Megaphone vs Rolling Over? Faith Seeking Understanding

IMG_7967There is a question running through the gospel reading this morning (John 17:6-19) about how we relate to the world. How does Christian faith respond to or live with the world? The passage we heard is part of a long prayer of Jesus for his disciples and his reflection on what is to come as he is about to embrace the final journey to the cross. After this he is arrested and a sequence of events is set in train that leads to his death and he seems to know this. So he is anguished for his disciples, whom he knows he is leaving behind and it is natural to wonder what will become of them. Will they hold true to all that he has been trying to instill in them? Will they hold to the love and power of the good news he brought, or buckle and fall in line with the expectations of the world around them? And so, the central question running though this passage.

At one moment Jesus seems to be saying that there is to be a separation between them and the world, where the world is seen as being something distinct from those who follow Jesus (v9b), something to be protected from (v12). It seems to be the territory of the ‘evil one’ (v15). Jesus’ followers do not belong to the world (v16). In the next breath they are not to be taken out of the world (v15) and indeed are being sent into it (v18). So what are we to make of this and how should we approach what is being referred to here as ‘the world’? What is to be our approach as we hold to the gospel of Jesus Christ in a world that doesn’t always share the same assumptions or indeed understand them?

There have been a number of responses by Christian writers and thinkers over the centuries to this question and we find them in various guises now. At the two extremes are what I will characterize as at one end the megaphone approach and at the other the dog which roles over for its tummy to be tickled. The megaphone is shouty and proclaims loudly and without any reference to the thought patterns or arguments put to it. It sees itself as being distinct and the only really valid approach to the world is to mark out the clear distinction. At its extremes it uses the image of the Ark, where the drawbridge is to be raised so that the church, the Christian community, becomes a place of safety and protection, of remote holiness unbothered by the corruption outside. This starts to be seen when we hear claims that the church has to make sure it doesn’t bow to the ‘spirit of the age’, or sell out to modernity. It needs to proclaim a distinct Christian gospel and not have any truck with all this modern immorality and betrayal of truth.

It won’t be a surprise that I find this wanting. It doesn’t do justice to how life really is. And sets up a false barrier that we don’t need in those terms. It is also not incarnational, where God chooses to come among us in Jesus Christ and share the space with all sorts of surprising people as he walks and talks. Jesus is challenged for doing precisely this when he parties with tax officials, publicans and others of questionable character. The world is where we are and we have to relate to it just as Jesus related to it, indeed came precisely to do this. We are made of the same substance, so can’t ignore it. It is who we are and in that sense we belong to it. Hold that one, though, for a moment because that is not the complete picture.

The other extreme is the dog who roles over for its tummy to be tickled. This is where we so assimilate our thinking that there is no distinction at all with secular and other thought. We have nothing to contribute because all our reference points come from the same shared space as our culture and how the modern age sees it. The dog has lost its teeth so has no bite to offer. This is an ultra liberal agenda and I find it wanting for locking itself in the confines of the here and now, with no reference to anything beyond. While we live in the world and are made of the same substance, share the same cultural influences, we have a gospel to proclaim and that carries elements that look outside of what is current and popular. There is something counter cultural about the gospel. So I’m not content with the tummy tickled dog rolled over on its back either.

Another approach takes a midpoint, where profound faith becomes the lens through which we view and assimilate, access other disciplines and views. This is summed up well in a phrase from an 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm. He talked about ‘faith seeking understanding’, where being in the world, the world we seek to understand, we owe our true allegiance to a creator who stands beyond it, indeed on whom it depends. And it is the perspective of eternity that we use to try to understand, drawing on all of the disciplines that we can access in this: science, history, sociology, psychology, medicine to name a few. Faith seeks understanding in being the profound confidence and trust in God, and this being the solid ground from which intellectual enquiry and reflection is launched. We view the world through the eyes of faith and in that we seek to understand the world God made, cares for and loves. It is by no means merely a bolt on optional extra, which can be ignored or sidelined. It is central to the enquiry and the quest for understanding.

With this approach, when Jesus prays for protection it is a prayer for a profound rooting and grounding in the presence and reality of God. Strengthened and protected by this we have nothing to fear in where intellectual enquiry might lead us, even if it brings profound challenge to where we might be at the moment. And that is why the gospel is radical, because it takes us to the core of who we are and who we might become. It doesn’t just lock us in to where we are, or indeed seek to leave us where we are, but transform us in the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

On Friday I had the privilege to host Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, when he came to the Cathedral to talk about a past Dean, who was also one of his predecessors as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. During this he talked about education and one of its purposes being to equip people to ask lots of awkward questions. We do not want a civil society that is compliant and docile. We want one which requires those we elect to give account and justify what they do. It also needs to be grown up and recognize the difficult decisions they have to make and the limitations of their options. Too much of our politics is narrow and blinkered at the moment and only looks at questions in isolation, failing to join up the dots. It is one which seems to fit well with the megaphone that shouts without taking account of the context in which it is set and we need one which is more grown up.

