Olympic spiritual ideals: Aiming higher to be stronger in spirit and faster to bless

The Olympic Flag flies in front of "Christ the Redeemer" statue during a blessing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro

Every four years our attention is drawn to a much wider selection of sport than we usually see. That is one of the reasons I like the Olympic games and the 31st Olympiad started on Friday in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Athletes from around the world have been training for years for this moment. Under the motto of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ they will aim to smash records and win those all-important gold medals, hopefully based on their skill and not enhanced by drugs. They have committed themselves single mindedly to hone their skills and are now poised for their moment to shine. Being champion is everything, and for many even coming second or third won’t count. The unofficial motto of “The most important thing is not to win but to take part” seems to have been archived, as has its other version of striving and the struggle mattering more than triumph.

There are many occasions when being focused for this level of competition is a life skill. Job selection by competitive interview will mean that because there is only one post, only one will be offered it and the others will not. Coming second still means you don’t get the job. At some levels there may be an element of discernment about who will flourish in the role and who will not, but that can feel little consolation if you are the one not offered it, and I’m not always convinced it’s the best method of selection. Time to slope off and nurse a bruised ego, or more seriously worry about how the bills will be paid.   There are other situations where it is more important to work together and for the project to thrive above our own glory. In fact there are more situations where that is the case, even when we may have a distinctive contribution to make based on our own striving to be faster, higher and stronger, however that translates as we develop the gifts we have. Team sports can prepare for working together to achieve a goal.

It is one of the often-overlooked aspects of natural selection that cooperation is an important feature of what makes us thrive and survive as a species. We have come a long way from a crude fittest wins and everything else is defeated. We protect the weak and vulnerable, recognize gifts in diverse ways, and this is an attribute that has been shown to be advantageous for survival and thriving. So just being the best doesn’t necessarily get us very far unless there is a point to it, a goal to be achieved. And of course the Olympics have their origin in honing skills for battle, for messengers running with letters and endurance tests. In battle winning means you live and coming second means you are dead. So it’s easy to see why aiming to be the best can matter. Some sports are less obvious. It was watching the jousting at the Heritage Festival last year that I suddenly realized what the point of dressage is as a military skill; dancing horses had previously struck me as being completely pointless. It is the ability to manouvre a horse in a tight space and that is a skill needed on a medieval battlefield.

So we have games that emphasise individual endeavour with skill being honed to the top of their performance and this being harnessed into team efforts so that together the goal can be achieved. It emphasizes tribal allegiances as we cheer our team and reveal the place our identity calls home. I will be cheering for the Union Flag and whatever I might think about Brexit, I wouldn’t cheer in the same way for the blue flag with yellow stars on it.  This year there is a team drawn from refugees so I can see me cheering for Team Refugee, to rejoice in the triumph over so much adversity.

Our Gospel reading looked at aiming for the treasure which counts above all others and being ready for moment (Luke 12:32-40): we strive for the prize or medal at the end. It follows on from last week’s warning about just hording money, or the fruit of the harvest, for selfish gain. And it moves us on to show that what we call treasure is determined by what our heart desires. The “do not worry” at the beginning refers to over anxiety about food and clothing, base needs in the hierarchy of needs. It is a call to move up the scale beyond shining things to what counts, to set our vision beyond the immediate and what the preacher of Ecclesiastes last week called ‘vanities’.

Reaching for the treasure of great price, the pearl of great price as another gospel story put it, clearly has a spiritual parallel. And we aim to live a life that shapes us for this, that prepares us for it. Our Collect this morning, the special prayer for this Sunday, fits with this. It prays that we will be given such grace that running the way of God’s commandments, shaped by God’s ways, we will be made partakers of the heavenly treasure. There is in this the notion of shaping, training and preparing; living life as a preparation for the Kingdom of God, a spiritual twist to the Olympic ideals. We aim to live in anticipation of it, so that the values of justice, living with truth and love and thankfulness for the gift, will shape how we try to be and become.

