A Paddington Christmas: bringing out the best in us

IMG_7015One of the biggest films this year was about a small bear, from South America, far from home, lodging with a family in London. Paddington, armed only with a marmalade sandwich under his hat and carrying that old brown case of his, spreads his particular magic wherever he goes. At the risk of spoiling anyone’s Christmas viewing if you have the film lined up for later, there is a scene in the film where he ends up in prison, for a crime he did not commit, the theft of a special pop-up book with clues to hidden treasure on each page. He is the victim of a miscarriage of justice and the Browns set about to clear his name and secure his release. While in prison, everywhere he goes his characteristic charm seems to rub off on those around him, even those intent on not liking anyone. As his Aunt Lucy taught him back in Peru, always look for the good in people and you will find it. He has a knack of bringing the best out of people, helping them flourish in grace and love.

Tonight we celebrate God’s gift of Jesus, born far from home in a strange town and lodging with strangers. He comes to appeal to the best inside us, even help us find the best to connect with, to flourish in grace and love. Christmas has love running through its core, even if not marmalade sandwiches.

Our readings reflect this in subtle ways, and it is the theme that lies behind all the grand philosophy that they express. To the writer of the Hebrews, the child born this night is the reflection of God’s very being (Hebrews 1:3). When we want to know what that looks like, the central theme running through the Bible is one of a loving Father, a loving creator, a loving redeemer and sustainer, who never gives up on the creation he has made and set in being. From the rainbow and the promise to Noah never to give up on his creation, to the outpouring cry of the prophets that God can never give up on the people, such is his love, to the purpose of Jesus in John’s gospel to bring life in all its fullness, abundantly (John 10:10), and later in the Epistle of John that “God is love and those who live in God live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16). Being the reflection of the very being of God is to be love personified.

John, in his great hymn to the eternal Word, our Gospel reading (John 1:1-14), packed full of deep and profound philosophical thought, brings into the frame ‘life’. “That life is the light of all people” and it “shines in darkness” so powerfully that “the darkness cannot overcome it”. The light makes a difference to us because as we receive him, as we receive his life and love, we become his children (v12), and so like him filled with grace and truth.

And before we get too high level and remote, this is where Paddington comes in to help us connect this with our deepest selves, with our most profound longings and desires. Just as the bear has a knack of making a difference to how people behave, of appealing to the best inside them, so this light and life, this grace and truth appeals to the best inside us. It is an expression of the essence of that best. Its purpose is to make us into children of God who shine with the light of this love.

This disarming simplicity is a profound and radical message – radical in the sense of restoring factory settings. Rather than hardening our hearts, pursuing relentless self-interest, we are challenged with a generosity that gives and keeps on giving. It responds to the cold hearted with love; the greater the hostility, the greater the love. The tighter the pressure and scarcity of resources, the greater the miracle of generous provision. Five thousand are fed with a few loaves and this brings a wonderful teaching on how God feeds us with his life and love (John 6). Even those who desert him are offered restoration after a barbecue breakfast on the beach after the resurrection (John 21:15-19).

The power of Christmas, which the Paddington story displays so wonderfully, is how love can and does transform us, set us free and release within us a love that brings out the best in us. God in Christ does this because he believes in us and that we have it in us, in his grace, to be better and flourish in that love. It is a message that is so simple and yet so much we are exposed to seems to conspire to diminish this in is us, to appeal to the shadow side of our nature. The challenge of Christmas is to let love get the upper hand within us, within our relationships with others and in how we approach every aspect of our lives.

