Annunciation and Mothering: Gestating Faith, Hope and Love

IMG_6639There are a lot of comments being made about the need to share faith with others, to witness to the faith that is so important to us. And these assume that finding the right words is the key to this. Today, as we celebrate the twin festival of Mothering Sunday and also  in my church kept the Feast of the Annunciation as well, I want to take that a step back. With the angel appearing to Mary, and today being a moment to think about carrying the child, the emerging life, then today becomes more about how we carry faith without knowing it, before we know it and the importance of those who assist this.

The Annunciation is the story of the Angel Gabriel paying a visit to Mary to tell her that she was to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). More than just a positive pregnancy test, the shock at what the line of the ClearBlue test tells her, from this moment life changes. We know so much more about the gestation of life, that conception is more of a process than a moment. From single cells dividing into a more complex structure, which becomes embedded in the mother’s womb and then grows and develops so that it gradually becomes visibly a distinct life. At first it is almost insignificant and indistinguishable, a collection of cells. It is vulnerable and so many do not make it beyond this moment. Hence conception being more of a gradual process over time than a single moment.

The mystery that is life is truly a wonder, a miracle that emerges and comes into being.  Annunciation is a moment to reflect on that coming into being.

This carrying, this nurturing into being inside, which is such an amazing aspect of motherhood, is also a model we can see reflected in other areas. There are people who prepare us before we know it, before we see it, before we are conscious of it, or even have any memory of it. There are people who do this for us in faith and Mothering Sunday is also about how we are nurtured in faith as well as how we are mothered in life. Faith grows and is nurtured long before we may be aware of it, even if we have come to it later in life, or indeed drifted away from it and come back to it later. Hope is grown and nurtured within us long before we become aware of it, and love grows long before we become aware of it. We are carried by others and in turn carry others long before they may know it. This is how the Annunciation becomes a sign of the mothering of faith, hope and love for us all, of the coming into being of these.

All of us play a part in this. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has published a new book called ‘Reimagining Britain: Foundations of Hope‘. This begins with a model of how values and virtues are shaped and what contributes to this shaping. These are the foundation of hope and they stem from love in action, a deep honouring and respect for all, from everything that strengthens and maintains the bonds between us. These values and virtues are important for hope and holding hope. Justin Welby sees these as being hardwired into creation, what Aslan in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ calls ‘Deep Magic’. When these are fractured all hell breaks loose. These values and virtues as the basis for a hopeful future seem to me to be the main contribution of his book.

We learn what is shown to us, when it is stirred within us. What used to be referred to as faith being taught on a mother’s knee, is a recognition that we can love and wonder, we can learn virtue when it is shown and stirred within us. And often that begins with a primary carer, so often a mother, and long before it is given a system or structure that we can identity. Celebrating mothering and Annunciation together is a moment to reflect on those whose love has assisted the growing within us of love, of values and virtues. It is also a day to think about how we might do that in and for others, not least those we have the most closest involvement with.

Families are complex. Not everyone’s experience of their mothers is positive. Sometimes the primary relationships do not function as they should. But we will only know that we are loved if someone has shown us what it means to be loved, and that could well be someone else – foster carers, adopters and those who are blessing to us. We will only know that we are valued and have an inherent dignity if someone has shown this to us. And so churches, which seek to mother faith in others, to mother hope in others, it is a vital virtue and value for us to be people who display love and dignity to those we meet, to those we come into contact with. in doing this we become people of the Annunciation, where love and hope grows long before we are aware of it, before we can name it, before faith is brought to birth.

It can be popular to talk about the church as being a midwife of the gospel. Today I find myself reflecting on a prior calling, to be like Mary and carry it and nurture it, to be a place where hope is shown so that it may grow to be a place where it can be born. For some this is where they are, not at the point of it being born yet. And all of us have been there at some point in our lives, may even find we are there now.

There are the marginalised, the excluded, the vulnerable and ones who are hardest to reach. There are those who have been injured by other Christians and I am proud of my own church for its long history of open and inclusive love. We were talking about this at the Parochial Church Council meeting on Thursday and I was touched that it was something they regarded as a taken for granted – they had stopped thinking about it. And the more I have got to know them over the year, the more I have seen this. It is refreshing, and sadly not the case everywhere. We can also have our horizons expanded, but it starts from a good base.

