What’s in a name?

IMG_6574What is in a name? It’s Juliet’s famous question as she bemoans Romeo belonging to her family’s sworn enemy as a Montague. A rose would smell as sweet if we called it something else. Physically it would, but the reality is that naming things changes how we see them socially because words are social constructs and as such reflect culture, values and assumptions. These are largely taken for granted, working in the background, like an operating system for our psyche.

So names matter and the old adage of sticks and stones breaking bones but words never hurting is of course rubbish. Words hurt very deeply and bullying is often reinforced through words, name calling and the abuse that comes with it. So Juliet’s teenage angst is her coming to terms with a reality her dreamy love affair will crash into. And we know it has a disastrous outcome.

Names can also be used to bless. I had a letter from the daughter of a woman who had received a small gift from a trust I am involved with. She had read the letter to her mother and it began, as I do without thinking too deeply, by addressing her by name. The woman’s response was

“He used my name! No one uses my name any more – I’m always Mrs and never called by my name.”

It had felt personal, direct and brought more blessing, it would seem, than the cheque which accompanied it.

Mary Magdalene on the first Easter morning is brought up sharp when Jesus calls her by name, “Mary”. It cuts through the tears and grief, the darkness of the early morning just like the sunrise breaks through the night. Jesus had used name changing as a confirmation of calling. Simon becomes Peter, the rock on which the church will be built. And Justine Allain Chapman, in our first Lent Talk on Thursday, spoke about Peter and how although he falls. Jesus is faithful restoring him for service so he becomes fruitful once more.

Abram and Sarai in our first reading (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16) both have their names changed. It seems a small thing, no one really knows what the difference is between the names. Abram and Abraham mean the same thing – exalted father or father of many nations. Sarah means the same as Sarai – princess or joy and delight. I think two things are happening with their name changes.

Firstly they are having their status, their calling and vocation, confirmed. Yes, they really will be those things. Abraham will be the father of many nations and Sarah will find and become joy and delight. Abraham is part of the common heritage of Christians, Muslims and Jews. Through him we can regard ourselves as being spiritual siblings, brothers and sisters with a common heritage and therefore who look to a common goal in God’s grace, one that bridges divides we would otherwise see as being insurmountable.

Secondly Abraham’s name gets bigger. It’s a literary joke. It is just an elongated form of the same name. Abram short for Abraham. Tim short for Timothy, Jenny short for Jennifer. The bible is full of little jokes, that brighten up the text and make the story sparkle with playfulness.  It acts out the message: a bigger name to show the bigger vocation.

There is more blessing in our gospel reading (Mark 8:31-end). Peter gets it wrong again. He refuses to accept that Jesus’ vocation can be to die, not having caught the great twist in the story which comes to light when Jesus meets Mary that first Easter morning in the garden. This time Peter is not called ‘rock’ but ‘Satan’. His mind is in the wrong place and so he needs to give his head a shake to let the grains of sand in there settle again.

The real name, the real vocation we all have is not to high status but to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Whatever we do, wherever we are, however much responsibility is given to us in whatever form that comes, it is our primary calling and trumps all others. Someone sent me an email this week asking about how you come to be a Dean and asking in effect about ambition.

I wrote back about true ambition being to make a difference for the sake of the gospel, not about personal advancement. There is always an ego lurking under the surface and scaling the greasy pole is always a spiritual danger, not least as the titles get longer – Rev to Canon to Very Rev. It could go to your head if you let it. But my real name remains ‘Ian’, which is what I was baptised and that remains the true vocation.

The real ambition, which Peter must learn, is to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, crucified and raised for us, to become an agent of God’s kingdom advancing faith, hope and love wherever and with whomever we find ourselves. Different places just bring different challenges and opportunities, and in God’s grace the gifts the meet them.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, but only because of what it carries. So Juliet is quite right. The rose smells sweet, so we need our language to reflect that, to see and affirm its blessing and not hide or hinder it. Enjoy the jokes of Abram becoming Abraham, Sarai becoming Sarah, but see the true source of the exalting, the joy and delight within them – God’s love for us. And use this season of Lent to grow in that love, that joy and that delight.

Sermon for Lent 2, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 28th February 2021

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ravens and Rainbows

IMG_6544How have you entered Lent this year? Were you ready for a season when we try to do things differently, finding space for reflection and deepening faith? May be you are just not there in your head, and rather than sackcloth and ashes, you would much rather have 40 days of pancakes and party. Some I have noticed have been talking about the last year as feeling like one long Lent.