Christmas invites us to zoom in as close as we can bear, even closer than we might otherwise choose, to ground the high level philosophy and policy in the practical simplicity of loving, for that is what we see God doing in this vulnerable child. God comes as close as can be and while that may not involve marmalade sandwiches it does involve a love which aims to bring out the best that there can be within each one of us. Indeed, it aims to bring the best to us so that we can respond in like manner with grace and love and blessing.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Christmas Midnight 2017

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Mary and the call to be temples of God

IMG_6639We are used to hearing Old Testament readings that make the Temple in Jerusalem the special place for the Hebrew people, the focus for their worship and faith in God. So much of the writings of the prophets concentrate on how things went wrong when the people rejected this worship, as well as lament for the loss of the Temple when the people were carried off into exile. This familiarity means we can miss a thread which our first reading (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16) displays; one of ambivalence at best and even deep suspicion. Here God, through the prophet Nathan, expressed that he is not keen on it being set up in the first place. David’s grand plan to build God a house is greeted with bemusement: ‘what do I need one of those for, I’ve not needed one so far, why should I be missing one?’   But David builds one any way and God seems to smile on the plan.

For all of the importance it gets, there are long periods when the people have to get on without it and they seem to manage, not least when in exile and since its final destruction in AD 70. As far as I know there have been no plans to rebuild it. God can set up his home and his shrine wherever he chooses. And with this we have a reminder that great churches and chapels, like this one, exist for our benefit, not God’s; they provide us with a focus, a place to concentrate the story of our faith and become symbolic for us of all our faith calls us to be.

This is an interesting reading to have on this fourth Sunday of Advent as we think about Mary’s role in the nativity, in the coming of the Christ-child among us. It’s clearly a vital role, one for which she is most highly favoured (Luke 1:26-38). And the implication of placing these readings alongside one another is that Mary is in some way being seen as the new Temple, the place that enables God to be visible and known among us in the birth of Jesus. And again this is not a role that exists for God’s benefit but for ours. God does not need to have this vehicle and mode of arrival, but chooses to do so. It is God’s will and choice to enter among us by entering into a partnership with one of his beloved, favoured, human beings. So beloved and favoured are we, that God honours our humanity to the full by being born of a woman, of Mary, just like the rest of us. The great mystery of the incarnation, of God among us, which we will mark in just a few hours time as our Christmas celebrations begin, is that God who could make himself known in any way he wished, chose this one, chooses to be present in human life so that we may see what it is to be fully human and beloved by God, that the life we have becomes a dwelling place for the sacred, for the holy of holies, becomes a temple of his presence.

Mary stands as a symbol and example of what it means to say “yes” to God, to join her in her response of “let it be with me according to your word”, for ”Here am I, the servant of the Lord” (v38). And as with all temples she points us to Jesus and helps us find a focus on God. She is not the object of worship in herself and should never be made into one. Any honouring that we do, and she is honoured in the story of our faith – and by Muslims too as Mariam, any honouring is for her response and therefore for the example that she gives us. We too are to be temples of God, temples of the Holy Spirit, so that we too can be a life consecrated for God’s glory and a place where others may see something of the grace of God at work in the world. Works in progress as we are, imperfect and in need of forgiveness and redemption, but nonetheless works of grace.

Mary has been made into a trophy over the centuries, an unreal ideal of womanhood, which detracts from the power of her story. It is likely that she had subsequent children because there are references in the New Testament to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and they are not figurative references. I don’t find titles such as ‘Queen of the Heaven’ at all helpful, though wearing crowns is something all are called to, crowns of glory as we serve Christ the King and we thought about that at the end of November on the Feast of Christ the King, at Oliver’s baptism. But we don’t have three gods as the Qur’an mistakenly asserts: God, Jesus and Mary. Mary is not ‘Mrs God’. God is one, known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and all that those stand for. Mary’s place remains subservient to that of God.

So to understand and honour Mary we need to keep the balance and perspective of our faith. And easily overlooked passages like our Old Testament reading this morning, can and do help us recall just what the purpose of various key aspects is. All our buildings, all our saints, are there to point to the love of God in Jesus Christ, to keep this focus before our eyes and help us see more deeply. It is Mary’s ‘yes’ that gives her the honour and displays her favour. It is this ‘yes’ that makes her a consecrated shrine of God’s presence and favour. And it is a calling for all of us too.