So today, on this Mothering Sunday mixed with the Annunciation, we take a step into the foundations of faith, of hope and love, and look at those who help it come into being long before it is seen, or named or recognised. This is the gestation period and it begins with God’s love being hardwired into creation, spoken by his Angel, by his voice. We learn it by being shown it, by experiencing it. And we help others learn it in the same way. We are called to be, like Mary, those who allow it to come into being, This aspect of mothering is unseen, but vital. Today we are thankful for those who have assisted our coming into being in life, in love, in hope and in faith.

An adapted version of a sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 11th March 2018

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Sabbath – pressing the reset button

IMG_2377Which Commandment is the greatest? Our first reading gave us ten (Exodus 20:1-17) and it is an understandable question, which one is the most important. When Jesus was asked this question he gave the classic summary of the greatest being the first, ‘love God with all your heart and mind and soul’. And he added ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:36-40). On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Some of the ten are about how we get there – no idols, that is nothing to get in the way of loving God so that God has all our love and focus, nothing to distract or dilute it. We are to treat God with the respect due and not take the name of God in vain, to not treat it with contempt or disrespect. This is blasphemy and it is in effect a denial of the first command, to love God, and of the second for nothing to get in the way. Most of the rest of the commandments are about moral living, the ethics of action: honouring parents, no murder, no adultery, no theft, no lies and false witness, and not even coveting what someone else has – the envy that eats away at who we are and who they are.

One commandment remains. Where would you put the Sabbath in this list? Would you still include it in a society that has become used to seven-day shopping, internet banking and trading at all hours, connectivity of mobile phones and devices? Is the Sabbath an outdated idea? We know people need rest and time off, but surely rotas can facilitate this so that there is a rolling programme? The Sabbath is about more than just having time off. It is more than a day of rest – though I think there is something good for society about a day that is different to the others; a social and communal breathing space. But Sabbath rest exists for a deeper purpose. That purpose is to reset the focus, to be still and pause, to reflect and reconnect with the heart of the first commandment. It is the recalibration command amidst often over busy lives that can distort our perspective, cloud our vision and dent our hope. It is the day to remember God, to remember the first command to love God, to have no other gods placed in the way of God. And money and working and so many other activities can become idols to be worshipped in the place of God.

Lent is a really big Sabbath time. It lasts for 40 days and during it we are encouraged to live differently, to take time out to be still to remember God, to recalibrate. For some that can be a bit of a detox, to give up what we might be in danger of doing or consuming to excess. It can be a moment when we read or study. The Live Lent app provides a very simple way of doing this each day. For those who want to reflect on the political and social shape of our society and its direction, Archbishop Justin Welby has just published a book of reflections called ‘Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope’. I got hold of my copy this week, so I am looking forward to carving out some Sabbath time to read, think and pray over the issues he reflects on.

And the pressures against this making of space for Sabbath time are immense. I have noticed over recent years that life does not take Lent at all seriously and the pressure of meetings and demands crowd in. They do not pause. Lent then becomes more of a time of exhaustion than rest and refreshment. Sabbath rest, though is not just about a big lie in and sleep, but the rest that refreshes and refocuses, resets our vision on God the loving creator and redeemer. It is to be reset in the placing of God in the centre of our lives and the moral and ethical action which flows from that.

It is with this in mind that Jesus walked into the Temple, saw the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals, and created a disturbance (John 2:13-22). His actions would get him arrested in Queensgate and have him brought before the magistrate. He was not reacting against trading in the temple as such. So there is nothing wrong with shops and bazaars in churches. They have been market spaces for centuries and are today. We have to think through how we can generate more income to run the church and events, hiring out for functions and having shops and stalls are all part of this. We have been looking at what is compatible and what is not, so that we don’t damage the primary purpose of the church to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and draw people to follow him. All events should be compatible with our ethos and values We are to love God with all our heart and our neighbour as our self – to live ethically and engage in moral action.   Jesus’ anger was directed at the corruption that he found.