This all rather came home to me on Wednesday, which was of course Ash Wednesday. Usually the day before, before pancakes, I would have burnt last year’s Palm Crosses and prepared the ash for us to use during the Ash Wednesday liturgy with those evocative words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return; turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”. Words we use as we make the sign of the cross on our foreheads with the ash.

These are powerful words, for both recipient and giver. The use of ash makes it even more poignant and if there was ever a year when this felt more appropriate it was this one. Ash Wednesday is when we stare our mortality in the face in the hope of Jesus Christ. For though we come from dust and will return to dust one day, we are special dust. God gives this dust life, matter of the universe, and it is infused with such special grace.

As a space craft lands on Mars, looking for signs of life in the dried-up bed of a lake, the dust of which we are made is the same dust that inhabits the whole universe. The elements are the same, it is their composition and the environment in which they exist that means they can form bonds which become organic compounds that with an electrical charge emerge as living beings.

‘Remember you are dust’ is a reminder that we are mortal, but made of the building blocks of the universe. That fragility in its complexity is its strength and its wonder. This was a year to be reminded of that, and Covid, itself made of the same building blocks, has removed that or, more to the point, the response to it to protect has removed this powerful symbol. And while Covid is made of the same building blocks that means we are also able to find cures which are also made of the same building blocks.

When the Covid restrictions first started, and they were emerging around this time last year, after we had been in lockdown for a few weeks I reflected on this period as being like the exile in the Old Testament. The people of Israel carried off by an oppressive power had to  learn to sing a new song in a strange land. Out of that experience the bible was shaped and on their return they built again, with new vision and reset priorities.

That all still holds to a point, but it was discovering this model of a raven in Wilkos around October that I starting thinking about Noah, the flood and looking for signs of hope. The ravens are the first birds to be released from the ark. They fly off and come back with nothing. The ravens tell us that this pandemic is not over. We have to endure it for a while longer, we need resilience to cope. My friend Justine will lead us in our first Lent Talk on Thursday on finding Christian resilience – details in the newsletter and online.

We have been hunkering down, floating in our ark for protection for a year now – on and off. And we long for the dove to come with the olive branch in its beak – the dove released after the raven. We long for the dove to fly off and not return, telling us there is land ahead. We have though at the moment the raven.

Ravens also appear in the Gospels. Jesus tells us to consider the ravens, who don’t sow or reap, they don’t build storehouses or barns and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds (Luke 12:24). God is with them and through them is with us. So a bird who tells us this is not yet over, also flutters as a sign of trust and hope in God.

This is where we need to see rainbows, as in our first reading (Genesis 9:8-17). This spectrum of light defused in the water droplets of the sky, brings a smile whenever we see one. It is part of how the dust of which we are made is so much more than dust. There is beauty in this world, even in a storm as the rays of light bounce around the droplets and trigger awe and wonder.

So Lent may feel like it has never ended. We may be longing for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and would just settle for modest release from all of this. Remembering we are dust is not meant to oppress and squash us, rather the opposite. It is to look straight into the face of our mortality and see the awesome wonder with which it is infused. In the words of Jesus at the end of our gospel reading, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to us, repent and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1:15).

Sermon for First Sunday of Lent, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 21st February 2021

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How would love respond?

IMG_6519Have you received any Valentine’s cards or gifts today? You may feel you are past all that, or this may be a day when the absence of that special person is more acute and you could do without a sermon to remind you. You may find today is a day to be thankful for what has been and so want a space to hold those treasured memories that have meant and mean so much. Maybe this a day you broaden to be thankful for all the love you receive from friends and those who fill your heart with joy and gladness.

Yesterday, in the post, I received this Valentine’s Day card from Christian Aid. It was a thank you for supporting them over a tough year. I give a regular amount each month and not just when their annual fundraising week comes round each May. The card included a note about loving neighbours near and far as ourselves, loving as Jesus and the Good Samaritan loved, loving in the face of disease, drought and darkness.

Clever advertising ploy or genuinely thankful, the card was a welcome reminder that love is much deeper than the soft toys, inflatable hearts, red roses and even chocolates. Love is the key to Christian living. Whenever we want to know what response to make in a situation, finding the one which expresses love is the way of Jesus Christ. And as we stand on the threshold of Lent and its journey to Good Friday and Easter, what we mean by love deepens as passion and self-giving take us into the darkness so that light may shine.