There are so many struggles that confront us in this, and many of them come from inside ourselves and our own mental maps. Some come from the assaults of the temptations and other ways of looking at life we encounter. There are many fears at the moment of who is dangerous and who is not, and it is easy to think our security lies in building barriers to all who would come near us in case they are dangerous. That kind of fortress may seem protective but it offers a picture of closed relationships, inhospitable rejection and one where love finds little room to flourish. And we know that living in love rather than hatred and in hope rather than fear is a far more fruitful state. Time and time again, over the centuries, liberation from oppression has come from the dominance of love rather than the imposition of hatreds and fears. Loving and hoping, hospitality and embrace change and transform people and situations for the better in ways violence and hostility can never match. This can require being vulnerable, to risk love, where hatred and fear would close the door. In Christ we see that self-giving, open and hospitable love is the true way to peace and wholeness.

The summer is a time with more space in it, not least because the heat demands that we slow down from the rushing around. In the slower pace we have the chance to take stock and let the air freshen up. We aim to breathe more deeply and dream in sunny places. Watching different sports, as with the Olympics, can give the mind chance to think differently, to be renewed in grace. Aiming higher to be stronger in spirit and faster on the draw for blessing is not a bad way to live a spiritual Olympic ideal.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 7th August 2016

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Vanity of Vanities and the not so pessimistic preacher

IMG_4448If I start to talk about money, what sound track comes to mind? For those whose musical taste naturally goes to the 1970s and 80s it might be Pink Floyd’s 1973 song ‘Money’ with its characteristic sound of a ringing cash till and its bass riff at the beginning. The song comes from an album which reflects on the things that send humanity insane: war, greed and death. Or it might be the rapid staccato piano chords of Abba’s 1976 hit ‘Money, money, money’ with its comment on the difficulties of breaking through the gender pay gap. A decade later brought us Dire Straits’ ‘Money for nothing’ where a hardware store employee contrasts his own life with the lifestyle he sees on the music videos he is watching. 1985 was the decade of shoulder pads, Miami Vice with its sharp suits and fast cars, and the young and upwardly mobile. Acquisitiveness was everything.

For older listeners, the Beetles 1966 rant against the 95% supertax rate in their song ‘Taxman’ may be what springs to mind first. And for some of our younger iPod track searchers, Jay-Z and Kanye West produced a rap called ‘Who gon’ stop me?’, complete with Parental Advisory in 2011. Here the inner city struggle meets the aspiration for the badges of power and value displayed in gold watches and bling. I will leave the Precentor and Dean to give you their top 10 favourite tracks from a more classical selection over coffee.

This very selective and brief track list gives a snap shot into how money is often portrayed on the radio and MP3 player. The themes of justice, avarice and false treasures compete for attention, though it has to be said avarice probably has the upper hand. The reason for this is probably set out by Rick James 1982 song ‘Money Talks’, where he sets out the ability of cash to control all facets of our lives. Those with it can do what they like; those without it can’t. And those who say you don’t need it are often speaking from a position of comfort or security, or both.

When we want to know what money is for we need to ask what life is for. Both have a transitory quality, here today and tomorrow gone. They cannot just be stored because they have no value except in the using and in the case of life, in the living. It is in the breathing of the moment that we exist and it is in the spending and using for a purpose that money is of any use. Money is a tool to be used to help us trade and exchange; it is the currency of action which makes things happen because it is much easier to swap a commonly accepted token than go around with a bag of chickens with which to barter according to whatever value can be gained for them. Even money in the bank is working in how it is lent and invested and moved around – though you might not think it when you see the interest statement. So in the use of money and the living of life we begin to see what our readings were about.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, from which the first reading was taken, has been described as having an unremitting pessimistic outlook. It has a seemingly negative view of life, not surprisingly coming from its opening words: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2). The book ends in similar vein so it doesn’t improve. But the word translated ‘vanity’ is not that easy to tie down. It can mean futile and worthless, fleeting and ephemeral. But it can also mean brief and breath. Chasing after stuff is like chasing after the wind (1:14). But wind and breath are also the signs of life. So when we think of the human condition in these terms, we join the Psalmist who pondered the question ‘what are human beings that God should value them’ (8:4). Our lives are like the grass in the field, when the wind goes over it it is gone (103:4), blown away like a dandelion head in the summer. ‘Vanity of vanities’, this strange phrase of the Preacher, whoever he was, probably from the third century BC, is an expression of how much our life is fleeting and fragile, brief and like the breath, but that breath is what makes us alive. It may be momentary, but that moment is charged with the substance of life itself. So how the ‘vanity of vanities’ is viewed depends very much on the stance of the one viewing it. If life is pointless, it is pointless and useless. If life is charged with the purpose of God, then its brevity is nonetheless held by the purpose of God.

