in the city centre and talking with those who have been campaigning from all sides I have seen and heard first hand that there are strongly and passionately held differences about our place in the European Union. For some the failure to leave is a betrayal of monumental proportions. For some others the whole thing is a disaster and a fantasy. Unicorns meet deniers of democracy. The more I have spoken with people the more I have heard that those easy stereotypes are actually more complex. And all of us have to hold on to that fundamental belief that we belong to one another and have to live together. Hands need to extend across divides and we have to find a way forward together, especially if we don’t like the route charted for us. Democracy means there will come a point when we have to accept when informed decisions have been made and also that we listen when there is a significant proportion who disagree with it. That has to be reconciled and just firing insults or attempting to steamroller ahead is a recipe for disaster, whatever side it comes from. We are in the realms of reconciliation in our national life. That will come from listening, from hearing, from honouring and respecting.
Today differences meet, hands have been extended across them and there is a clear willingness to build bridges. At our core we are all brothers and sisters of the same heavenly Father. We belong together and have to work out our future together.
Sermon for Mayor’s Installation, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 16th June 2019
You may have noticed in this news this week that Pope Francis has bravely stepped into one of the most treasured prayers in the Christian faith. He has suggested a different translation for ‘Lead us not into temptation’ in the Lord’s Prayer. His reasoning is that it is not God who leads us but rather we who fall and so the clause needs a bit of a re-write. This has been regarded as being highly controversial, but of course we know that there are several versions of the Lord’s Prayer and that’s before we open a Bible! There is the traditional language version ‘And lead us not into temptation’, known and loved for centuries. There was the Series 3 version of the 1970s ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial’. This was followed in the 1980s by the ASB version which reverted to ‘Lead us not into temptation’ and then that was carried through in 2000 into the Common Worship version we use today.
If we open a Bible the Lord’s Prayer becomes much more complicated and you can see this on the sheet you have been given (see image above) this morning with these three versions printed side by side – Matthew, Luke and the Common Worship. We see that what has become the traditional version – whether it is in 16th century English or contemporary language – is not the same as the biblical versions. The two versions, one in Matthew and one in Luke, are shorter and different. Luke is a mere sketch in comparison to Matthew’s fuller prose. ‘Temptation’ is only one of a number of places where the versions differ. The biblical versions plead that we are not brought to the time of trial. And crucial for our understanding here is not just the ‘trial’ or ‘temptation’, but the being brought into it.
The word translated ‘trial’ or ‘temptation’ refers to both inward temptations and seductions as well as outward trials and afflictions which test faith. So this is what hooks us from inside us as well as assaults that shake us from outside. The request in the prayer is not merely a call for protection from these, but a call to be preserved in them and from them. Put another way it is more like saying ‘Give me strength’ when under pressure. As Pope Francis is keen to stress, God is not pulling strings for his own amusement, where we get led off and tested, tempted and diverted from a righteous path. That is what we see in the Old Testament Book of Job. Here God is depicted as using Job as a test case, and all sorts of calamities fall on him in a bizarre game to prove a point, namely that Job is a good man and made of tough, resilient stuff. That’s the point of the story – resilience rooted in faithfulness to God. The Lord’s Prayer is not for warriors and the already resilient but more for the rest of us who struggle and need help. So this is not a ‘let me show you what I’m made of’ moment; that would be a very brave prayer indeed. We are frail and vulnerable, susceptible to all sorts of distractions and being led astray. When temptation or trial strikes, as we all know they do, this prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, offers a petition that we don’t yield to them, ‘let me not succumb’, ‘let me be delivered from the evil that assaults us’, whether that comes from within us or from outside of us.
That all seems to be a possible reading of the familiar phrase ‘lead us not into temptation’, though it would probably be better translated ‘let us not be led into temptation’ or ‘do not let us fall into temptation’, or even ‘give me strength when temptation comes’. So I think Pope Francis has a point. What we are praying for is God’s strength to hold fast through this; for spiritual resilience.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost. The day we remember the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples, strengthening them and inspiring them. It is the day they found the strength and confidence to become Apostles, to be sent out to speak and tell the story of the hope we have in Jesus Christ. It is the day they received what they needed to be spiritually resilient. The gift of the Holy Spirit does this in a number of ways. One of them is through strengthening when the going is tough or we are under assault from different sides.