This is picked up in the New Testament in 1 Peter, where we are encouraged to be ‘like living stones, built into a spiritual house, holy, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 2:4-5). We are to be consecrated temples for God. I wrote a prayer this week for the 900th anniversary of the Cathedral’s rebuilding which began in 1118 after the previous structure was reduced to ashes in a fire two years previously. In that prayer I played with this notion of being living stones, precisely to remind us that the building is there to serve the mission and call of Christ to his church. My prayer was and is that we may be “formed into living stones who sing [God’s] praises, live the faith of Jesus Christ and risk all in his service”. This concept is central to Mary’s call, Mary’s response, and Mary’s challenge.

So let us ‘sing we of the blessed mother’, hail her full of grace, because in her we see the call to be consecrated, living stones, to the glory of God. And in this we see God’s favour for us as his beloved children, heirs of his grace. May this help us enter more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation and celebrate with joy, hope and great thanksgiving, as temples of the presence of God.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 4, Sunday 24th December 2017

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Peterborough 900 – Prayer

Peterborough 900 Prayer

God of wonder and new life

we thank you for the awe-inspiring beauty of this holy place

raised in hope from the ashes and held in grace;

for all who have loved and cared for it through the passing years

and for those who do so today.

May we, like them, be inspired to play our part

in its ministry of prayer and welcome,

mission and service,

love and care for all.

Fill your people with your vibrant love

that we may be formed into living stones

who sing your praises,

live the faith of Jesus Christ

and risk all in his service;

who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen

© Ian Black 2017

 

Commentary

Golden HourThis prayer has been written to mark the 900th anniversary of Peterborough Cathedral.  In AD 1116 the abbey church was destroyed by fire and the rebuilding commenced two years later in AD 1118.  This makes 2018 the 900th anniversary of its rising from the ashes.  There has been a church and religious community on this site since AD 654 and so it is an ancient holy place with a history stretching over 1,364 years.

The prayer reflects various aspects of the Cathedral’s life and also the response many have to it.  A common experience for visitors walking through the gateway for the first time and being presented with the glorious west front is one of awe and wonder.  It has a serious ‘wow factor’.  I regularly see and hear people exclaim this out loud and it is to my mind one of the finest medieval buildings in the country.  So the prayer begins with this response addressing the “God of wonder” and giving thanks for the “awe-inspiring beauty of this holy place”.

The fire is reflected in the rising “in hope from the ashes” and the “new life”, which also alludes to the hope and new life of Christ.  The community here has been “held in grace” throughout its history, whatever trials have beset it – and there have been many.  God’s gift of love and presence has been and is constant.

We give thanks for the ‘care and love’ so many generations have shown towards the fabric, enabling it to be passed on to our own generation and each one adding to its rich heritage. That care and love continues today, and there is a tremendous affection towards it in the city, region and more widely.

It is a living community and so we pray that in our turn we will “play our part” to be living witnesses in prayer, welcome, love and care for all.  We exist to proclaim the love of God in Jesus and draw others to follow him.  This is reflected in the prayer too.  Shaped by the vibrant love of God we are formed into “living stones”, echoing the words of 1 Peter (2:4-6).

The outstanding musical heritage is given a passing acknowledgement and celebration in ‘singing praises’. The Cathedral’s life and ministry is enhanced by the skill and dedication of its musicians.  The Cathedral choral tradition is one of the glories and treasures of the Church of England.

The prayer also reflects the Cathedral vision statement to

  • promote wonder,
  • celebrate faith and
  • take risks in the service of Christ.

The prayer is a gift to the Cathedral to provide a spiritual reflection for the 900th anniversary year.

 

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Eavesdropping on John the Baptist’s inquisitors

IMG_7983I want to take you on an imaginary journey this morning. Imagine the scene. John the Baptist is drawing great crowds and clearly a popular movement is gathering pace. Some clipboard-wielding officials are sent to find out what is going on. They keep in touch with their superiors by phone, so imagine you are listening down that phoneline and can only hear their side of the conversation. It might have sounded something like this.