Before we get there, and this year will be another strange lockdown Lent, at least at the start, our Gospel reading today gave us Jesus being transfigured on the mountain top (Mark 9:2-9). You can read this several ways, but it seems to describe a profound religious experience, one where the inner glory of God becomes real. And that glory, that moment of revelation, keeps Jesus going through the tough days ahead. We all need moments when God’s glory becomes real for us.

This means we all need to have the love modelled for us so that we can see it and emulate it. We all need love kindling in our hearts so that we can burn with it and show it to those we meet either in person or online. Twitter and Facebook would be such better places if more people thought ‘what is the most loving response I can make’ before making it.

There does seem to be a lot of trolling going on at the moment. I’ve noticed it doesn’t take long before the comments section of a news post or public figures’ comments receive vile attacks. Scientists who are trying to help us find solutions to this pandemic are abused in the street and subjected to incredible abuse online. However much we tell ourselves that these are the product of some damaged and disturbed people, after a while it wears the best of us down. I’ve noticed a number of prominent people recently signing off in the evening with a comment about how they are putting social media aside for the night because the trolling has just got to them.

Today is a day to say to those you appreciate for what they are doing, ‘thank you’. It’s a day to reset our calibration for online comments and interactions to that which shows the love of Christ. It’s easy to focus on what is going wrong, has gone wrong. If it is necessary to confront failures, it is so much more constructive to do so in a loving way, one that looks at how there can be improvement. I remember doing training some years ago for chairing disciplinary hearings and the focus on discipline was about how this situation can be improved, how people can grow. Sadly sometimes that means a parting of the ways, but not always. Proportionality as part of justice reflects love in action.

At the end of Christian Aid’s card were three simple phrases. “Love never fails; love unites; love builds hope.” The transfiguration of Jesus is a moment when love shines through, the love of God for the world. It reveals that God so loved the world that he sent Christ to save us. God’s love is our foundation, our calling and our hope. Today is a day to celebrate God’s love as we see it in our lives and the lives of those who help us see it, and, in the words of the Epistle reading, to model this “on the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Sermon for Sunday before Lent and St Valentine’s Day, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 14th February 2021.

Posted in Live-Stream Worship, Sermons | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Saturday – holding loss with faith and thanksgiving

IMG_6483Welcome to this moment of prayer from the community of Peterborough Cathedral.

Over the past two weeks, we have been pausing at 6.00pm each evening to pray. This follows the encouragement from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to pray for our nation, for the affects by this pandemic, the loss, the struggle and to find hope in the darkness.

Today we are asked to pray for all who are grieving, and all suffering with physical and mental ill-health. That is quite a wide spread of concern, but does focus the mind on where some of us are struggling.

Saturdays are the end of the week because Sunday is the first day – it may not feel like it if you have a traditional weekend break, but it is. It is the day God is described as resting in first creation story in the Book of Genesis, at the beginning of the Bible. It’s a day of looking at all that has been and delighting in it. It is a day to be refreshed in God’s goodness and when things are dark, that is a moment when this is needed more than ever.

As we look towards Lent and Easter, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is the day of grieving. The end of the week, the end of a life, is a day of loss as well as thanksgiving. It is the day when the shock and horror of loss sink in. It’s the day when Henry Scott Holland’s sermon reminds us that ‘the long silence’ tells us that death is not nothing at all – it hurts and we miss those we have lost.

If the darkest moment is just before the dawn, then Saturday is that moment. Because tomorrow we celebrate, we give thanks to God for his saving love that brings Jesus from the grave and will bring us, and those we’ve lost, too. And tomorrow is a day we think particularly of that dance of love, being Valentine’s Day. So it is a day to reconnect with God’s loving purpose which brings us to birth and will bring us to new birth in his Son, Jesus Christ.

The anthem being sung by our Cathedral choir, which you can hear in the background, is Maurice Greene’s setting of verses from Psalm 39 (5-8, 13-15), ‘Lord let me know my end’. A song of farewell, it nonetheless includes the words of great hope:

“And now, Lord, what is my hope? Truly my hope is even in thee.” (Psalm 39:8)

So as we pause on this Saturday evening, let us light a candle and hold the loss but let this light shine in the darkness to bring hope and peace and thanksgiving. The God who made us does not forget us and may that faith hold us especially when we struggle.