So when Jesus prays that his disciples will be protected from the world, he also expects them to stay in the world and struggle with it and all it brings their way. Their faith is to seek understanding, their faith is to protect them from being lost and give them teeth when they need it to provide bite so that they have something to say and offer. Christ came into the world and did not stand aloof from it. Indeed he was about to embrace its pain and suffering in the rawest way that he could, on the cross. As we stand in these days between Ascension and Pentecost we can reflect on the challenge to be of the world and yet know that we view it with a perspective drawn from beyond it, even more deeply in it than the superficial. We are to be ‘sanctified in truth’ (v19).

We both belong to the world, for that is where we are and it gives form to our physicality, and we are not bound by it, for faith gives us a perspective drawn from eternity that seeks to be guided by the Holy Spirit of God. We are not restricted to whatever is fashionable, but also take the best of other disciples seriously. Faith is the place from which we seek understanding; it is not merely a bolt on optional extra.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 7, Sunday 13th May 2018

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Advisory: This sermon contains nuts – Julian of Norwich and the Command to Love

IMG_0555On our way back from an Easter break in Norfolk, we called in at the Church of St Julian in Norwich. This is where the medieval mystic Mother Julian of Norwich had her cell as an anchorite. This meant that she was walled up in the cell attached to the church for 26 years between 1390 and her death in 1416. Once she entered it, she was not allowed to leave on pain of excommunication. She literally lived in that room for the rest of her life and was not allowed to leave. It is likely that she was even buried under the floor. This was so stark that before entering she would have attended her own funeral Mass in the church and received the last rites. When she went in, the door was sealed with wax seals and her only contact was through a small window where she could receive food and Communion. It was a solitary life of prayer and reflection. Today the site of her cell has a deep stillness and peace about it – a place to sit and reflect.

While she was in there she wrote of visions she received when desperately ill some years before and these are known under the title of ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. They are a classic and she is remembered in the church’s calendar this coming Tuesday – 8th May.

One of her writings reflects on a hazelnut, which is why I have given these to you. As she looked at it in the palm of her hand she saw this as a powerful symbol of God’s love, holding creation as in the palm of his hand – and you might like to look at the one I gave you as it sits in the palm of your hand as I read this passage from her writing, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’:

“And in this he also showed a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… In this little thing I saw three properties: the first is that God made it; the second is that God loves it; the third is that God cares for it. But what is that to me? Truly, the maker, the carer, and the lover. For until I am of one substance with him I can never have complete rest nor true happiness; that is to say, until I am so joined to him that there is no created thing between my God and me.” (Chapter5)

God made it, God loves it and God cares for it – the Maker, the Lover and the Carer. The world, indeed the universe, is fragile and vulnerable. It is tiny in comparison to the vastness of space and eternity, even more so for us than for Mother Julian. But ultimately it is loved and that love is the source of our deepest hope in Jesus Christ. It is held, it is cared for by the maker, redeemer and sustainer of all things.

Our Gospel reading mentioned love seven times, in a short passage (John 15:9-17). As the Father loves the Son, so he loves the world. We are to abide in his love and outside of that we are estranged from the very purpose and heart of the created universe. And this love continues to move and touch. As we are loved so we are to love. The Commandment that Jesus gives is to love one another. And to ram home that point he repeats it, just in case the disciples haven’t heard him or weren’t listening properly. This is a direct command. We are who we are, who God calls us to be, when we abide in his love and the sign and outworking of this is the love we show for one another. Grumpy, gripey, grouchy and fractious as we can all be, love is the answer. And in that love we blossom and flourish. We know it for ourselves. We should know it for others.

Julian of Norwich went on in her vision of the hazelnut to talk about how much we are to be of one substance with God. We will never have complete rest or happiness outside of this. Or to use the language of John’s gospel, we are to abide in that love. This is where we are to dwell and know we dwell, where we have our home.

The poet William Blake also thought about the world being seen in something small and through it to see infinity.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.”

As we look at the hazelnut, resting in the palm of our hand, we find the love of God visible for us. Just as the hazelnut is small it has great potential to grow as a seed into a giant tree. The love which brings and triggers awe and wonder, delight and thanksgiving, brings a glimpse of the eternal and the hope that comes into this fragile and small world. We are looking at eternity in the palm of our hand, to the love of eternity and at the eternal love of the creator.

Julian of Norwich’s time was turbulent. The blackdeath had ravaged and disturbed people deeply. They were very conscious of the reality and ever presence of death. She would have heard the burial carts trundle past outside her cell. The Peasants’ Revolt led to many public executions and her bishop, Henry Despenser led troops to quell rebellions, including in Peterborough, so he was no quiet man of gentleness! A mob attacked Peterborough Abbey and Henry Despenser rode to the aid of the Abbot, leading to 400 people being slaughtered in what is now Cathedral Square, including women and children. So with that background her mystical and hope-filled vision of God loving, rather than hating and threatening, the created world is all the more powerful. It was a similar world to Jesus’, where public executions and summary reprisals could bring death at any moment. So the advocacy of love calls for a putting away of fear and panic, to rest secure and trust in God’s underlying and enduring love. Just like the hazelnut is held, so are we.