“Who are you? Who are you? We have to give an answer to those who’ve sent us? We are confused by what you are doing and who you claim to be. So many people are coming out to hear you and be baptized by you. They all think that the end is coming and you are getting them ready for it, repenting and being cleansed so that they are fit for heaven. You have created quite a stir and clearly are attracting attention. We need to know who you are. Some of our traditions are expecting Elijah to come before the end, before God comes in great triumph. Are you him? You look like him with your hair shirt and leather belt and weird taste in food – who eats locusts and wild honey except Elijah? You must be him.

There is an odd verse in Chronicles (2 Chronicles 21:12) about him writing a letter from beyond the grave to King Jehoram, warning him about how he was behaving like his father Ahab and abandoning the true worship of God. So may be you are him – if he can write a letter after death, may be he can reappear? Malachi also said that Elijah will come again, so it’s not a completely crazy question.

Ok, not Elijah. It was a long shot. He was taken up into heaven a long time ago, nearly 1,000 years ago, so that would be strange. So if you are not Elijah, who are you?

You’ve already said you are not the Messiah. Some of us aren’t that convinced about a coming Messiah any way but some are looking for him. You don’t look like a Messiah, much more Elijah and prophet like, but we have to eliminate all possibilities on our checklist. Not Elijah and not the Messiah.

Are you a prophet? Some of them dressed like that. Zechariah (13:4) mentions that prophets will wear a hairy mantle ‘on that day’, so you’ve got the wardrobe. You could be. But the ones he is talking about are ashamed of their visions and so they try to pretend they are something else, and you don’t look ashamed. So may be that one doesn’t fit after all. Moses gave commandments and led the people through the wilderness, but you’ve come out of the wilderness. Joshua led our ancestors across this river to enter the Promised Land, so are you about to lead us in a new conquest? Are you about to stir up trouble and lead a rebellion against the Romans? We need to know just where this is going?

So you’re not a prophet either. Who are you?

You’re a what? A voice? Crying in the wilderness?  You’re clearly more than that. Look how many people have come out to hear you, to see you, to be baptized by you. That’s more than a voice. You are the main attraction, mate. If you are just a messenger, why are you baptizing?

Let me get this straight. You’re doing this to point to someone else we can’t see, we haven’t met and we don’t know who they are? That doesn’t make sense. We need to give a clear answer to those who’ve sent us. They won’t be happy with that. OK there are those who say that the Messiah will be hidden until he suddenly makes a dramatic entrance. Is that about to happen then? If so, where is he?

Oh he’s coming is he? And you are not worthy to help him take his sandals off! This is all very puzzling. How will we know who he is? What will be the sign? Will he do great things? Will he look like a leader and a King? We have a checklist for that too you know. But you’re saying it’s not you. You want us to look elsewhere. You’re just the warm up act, reminding everyone that their ultimate hope lies in God. So, we’ll just have to keep our eyes peeled, keep alert; watch and wait!”

And with that they ended the call and went on their way. Those who had been listening in were left wondering just who this amazingly popular man was preparing for. So much longing, so much hope, so many dreams to be fulfilled. So many questions. Who could possibly meet those? Who could possibly match, even exceed, all of that? That person would truly be a wonder to behold. And his the greatest story every told.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 3, Sunday 17th December 2017

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General Synod Election Address

IanBlack2015Revd Canon Ian Black

Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary Peterborough Cathedral

Rural Dean of Peterborough

 

Proposed by: Revd Canon Tim Alban Jones (Bishop’s Chaplain & Acting Dean)

Seconded by: Revd Jackie Bullen (Vicar of Longthorpe)

 

I have been ordained for 24 years, first batch of the new normality of men and women being trained and ordained together. I have served in Dioceses of Canterbury, Ripon & Leeds and Peterborough. A life-long Anglican, the Church of England is in my blood and I believe passionately in its vocation and commitment to being at the heart of all communities.