Light Candle

Prayers

Be present, O merciful God,

and protect us through the silent hours of this night,

so that we who are wearied

by the changes and chances of this fleeting world,

may rest on your eternal changelessness;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Stay with us, O God, this night,

so that by your strength

we may rise with the new day

to rejoice in the resurrection of your Son,

Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

 

May the risen Lord Jesus bless us.

May he watch over us and renew us

as he renews the whole of creation.

May our hearts and lives echo his love. Amen

 

From Common Worship, Office of Night Prayer

 

Reflection for ‘A call to prayer: prayers during the pandemic’, Peterborough Cathedral, Saturday 13th February 2021.

Posted in Live-Stream Worship, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Image-bearers of Christ

IMG_6494While I was preparing this sermon I think I must have wandered off into one of those procrastinating clicks around the internet. You know the ones, you have a job to do and somehow you click on facebook, or twitter, or Instagram, or the BBC website and find a survey on what kind of penguin are you! You then send that to a colleague, don’t worry Rowan I won’t name you, and she joins in, which means a whole thread opens up about penguins. The internet was invented for those of us looking for an excuse to be distracted.

It was on one of those little walks in the wilds online when a video popped up from someone offering to help me with my online video skills. Well, I’m the first admit I need help, so I clicked to see what she had to say. She spoke about brand and good still photos, while they all matter, not actually cutting it when it comes to making an impact. What makes the difference is when the customer can see your face, how you speak, construct sentences, and whether they feel they can trust you.

For all the technological skills and the vital life-line that online connecting has brought this past year, what still cuts it, in fact what seems to make the difference is seeing the person, or hearing them in their voice. It is the personal, the inter-relational, the sense of ‘can I connect with this person’ and therefore ‘do I want to’. What we want and need is the real deal, the genuine and the human – someone who looks like they might not have been so photoshopped that they bear no resemblance to reality. Someone you could meet in a café or by the washing powder in the supermarket.

When God chose to reach out to humanity, God did not send a branding agent, a brochure or even the artist’s impression of how a building might look – as magnificent as this one is. God sent, came as a person, in person. This elevates relationship above structures – both institutional and stone, though good governance and somewhere to meet does matter. And when we are still scratching our heads on that one, our first reading gave us an early Christian hymn singing the praises of Christ as the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15-20).

And it gets more direct, because to us that can still sound too remote being about a person who walked, taught, suffered, died and rose again 2,000 years ago. Whatever people say about having a personal relationship with Jesus, that actually has quite a few stages behind it where that image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation becomes real for them. The good news, or the even more good news, is that God sends people in each generation to be his living witnesses, to provide the video faces that we can all relate to.

And while we’re Googling for who these might be, step away from the computer, go into the bathroom and look in the mirror. You will see staring back at you precisely the kind of person God sends to be his image, his bearer of the brand of a kingdom of love, joy, hope and peace today. It is you and it is me. And when we have two or three of these image-bearers, we call that collective plural ‘a church’. Because that is what the church really is. It is what happens when the image-bearers come together to share the news of hope, to celebrate the sacraments of God’s presence, to live as witnesses to transform the world with this message and its practical out-workings. For all the structures and layers that this has acquired over the years, at its heart the church is people who aim and strive to be image-bearers of Christ, who is himself the image-bearer of God.

As I prepare to leave Peterborough later in the Spring, and look towards Newport, over the past few weeks I’ve been reflecting on my time here – what has happened, what I think was important, and received lots of message of what others think was important. The overwhelming thread has been about relating and connecting, most recently helping others stay and feel connected. About being a real face, a real image-bearer – and I’ll acknowledge first to save anyone else having to point it out that sometimes that has worked well and sometimes I’ve slipped up. For the former, thanks. For the latter, sorry. As image-bearers we don’t always get it right. Which is why we return time and time again to the one we model our image-bearing on. We aim to be imitators of Christ, seeking his grace to shape and guide us.

That’s why we need the collective form of image-bearer, the church. Not great piles of stone – though they are lovely. But the people, who are genuine, loving and faithful in their witness because they have caught in their hearts the true image-bearer, the Word become flesh, and have beheld his glory. We are servants of Christ Jesus, who is Lord.