Jesus’ command is that we love one another. It springs from the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ. In that love we flourish and find our true fulfillment. As we gaze on the hazelnut in the palm of our hand we become aware that we are held in God’s love and care as maker, lover and carer. As we abide in that love so that love is to reach out to everyone we meet.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 6 – Sunday 6th May 2018

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The house where love dwells – Address to APCM 2018

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 21.29.07Thinking back over previous addresses to this meeting, I have reflected on the core values that shape us as a community and as we plan for what we aim to be. Today I want to celebrate these values through looking at what has happened over the last year. Much of this is captured in the reports from different groups. So I am going to show a number of pictures taken this year which capture this.

The bedrock of every thing we aim to be and do is our worship. Each week we gather to celebrate in word and sacrament the love of God in Jesus Christ and aim to draw others to follow him. That gathering together is central in who we are and who we aim to be. We do not just profess a faith in isolation, but being together is a crucial expression of being a follower of Jesus Christ who prayed that we be one and do not lose sight of our need of one another. We are communal and it is hard to have a banquet on our own, so we need to be together. It is a fallacy that we can be a Christian on our own. When Christ calls us to follow him, he calls us to join with others and we find ourselves in surprising company as we look at the rich mix that he calls to share his hospitality, to gather round his table. That may bring challenges at times, but we are called to struggle with it and be who we are in Christ together, in community.

Each week I see a small group ensuring that there are flowers in the church. Key festivals are marked, and all through the year, there are fresh flowers here. They bring life and a reminder of community and communal life. A number of years ago a young girl brought some daffodils to my then church and said flowers are a sign that love lives here and so she had brought flowers for the church as a sign that love lives here. Out of the mouths of babes – she hit the nail on the head. This is the house where love dwells and where love calls, embraces and gives us hope.

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 21.31.16We find ways to proclaim this love to those around the church – to use our city centre location and presence. At Christmas we have made it clear that Christmas Starts with Christ – this is a church of a living faith, not just a pretty backdrop of built heritage in the heart of the city. It is the heart of the city, because it is a sign that love dwells here. And we make that clear in so many ways. Whenever we open our doors people come in to pray, to enjoy the peace – there are very few places where you can find peace in the city centre. People light candles when they can and it matters to them. We have the cross with the resurrection banner over it in the west doors at the moment as a witness to those who approach from St John’s Square. At Christmas we have put a crib there too.

One of the ways we are particularly good at showing love dwelling here is through hospitality and providing a place for people to come and spend time together, for strangers to find welcome and acceptance. Here community is made and it matters enormously. It happens in the café, when concerts and other events are being held on Tuesdays and at other times, at special celebrations as well as each week after the main services in both churches.

All of this has to be sustained. And the weekly and monthly pledges enable the churches’ mission to continue. Without it we would not be able to function. Each time we have invited one another to review their giving there has been a positive response. It has taken a while for some pledges to work through, but they have. It always takes a while for those who are new to join in, but one of the advances of so many giving by standing order is that even if attendance patterns are less frequent than they used to be because of people’s lives being much more mobile, we still have the background support we need. We are looking at how we can increase income through other means, but still the backbone is the planned giving each week. We have already looked at the accounts and seen that there continues to be a challenge.

IMG_0344We have promoted faith and celebrated faith. As well as the Holy Week services we kept the church open for reflection on Good Friday and this year Chris Duffett brought some of his art and painted a picture while he was here, opened conversations and provided a different way of reflecting. It brought a point of engagement, for conversations to take place.

Two groups explored a locally produced book in the autumn and those times of discussion were appreciated. It was a privilege to see faith being explored and shared so deeply. What was interesting for me was how the same text can prompt such different conversations but also the depth of faith being shared and reflected on.

Schools work continues to be important. We have welcomed young musicians from King’s School and The Peterborough School for concerts, visits from schools to explore faith and for us to explain how the church reflects our faith, assemblies led in King’s and the Peterborough School and there are a number of people involved as governors and trustees of a number of schools.

Faith has also been promoted for those prepared for confirmation at the Easter Vigil in the Cathedral. Some of them are easier to spot than others in the photo after the service.

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 21.36.30The built heritage, which speaks so profoundly to so many, has been cared for in regular maintenance and in significant repairs. The leaking roofs have finally all been recovered with the North side completed last year. Added to that some stone repairs and rainwater goods being kept in good order. Talking with the contractors they take great pride in their work. We have a new Architect, Stephen Oliver, who has taken over from Julian Limentani after he retired and Stephen is helping us take care of the buildings.

A sad part of where we are is that there is damage from time to time to the building from those who pass by. On Christmas Day in the early hours someone threw a traffic cone through one of the Stained Glass windows and this will be repaired shortly – adding to another repaired last year. At times we become the target or perhaps the recipient of untargeted aggression. It is a sad part of city centre life.