 

I have served in town and city centre, market town, village and scattered rural communities, suburban major city and three cathedrals (Canterbury, Ripon & Peterborough), prison chaplaincy and numerous schools.

 

My current role brings frequent contact with civic decision-makers for a unitary authority, practitioners, civic officers and leading business chiefs, as well as the street cleaners, homeless and traders.

 

I have two degrees – BA in Education and Religious Studies; Master of Divinity.

 

My books of prayers are widely used across the Church and ‘Follow me: Living the Sayings of Jesus’ was published in July 2017 – an exploration of what it means to put Jesus’ teachings into practice in daily life.

 

I am committed to the breadth of the Church of England and have been shaped by Evangelical biblical focus, Catholic sacramental spirituality, Liberal Critical Reasoning. I am not tribal, more of a hybrid. My theological approach is guided by Richard Hooker’s three pillars of Scripture, Tradition and Reason held in a dynamic relationship through the Theology Cycle, where experience also comes into play.

 

Purpose of the Church: I am clear that the church exists to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and to draw others to follow him. Everything else flows from this.

 

A few issues in front of Synod:

 

Mission: All mission is a response to the love of God, who calls us and shapes us for service. It means sharing faith and putting it into practice. Churches need to grow in faith, grow in service, grow in numbers. I don’t believe the church is about to disappear. Vibrant, engaged witness attracts and connects. From that faith is nurtured. I’m under no illusions, though, of the challenge, not least in some places where hard questions and challenges have to be faced. But I trust God.

 

Same Sex Relationships: I came to the conclusion a long time ago that people do not choose who they love and sexuality is not a life-style choice, but who people are. Marriage has changed over the centuries, as has the church’s stance on other things – credit cards, slavery, charging interest, roles of women and men – and it is time for the church to embrace a broadened understanding of marriage and bless partnerships. I appreciate that not everyone agrees with this and am sensitive to that. We have a conscience clause for further marriages and I would expect the same here. I expect that this will come; the critical unknown is when.

 

5 Principles: Mutual flourishing begs a serious question about what it means to flourish. This comes under Christ who calls, challenges, confronts, celebrates and commissions. There is a struggle here to hold integrity as a community, to hold the bonds of familial identity – we belong together in Christ – and honour the dignity of each person. I have worked with male and female colleagues for decades and regard all-male teams as impoverished (the same would apply for all-female ones). I am delighted that the Cathedral is about to have this rectified when Sarah joins us. I know colleagues whom I am glad we found a way to keep within our family and fellowship and we would be impoverished without.

 

Liturgy: I have an interest in Liturgy and it being rooted in both deep spirituality and the reality of life viewed through the lens of eternity.

 

Governance – fit for purpose: I have reflected deeply on governance over the past few years with the Cathedral’s difficulties. It has reinforced the importance of leadership to set the tone and direction of a community, of holding one another to account and of transparency. Money, Management and Mission belong together: without the cash we don’t have the resources to do what we are called to do; without the mission we don’t have a reason to raise money. Good management ensures that we stay on track and are fit for our purpose: to follow Christ and draw others to become disciples of Christ. But as TS Elliott observed, structures alone cannot make us good, so it is important to keep before us whose kingdom we seek – God’s.

 

If any of this resonates with you, I would be honoured to represent this Diocese at General Synod.

 

With my prayers and good wishes

 

Ian Black

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Jerusalem: herald of good tidings

jerusalem-travelJerusalem has been in the news this week. President Donald Trump entered into a very sensitive area of international politics by backing Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its “united and eternal” capital city. This is highly contentious, disputed by the Arab and Palestinian populace and not recognized by the international community. The dispute goes back a very long way, not least to 1948 when the city was separated into a western Israeli section and an eastern Jordanian one. In 1967 Israel annexed the eastern section, an act still not recognized by the United Nations. East Jerusalem is also claimed for a future independent Palestinian state and most nations recognize the dual claims with Jerusalem as a place of special significance for both Israelis and Palestinians. So President Trump has trodden into a volatile space. And of course the city has sacred significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims, it has been fought over for millennia. The religious aspects add to its sensitivities.