There are times when the temptation can be to snap or bite back, and a short rocket petition fired off for the grace and strength we need, is an example of seeking to be not led, to not fall into temptation and to be delivered from evil – both within and without. Arrow prayers like this, though, are emergency calls, first responder help moments. Better is to build up the resilience over time and here the gift of the Holy Spirit becomes more of a dripping trap filling up a bucket gradually than an emergency flood. Topping up the well comes best through the normal rainfall that seeps through the layers of rock to the underground watercourses, or flows down the hills to fill up the lake. Daily prayer, frequent bible reading, being still to draw on God’s loving grace, these things fill us and sustain us.
So praying for the Holy Spirit to come is the call on God’s grace to make us resilient, to give us strength in time of temptation so that we don’t succumb. This leads into being delivered from the evil within. There is another petition to be delivered from evil without, the attacks that threaten us, but that is for another day.
The Lord’s Prayer is a treasured prayer, but as we know there are different versions and that includes within the Bible. At its core is the calling on God’s Spirit to help and sustain us, to give us strength, to ‘lead us not into temptation’, as we seek to be followers of Jesus Christ and proclaim his hope and love.
Sermon for Pentecost, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th June 2019
Over the last few years we have been encouraged to use this time between Ascension Day (which was on Thursday) and next Sunday, the Day of Pentecost, as a time to pray. It goes under the banner of ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, picking up on a key phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, and so as with all prayer we aim to align our wills with the will of God. There is a deep echo in these 11 days, because we are told in the Acts of the Apostles that this is what the Apostles did along with Mary, the mother of Jesus during the same period. They met to pray. (Acts 1:12-14) What other response could they make to whatever form the Ascension took than to pray? It takes some getting their heads round.
They had been through so much in such a short space of time. Having followed a movement, which they thought would take them in one direction, that of a political leader to rescue them and sort out all their problems, they find that he has a different agenda. His announcing of the Kingdom went way beyond the political to embrace all their hopes in this life and the next. Their leader had been killed and buried, and then appeared to them again, risen in a new form. And now having got used to him turning up for barbecue breakfasts on the seashore, accompanying travellers on a road and breaking through locked doors, he makes one final dramatic exit. And they see him no more.
Something profound and dramatic had taken place and they needed to work it out. It actually took quite a long time, as their vision and compassion was expanded with their journeys and encounters over the coming years, but the first stages take just over a week. In their praying they call on God, they seek to align their will with the will of God and they no doubt wondered just where this would lead. So we too are encouraged to do this, to pray in this period, to align our wills with the will of God and to wonder in delight and hope where this will lead. Some of the material that goes with ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ will no doubt delight, bemuse and even trouble us in different ways. For some the service last Saturday was a great liberation of praise and a different style to the usual Cathedral worship. For some it was not to taste and what is clear is that no one way catches everyone. We are different, we are quirky, we find different things move us.
The invitation that comes to us through the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ initiative to pray for 5 people to come to faith in Jesus Christ may not feel natural and can sound like we are being encouraged to invoke a magic spell. Name the 5 people and God will do what we ask. That is to look at it the wrong way round. The initiative is always God’s and rather than us needing to expand the mind and heart of God, it is God who longs to expand our hearts and minds. And so I found Pope Francis’ message for this year helpful, that as we pray for the Holy Spirit to come, we pray that our hearts may be widened and enlarged. I think that we are to use this period of time to pray that God will make us stronger, wider and keener in our love, in our faith and in our witness. Let me explain what I mean by stronger, wider, keener.