There have been reports in the press about whether the Church of England will have to cut 20% of its clergy posts, whether it has lost 20% of its congregants during this pandemic. I was on a training call last week with a training organisation, CPAS, and they said that the estimate was that between 15-20% of congregants have wandered off during this pandemic – perhaps they are drifting around online searching the real, the genuine, the personal interaction and missing being together with all their heart. And they are not alone in missing that – so am I. What will reconnect is the personal contact and thanks be to God because he already has a work-force lined up and ready to send, to be his image-bearers. 

The job description is not mystical, it is not weird, it is not actually anything you can’t do. It is to be image-bearers, ones who shine the light of Christ because that light has so filled your hearts that it can do no other. And you are probably doing it in ways you haven’t noticed already. Stick at it. Have confidence in the light and love of Christ, who shows us what would otherwise be invisible to us, God’s image in human form.

As we sing songs to Christ, the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, the Word made flesh among us, those hymns are a calling to be his image-bearers today. 

Sermon for 2nd Sunday before Lent, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 7th February 2021

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Consider the Ravens

Screenshot 2021-02-03 at 21.54.04Every evening this week at 6.00pm we have pressed pause as a cathedral community to reflect and to the pray. This is following the Archbishops of Canterbury and York’s suggestion that we do this not only to note and acknowledge those who have died in this pandemic but also to look forward in hope and trust in God. Each of my colleagues and our bishop have led an evening and it’s my turn tonight.

100,000 people is a significant marker for us, but no one is just a number in that grim totaliser. Each of those people were known, loved and are mourned. Each of them bore their own distinctive image of God, blessed with gifts and talents, spark and creativity. Each of them made a difference and we hold them before God who loves each one of us and knows us so uniquely that even the hairs of our head are counted.

Jesus liked to use images taken from around him and on one occasion he spoke about the ravens, like this one. ‘Consider the ravens’, he said, ‘they don’t sow or reap, they don’t build storehouses nor barns and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!’ (Luke 12:24). The ravens remind us that we can trust in God even in these difficult and dark days.

A raven was also the first bird to be sent out in the story of Noah’s Ark. It comes back with nothing in its beak. The raven thus tells Noah that his days of floating at sea are not over. He needs to bear with it and hunker down for a bit longer. The raven says don’t give us up yet for this time is not yet over and so the raven tells us we have some further distance to travel in this pandemic. But remember the raven is followed by the dove and so brighter days will come.  

Ravens pop up a bit later on in the bible when Elijah goes off to hide because there is great danger for him. The ravens bring him food. In his dark days, the ravens provide sustenance to keep him going, so they remind us that we can hope, can trust and God will give us the grace we need in this moment.

As we pause this evening, the night before our Sunday worship tomorrow, we light a candle of hope and prayer and trust, that if God feeds and provides for ravens, uses them to provide sustenance, how much more does God hold and treasure our lives.

Light candle

Loving God,

your Son Jesus Christ came

that we might have life and have it abundantly;

pour out your blessing upon our nation;

where there is illness,

bring your healing touch;

where there is fear,

strengthen us with the knowledge of your presence;

where there is uncertainty,

build us up in faith;

where there is dishonesty,

lead us into truth;

where there is discord,

may we know the harmony of your love;

this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Church of England, Prayers for the Nation, 2021

Reflection for Peterborough Cathedral, Prayers for the Nation, Saturday 6th February 2021

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Acedia

IMG_6483I was on a zoom call the other week, reflecting on leadership in lockdown, and the main speaker talked about a spiritual insight from the earliest monks in the desert. They wrote about Acedia, which is a word that is often taken to mean ‘sloth’, being listless and weary. Those moments when we find ourselves procrastinating, and the internet was invented for times like that.

Actually ‘acedia’ is a much deeper spiritual concept than this. The real target of acedia is an inner restlessness, an inability to live in the present. It is wanting to be somewhere else, though where that somewhere else is, is rather elusive. That’s not surprising because it’s not merely frustration because we are blocked, it is a struggle that comes from an inner turmoil and fear. That can have many elements to it, but at root there will be a lack of trust in God and hope in God.

It is very much the opposite of joy and thankfulness. With thankfulness we recognise that what we have and where we are is gift and that gift is one of love and ultimate security. There are all sorts of moments in this pandemic when any desire to make that a cosy resignation will be challenged. The ability to stare death in the face with joy and thankfulness reveals a profound hope and trust in God.