The exchange rates for the money changing were unfair. The animals being sold were ones acceptable for sacrifice and if someone couldn’t afford these, they could take out high interest, buy-now-pay-later loans. The system was corrupt and exploitative. The interest rates usurious, rather like the payday loan companies charging 60% APR, even 1000% APR. These companies would find Jesus causing a disturbance in their stores and if we set one up in the church we would be going against what he did in our gospel reading. So it is not trading but unfair and exploitative trading that he objected to. It made him angry as he saw the poor and vulnerable being taken for a ride. It dishonoured the Temple, and the Commandment to love God, to have no idols – including money, to not disrespect God and we know that disrespecting people dishonours God, to live ethically and justly.

So which Commandment is the most important, the greatest? It is love of God, love of neighbour as ourselves and Sabbath rest is how we reset the values that we live by, values that flow from these. The Sabbath is the breathing space we all need. Lent is a 40 day Sabbath period with the challenge to live differently so that we may be renewed for how we live beyond it.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Lent 3 – Sunday 4th March 2018

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Laughter and Promise – Covenant and Cross

IMG_2377What’s in a name? Names are how we identify one another and ourselves. They are deeply connected to our sense of who we are, our identity. Some people love their name and some people don’t actually like it and some even change it. What couples decide to do on marriage says important things about how they see themselves, who changes, who stays the same, whether there is a hybrid of the two by making the new name double barreled, or even more. The Church of England has an ongoing debate about how to mark the changing of a name when someone changes their gender and how that relates to who we are as a beloved child of God and an heir of grace. There is a call for a special service, but the bishops have said that the reaffirmation of baptism has the material needed in it. Others have called for something more tailor-made.

Our first reading gave us two people whose names are changed. Sarai becomes Sarah and Abram becomes Abraham (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16). In themselves these names don’t signify much. Sarai may well be an older form of Sarah, some even argue that the first was a name like any other and the second carried the significance drawn from later generations as meaning ‘queen’, or ‘princess’, or ‘lady’ to denote her significance. So this later allusion reflects the stories being written in retrospect; they are not contemporary accounts. Likewise with Abram. This doesn’t carry much significance; whereas Abraham means ‘Father of a Multitude’ and that is the promise he received. So the name changes mark out what became; they are a way of saying this covenant changes who you are. They change the relationship with God and new identities are formed. So the gap between the old names and the new names is not so much the issue as the status the new names accord. From now on this is who you are and here’s a bit of bling on your names as a badge of the status.

The story of Abraham and Sarah is one of a covenant being established between God and the generations that follow. The sign of this covenant is the gift of Isaac, the son born to both Abraham and Sarah. Abraham already has a son, Ishmael, through his wife’s slave girl, Hagar. So Sarah is also important in this covenant relationship and so often she is airbrushed out by only concentrating on the paternal line through Abraham. But she matters because of Hagar and the importance of the maternal line. The test of Jewish ancestry is who someone’s mother is, not so much who their father is. It is the matriarchal line that transmits the identity, not so much the paternity. There is no reason given for why Abraham and Sarah are picked for this covenant, they are just presented as being the parents of the many nations. They are archetypal figures, together an ancestral heritage that everyone can claim to be connected through. They stand for and root the common family tree.

The story of Abraham and Sarah follows on from the story of Noah, which we heard last week. After the flood we have the rainbow and the promise of God’s enduring love and his holding in his grace of creation. This now takes form in the covenant with Abraham and brought to effect through the childbearing of Sarah. God affirms and cements his confidence in his creation, in humanity. It is a love that will not let it go, whatever. It is a covenant that brings obligations on both side, to be God’s people and for God to show blessing. That blessing comes through the gift of life and in new life, as successive generations flow. Even when there are attempts to stamp out the people – through genocides and exile – a remnant remains and continues.

This promise does not strike Abraham as being that obvious at first. Sarah is not very convinced either given their ages. In fact Abraham thinks it is laughable. And laugh he does. But when Sarah bears a son she laughs with joy at this gift and blessing. And the child is named ‘Isaac’, which means ‘he laughs’. When covenant is fulfilled with blessing, then there is much cause for laughter and joyful celebration. So the two laughs are contrasted: the hollow laugh of derision and the joy-filled laugh of promise fulfilled.