The organ repairs continue. Because generous donations to complete the 1917 specification came in when the repairs were almost completed, the work is still ongoing. They have been going on for two years now! We are waiting the final addition to bring the organ up to the specification originally planned but never actually completed. The new target date is the patronal festival on 24th June. One of the embellishments is 200 programmable memories for the piston settings.

The church is accessible and we almost take this for granted now. But it is important that people can make their own way, unaided, into the church and this makes us more inclusive.

We support democracy in action, providing a polling station in West Town at St Luke’s. Talking with the returning officers last year they valued being in there and found it an extremely good venue to be able to use. Opening the doors and welcoming people in shows there is a living community there. It increases visibility and presence. While we don’t take sides in party politics, indeed our congregations represent the spread of parties, we show that the work of our city council and national parliament are in our prayers by this, and they are regularly. Fiona Onasanya told me at a meeting with the Police Chief held in St John’s last year that she knows we pray for her and how much she appreciates this. We prayed for Stuart before her and also pray for Shailesh Vara, MP for the south of the city. It is an onerous responsibility that we give to them, and to our city councillors, and it is important that we pray for them and the officers who carry the burden of so much of the work.

We have partnerships with other churches, through Churches Together, but also developing with the Mar Thoma Church in working to lease them St John’s Hall. The Mar Thoma Church is an ancient church, in communion with the Church of England, tradition being that the Apostle Thomas went to India and founded the church.

81a1af_c8bec601d55b40589750d3957d84183eSo many events have taken place in the church this year – a growing number and far ranging. I now expect to find good reviews and stories in the Peterborough Telegraph each week of something that has taken place here and have to remind myself that this is a success story. It is a tribute to the work of Alun Williams in his programming work and also of Jonathan Hanley, our administrator, in coordinating and promoting St John’s as a good place to come to. Again this increases footfall and helps make connections with people who come through. These are important moments of and for mission.

We have hosted community events, like the ‘One Day with Us’ event, held to celebrate the diversity of our city and the contribution which this brings to enrich. It was held for the first time last year to counter the hostility many were feeling. It was wonderful to welcome local poets who explored the theme of belonging together and I am talking with the Poet Laureate about how we can bring some of these together in a collection.

Each year we host the Holocaust Memorial ceremony and and this is a moving moment when we confront the darkness of hatred and division, when fear and anxiety turns toxic and is projected onto particular groups. It is for that reason that I asked Alun to represent us at the Peterborough Pride plans so that we can stand alongside another group who so often experience hatred, not least from churches. We need to make it clear that we do not condone or support the prejudices and hatred.

We have seen extreme violence and there is a tense atmosphere in the country. It has been an honour to speak into the public square on these, after terrorist attacks and speak words of peace and lead a prayer. I found myself holding these events and the city was grateful that I did this.

I find myself being invited to lead prayers at a number of remembrance commemorations through the year, not least on Remembrance Sunday. And this year, being the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 will be a particularly poignant and important one.

The list of events is a long one, from talks as part of Tuesday till Two, Piccolo – music for the very young, which has proved extremely popular, classical concerts of voice and choral works – including local choirs, talented musicians delighting us by using the city Steinway piano, some young musicians beginning their careers, to new audiences with the acoustic set from local new band Austin Gold and opening the church to a new group of people who don’t usually come here. We have held tea dances, with Henry’s band – or the Peterborough Concert Band as other’s know them. We are a popular location for exhibitions, such at the Burma Star photograph project we hosted last year, the regular photographic and art exhibitions. It is a large number and no one person can be present for all of them, but together we can cover them, and need to because this is how we connect with people.

IMG_0610A particularly special event was Sponge, which was a touring show for those aged 4 months to 4 years. This took place over 3 days and we were able to welcome several hundred people in for the various shows. The organisers commented on how easy it had been to work with us, which is a tribute to Jonathan and those who helped host the event, and they are keen to use us again. They said that this is not their experience everywhere so that will encourage them to come back and as they spread the word of their positive experience this will be far more effective marketing than anything else we could do. Reputation matters enormously.

That is a snap shot of some of the events that have taken place inside, we are also the backdrop to so many events outside not least the extremely popular Heritage Festival, events aiming to promote community celebrations and cohesion, markets and so much more. We welcome young cadets who come here for the RAF’s Battle of Britain service. In the summer two performances of a mystery play took place on St John’s Square, Mary and the Midwives, and they were very pleased that I welcomed people before each performance and began it with a prayer. May Day is often marked with Morris Dancers and there are other occasions when they entertain in the square. At Christmas and New Year, the church is prominent as the city gathers for the lights switch on and for the fireworks to mark New Year. Our bells also announced New Year, ringing out the old year and celebrating the new. They provided presence to what would otherwise be an empty moment.

This year we have also said goodbye to a number of people who have been part of this community for many years – Beryl Albon, Deborah Crawford, Betty Baxter, Keith Nelson and others from the city too. We remember and give thanks for them as we commend them to God.

Socially we are acutely aware of the challenge of homelessness and this is reflected in the charities we have supported from the Café profits. We support the Light Project, who run the Winter Night Shelter, through me being a trustee, hosting their trustee meetings in the church, and working with the city on this difficult and complex issue. Indeed homelessness is much more an umbrella term for a highly complex collection of interrelated issues.