The Holy Spirit comes to strengthen. It strengthens in confidence, in hope, in vitality to live and seek to transform as we are transformed. We pray for strength not to coerce or control, not to manipulate or exercise power and domination – my goodness there has been far too much of that over the centuries and we can see it still in abusive religion and the major failings that have come to light. No, stronger is a desire to be equipped with the spiritual resilience and resources to live to God’s praise and glory and be people of hope and light where there is much despair and darkness. And the disciples found strength came upon them on the Day of Pentecost when those puzzled and frightened followers became Apostles who stood up to proclaim the hope inside them. The reading from Acts this morning (Acts 16:16-24) gave us yet another moment when they spoke with confidence and passion, and the resulting imprisonment needed strength and resilience, hope and trust to cope with it, to be able to sing those hymns of praise in the prison cell.
After Morning Prayer on Wednesdays we gather as a clergy team here in the Benedict Chapel to look at a passage from the Rule of St Benedict. This week gave us humility and silence. If you know my colleagues well you’ll spot the irony of that; silence is not a frequent virtue. We read that humility comes through being confident in God’s love, in God’s promise, in knowing that while we are mortal and frail we are nonetheless loved. If our hold on that is shaky then we need the healing grace that will restore for us confidence in knowing we are children of God, and that may need all sorts of healing, but ultimately for each of us to know that we are a beloved child of God. In that strength we can face whatever comes. We pray that we will be strengthened by the Holy Spirit.
Secondly we pray for a widening of our concern, of our hope, of our vision, of our hearts. The reading we had from Acts last week took Paul on a boat trip across the Aegean (16:11-15). Lost in the place names is that he crossed an ancient continental boundary. This gospel has gone from a group of marginal Jews, to the dispersia and then on to Gentiles, non-Jews in Asia Minor, and now it has gone global, entering Europe. Others went in the other direction; tradition has it that Thomas made it to South India. The arms outstretched on the cross want to love the world. And so our concern, our passion is to be wider than we can imagine, or are even comfortable with. So here the praying for 5 becomes an openness to who God may be placing on our hearts in love and passion for Christ’s transforming love. This is not magic and manipulation because it is a wider yearning that comes from God and is a response to God, rather than being a conquest complex from our own egos. Remember that humility in the Rule of St Benedict, which seeks not its own glory but God’s, and it was linked with silence which is a quieting of the appetites, the untamed passions and dis-ease within us.
Praying for a wider love, for a wider vision is to be disturbed from our comfort and cosiness. The strengthening of the Holy Spirit is also a disturbing of the Holy Spirit. It touches social concern, the cry for justice. It touches building bridges to reach those we disagree with. On Tuesday I hosted a hustings in St John’s for candidates for our Parliamentary By-Election. There are deep divisions, not least on how we place ourselves in the European map. My photo has been taken shaking hands with people who are diametrically opposed to one another and we all have to reach across the current divides so that we can work for the common good, the flourishing of all people and be a community and nation at ease with itself. We pray that God will enlarge and widen our hearts.
Thirdly I suggested that we pray that the Holy Spirit will make us keener. Here there is a nudge. There is a passion for sharing faith, an urgency and a keenness for it, because it matters. We need to find some words to be able to say ‘this is why I do what I do’, or in the words of 1 Peter, to give an account of the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15), to name Jesus Christ as our Lord. And if the thought of this scares you, read Isaiah and Jeremiah and of Moses and Jonah, where you will find prophets who were scared stiff and in some cases ran away. This is why I began with prayer for the strengthening of the Holy Spirit, so that God’s grace will be with us.
Being encouraged to pray for 5 is not magic or manipulation but rather a response to the widening grace, the keener passion and the strengthening of the Holy Spirit. And our gospel reading brought this to the fore as Jesus prayed not just for his friends but for those who will believe in him through their word (John 17:20). The recognition was that the frightened, sometimes slow to cotton on disciples would actually transform the world through the power of the Holy Spirit which would come in a week’s time. So we make our prayer: come Holy Spirit; make us stronger, wider and keener in the service of God through Jesus Christ.
Sermon for Easter 7, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 2nd June 2019