Into this party atmosphere crashes Jesus in our Gospel reading with the call of the cross. If we want to be one of his followers we have to take up our own cross and follow (Mark 8:31-38). And while that is sinking in, Luke adds ‘daily’; we have to do this every day. Mark seems a bit kinder, though he might be being more final. Daily implies you can repeat it, which makes it more figurative. Once and for all means you won’t be able to repeat it, because crucifixion is a particularly horrific form of execution. It’s more of a ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ call, riding into the valley of certain death. So on reflection I think I might prefer Luke’s version. ‘Take up your cross’ can be the call to embrace the way of self-giving, self-forgetting sacrificial love. It can mean paying the ultimate price to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ and there are plenty in the world who face this. It can mean taking risks which may not come off. It will mean realizing that the love of God is the source and goal of our life and so ultimately it stands above it. However much we might want to, we can’t actually hang on to life. In fact, we have no real grasp on our life and so the true embracing is the embracing of the cross which will come to all of us one day or another, but come it will.

This comes in so many ways. It can come sitting by the side of one we love as they die. The cost is everything but there is no place we could possibly be other than there holding the hand. I won’t give any spoilers away, in case you are a catch up listener, but catch Friday’s edition of ‘The Archers’ if you want an example. It was heart-rending drama, depicting the power of love to be with someone through the darkness and hope of new life. It might mean making a stand for a cause of justice or another’s liberation, in the face of opposition, even violent opposition. And that is not easy by any means. It might mean working in a particularly difficult situation where there will be a personal and emotional cost and then knowing that we need to recover afterwards, or perhaps not. It does mean living as a servant of Jesus Christ whatever the situation we find ourselves in actually demands, even if that is different to what we thought we had signed up for. The cost can mean not getting the recognition for it, even paying a heavy price. There are situations where we absorb the anger and the pain, and so ‘take one for the team’.

In our readings today being the father, and mother – though that gets hidden – of many nations, being the one to whom they all look for their ancestry and provenance, is much more rewarding and satisfying than being one who is crucified as the cost of discipleship. And yet, it is not the memorial plaque on the wall that counts, but the covenant of grace in which we stand. And the significance of Abraham and Sarah is not in themselves but in the covenant that flowed into them and through them, beyond them. That covenant is one of faithful service that places the love and promise of God above all else. It does this because that covenant of grace stands above and holds everything else. It is the purpose and therefore the hope. Without it we have nothing. With it and in it we join with all that matters. We can therefore take up our cross knowing that this is the way of life and peace. As with Sarah, we can laugh with joy at the fulfillment of promise, of covenant honoured in Jesus Christ.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Lent 2 – Sunday 25th February 2018

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Oxfam and Rainbows: transformed in grace

IMG_2377Oxfam has come in for quite a pasting this week. Shocking revelations and accusations have been made that some of those who were working to bring relief to the suffering of the most desperate and impoverished people had been taking sexual advantage of them. Some of those named have denied the accusations and claimed the stories have been embellished. Others have said that this kind of behaviour has been known about. Specifics may vary but there is a general story that not everyone who works in an aid agency can be trusted. While it shocks us we know all agencies have to have good and robust safeguarding policies and working practices. There is a darkness in the human heart that will look for the places of greatest vulnerability and seek to exploit them.

There was an interesting article in the Financial Times yesterday by Tim Harford, who calls himself the undercover economist. He wrote about ‘the psychology of righteous outrage’ and how emotions can be escalated or reduced by the ‘leniency shift’ or the ‘severity shift’. In other words if the trend around us is angry we can find ourselves getting angrier than we might otherwise have done, even if some anger is totally understandable. If the trend is more mitigating then there can be a reduction in how severe we see it to be. To show this, he quotes various studies, one into how juries behave and another reflecting on the Donald Trump phenomena. Xenophobic views prevailed in the United States but were largely underground, not expressed or if they were only anonymously before Donald Trump gave them public form. Then people came out of the shadows and owned the hatreds they had kept hidden. Juries can display the leniency shift if they think a crime was trivial and conversely the group’s verdict can be more severe than any individual may produce on their own. They egg each other on in both directions.