This is a vibrant and exciting place to be. There is so much to celebrate here. It is easy to over look it all and not notice it, especially if you are not around outside of the main service times. Our reach into the city and and around it is far greater than might be realized. And today, being our annual meeting, is an opportunity to pay tribute to so many people who make this possible and make the witness here a living one. At its heart is the praying and worshipping. We are a church first and foremost and exist to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and to draw others to follow him. Everything else flows from this. This is the house where love dwells and where love calls, embraces and gives us hope.

Address to the Annual Parochial Church Meeting for Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 29th April 2018

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The Vine – connecting with God

IMG_0539Go into any church and there is a strong chance that you will find images of vines. It appears as decoration around screens, in windows, on altar frontals. The weaving foliage, often ripe with fruit, provides a good coverage for large areas and carries the eye along. Here’s a game for you – see how many places you can spot vines weaving around the church. There are quite a lot in St John’s, more than you might have thought. The vine is an ancient image in the bible for the people of God and how they belong to God. Just as branches cannot survive without being connected to the root so the people cannot survive without being connected to God. Isaiah (ch 5) used it to talk about God having a vineyard and dressing it and caring for it, looking for it to bear fruit. So the image is clear, if we are not connected to God in some direct and vibrant way we wither and die spiritually. We need to abide in God, to be connected.

So it is not surprising that Jesus uses this image to talk of himself in our gospel reading (John 15:1-8). He is the vine, the one we need to be connected with, and God the Father is the vine-grower. It is through Jesus Christ that we find our connection with God and that comes through a variety of ways.

It comes through prayer. Without prayer we run on our own strength and lock the world into its own references. This becomes a truly secular outlook. Prayer takes us to the vision of heaven, of the divine and that expands us to all it means to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’. Prayer is the life-blood for us and it brings the spiritual blood that we need pumping round our spiritual system. We need to pray to be in any way connected with God through Jesus Christ.

Very quickly, though, we find this needs a story to be focused through. And this is where the vine being Jesus becomes critical. As we look at his story – at his life, teaching, death and resurrection – we have the lens through which to interpret the world. Being connected to the vine means being connected to the story of Jesus, to the radical challenge and grace in action that he brings. Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christ Church Oxford, was speaking at the Theological Society on Wednesday evening. He described Jesus as ‘God’s body-language’. Through observing him we see what we can observe of God. So those subtle cues we pick up, the actions and presence, reveal to us the character we are to observe and follow. And we cannot abide in him, be in any way connected with the vine of God, if we do not connect with the story of Jesus.

We are about to enter the period of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost. This begins a week on Thursday, 10 May, and runs for ten days. For the past few years there has been an invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury to use this as a time to pray for God’s kingdom to come. It is a moment to focus on being connected to the vine and wanting to connect others to that vine too. It is a moment to spend in deep prayer to be renewed in hope, in grace and thanksgiving. And these can change the world. Being people of hope and grace and thanksgiving is a radical move at the moment and one the world needs deeply.

There are a number of resources available this year to help us journey through the period of prayer. Two have been produced by the Church of England: a prayer journal and book of reflections. This year the 10 days also coincide with Christian Aid Week and they have produced a prayer booklet with the challenge from developing countries to have our sights and our priorities expanded and deepened. Copies of these three booklets are available in the church. Please pick up which ever appeals to you most and use it as an aid to prayer and reflection on the story of Jesus and how this works out in real life. They have been provided free of charge.

Connecting this with Christian Aid week means that prayer for the kingdom is linked with the cry for justice and relief of suffering and poverty. It comes with a challenge to how we live and how content or otherwise we are with the plight of the poorest people on the planet. Being connected with the vine is no mere comfort zone, it can be disturbing and requiring action for justice, liberation and pursuing the wellbeing of all people.

So look around the church and see how many images of a vine you can spot. As you do remember that this is an image of being connected with the God, with the story of Jesus and the cry for justice. Far from being a comfortable image of rural tranquility it is rather an organic symbol of the growing kingdom of God where the hungry are fed, the homeless find shelter, the lonely embraced and justice is the foundation of our common living.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 5 – Sunday 29th April 2018

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Called by name

IMG_0185Names are very important and our own name is deeply personal. It expresses so much of our identity, who we are and where we belong. We have our first name or names, what for those who have been baptized we call our Christian name, and we have our family name, taken from one or both of our parents. Some choose on marriage to combine these family names, others adopt one and stop using the other. We don’t choose our first name for ourselves, at least not at first. It is given to us by others, our parents or in some cases someone else who has the first care of us. If we later decide to change this, it is a major step to take and will reflect very deeply how we now see ourselves, otherwise it is what we have grown up with and become accustomed to. One of the things we do at baptism is give someone’s name an added layer of blessing. This is the name which is used as water is poured over us in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And there we have name being used again. What we do in this special moment is identified with the love and character of God, it is done in God’s name.

