I’ve been learning a bit about ministry in the public square this week, where whatever you decide to do someone will take a pop at you – sometimes with justification and sometimes without. It is a ministry under the public gaze and therefore with some quite public scrutiny. Our hustings on Tuesday has gathered quite a bit of attention. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that over the past few years we have gone from not holding hustings at all to being seen as offering one of the major hustings in the city. That is quite an accolade for what we offer here, and yet another example of how we contribute to the public square. To my mind that is part of what it means to be the historic parish church for the city and as one person described us ‘the people’s church’, thinking historically about the contrast between the Abbey and the parish church. We frequently hold the common ground and as we sit in the public square so we connect with it.
The issue that triggered a bit of ‘direct feedback’ was over whom to invite for the hustings. Fifteen candidates is too many for a sensible debate and the Electoral Commission has given us advice on how to decide who to invite if we want to keep the hustings a neutral one and we have tried to follow that. The political scene this time is complex and fragmented. There are more parties because existing parties have broken up and new ones been established. So in addition to the four parties represented on the council, and one that used to be, there are some new kids on the block and getting the measure of all of this brings its challenge; more art than science. That means some won’t agree with the decision we have made to limit how many we invite and in the age of Twitter they say so, linking with people from far and wide who decide to make sure we know their thoughts too. We want to be fair, within the limits of space and resources. We have eight lined up and an interesting evening lies in store.
I have some sympathy for those who think all candidates should be there, and if there were fewer of them that would be possible, but can you imagine listening to 15 people speaking for 2 minutes on each question, plus the right of reply when one of them says something they feel they have to correct… We’d be here into the early hours of the morning or only get through three questions. And there are quite a few very important issues that we face at the moment, beyond the one that is in the press all the time.
Jesus faced challenge and direct feedback in our gospel reading, and some of it was hostile. The clue is at the end of that passage (John 5:1-9) where it simply says ‘Now that day was a Sabbath’. You just know trouble is coming. Healing on the Sabbath is deemed to be work, and work on the Sabbath is bad. So to some people’s way of looking at it Jesus has done bad and he will be picked up on it. The man has been ill for 38 years and yet when it comes to getting into the healing springs someone pips him to the post. The belief was the first in when the waters become troubled would succeed in being healed. It’s an odd view given that by definition the one who needs it most will be the slower off the mark. Perhaps this is another of those areas where Jesus turns criteria upside down. Those at the back, come to the front. Those who are first are last and the last first. Those who are usually ignored are the ones who are heard. The passage continues where we hear of how those who took a keen interest in these things did indeed take issue with Jesus for breaking the Sabbath code and it winds them up even more to try to kill him. That sounds quite excessive, but we live in an age of extreme responses too. No wonder many people keep their views rather to themselves, and that makes judging the political mood rather hard at the moment as well.
I was asked to write a piece for the journal of the Society of St Francis, the Franciscans, on city centre ministry. This was for their latest edition on urban theology. I wrote about this church [St John’s] being a place of connecting. By virtue of where [we are] we connect with people as they go about their business. As an ancient sacred place in the heart of the public square it is a place where God is met and also where we can meet with those who are in the heart of the city, whoever they are. Connection and connecting is at the heart of who we are in our life in Christ. This is not just passive, but actively proclaims peace. And with this we proclaim and reflect God who comes among us in Christ Jesus, connecting and linking earth and heaven, bringing healing to those most in need. Some preferred to remain remote and distant, but God in Christ refuses to do this and that brings him to heart of life, to where the cry is loudest even if easily ignored. It is not ignored by him. It brings him to the ones overlooked and not noticed by others who queue jump, as with the ill man in our gospel reading.
This connecting, this noticing and proclaiming peace for the ignored, those crying out, is in our title deeds. Presence in the heart of the city is a beacon ministry, some of which we never see. It is one of making connections and facilitating connections, of meeting, hosting and caring, so that the reconciling love of God in Christ may breathe out blessing and hope. God is found in the bustle and being present where it bites rather than at a distance or remote location. This ‘touching place’ is where heaven meets earth as it really is and where its need of redemption is clear.
Some like what we say and do, and some don’t. On Tuesday we will offer a neutral space where divergent views will find welcome and a space to present their cases. This is an important part of who we are and our vocation for this city. The person elected to represent us in this by-election will have a voice in Parliament where law is made and the cause of justice – what we often call the Common Good – will be advanced or require that they speak out or challenge. This is a sacred duty and one we are right to make space for. It is a ministry of presence and engagement, what I call ‘embedded engagement’ in the thick of it. And we will continue to pray for those standing for election, and for those elected. This is a sacred duty we carry out with generosity and thanksgiving. God is present bringing peace and hope in the thick of life and at its margins. So are we to be.
Sermon for Easter 6, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 26th May 2019