The danger with the Oxfam story, as tempers rise understandably, is that we are vulnerable to those who have a political agenda to reduce the aid budget. And The Times newspaper, which broke the story and has kept it going, is not neutral on this. Oxfam and other aid agencies do tremendous work, saving and transforming lives. They do it in extremely difficult situations, sometimes at great personal risk. And because they work in highly compromised political environments they are quite self-reflective and wonder whether they are really doing good sometimes. Asessing the benefits is complex. How much do they help, how much are they actually shoring up oppressive regimes by feeding the hungry whose hunger is partly caused by corruption and how much are they really able to transform a situation? Some places are so broken that it will take much more than the food and medicine trucks to solve them. They do what they can, where they can. Such then is the need for robust checks and balances, to ensure that those who go have motives that will be liberating and life enhancing, and not ones that will exploit.

Sitting alongside this is this morning we are given the story of Noah, which were heard part of as our first reading (Genesis 9:8-17). We heard the section about the rainbow as the sign of hope and promise. It’s the theme that runs through the whole bible. God’s love is unfailing and enduring. There will be storm, there will be darkness, there will be rebellion and rejection, but God loves the creation he has made and will never let go of it, whatever. The temptation is always to go for the severity shift, to be outraged and call for the annihilation of all who fall short. That is the first part of the story of Noah with the flood. Just turn it off and on again, and all will be well. What of course that does not do is address the underlying bugs and flaws that cause the crash in the system in the first place. That is part of the hardwiring and no software update will solve that. That too is a theme in the story of Noah. Truly Oxfam and others have to look at how they protect, ensure respect and secure the wellbeing of those in their care. And they have admitted to procedural changes that they have had to make. The Church of England and every other institution observe this from their own glass houses. We are institutions made up of human beings and have to address the darkness within us all.

The story of Noah begins with severity shift. The people are so wicked that the only solution offered is to destroy them. It is a psychotic outlook being displayed, one exhibited by apocalyptic serial killers and those who go on gun rampages. And the point of the story is to emphasise this. It is a journey of the imagination, a thought experiment. Let’s suppose for a moment that God could start again. How would that turn out? Keep reading and we find out. It turns out the same. What is needed is a fresh think. Not one of annihilation, but one of self-giving love that inspires, redeems and changes hatreds into love. It does this through coming alongside and revealing a better way. And that love is shown and brought to effect through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yes there is challenge, and Jesus challenged. Yes there is argument and debate, and Jesus engaged in both of these with passion and force. And yes there is incredible compassion and love shown to those often regarded as unlovable, excluded, untouchable and outcast. Rich officials, occupying forces, women caught in adultery or with a colourful past in a conversation at a well, those with long-term medical ailments; all of these are just a few of those whose lives he transformed by his loving embrace, honouring and being set free from the severity shift they all suffered under. And he did it without falling into the corresponding leniency shift of nothing matters, of trivialising.

The story of the rainbow calls on us to take stock after the storm, even during it. As the sun of righteousness shines through the gloom and is refracted in the water droplets, revealing the multi-coloured splendor of its hidden spectrum, so it reminds us of the love that sets us free from all that would weigh us down and condemn. Called to live differently, to be transformed by grace, we walk on in hope and thanksgiving, sharing the generous love of God.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Lent 1 – Sunday 18th February 2018

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Making the Ash for Ash Wednesday – A ‘how to’ post

IMG_7476Here’s another of those things they don’t teach you at vicar training school – how to turn palm crosses into ash for use on Ash Wednesday.  Last year’s palm crosses are burnt and the ash is used during the Ash Wednesday liturgy to make the sign of the cross on the forehead as a sign of our mortality and penitence for our sins.  There is a scene in the film Braveheart where the Scottish army are all shown with black crosses on their foreheads.  That’s the look, just without the kilts – well south of the border any way.

Step one: a few weeks before hand, ask the congregation to return the palm crosses they were given last year on Palm Sunday so that they can be burnt for use on Ash Wednesday.  This has a double benefit: it gets you a supply of palm crosses to burn and involves everyone in what is happening through supplying the raw ingredient.

Step two: find a sheltered spot – I use the barbecue in the back garden.  (I have done this in the front garden but it took some explaining to the postman as to why a vicar was burning crosses outside the vicarage!)  Take a metal bowl (tip: don’t use the best mixing bowl from the kitchen to avoid serious domestic strife).  Pile up the palm crosses and burn them.  If they are large, it might work better if they are cut up a little first, but if they are dry and it is not a windy day, they should burn pretty well as they are.