When Jesus used the image of the Good Shepherd in our Gospel reading (John 10:11-18), earlier in the passage it was taken from, before where our reading started, he says that the shepherd knows the sheep so intimately and closely that he calls them by name (v3). And the point of the story is that we are the sheep whom Jesus knows by name. It is an intimate image. We are not just one of a crowd, though we are part of a great company of followers who seek and have sought to live the Jesus way down the centuries and do so today. We are known for who we are and loved for who we are. When so many people struggle with who they are – be it body image, how they look, or with confidence and acceptance for not quite fitting in with the crowd, or coming to terms with something different about us to what had been expected – knowing that God loves us for who we are can be incredibly liberating. God knows you by your name, not someone else’s. And being you is to be the unique creation that God has made, blessed and calls to follow him. You are one of those beloved sheep that the Good Shepherd knows and calls by name.

And that is another side to baptism. With our name blessed we are called to follow Jesus. We are called by name to live a life that gives thanks to God for the love he gives us in Jesus Christ and to show that in everything we do. That might mean saying sorry on occasions for when we mess things up – and all of us do that, regardless of how old or important we become, in fact we probably do it more the older we get and the more important we become. This is why every service includes a confession; a moment when we can acknowledge that we have got it wrong, sometimes spectacularly, and we will show this by trying to live differently. God calls us by name and sets us free to walk on in a new life of hope and grace.

In a moment, Canon Sarah will show these three elements in the actions around baptism. The name is blessed along with the person as the sign of the cross is made on his forehead using special oil blessed for this purpose. Anointing is an ancient custom whereby someone is marked out as special and given a special job. Jack is special and his name takes on the extra special character as his Christian name. The special job is to be a follower of Jesus Christ and that requires a whole life commitment. He is young and will need to grow in that. As he does that, he will require help and encouragement, which is where everyone here has a part to play. He needs examples to follow and reflect on – that is your part, and parents and godparents have a particular privilege and responsibility here. Teach him, pray for him, pray with him, guide him and delight in him as he flourishes in faith and in life.

The second action is the water being poured over him, three times in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this just like we wash away the grime of the day at bath time we are reminded that the sins we do and will continue to do are taken from us by the only one who can, God in Jesus Christ. Baptism is a putting away of the grip of sin – for we pass through the water in a hope that life is not futile, but blessed, loved and held. The image used is of dying to sin, passing through the waters of death, and coming to share in the life and hope of Christ. It is a rich image. We are forgiven because we are loved. Sometimes the one who needs to forgive us most is ourselves and accept this deeply within ourselves. God sets us free to be and live as his beloved child.

The third action involves the Easter Candle burning here. It is a light to remind us that we live in the hope of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead at Easter. At the end of the service a candle will be lit from it for Jack to remind him and us that we are to shine as lights in the world to the glory of God. We have a calling, a vocation, to be people of that light and not people of darkness. There are so many ways that this can be and is expressed. But in short, we aim to be people who are blessing to those we meet and for whom the consequences of what we do is life-giving and life-affirming, which is at the root of the word blessing. Be light, be Christ light, wherever you go and whatever you do.

The Church of England gives today an extra label. It is ‘Vocation Sunday’ and that means it is a day to ask how God might be calling you to live that light of hope and grace and blessing. It might be that there are ways you can do this in whatever it is you do for a living. It might be that there are ways to do this more fully in your home or among those with whom you live. It might be that God is stirring up within you a sense of a different role that aims to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and call others to follow him. That is what the church is called to be and do – it’s a very simple vocation that we have here – proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and call others to follow. Everything flows from this, whatever fancy words or statements we come up with – if it is not about this, it has missed the point. Vocations and calling in the church take many forms, some are ordained as clergy, some are not; some are to the religious life as a monk or a nun or in some other kind of community, some are not. It might be that there is another ministry that strikes a chord for us. God’s Spirit calls and stirs and it can take us a bit of working out just what shape it takes. But when God calls others will recognize it too and that is good way of checking out what is delusion and what is real.

God calls us by name and our vocation, our living out of this will take the form that fits us, and the form it takes may well surprise us. It surprised the prophets before us. And all of us who stand here wearing clerical collars began with our names being called by God, being blessed by God, by realizing that we had to die to sin and live for God, and to be lights shining in and through and for the world. Every baptism is a moment to be reminded of our own baptism, of our own calling, and of our own growth in faith and living out that faith. Pray today for Jack, for those who will help him grow, and for yourselves as you seek to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, to be light-bearers, to draw others to follow him too.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Easter 4, Sunday 22nd April 2018

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Broiled Fish – Security clearance to tell a story of peace and hope

broiled-fish_largeI don’t think I have ever eaten broiled fish. I had to look it up and the first recipe that came up was for broiled lobster, which made today’s Gospel reading seem very upmarket (Luke 24:36-48). Perhaps Jesus liked playing with his food too – I discovered a couple of years ago that if you stick your fork inside the claw of a lobster you can make the pincers move and this takes messing around with your food to whole new level. That said lobster is not actually a fish, but a crustacean, a free-living aquatic animal, so seafood but not a fish. One video told me that broiling is like upside down grilling, which was not necessarily helpful, or as another source told me, cooked over an open fire or under heat. It is cooked when the flesh is opaque and flaky, 145 degrees Fahrenheit or 63 degrees Celsius. So Jesus was given a very basic cooked food, which could easily be eaten with the fingers.