We may well wonder what the point of everything is, especially in our darker moments. Work may indeed feel a vexation, full of pain, disturbing our sleep, a fleeting vanity as with the Preacher in Ecclesiastes (2:23). But deeply rooted in the writing, given its place in the Bible, is a faith that purpose lies with God and so while our life might be fleeting and brief, a mere breath, it nonetheless emanates from the breath of God and that makes it all the more special.

It is here that we start to look afresh at the man who built a big barn in our Gospel reading (Luke 12:13-21). The Old Testament story of Joseph, with his coat of many colours, has the building of barns to store the food from times of excess to feed the people during the approaching famine (Genesis 41). And that is the clue, the barn was for everyone and was for a purpose. It was not just to horde so that the rich farmer could take life easy, while others struggled, but to make sure there was enough for everyone, to use it for the common good. Money is not individual and private, but a social mechanism and without the social use it is pretty pointless. And money brings us into the web of relationships around its production and spending. We cannot count it without an eye to how it was generated.

Yesterday our church calendar remembered William Wilberforce and those who campaigned with him to end slavery in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Those included Olaudah Equiano, himself a former slave. It was moving to hear Michelle Obama talking this week about her family being descended from slaves and her daughters currently living in the White House built by slaves. Quite a few bishops in the Church of England were compensated for their loss of income by the ending of slavery, not to our credit. There are modern forms of slavery with people trafficked, exploited and held as slaves and from time to time we hear about it in this city. When we ask what money is for, we are confronted with the God of justice who demands that we treat one another as the full, honoured, beloved children of his amazing grace that we all are. We may be fleeting, fragile and brief, but just like breath the value and the purpose of love remain central.

The rich farmer was condemned for his avarice, for his selfishness and for his total lack of any notion that there was a purpose to life because of his total missing of the point of what his harvest was for. What we can buy with our money and the fruit of our labour does not last, just as life does not last. It is vanity and all is vanity. But vanity, breath, for all its brevity and its fleeting nature, springs from the heart of God and is held by the purpose of God.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 31st July 2016

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Pokémon Go: searching, meeting, finding

IMG_4417Last weekend a new craze burst into our lives. If a couple of weeks ago anyone had said that I would have been sitting in a meeting this week discussing a strategy to respond to Pokémon Go with two education officers, a safeguarding officer, two communications officers and a director of operations, I would have been surprised to say the least. You will no doubt have seen groups of teenagers and others walking round glued to their phones as they go in search of Squirtles, Pidgeys, Magnemites and Zubats.

For those in blissful ignorance of all of this, Pokémon Go is a mobile app game which lets players find the animated creatures called Pokémon (short for pocket monster) and once caught by flinging balls at them on the screen, they can train them and then battle with them. The game takes place in what is called augmented reality, which combines real life places with virtual gaming. It uses the GPS signal on the phone so it knows where you are and can locate you on the map. Various buildings and features have been tagged as Pokéstops that gamers need to visit to find the Pokémon and pick up various other items to play the game and St John’s is one such Pokéstop. Some places are gyms where the battles can take place, and the Lido is one of these. The game has labeled us as “One of Jesus’ Houses”, which is pretty accurate, and the gateway to the Cathedral is “Gateway to Jesus Mansion”, which has a certain humour to it.

One of the benefits of the game is that it gets people out and about, looking at what is around them. And those who are playing it are very happy to talk. It is social and engaging, it provides an opportunity to point out what the place they have visited is for. I was talking to a group of young people in the cathedral grounds the other evening and they had been out for 2 hours walking round different places in search of the creatures. In the Cathedral we have decided to work with this and are setting up a phone free Pokémon trail around the inside for the school holidays. We have also had to put up a few notices to let people know if they are about to stray off the right path and that there is no way through. We are concerned for the safety of those who play it and so are alert to some of its darker sides. We are on the look out for anyone trying to use it to lure young people into danger. We want to be a place of safety.

Augmented reality; searching, meeting and finding; a place of safety: these are themes that connect with our Christian faith.