Step three: use a long gas/oil fire-lighter and set fire to them.  A blow torch will do the job even better.  The point is you may need to light them several times or keep the flame there for a while until they catch.  Palm crosses can be notoriously difficult to set fire to, but once the fire gets going they burn well.  You might need some barbecue tongues to move them around a bit so that all of them burn.

Step four: allow to cool!

Step five: spoon some of the ash into a small bowl and chop with a fairly sharp spoon.  The aim is to reduce the ash to a fine powder, or fairly close to that.  Rapid but gentle chopping movements work well and it will take several minutes to achieve the grade of ash you are after.

IMG_7478They are now ready for use.  Some people add a little anointing oil to make a paste.  I don’t, I just rub the ash between my thumb and forefinger and make the sign of the cross of the people’s foreheads with my thumb using the words:

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

This act is very powerful – for those receiving and those administering it.  It gives pastoral and sacramental ministry an edge.  It makes it real; all pretence is stripped away and we are all confronted with the raw reality that we are fragile human beings before God.   We get it right and we get it wrong.  We are caught up in all sorts of complications, some of which are beyond us to sort out.  We trust in God’s redeeming grace to bring all of this through to resolution.  We will die one day and our hope is in the loving mercy of the God who gave us life and will through Jesus Christ bring us to share in the life of his eternity.

 

Originally posted in March 2014 on my previous blog.

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Clouds – Mystery and Revelation

IMG_6048If we mention ‘the cloud’ today there is a strong chance that the first thing that will come to mind is a remote internet based storage system. Those of us who rely heavily on gadgets and mobile devices can’t escape it as the system of syncing our calendars, being able to access email on the move and sharing documents. The cloud is a cuddly way of referring to some very functional technology more likely based in an industrial unit in Swindon than in some skybase or even floating free. What seems just able to be plucked from the air is actually complex mathematics and electrical signaling. The cloud links us on the move, when we are not plugged into the main storage, and connectivity is a key aspect of it.

In the Bible clouds represent the mystery of God. They tell us that something profound is taking place and it is a moment when something usually hidden is being made known and revealed. It is a moment of revelation and that revelation connects us with the purposes and nature of God. ‘Connectivity’ is actually a term borrowed from a deep and profound aspect of faith. The cloud connects us with who God is and how God is known; it holds both mystery and revelation: God who is beyond our gaze also comes close and can be known.

The cloud is an important element in the story of Moses. He enters the cloud on the Holy Mountain to receive the 10 Commandments. Mystery and revelation are held. There is authority which comes from its profound connection with what is, with that which is beyond our gaze, and there is the very easy to grasp clear commands for the practicality of living. Elijah, in our Old Testament reading (2 Kings 2:1-12), is taken up by the clouds, into heaven. He disappears from sight and enters the mystery. The image intended here is a dust cloud created by dust being whipped up by the whirlwind swirling round and making sight difficult. It is a cloud that both obscures but also removes. He is taken from sight, not just obscured from sight. Mystery comes and mystery goes.

On the hillside, with his closest friends, Jesus is Transfigured (Mark 9:2-9), his appearance changes. It is a moment of revelation when they see the glory within and connect up the dots, or the dots are joined up for them. And while this is happening a cloud overshadows them and from it there is a voice. ‘Overshadowing’ is a strong word in the Bible. The Holy Spirit comes upon Mary and ‘the power of the Most High overshadows her’ (Luke 1:35) at the annunciation and God is made present in the most direct way that there can be, in the conception, growth and birth of Jesus. In the Book of Exodus, God’s presence overshadows the tent of meeting with a cloud and the glory of God fills the tabernacle so powerfully that Moses is not able to enter (Exodus 40:34-35). Overshadowing is the full power and glory of God present and at work. The word ‘overshadowing’ means this is serious. This is a moment of profound revelation.

So for the witnesses of the Transfiguration, they are in the presence of the very presence of God, the full force of God has touched the mountain and what is at work here is revealed to be of cosmic significance. They cannot comprehend it, so much so that Peter decides they need to build something to capture it, completely missing the significance which is far beyond their feeble power. This is God who made the heavens and earth and all that there is, who holds everything in being. The idea that this needs a shed made by him is just ludicrous. But that is what we do when something is too big to comprehend, we try to do something or build something so that we can contain it, define it and make it digestible for our minds. The Transfiguration is mind-blowing in its scale and a moment of seeing what otherwise cannot be seen and barely taken in.