That it was hot or ready to be eaten means he turned up at dinnertime. The point of the broiled fish is to show that the risen Jesus was real and not a ghost or figment of the imagination. He really was there. They saw him in 3D and he ate with them. The point of the wounds is that this is not just someone who looks like him, but is him. See the nail marks in the hands and his feet. It really is him. And to make the point even further, he tells them stories of his teaching that only he and they would have known, things he had said before. It is like the secret word or phrase to let you know that the message asking you to confirm your credit card really has come from your bank or for you to get through telephone banking security clearance. So the details are there to make the point, this Jesus really is risen. Wonderful but scary. Wonderful because he was dead but is now there in front of them. They can’t believe this change of fortunes. The one they had lost is back with them. Scary for precisely the same reasons. The dead don’t do this, so something very odd has happened.

Having gone through security clearance and proved his identity Jesus gives the disciples a job to do. They are to be witnesses. They are to be ones who tell of this astounding news and live it. They are to be people who sing alleluia in everything they do, and to everyone they meet. The risen Jesus tells them to be witnesses of the resurrection life, people who proclaim new life everywhere they go. Death is no more; it no longer has a hold over them.

There are so many places where this becomes a moment to live and proclaim hope. Whatever the challenges that we face people of new life find ways to let new life spring up. It can touch relationships in surprising ways. It can breathe new life into otherwise gloom-ridden outlooks. In fact it changes the story that we tell, the song that we sing. There is a profound confidence in that broiled fish being eaten. This is the faith that we live regardless of whether anyone else takes any notice. And if that is what we do, then it will be infectious. People of hope have a way of changing the mood of a room or a place.

Every church building, which is the home of a community which sings alleluia, stands in its community as a sign of life and love and hope. St Luke’s may have a small congregation, but it sings praise every week and it matters that it gathers to do this. The venue is not really that important, though the sounds of singing coming from it make a statement every week the songs are sung. But it is a place of hope along the street and that matters. Soon [it/we] will be joined by the Mar Thoma Church in St John’s Hall and they will add to this witness. St John’s, standing in the city square, has a special vocation to be a place of hope and new life in the midst of so many events, shopping, hospitality and gathering. We pray for our city, for the city square and take the platform on occasions affirming that love is stronger than hate, that peace-making is our priority. That is Jesus’ greeting – ‘Peace be with you’.

There are some significant threats around at the moment, global political – not least with Syria and Russia, just exactly where will the frosty relations over Novichok being used in Salisbury and the bombing response to chemical weapons being used in Syria take us. There are major uncertainties over what Brexit will mean for our relationship with our European neighbours as well as internally with a deeply divided country. There is deep anger and hostility whenever Brexit is mentioned. Some of the claims are easier to cut through than others are. We remember wars, not least the First World War, but I wonder if we remember what led to it and how peace has been built, which is arguably more important than the fighting. But the fighting gets the attention because of the deaths and the cost. But beyond the shock and wanting to honour the sanctity of the lives sacrificed, we need to understand what it means to say ‘Peace be with you’ and live it. There is a lot of effort put into supporting our armed forces. Let us put equal effort into saying ‘peace be with you’.

We have a challenge to provide longer term care for the homeless and their multiplicity of needs: emotional, psychological, the ability to cope and manage, to combat addictions and all that it means to rise up and raise your head when it feels too heavy to do. New life, resurrection, can come when hope is shared and made possible through loving embrace and being honoured as a fellow sibling before God. Out of the Winter Nightshelter there is some mentoring taking place to walk alongside those trying to rebuild their lives, people who are being agents of hope.

Remembering that we are fellow sons and daughters of God is a good place to start when being witnesses to the resurrection. Whoever is next to you this morning, across from you, behind and before you, is equally loved. Churches are remarkable places, because that is what we say by sitting here alongside one another, singing together, praying together, wondering and reflecting together. There are very few other places where this happens. And it is not actually understood by some agencies. They talk of our membership and assume that our boundaries are closely defined. But, actually, we have a very open door, so open (in St John’s) that it opens by itself as people come towards it.