The creatures which are seen on the screen are not there, they only exist in a cyber world; a world that augments the real one. But they spark the imagination. It entices a question: what lies around us but is hidden? In a much more enchanted age, where the popular consciousness felt the presence of demons and angels, spirits and forces at work unseen, the concept of augmented reality would have readily triggered in ways it doesn’t tend to for us. We are familiar with the use of metaphor: a word picture to help us express what we can’t quite get hold of in any tangible sense. These can help us give form to forces at work that we don’t readily see but want to talk about. A community can have a corporate way of being and the writer of the Book of Revelation referred to this by addressing his comments to the ‘angel’ of the churches of particular places, the ‘angel’ being the metaphor for the corporate character. Some of those were not very virtuous angels. So augmented reality can be similar to metaphor, the representations we use to express the deeper dynamics and drives which we can’t see.

We can ask what are the forces that are at work beneath the surface of our corporate character. How are these expressed as we struggle with how we view the stranger, the vulnerable, the struggling? How do we relate to those who have a very different picture of what kind of society they would like to see? Do we look for a ‘gym’ where we can do battle with our metaphors or instead find a place to understand one another more deeply? The overriding aim for a Christian character is to seek God’s Kingdom and that should aim to bring us together in love and hope, to reconcile the differences and bring peace. The Christ who died and rose for us draws us closer to one another and to him.

Secondly, searching, meeting and finding; these were in our Gospel reading (Luke 11:1-13). If we search we will find; there is something to look for (v10). It began with Jesus teaching them how to pray (v1-4), with words that connect with the hidden and unseen reality that is God. It was relational, because just like it is unthinkable that a child asking for an egg would be given a scorpion (v11-13), so God as Father can be relied on. It has been a central theme of the spiritual quest down the ages that we have to go on a journey to find what we seek. Just as Pokémon Go players have to walk around to find the Pokémon and play the game. It is readily available but we do have to move in order to connect with it, be that physically, emotionally or mentally. It rarely leaves us where we are or as we are. The hymn ‘Just as I am’ is not a statement about how God leaves us but that in the state of being ‘without one plea’ we are met and drawn into the reality that is God’s love for us. God, who accepts us as we are, transforms us into the image of his glory that he would have us be. It is one of the fallacies of our age that thinks there is no need for redemption, confession or indeed resurrection. How we are is not how we will be and the true spiritual paths disrupt us and change us. The Lord’s Prayer asks for forgiveness to be given and received.

In that changing, the social element of the game has a further level for us. It is connecting people, getting the hard to reach to open up so that a point of contact to talk, however briefly, can be found. And the “hard to reach” might be us. It breaks down barriers as people compare their excitement and discoveries. God the Holy Trinity is our ultimate model of social living. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relate to one another and exist in a harmony of love and purpose. So anything that promotes breaking down barriers and drawing people closer together is to be welcomed. In providing a common topic, Pokémon Go can be an icebreaker as those engaging with one another find a point of contact from which a conversation can develop.

As people play the game we can also recognize its dangers, not least being so absorbed in what’s on the screen that we don’t notice what we are about to walk into or be hit by. And the game begins with a warning to stay aware of your surroundings. Providing a place of safety, of sanctuary, my third theme, has been a feature of churches since very early days. It can be a refuge from the pressures and noise as we enter its calm and stillness. One of the things I was reminded of on the clergy chapter quiet day last week, as I read TS Eliot’s poem Little Gidding at Little Gidding, was that poetry requires us to slow down and savour the words at a more measured pace. That can be difficult for the restless soul, but doing it stills the inner mind and brings refreshment. Safety also brings protection from the evil that would assail us, and there is a link between spiritual anchoring and calming a turbulent mind, as well as safeguarding.

So Pokémon Go is this summer’s brain rest and fun feature for many people around us. We are involved in it, whether we like it or not, because the game has tagged us as “One of Jesus’ Houses”. That brings an opportunity to explain what being one of Jesus’ Houses means and I have put a poster in our outside noticeboards. It can also prompt us to look more deeply at what is real as we play with augmented reality: the reality of faith, hope and love, and how we live these. We search, we meet and we find: we find God who is looking to connect with us and we find one another as a point of contact opens up what may have been closed. Love of God and love of neighbour are after all linked. And we find our ultimate safety in the love of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for us. In augmented reality and real reality, this is one of Jesus’ houses because here we search, we meet and we find.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 24th July 2016

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Prayer Commemorating WW1

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As we stand in solemn silence
and recall the terrible cost of war and conflict
give us courage to take stock
of all that led to the hour;
the evil intent,
the opportunities to step aside
and embrace a different path not taken,
the confrontation and aggression
with violence in the heart
that would not stop.
May we learn to build true peace;
to nurture the channels and bonds that unite;
to respect and honour all people,
however different they may be.
Keep us ever mindful of the road that leads to death and destruction
lest we forget and travel it once more.
For the greater love that lays down its life
in your Son, the Prince of Peace,
won for us eternal hope
and a Kingdom built on true justice;
we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Prayer written to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War.