Jerusalem has an iconic significance in Christian thought and imagery. We are used to hearing Old Testament readings, like today’s (Isaiah 40:1-11), which hold it up as a representative of the Hebrew people; the focus of its vocation and identity. It is comforted with tender words of hope. It is given a vocation to ‘herald good tidings’. Jerusalem stands for the people of God, for God’s presence and favour, and its fortunes are synonymous with the fortunes of the people.

In the Gospel reading (Mark 1:1-8), Mark begins his gospel with the people from Jerusalem going out to hear John the Baptist proclaiming the Kingdom of God and to be baptized by him. The people of Jerusalem means the people at the heart of the national life, the people around the city of David, the people who would expect to greet the Messiah and indeed the people who did do so at Jesus’ triumphal entry – which we remember on Palm Sunday. It is not accidental that John parks his metaphorical tanks on the lawn of the capital city to begin his warm up act for Jesus to follow, and he points towards Jesus as the one who is to come.

Later in the New Testament Jerusalem is used as the symbol of hope and salvation. The New Jerusalem is the image of the heavenly city and the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, ends with this vision. So it is very much the focus of identity, the home of the Messiah and the symbol of the redemption he brings. It, therefore, stands as a symbol of the Kingdom of God, of the place of justice and salvation, of peace and good fortune for all.

Enter then the reality of Jerusalem as the contested city, the multi-cultural and multi-faith city. Enter Jerusalem the place of conflict and tension. Jesus weeps over this city (Luke 19:41-44), referring to it as the place that rejects prophets (Matthew 23:37-39). It is the place of so much promise and focus, and yet so much falling short. It is a place of conflict, in the time of Jesus it was under Roman occupation, and had been built and destroyed several times over a thousand years before hand. After its destruction in AD 70 the Temple was never rebuilt again and all that stands today is the Wailing Wall, a place of prayer. The Temple was cleansed by Jesus for its corruption (Luke 19:45-46). Jerusalem is where he goes to confront the power structures and false allegiances which led to his crucifixion. It is the place where he is condemned and outside it he is crucified. It is the place where the resurrection takes place, where the New Jerusalem is brought about. Jerusalem is a place of high significance and stands as a symbol of so much.

One of the most popular hymns is known simply by the name of this city, Jerusalem. Set to Parry’s stirring tune William Blake’s 1804 poem has great resonance, even if the words are somewhat perplexing. Some of the imagery is biblical, for instance the chariots of fire (2 Kings 2:11), and some comes from Blake’s fantasy and imagination. The suggestion that Jesus’ feet might have walked ‘upon England’s mountains green’ is an Arthurian legend, with no basis in fact. The answer to all the questions in the first verse is ‘probably no’ and to the demands of the second verse ‘get them yourself’. There are two main interpretations of the hymn. One is as a lament against 18th and 19th century industrialization with the ‘dark satanic mills’. It is also a clarion call for a ‘mental fight’, an intellectual appeal against a narrow and cold rationalism, making a plea for intuition and imagination. Both of these, industry and rationalism, are seen by him as being soulless.   The second interpretation, more commonly held, is that it is a radical hymn calling for social justice. Both interpretations have a valid case: the dark satanic mills, the mental fight and the building of Jerusalem as a symbol of hope for all.