So broiled fish, with or without seasoning and lemon juice, herbs and spices to flavour, hot and flaky, easy to eat brings a tangible sign of new life and hope. It is the security clearance for the one who announces his presence with the words “peace be with you”. And in so doing, sends those he greets as witnesses in word and deed, in the story they tell by being who they are. This is a vocation in which we share, which is given to us, and which we reaffirm every time we gather with alleluia in our heart and on our lips.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 3 – Sunday 15th April 2018

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Easter Fools Day

IMG_0369Today is a day for fools. And each year the newspapers play tricks on their readers with spoof stories, though some are harder spot than others and some real stories can make us check the calendar. Last year that major publication ‘The Beano’ revealed that it was going to produce an emoji only comic. Meanwhile Virgin Trains announced a new contactless ticket system called ‘Tick Ink’, where season tickets could be tattooed on the body of the traveller. And the Cornish Bakery released an egg shaped pasty – which was just a normal pasty photographed standing on one end. The prize though to my mind went to Amazon who produced a video showcasing what it called ‘PetLexa’, the voice activated personal assistant Alexa for pets. The best bit of the video showed a dog barking with the response “launching automatic ball throwing”, followed by a smash and then the voice announcing “ordering new picture frame”. As ever there were some bizarre sounding real stories to catch you out. Vodka was used to treat a cat that had drunk brake fluid because it turns out it counteracts the effect of the poison.

The jokes work because they take what we consider to be normal on a day trip into the realm of the absurd. And it’s absurd because it doesn’t fit what we are expecting. It’s a fun world of childish playfulness where normal is turned upside down: dogs quack, ducks moo and cows bark. Easter Day fits well with this world of nonsense and April Fools. It fits well because no one expected it and even after 2,000 years of faith we would be more than surprised if a body disappeared and an angel appeared with a mind-bending message that the deceased has been raised. The three women were surprised too. Mark talks about terror and amazement seizing them (Mark 16:1-18).

It is not surprising that St Paul at the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians, earlier on from where our first reading came, talked of the resurrection as being a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:22-25). It was a stumbling block to Jews because it is far from obvious and not expected. It was a stumbling block to those whom he described as wanting a sign because it did not fit the checklist of what they thought should happen and that didn’t include dying on a cross, let alone rising afterwards. So it just didn’t conform to the expectations of their faith set on clear boundaries. It breaks boundaries, quite literally, the greatest boundary that there is. It was foolishness for the Gentiles because for those who honoured wisdom it sounded like wishful thinking, where heart overruled the rational head. When the truth is unbearable, people will convince themselves of all sorts of things, believe more or less anything that avoids facing the hollow and raw reality of death and loss. So to those who see it as foolishness Jesus is proclaimed to have risen because his friends couldn’t bear the reality of him being gone.

This is a serious challenge, especially to our psychologically savvy times, and because we know some of the details in the gospels are picture language to tell the story in a way we can imagine. The challenge of wishful thinking and delusion needs to be taken seriously, especially when the Epistle reading talked of the risen Jesus appearing to 500. Crowds can be deluded. It is possible for false memory syndrome to play tricks and we’ve seen recent examples, not least the baby dropped four floors from the burning Grenfell Tower only to be caught below. What sounded unbelievable probably was. No one can find anyone who actually saw it, or find the child or the catcher. But people were adamant it happened. So for 500 to see the same thing, from this distance, mention of it in a first century letter, is not knock down proof.

The argument of psychological wishful thinking falls down at the first assumption that the disciples expected Jesus to have risen, that they had a ready made conceptual box to put this in, through which to interpret whatever the actual events were. But that is not how the Gospels talk of the disciples. The women have gone to the tomb because they knew what to expect: a dead body that needed embalming and anointing with fragrant spices to counter the odour of decay which follows death. They were realists and so what followed sounded like an idle tale to the other disciples who were not there, a twisted April Fools joke. And belief, rationalizing what happened, what they found, took time. Everyone scratches their heads on Easter Day. Easter turns our expectations upside down. It makes fools of what we think is sensible and normal. Life pops up where it shouldn’t, new hopes spring in places of despair. What can’t be comes to be.

Something profound happened to change broken, despondent people lost in grief and mourning into men and women who would proclaim the most bizarre nonsense from the rooftops. What is more these men and women were prepared to die for this belief. And even more bizarrely, men and women are prepared to die for it today and are doing so. There was a report on Good Friday of the world’s worst places for the persecution of Christians. Top of the list was North Korea, with Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan following close behind. For these people the risen Jesus is both hope and purpose, a reason to not conform where self-preservation would counsel wisdom. It is indeed foolishness to the worldly wise and a stumbling block that requires something earth shaking to overcome.

It is only when the life and love of the risen Jesus Christ fills our hearts that we know truly within us the joy and peace it brings. It is a conviction that goes deeper than mere assessment of facts or probabilities – what is likely to have happened and what we see flowing from it. It is to be filled with a deep hope that no matter what, our lives and the whole of creation, are held in God’s care, as if something precious in the palm of the hand. It is to affirm that life and love always triumph over death and hatred. That this is hardwired into creation and so the resurrection of Jesus is actually a breaking out of what is there because God has put it there. When we affirm that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead we affirm that the purposes of God cannot be overcome, however desperate and dark times may be or look. Not even persecution by some of the most cruel regimes on the planet can destroy this. The resurrection of Jesus Christ has the final victory.

So enjoy being a fool, on this day of fools. Proclaim this madness from the rooftops and live in love and joy and peace as you proclaim what to many is foolishness and a stumbling block but for us is the most profound hope that there is. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Alleluia!

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter Sunday 1st April 2018

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