The voice from the cloud, from the mystery, speaks words of connection and understanding. “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” In the presence of God, in the cloud, the only response we can make is to listen. Listen, listen, listen again. It is how the Rule of St Benedict begins. ‘Listen’. Connecting to the cloud and through the cloud requires us to be stilled and take in what comes. To listen with all our being. And that is probably particularly hard for us. The very technology that connects also distracts and bombards with information and stimulus. It can be difficult to find the reflective space to stop fiddling and responding, but to listen and take in. Breathe deeply and allow the life of God to fill our lungs and our minds.

I was struck a while back by a post online about how to improve mental health. I think it came from the Samaritans and was aimed at people feeling anxious and stressed. It talked about breathing and how controlling breathing helps calm us and diminish the anxiety. What came to my mind was the reflective way of saying the Psalms in Morning Prayer each day, where a breathing space is put half way through the verses. We stop, breathe out and breathe in, before continuing. What this breathing does is calm us and the net effect is to calm us deeply from any anxiety or stress, worry or concerns, from the rushing and over haste. It helps prevent us from being overcome by these pressures and helps to restore balance. The breathing space becomes an agent of listening.

I’m conscious of this when I find I’m in one of those conversations that start out seemingly routine and ordinary, and then suddenly I become aware that something profoundly significant is being said. It might be talking of a serious illness, distress or something that brings pain to the fore. There is a screech of brakes in my head and I need to breathe deeply so that I can allow the words to be taken in. Not to respond with anything other than attention because whatever I say will be like Peter saying ‘let’s build a shed to contain this’. And what is needed is just to listen and take it in. And that listening can be important for the other who needs to be heard, to find a still and reflective space to be held. I was aware of this a number of years ago when a young girl came up to me in a school play ground and after I’d been greeted cheerily she proceeded to tell me her father died the night before in a car crash.  It was as moment to take a deep breath, to listen deeply and not try to fill the space, but let her be held in it as she spoke.

Clouds are deeply evocative, from Roald Dahl’s ‘James and Giant Peach’ cloudbusting with his parents as they lie on the beach and imagine shapes and visions in the shape of the clouds, to being drawn into them so that they stand as a symbol of eternity and clearer vision. When in 2012 the young songwriter, Zach Sobriech, was given just a few months to live due to a terminal cancer diagnosis, he turned to music to say goodbye and treasure the moments he had. His song ‘Clouds’ has been viewed on YouTube over 13 million times. In it he talks about going up into the clouds where the view is clearer and where he will find eternity. He decided to embrace each day with hope and joy, to celebrate what he had, not what he was either losing or had lost. It is clearly a song that many find inspiring and helpful. And it is based around clouds.

Clouds in the Bible stand for God’s mystery and presence. The mystery is the very root and power and hope at the heart of all things and beyond all things, even life itself. In it we find life and love and joy. When this mystery makes itself know, which it does supremely in Jesus Christ, the best response we can have is to listen, listen and listen again. Then we find beholding the mystery becomes a moment of revelation, overshadowing and inspiration.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 11th February 2018

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Anskar: Faithful persistence – a theology of resilience

Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 14.28.29Every now and then the Church of England’s calendar of saints and holy days brings up a commemoration that seems to resonate or be a good counter to a prevailing tone. Yesterday was such a day, as we remembered the not so well known Anskar, a 9th century missionary bishop in Scandanavia, Denmark and Germany. He sounds an unlikely candidate but he lived at a turbulent time when the fortunes of his missions were precarious to say the least, vulnerable and at the mercy of successive Viking raids. He relied heavily on the patronage of the King of the Franks and when this was withdrawn his mission failed. He found that he achieved very little that lasted in Scandanavia. It was 150 years later that another mission had to start again. He had more success in Hamburg, in North Germany and in Denmark, where he is their patron saint.