That second interpretation, as a radical hymn for social justice, has connected with movements for liberation. The poet Robert Bridges asked Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 to write his tune so that it could be sung at meetings of ‘Fight for the Right’, a movement set up to campaign for a better Britain for the millions of soldiers who would return home after the First World War. A land fit for heroes, if you like, where the New Jerusalem image is one of justice and freedom ‘builded here’. (Memo to self – remember this for Remembrance Sunday next year as we mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.) This hymn was sung at a meeting in March 1918 at the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate the granting of the vote to women. Millicent Fawcett, a leading suffragette, said to Parry that his hymn tune ought to become the Women Voters’ Hymn, and he responded with enthusiasm. It has become an anthem for women’s groups, not least the WI. It is an anthem of liberation and equality. It asks what kind of society do we want to be and holds before us the image of Jerusalem as a symbol of justice and peace, equity and dignity.

So Jerusalem has profound resonance for us. It has deep roots as the focus for identity, being the home of the Messiah, and the symbol of redemption. It stands as the place of justice and peace, flourishing and salvation. As a city today it is a contested city, a multi-cultural and multi-faith city. And so when we sing of it and pray for its peace we have to hold the challenges of what it means to live with difference and find the ‘much more that unites us than divides us’, for the common good. Justice and peace, equity and dignity do not rest on annihilation of another. The Old Testament is littered with the corpses from that. In Christ the New Jerusalem is a place for everyone, but also one where God’s kingdom reigns. That always brings surprises and challenge, the need for wills to bow.   So when we sing of wanting to build Jerusalem in our ‘green and pleasant land’ we are praying for a nation where all are honoured and valued and treated with the dignity they are due as citizens of the eternal city, all created and redeemed by the love of God in Jesus Christ. It is then that words of comfort can be found to speak tenderly to Jerusalem, that she can be a place to herald good tidings.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 2 – Sunday 10th December 2017

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Advent: super hero power of love

Screen Shot 2017-12-02 at 21.22.34If you fancy a trip to the cinema for a night out at the movies there is quite a variety on offer. From the heartwarming with Paddington 2 and Wonder (about a child with facial features that make him stand out and how he finds acceptance), a suspicious death mystery on the fast train from Istanbul (better known as Murder on the Orient Express), The Man who invented Christmas (about Charles Dickens writing his moral tale A Christmas Carol), and action thrillers where the struggle is for survival of worlds against seemingly overwhelming odds: Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League. And recently we’ve had Blade Runner 2049 with its play on artificial intelligence and a struggle in a world that seems to be the plaything of a megalomaniac industrialist: this is known as Transhumanism.

The action thrillers present us with crises that require superhuman powers. Thor is imprisoned on the other side of the universe without his mighty hammer. He is in a race against time to stop Ragnarok, the destruction of his homeland and the end of civilization. ‘Ragnarok’ in Norse mythology means ‘the doom of the Gods’. The race is to stop it. In the Justice League Batman and Wonder Woman join forces with Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash as a team of meta humans to stand against a threat. These films show a longing for a hero to come and sort it out with great power and might; to wield force and defeat the foe. Or in terms of our first reading from the 6th century BC prophet Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1-9). The threat is severe. No one is listening, or perceiving, or calling on the name of the Lord. What is needed is waving a big stick around to make them wake up and pay attention, to save them from their woes of oppression and exile: Thor’s hammer and the superhero powers.

The Bible carries this tension of themes between calls for dramatic action to stiffen the sinews and get the adrenaline rushing on the one side and a God of grace and love, who acts in a very different way on the other. The tearing open of the heavens does come, but in a small, vulnerable child born to a displaced family and laid in a borrowed bed visited by strangers with even stranger gifts. The family become refugees and as with Paddington would find their immigration status suspect and challenged. Paddington comes from Peru without a visa and in real life would be unlikely to be granted leave to stay.