None of us know how we will face the hour of our death or its impending dawning, but when I have been privileged to minister to people in their final moments and be alongside those closest to them, it’s a moment when the deepest faith is revealed in surprising places. They’ve been surprising because those who displayed it were not ostentatious in their faith, didn’t make a loud show of it, but what shone through at that moment was profound and deep.

One of the signals of acedia is when we try to fill our time with excessive busyness. It is a making of noise to mask an inner fear and unease. This is not to be confused with those for whom this pandemic has brought more work than usual – and for many of us this past year has been far from full of space for hobbies, baking, developing a new skill – though I am having to carve out 15 or 20 minutes each day to pick up a little Welsh at the moment.

Our reading (Ephesians 5:13-20) spoke about being careful how we live, that we understand what the Lord’s will is. And above all to give thanks to God at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus. Malcolm Guite, the poet and priest, has written a poem about being hunkered down, where hope may waver, but looking to the springing of new life to set our hearts free.

These bleak and freezing seasons may mean grace

When they are memory. In time to come

When we speak truth, then they will have their place,

Telling the story of our journey home,

Through dark December and stark January

With all its disappointments, through the murk

And dreariness of frozen February,

When even breathing seemed unwelcome work.

 

Because through all of these we held together,

Because we shunned the impulse to let go,

Because we hunkered down through our dark weather,

And trusted to the soil beneath the snow,

Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,

Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.

This faith, trust, reliance on God and hope that there will be a spring to unlock our hearts, is the key to how we understand and hold the struggles of faith in dark places. Acedia is a symptom that faith is wavering and its medicine is giving thanks because in that we restore hope.

Sermon for Night Prayer, Peterborough Parish Church, Wednesday 3rd February 2021

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Be the light

IMG_6010There is a lot going on in today’s gospel reading (Luke 2:22-40). It tells of a Jewish rite connected with childbirth and so has various names. It’s the day Jesus was presented in the Temple according to the Hebrew Law. As the first-born male, a sacrifice was required for him. It’s also a day associated with Mary’s purification, where childbirth was viewed as making her unclean. That got transferred into the Book of Common Prayer as the ‘Churching of Women’, something that has more or less died out today.

In Leviticus (12:1-8), if the woman bears a son, she is regarded as being ceremonially unclean for seven days. On the 8th day, the child is circumcised – we remember that as the Naming of Jesus on 1st January. She is then unclean for a further 33 days. The bad news is if she bears a daughter, she is unclean for twice as long. At the end of this period, she is to bring to the priest a lamb in its first year for a burnt-offering and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering.

There’s a footnote, if she can’t afford a sheep she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for the burnt-offering and one for the sin-offering. This is significant, because the offering made for Jesus in that gospel reading is the poor person’s offering. Luke keeps Jesus’ humble origins running through this story.

We also have two elderly people, who have been quietly hoping and praying that they would see this day. Faithful Simeon and Anna, both have their dreams fulfilled. For Simeon he now feels he can depart in peace, for he has seen God’s word fulfilled. Today the Lord has come to his Temple and God is redeeming all people, not just the Hebrew people. We go from poor Jew to the salvation of the world in a very short jump.

Those words of light lightening the Gentiles have echoed down the centuries. Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis, has been set to music and is one of the canticles at Evensong. Today has been associated with blessing candles, though of course we only tend to use candles today for atmospheric effect – they don’t really provide our light, though we have one on our dinner table each evening, as a reminder of hope and the gathering of the day as we gather for a meal. It glows and illuminates the centre of the table.

The light of hope, the faithful patient waiting of Simeon and Anna are themes for us in this pandemic. On Wednesday we marked Holocaust Memorial Day with the theme ‘Be the light in the darkness’. The darkness there was one of atrocity and hatred, of violence and genocide. But being a light is what we are called to be, which is why we refer to St John’s Church as a beacon in the heart of our city – sadly too cold today to be inside.

A good friend of this city was Chris Duffett, who founded the Light Project as a mission to bless the heart of our city – those you would see wearing their green sweatshirts. It continues and Garden House is being a light, transforming the lives of some of the most broken people on our streets. Chris ends his emails with the simple strapline “Be the light”. It’s a reminder that shining a light means being that light; living it.