A comment in the biography notes for his day resonated. It said that he is an example of

“persistence in often discouraging circumstances… His successes were infrequent, and often short lived. In 845 all the gains that he had made for the gospel in Scandanavia were lost as that region was attacked by northern invaders and pagan beliefs and practices were re-established.” (Saints on Earth: A biographical companion to Common Worship, p24)

There is such an emphasis in the church at the moment on mission, growth and success, on reversing the decline in church attendance, that Anskar is an unconfortable saint to sit alongside that. He was clearly missionary, dedicated and faithful. He achieved growth but the lasting success was somewhat fragile and even not sustained. And despite lots of initiatives and programmes, events and much activity, many are finding today that their churches are not growing in the way a growth and success culture would like to see. Anskar confronts us with the need for a faithful resilience and a theology that can cope with results not being unreservedly successful.

Anskar’s experience is an uncomfortable one. It is shared by lots of people and it reminds us that the sea faith imagery, which Matthew Arnold used in his 19th century poem “On Dover Beach”, with fortunes waxing and waning, as with the rising and falling tide, and this seems to be how it is and has been.   It is also an experience that was shared here in Peterborough. The Saxon abbey here was destroyed by the Vikings and desolate for 90 years until a mission came to reestablish it. So Anskar’s experience echoes our own. And he requires us to have a bigger perspective on what constitutes success and failure, fruitfulness and indeed faithfulness. It is much harder to be faithful and hopeful when the results are not encouraging, indeed often discouraging. And most of us who have been around churches over the last few decades will have felt some of this; great efforts made but with far from spectacular returns. There are areas of the country where the church is in danger of disappearing.

That Anskar is remembered is quite remarkable. He would have been easy to air-brush out and concentrate rather on those who had the success when the times were more favourable. That gives so much more of an addrenalin buzz and rallying cry. It is not much of a rallying cry to say ‘come follow me and I will bring you questionable success and your achievements will not last’.

It is into circumstances like this that our Gospel reading was written (John 1:1-14). We can easily forget that first century Christian communities, which produced the gospels, were persecuted. So when John’s gospel talks about the light shining in the darkness and the darkness is not able to over come it, he was writing to a community that saw plenty of evidence of the complete opposite. The darkness did indeed seem to be overcoming the light and some of that light was provided by Christians being used as human torches to light the emperor’s garden. The persecution was grosteque and would make films on the Horror Channel look tame.

The writer of John’s gospel is convinced that the gospel he proclaims is not based on some fad or easy story, but on the architecture of the creation. The eternal Word, who was in the beginning, the very thoughts and purpose of God, became flesh and was present among us in the child and man Jesus. It is a startling and mind blowing claim. It baffles many people who just find they can’t accept it. And so it doesn’t matter how many gimmicks or programmes or plans or apps or events we plan, there is a fundamental incomprehension of this claim. That the architecture of creation might have been visible in a human being is extraordinary to say the least.

And many of us are used to holding this at different levels. There is the metaphorical, where this becomes a profound mystery of what life and creation is. God has infused it with a purpose and a value that touches the eternal. There is the sense that human life can be so in tune with this profound mystery that it is capable of immense creativity, resilience and insight. There is a looking into the stars and seeing there God’s vast and fathomless expanse, the greatness which gives sentient creatures the ability to reflect and delight, to love and sense. John’s gospel’s light shining is the light of the mystery that there is something rather than nothing, that there is life which has meaning beyond the transitory, beyond the fleeting fortunes of a moment’s success or failure.

And it is this that lies at the core of Anskar’s resilience and faithful persistence. It is why whether our church is full or empty is not actually the most important question, though we prefer it to be full than empty. It also doesn’t say ‘don’t bother with mission because there is no point, the tide is against us’. Quite the opposite is the case. It says dance and sing, be thankful and proclaim the love of God, the architecture of the universe present and redeeming, giving life and inspiring hope. Because ‘in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God. It came that we might have life and that life was and is the light of all people. It shines in the darkness and despite what might seem the case the darkness will never overcome it’ because it is the architecture of the creation.

What is at stake here is not about just being popular. The ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15-20) is not designed to be on trend, but reflect what is, what lies at the core of what is, and therefore what brings hope and meaning. The light shines and cannot be overcome, not because it remains popular but because it is truth. It is the foundation and goal of everything.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 4th February 2018

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