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Negotiating Brexit

IMG_5976It was to be expected that there would be outpourings of shock and disbelief over the last few days as the news of the Leave vote sunk in. Grief needs to be let out and people need to process what has just happened. The online petition for a second referendum has attracted over 3million signatures, though its provenance has turned out to be somewhat unusual – the product of a Remain campaigner when he thought Leave would win! Given the margin in the vote we are a split nation(s) and a second vote does not seem to be realistic to me, it will bring serious unrest and anger. Without detail it won’t get us any where different.

We have had bishops tweeting that we now need to heal the divisions.  Being courteous to one another would not go amiss and it would help enormously if the name calling stopped. On their own, though, those calls are in danger of being platitudinous. What is now needed is political vision and for the debate to move into what kind of relationship we want with Europe and the rest of the world: how much we want our legislation to continue to reflect EU directions or depart from them. Everything is to play for and this is how any healing will take place through an open debate about what kind of country we want to shape. It will inevitably open divisions, but they are there any way so the best way to address them is to face them. And my guess is that there will be areas of consensus among those who voted for Leave and Remain.

Out of this turmoil a new direction will emerge. Prominent Leave campaigners have already said that the £350m a week is not as available for other spending as they said it would be and we don’t seem to be having an emergency budget either. Both sides entered the ludicrous during the debate and a number should be ashamed of their behaviour.

We now need wise voices to set out where we go from here and how the uncertainties will be answered.  These debates will need to take place as part of the Conservative Party leadership election and the Labour Party looks like it is going to have to have a similar discussion. The LibDems look to be formulating their stance too and we may even see new alliances emerge. I doubt UKIP will see their job done yet, because the level of independence is still to be determined as reality bites. Time for them to put some serious policies to their rhetoric. Our national parties, SNP etc, are also assessing where they stand. When the directions are clear I think we need another General Election so that the new government has a mandate to negotiate on our behalf. So here’s a few of the areas I think we need to hear about:

Immigration was a major issue at the referendum and has been for a decade or more. Conservative Peterborough has encouraged it welcoming a diversity of new residents and the contribution they brought, but its MP wants it controlled. A micro-scene of the internal debates within one party. So what level do we want to see – zero is unlikely – and what criteria will be placed on this? What skills are needed? What about refugees from areas where life is hell? There is a migrant crisis at the edge of Europe and it travels because it needs to. It is an international problem and international agreements are needed to tackle it.

Border Controls. Are we about to stop the Channel Tunnel trains at Cheriton in Kent as they enter the UK for passport control? If not there, where? How much will this cost? If we don’t do that how will we police our immigration policy, whatever it turns out to be? Will we negotiate continued freedom of movement with European partners, indeed will we be required to as part of trade deals? Where is the red line on this? What kinds of visas and permits will be required to work or study abroad and for foreign nationals here?

Social Legislation. There is a whole stack of social legislation that reflect European consensus, however determined, so how much of this is now to be reevaluated? Into this we can place how we regard human rights and worker rights. Whoever we end up with will no doubt have a social manifesto.

Marriage of EU Nationals. Here’s one example of social legislation from a Vicar who conducts marriages. At the moment EU nationals are able marry here with the same preliminaries to UK nationals, whereas non EU nationals have to undergo additional checks. What preliminaries are going to be required for EU nationals marrying UK nationals? Will they be treated in the same way as non EU nationals currently are?

Trading. There is a myriad of trading agreements that need to be confirmed or re-examined. At the moment we have open access across borders because we are a trading block. Once we leave it, we are on the outside. How we handle that will be a crucial factor for whether some sectors stay or invest. We cannot have a prolonged period of uncertainty here because markets will not put up with it and decide for themselves.

Extremism and Organised Crime. By definition this operates on an international scale and so information sharing and common approaches are needed. There will need to be a mechanism for this.

Then there is the £350m a week! Clearly some money came back to the UK in subsidies and grants. Will these be maintained – I’m sure the farming industry would like to know this? If not then what will the impact be? Will we be required to pay something into the European pot as an entry fee to the markets, as Norway and Switzerland do? If nothing leaves the shores, see above for the issues to be addressed.

A new relationship with our European partners is going to have to be negotiated and it needs to be set by clear political vision. Those debates needs to start now so that there is a creative focus for the anger, the bewilderment and confusion that is currently rife. Name calling is no substitute for political detail and the onus is now on those who wanted to leave to set out their stall and on those who wanted to stay to say how they would like this to develop given that we are where we are. When the country is split (and split within the splits) the only way forward is to address the issues and open questions, whether we end up leaving or remaining.

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Post EU instability

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 16.12.51The UK has decided, by a very slender majority, that it wants to leave the European Union. We are now in a strange and uncertain place.  This morning in Peterborough city centre I bumped into people who were jubilant, celebrating what they called Independence Day, and others who felt this was a disaster.  Some were worried about what this will mean for the economy and for the cohesion of the Union.  The Prime Minister has tendered his resignation and a new Prime Minster will in due course manage the Brexit negotiations.

 

The Government is split on this, the opposition is split too.  The nation is split with 51.9% voting to leave and 48.1% voting to stay, on a 70% turnout.  There seems to be a generational split, with those under 40 predominantly favouring remaining and those over 50 favouring leaving.  Educational background is a factor too, with graduates and professional groups favouring remaining and those who left school younger and in social groups C2, D & E favouring leaving.  Major cities, such as Leeds, Bristol, London, Cambridge and Oxford, favoured staying and other areas leaving not least South and East Lincolnshire and Peterborough.  More significant is that in Scotland and Northern Ireland majorities voted to remain.  It is a picture of a divided people and that gives me particular concern about where we find ourselves.  Certainly not an environment to warrant street parties or triumphalism, the margin is just too small, and the dangers of where the tensions created by this division could lead too great.

 

We have a leadership vacuum at the heart of our political life.  The major parties need time to decide what their focus now is, the agenda they would like to progress and how they will approach any conditions imposed by trading with a block we now cannot influence. How the markets will react after the weekend is yet to be seen, though the initial dive of the FTSE100 by 8.41% when markets opened was reduced to being 3.15% down at their close.  We don’t know what the major financial institutions will do and if any will now relocate away from the UK.  We will see if the worst fears are realised.

 

Political instability is a breeding ground of injustice.  We are back to the discussions at the last election about what kind of country we want to be.  An awful lot is now floating free or just not known and that kind of instability is not encouraging for inward investment or the strength of the currency.  It may all come right in the end but I suspect we are in for a very bumpy ride in the meantime.  I hope we haven’t just made a monumental mistake.  I suspect that the most likely to suffer will be those who are already struggling.

 

We live in a world of interdependence, so I find the ‘this is our independence day’ slogan a fantasy.  We live in a world where unity and cooperation are required to tackle the most intractable problems of migration, climate change and extremism.  We live in a world that requires bridges to be built between cultures as has been the case since at least the bronze age for trading and shared ideas.

 

I am under no illusions about just how monumental this vote is.  How we move forward will be crucial for the kind of society and common life we advance.

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Life lived in the light of faith

IMG_3927There are times when our readings make me aware that we have come a very long way since they were written; that we live in different times. The first reading (2 Samuel 11:26-12:15) talks of events nearly 3,000 years ago. It predates the Must Farm settlement, about which I spoke last week, by several hundred years. King David has not behaved well, having lusted after Bathsheba and she became pregnant, he engineered her husband’s death on the front line of a battle so that he could marry her to save face. Nathan the prophet doesn’t mince his words in condemning him for his actions. We might just go along with the possessive image of a beloved lamb for Uriah’s love for his wife, but it gets much harder to swallow when the child is made to suffer for his parents’ sins, though they are seen as David’s sins, not Bathsheba’s, which I’m not sure is better. The child does indeed die.

The Epistle (Galatians 2:15-21) has Paul showing that he is still very concerned for legal argument. He is clear that just following legal precepts does not deal with the problem that we are fallible, frail and faulty mortal beings, who sin and mess things up, sometimes spectacularly – see first reading for more details. This can only be sorted by the grace of God and then he goes into lengthy argument as to why this is the case, the type of thing which can make Paul hard to follow at times. Once a lawyer, always a lawyer. It is an argument that doesn’t resonate easily with where we find ourselves. In fact I’m not that fussed about eternal life. I can’t imagine it and really if there is anything it will be a bonus. I don’t believe in hell as a place, I don’t believe that the alternative is anything other than nothingness and there are times when that sounds quite appealing, not least when I have a few days away and come back to all the emails! So this is not the primary focus of my faith and that rather removes the major selling point that the church has relied on in the past.

However I do believe that God is God and that life flourishes when lived in harmony with the purposes of his Kingdom, when we seek to be children of his grace and heirs of his promise. So while I’m not fussed about eternity as such, I do believe it is on offer through the love that will not let us go and which seeks us out, through the love that gives us life in the first place and new life in Jesus Christ. So I might arrive at the same place as the Apostle Paul, he will be pleased to know, but I come at it by a different route. So again, a reading which has much to say to us, reflects a different world and agenda.

The gospel reading (Luke 7:36-8:3) is perhaps easier to enter. We don’t know why the woman is in such distress. She seems to break down. We’re not sure why she had the alabaster jar with her, but seems to have completely lost all sense of decorum and protocol. She sounds like someone who carries deep distress inside her and responds with unrestrained emotion. The tears flow, they drop on Jesus’ feet as he reclines for the meal and then wipes them with her hair and the ritual anointing continues. It’s not surprising that the host and other guests are perplexed by that. It would surprise us.

She clearly carries deep guilt and deep distress. Jesus’ words and acceptance set her free. It is a healing of her mind and soul, who she is as a person is honoured, and that can be profoundly liberating and cathartic. The passage ends with a list of other women who have equally been set free and found healing by Jesus. That is itself remarkable in an age where women were not noticed and didn’t count. That is still the experience of many women around the world and our own society is not without fault.

What comes through these passages is how faith in the God of grace sets people free to live in the light and hope of his Kingdom. Gracious living sets a tone and people flourish in it. The story of King David shows the opposite, how political manipulations and injustice lead to death and oppression. King David became the epitome of a good king, but he has his shadow side. Wherever there are political manipulations they do not create an environment in which people flourish.

This weekend is the official celebration of the Queen’s 90th birthday. As part of this we are giving away the book that has been produced by the Bible Society, Hope and the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. This book is a tribute to the Queen’s faith, which as she said in 2002 has guided her “though the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God… I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.”

The Queen has been a faithful servant of this nation as monach for 63 years. It is quite a record and she is held in enormous affection and respect, even by those who would prefer a republic, which the polls tell us is quite a minority, certainly at the moment. There is a lot of flannel and flummery around royalty. Whenever there is a royal event there is a side that turns me cold. But when I looked deeper into what lies behind the coronation oaths I found a surprise. During it the Queen was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, “Will you to your power cause law and justice, in mercy, to be executed in all your judgements”? That is a profound question and takes us to the heart of what government is for – justice and mercy. It also takes us back to Magna Carta, the 800th anniversary of its sealing we marked last year.

For the Queen the most important moment of the coronation service was not the crowning, but the anointing. The moment she was anointed with holy oil was for her a solemn moment where the self-sacrificial heart of what lay ahead was expressed. This was a spiritual rite and prayer that grace would be given to fulfill the duties.

There was a prayer of blessing which asked for quiet realms, that is ones not disturbed by discord, that there would be defence, wisdom, honesty and stability. These things are signs of blessing because they are signs of love abounding and flourishing within the realm. It also prays that she will be given “devout, learned and useful” clergy, and I will leave that one without comment.

For those heading into the unknown in a new day, the book we are giving away, reveals that the poem quoted by King George VI in his Christmas broadcast in 1939, was actually given to him by his then 13-year-old daughter, who became Elizabeth II (page 9). That poem by Minnie Louise Haskins was quoted during the service from St Paul’s Cathedral on Friday:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light, and safer than a known way.”

Our Queen has been and is inspirational in how she tries to reflect and proclaim the love of God in Christ. When I read the book I found it inspiring and humbling. It tells of a life lived in the light of faith, hope and the grace of God in Christ.

Today we celebrate with the Queen. We are reminded of the grace at the heart of the gospel and how a life can be lived in that grace so that it inspires and enables others to flourish. May we too live as children of grace and heirs of the promise in Jesus Christ.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th June 2016

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