The Gospel reading also brought us an image of calamity and tribulation (Mark 13:24-37). Into that comes the ‘Son of Man’, an intriguing title. Bernard Longley, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, who spoke at the Churches Together Advent Reflection Day which we hosted yesterday, reminded us that this title, ‘Son of Man’, is a way of expressing Jesus Christ’s solidarity with humanity. He does not stand outside us as a meta human, an artificially enhanced robot or cyborg, but as a fully human person, vulnerable and mortal, able to bleed and displaying unconditional love. He is the Son of Man who stands in solidarity with his people. The Church Advertising Network’s Christmas campaign this year depicts Jesus wearing a crown of thorns carrying a Christmas tree. It is a pastiche of his carrying his cross. It is a striking image and a clever play on iconography. The tag, which includes the ‘Christmas Starts with Christ’ logo, invites us to remember why. His coming among us is so much more profound than tinsel and very different to super hero tearing open of the heavens. The wood of the Christmas tree becomes the wood of the cross.

That first reading from Isaiah also spoke of people who don’t know the story – those who have not heard, who have not perceived, who do not know the name of the Lord to call on. Here in the Cathedral and also in St John’s, the city centre parish church, we frequently find ourselves greeting people who have not heard, have not perceived and do not know the story. And there are a number of responses we can make. We can shout louder, and there are some who come into the city centre, set up their stall in the square and do that. But aggressive shouting does not communicate, it makes people put up barriers and shut down. And then they don’t listen or hear. It is also not the way of Jesus. Rather we greet, we welcome, we allow them to come alongside us as we aim to get alongside them and see something of the wonder which delights and inspires us to live as followers of Jesus Christ. We let them see what it is that keeps us watching and waiting in hope.

On Friday at Evensong we had a lot of stallholders here setting up in the nave for the Christmas Market. And they were here too on Saturday during the morning Eucharist. A temptation could have been to grump in a corner and wish someone would shut them up so that we could get on with our private worship. What we did was welcome, explain what was going to happen with the services and relay them over microphone system so that everyone was included. It aimed to be an embrace to be alongside and include. It was an approach that stemmed from grace and knows that ultimately it is love that welcomes and draws us in, and not big hammers or super powers from meta humans.

Advent is my favourite season of the Christian year. This is because it watches in hope, it longs for the coming of Christ to bring love and salvation, not fear and dread. Our lives are held in this embrace between Christ’s coming among us in Jesus and his coming again when all things will be fulfilled and redeemed. We live in Advent; it is the season of where we are. The threats and warnings of turbulence and struggle are real and Advent reminds us of our humanity and our mortality. But it does this with the assurance of hope and the promise that we can trust in God’s providence. This is why the liturgical colour for Advent, purple, is also used at funerals, to emphasise the Advent hope, salvation dawning, love welcoming, and life sharing.

There has been some interesting research about the casual visitor to Cathedrals from the University of York. This has found that many of those who come here, and to our sister Cathedrals, find themselves having strange emotions stirred within them by the visit: the spiritual is triggered, and notably that goes for those who have no previous expectation of that or conscious affiliation. They are, I believe, surprised by grace. This fits with other research into those who self-define as ‘no religion’ in surveys and questionnaires. What they mean by ‘no religion’ is highly complex, but seems to mean that they don’t identify with a particular faith or story or religious institution; they are spiritual but not religious. And that is the group that is rising. Another recent survey reported that this group now accounts for 53% of our population and when these figures are analysed by age that number rises to 75% in those under the age of 25. The ray of hope comes in the being surprised by grace. Incidentally, the York research also said that there need to be books and publications for them to pick up in the shop to help them explore faith, the spirituality that has been stirred; a next step guide to go deeper. So my book “Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus” is timely – available from the shop very reasonably priced. It is there to help travel onto the next steps and explore what following Jesus through his teachings might mean for daily life, for loving, hoping and longing – all very Advent themes.

Today we enter the holy season of Advent. It is when we long for God to tear open the heavens and come to this turbulent world, to redeem it. He does this in a surprising way, showing the super human power of love rather than a hammer, of presence alongside rather than swooping in as a meta human.

Come Lord Jesus to our hopes and longing;

fulfill these with your loving embrace,

that all may be surprised by grace

and delight in your redeeming love. Amen.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Advent 1, Sunday 3rd December 2017

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