As we celebrate Candlemas, we don’t just adore a cute baby, gurgling as an ancient rite is performed for him, of which he is more or less oblivious. It is a day when we greet the fulfilment of promise, the hope made real and the light which shines in the darkness and the darkness is filled with it. Even a tiny spark takes darkness away. Wherever we are, whatever we face, we pray that God will spark in us a flame to shine the light of hope, confidence in promise fulfilled, of saving grace.

Justine Allain Chapman, one of our Lent speakers this year, in her book on ‘The Resilient Disciple’ contrasts Judas and Peter (p71ff). When we are at rock bottom, she says, there are three dangers. We can think it’s all our fault, we can think it will never end, and we can think everything is like this: all my fault, always will be, everywhere.

Candlemas with its spark of hope, says even if we do carry blame there is a way back in God’s love in Jesus Christ. Candlemas says that for faithful Simeon and Anna they saw that salvation comes; it is not always doom. Candlemas says that the light is for everyone everywhere, so as it shines the gloom goes because it does not have the final word.

Candlemas changes our perspective to one of hope and confidence in God. May that light shine for you, in you and through you. ‘Be the light’.

Sermon for Candlemas, Peterborough Parish Church online, Sunday 31st January 2021

Posted in Live-Stream Worship, Sermons | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Water into wine – God’s abundant grace

IMG_6445It’s a fun maths challenge to work out the quantity of wine that Jesus provides in his incredible ‘bring a bottle to the party’ act at this wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11). I don’t know how many were at this wedding, but the quantity he provides is far in excess of what would be needed bearing in mind they’ve drunk the existing stock already. Six stone jars, each holding 20 or 30 gallons. That is somewhere between 700 and 1,000 bottles of wine. My head hurts just thinking about it.

I’ve only got five bottles here, but there is a reason for that. If I twists them round they start to spell out that reason. J E S U S. Those stone jars, used to hold the water to wash, stand for traditions and practices that are being fulfilled in Jesus; the hopes completed. John uses this story as a way of making known that in Jesus God is fulfilling all of the hopes and dreams of so many generations with a generosity that goes way beyond what is needed. So the quantity shows God’s grace is always greater than we need. It might not always feel like it, especially if we are struggling. But we pull through.

And even death does not have the final word in the hope we have in Christ. Because he is our life and our hope, the grace at work in him is greater than even the fragilities of life. Death is defeated. We can look forward to the new wine of God’s kingdom.

The allusion goes further. Not only is there quantity beyond capacity, there is quality. This is the best wine – real vintage stuff. Jesus has gone to the speciality section of the wine racks – way beyond my normal budget of what can I get for less than £10 or even a fiver. The best is yet to come, the hope we have is not of diminishing returns, but of something far more glorious.

It’s a hope for the kingdom to come, but also of what life with Christ can bring to us if we just invite him in, open the bottles and pour out the wonderful fruit of his vine. As Psalm 34 puts it “O taste and see how gracious the Lord is” (Psalm 34:8).

That ‘best is yet to come’ will be for this parish too. A new chapter awaits with new vision and a new vicar. Life post lockdown will clearly bring some changes, but step forward in hope. God’s provision is always ready for us.

I’m always amused by the exchange between Jesus and his mother in this passage. Mary tells Jesus that he needs to sort it. Jesus says ‘It’s not yet time’. His mother ignores him and tells the waiting staff to do whatever he tells them, forcing his hand. A bit of motherly guiding goes on, and Jesus is put firmly in his place. This is the moment for who he is to be made known, for the Epiphany, and it comes through the nudge of his mother. I can see the expression on Jesus’ face as I read it. ‘MOTHER!’.

Despite this being a moment of revelation, it’s not a big announcement because most of the guests are clueless as to what has just happened. It’s the waiting staff who are in the know, the ones ignored by most guests because they are just the waiters. There is a Poirot case where no one notices the waiting staff and one of them is able to slip through without being spotted to do the deed. There’s a few Mission Impossible moments too and Bond uses this hiding in plain sight trick as well.

It is characteristic of the gospel that the first to spot who Jesus is, are not the local dignitaries or those of high office, but are either scruffy shepherds, foreign star gazers, the crowd at John the Baptist’s baptisms and now waiting staff. Jesus is seen more powerfully by those whose status does not get in the way. And stone jars for purification are wash pots. So even those aren’t the best china.

So our bottles spell out the name of Jesus because in him life is transformed and God’s grace is seen to be far more abundant than we could ever dream possible. The new wine of God’s kingdom is before us. Let us step out in hope and praise and thanksgiving, for what is to come will be far more glorious than we can imagine.

“O taste and see how gracious the Lord is, blessed is the one who trusts in him.” (Psalm 34:8)

Sermon for Epiphany 3, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 24th January 2021

Posted in Live-Stream Worship, Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Searched and known, loved and called

IMG_6432There’s a fun book originally for children, where they have to find a character among crowded scenes. The ‘Where’s Wally?’ books require you to look out for Wally in his distinctive red striped shirt, blue trousers, glasses and bobble hat. It’s produced a number of spin-offs. This one is ‘Where’s Will’, based on Shakespeare’s plays, and you have to find him. There is even one where you have to find Jesus.

Searching, looking, finding, then what? Nathanael in our gospel reading (John 1:43-end) is on the lookout. He knows his Hebrew Scriptures and the Messiah is not supposed to come from Nazareth. His response about Jesus coming from Nazareth sounds like a bit of inter-town rivalry, can anything good come from Nazareth? And it can be read that way. But more likely is that he is really saying, this man can’t be whom we are looking for because he doesn’t tick this crucial box.  So Nathanael is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit, he is faithful and devout. You can’t pull the wool over Nathanael’s eyes.

Jesus’ response that he has seen him under the fig tree seems to be a deal clincher. It’s an odd statement and puzzles most New Testament scholars. We have a fig tree in our garden and it is lush when in full bloom. Every now and then I have to trim it and it brings out a cold sweat in Susan when I emerge with clippers and saw – I get a very stern warning not to get carried away.

Figs make their first appearance in the Bible in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve sow fig leaves together to cover their modesty after they have eaten the mysterious fruit of the tree of knowledge (Genesis 3). Fig leaves are big so cover a larger area, but they are a bit rough so I’m not sure they’d be that comfortable. What Genesis doesn’t say is that the fruit was an apple; that’s a western folk-story adding a layer that is not there.

A friend suggested the other day that the tree in the garden could be taken to be a fig tree and that would explain why it’s named next but the apples are not. So, my friend wondered, is Jesus making a call-back to the Garden of Eden? John’s Gospel makes call-backs to creation, not least in the prologue with opening words mirroring how Genesis begins, ‘in the beginning’. ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1); ‘In the beginning when God created’ (Genesis 1).

So Jesus is taking Nathanael back to creation and the implication is he has seen him in his first, original state, known him before he was formed, like in our Psalm. Nathanael has been searched out and known, his thoughts discerned from afar (Psalm 139:1). It’s an interesting thought.

Nathanael with his tick list sees what he expects to see and needs to have his eyes opened wider. He needs to see new possibilities that surprise him and as he does he becomes a follower of Jesus. Our last hymn this morning, ‘Will you come and follow me’, includes that wonderful line about ‘going where you don’t know and never being the same’. Being open to new possibilities and the surprise of God’s grace appearing where we don’t expect it does take us into places we don’t know and changes us.

It is easy to stay in our comfort zone, but the Holy Spirit disturbs us, calls us on and today’s Gospel is about being called to follow God in Jesus Christ, which is the primary calling that we all have. For many it also leads to exploring other callings, in ways to live this out in specific ministries – lay ones and ordained ones. All of these are living expressions of Jesus’ call to follow him, to come and see.

Nathanael is taken back to the story of Jacob, where he sat down and was given a vision of heaven opening with angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28:10-end). He too will see a vision of heaven opened and visions bring an encounter with the holy. That leads in so many surprising directions.

Today we are being encouraged to keep as ‘Well-being Sunday’. I wrote in the newsletter this week about the Samaritans’ campaign calling tomorrow ‘Brew Monday’ as a twist on ‘Blue Monday’; an encouragement to be kind to one another and ourselves. One of the ways we help our mental health is through seeing that there is a purpose and a deeper meaning to life, not least our life. We are searched and known, loved and held.

Even in a crowd, which is something we are to avoid at the moment and there have been some ‘Where’s Wally’ jokes on that, even then with 6 billion people on the planet, we are not just faceless, one among so many others, but a unique child of God. Just like Wally stands out, so do we. We are all called by name, known, searched and given an encounter that changes us.

Sermon for Epiphany 2, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 17th January 2021

Posted in Live-Stream Worship, Sermons | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment