Sons of Adam’s responsibility to the daughters of Eve

 

Screenshot 2021-03-12 at 21.36.25

Sarah Everard – BBC website

For the past few days, every time I have opened my internet browser, with the BBC website as my default home page, I have been presented with the smiling face of a young woman. She looks so bright and engaging and that makes the shock all the more acute that this is the photograph of a young woman whose body has now been found in woodland in Kent. As I write this I do not know the details of what happened to her. But I do know that a heart-wrenching tragedy has struck those who are close to her and now grieve with the deepest tears – and this is Mothering Sunday weekend. A mother weeps for her child.

The reaction to Sarah Everard’s murder has been striking. It has brought a torrent of stories from women online who have had to navigate unwanted male attention on buses, taxis, walking home, out jogging, in the office, oh the list is so long. They have told of the constant ways they adjust their own behaviour to take account of this and protect themselves when they should just be able to go about their business in assumed safety. And the stories have been accompanied by raw statements of ‘male violence’ and ‘mens behaviour’ towards women. It has sparked a reaction in turn of #NotAllMen, possibly well-meaning in attempting to show solidarity or ‘we’re not all like that’, but as one woman pointed out, of course you’re not, the trouble is we don’t know which are and which are not.

That struck home. Of course they don’t. Because rapists, gropers, coercive controllers and bullies are not bar-coded. As a curate in Maidstone in the 1990s I regularly visited the prison as a chaplain. As I walked on the sex offenders wing I would meet men you would not suspect of anything if you passed them in the street. Many had used this ‘safe appearance’ to groom and win trust which they then abused. And so on the surface, the woman who said ‘we don’t know which are dangerous and which are not’ is right. She doesn’t.

This shouldn’t surprise those of us who are involved in safeguarding because we are used to keeping an open mind and always being on the alert for behaviour that seems iffy. One safeguarding officer described this simply as ‘does it pass the sniff test’? In the world of safeguarding we don’t know who is safe and who is not and so we make sure there are measures in place to reduce risk. I wish it were otherwise, because a constant state of vigilance is quite wearing.

I am also used in church circles to having to make it clear that we are an inclusive church, who welcomes everyone regardless of gender, sex, sexuality, race, education or social background, politics or conviction of faith. I know we have to make this clear that this is a safe space because I know not everywhere is, and have been told so many stories to reinforce this observation. I know that I have to demonstrate trustworthiness because it isn’t assumed. And that means I have to make sure I don’t do things which make others uneasy or project a message that makes them feel unsafe. And sometimes we have to be reminded because sometimes we forget.

For men the reaction to Sarah Everard’s murder is a reminder that we have to adjust our behaviour to show we are safe, and that means not invading space, not following a woman in the street in a way that could be unnerving or seem creepy. It may mean crossing the road if walking at night. It means not making inappropriate comments that demean or objectify. And it means calling it out when we see it in others. ‘That’s not cool’ or find a way of making clear that that wasn’t right. This is assuming that not groping and not abusing is commonly accepted. 

And then there is the over simple reassurance of #NotAllMen. Quite simply, are you sure? All of us have grown up with assumptions drummed into our heads and it runs down the generations. As a child of the 70s I know that the cultural wallpaper included Miss World, women draped over cars, the general assumption of availability and assumed willingness rather than checking consent. Of course this cultural backdrop met the cold reality of real encounters with real girls. It’s what happened next that makes the difference. Never mind ‘no means no’, this was more likely to be ‘not interested so back off’. And it is what happens next that separates those who got the message from those who didn’t or were not remotely interested in being sensitive to it.

Cultural change comes slowly. Developing a counter-cultural ethic comes when cultural assumptions meet an alternative being articulated that is understood and a more healthy way of being emerges.

When I think of how far we have travelled it was a shock to discover Hip hop and later cultural scenes bringing similar challenges for later generations. The assumptiveness did not go away. The culture of rap music with scantily clad girls draped as trophies and disposable accessories feeds young minds in a very unhealthy way. TV news reports still frequently make sure there is a pretty young woman walking down the street, strangely framed in the centre or as the focus of the short shot. Sports events scan the crowd looking for the ‘eye candy’. All reinforcing objectification and commodification of women for men’s enjoyment.

The prevalence of pornography affects minds in how others are seen. There is a reminder in ‘The Professional Ministerial Guidelines’ document for the Church in Wales that “pornography demeans a person who is a child of God into a disposable object” (2007, p4). While legal, it is not without consequences for shaping the mind and is not conducive to healthy relationships, attitudes and behaviour. That this is spelt out is telling. When looking for lives modelled on Christ, treating others as less than fully human, as an object is not compatible.

Sexual attraction is not the same as coercive, violent, abusive and aggressive behaviour. Just because someone is attractive does not mean that they are fair game for unwanted attention. Self-control means that not everyone tries to jump every attractive person. And remembering they are a person, not a thing, is a start. Sex within relationship rather than casual enjoyment is also one where boundaries are set and nurtured. The key here is relationship – two people with mutual and consensual intimacy.

All of us are shaped by the cultural framework around us, especially as we grow and develop. These attitudes can feed us well or poison the system. And we rely on others to help us assess them and make the changes accordingly. Listening to the experiences which have been triggered by the murder of Sarah Everard is a sharp reminder that how we as men behave can make someone feel safe or reinforce fear developed through so many other experiences. That so many women have effectively said #MeToo means we men have to up our game here.

All are beloved children of God, heirs of grace and carriers of the image of the creator. It is incumbent on us all to make sure those we encounter are honoured and not demeaned. Given the context, the sons of Adam have a responsibility to the daughters of Eve. 

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Commandments and Jaffa cakes – Placing God at the Centre

IMG_6603Rules and regulations have been more at the front of my mind over the past year than is usually the case. Yes, there are all sorts of procedures and legal obligations I have to work with every day, many just sit in the background of my mind – I’ve internalised them. But this past year we’ve had different levels of Covid restrictions to read, assimilate and put into practice.

Some of them have been advice, it would be good if you did, but some have been in the ‘must’ category, something required by law with sanctions. Last weekend a number of people from Peterborough were fined for going to the seaside to enjoy the sunshine. There have been quite a lot of these regulations and they keep coming as we navigate our way through the changing landscape of this pandemic.

Laws are written down and are set until someone changes them. Some have to be interpreted by the courts deciding how they apply in particular circumstances. My favourite bit of case law concerns Jaffa Cakes. Are they a cake or are they a biscuit? Cakes and biscuits are treated differently for VAT. As a cake and therefore staple of food, they would be zero rated, as a biscuit they would be a luxury and so the standard rate applies. In 1991 HM Customs and Excise ruled they were biscuits. This was challenged in court by McVitie’s, the maker of Jaffa Cakes.

The legal argument came down to biscuits go soft if left out on the plate, cakes go hard. In our house this legal argument would fail because Jaffa cakes do not stay on a plate to be left to dry out! But if you do manage to leave a Jaffa Cake on a plate you will know they go hard, which is why you don’t leave them. McVitie’s won. The court ruled they are cakes.

Our first reading gave us laws (Exodus 20:1-17), ten of them, Commandments which come in the ‘must’ category. But the implementation of these ends up with lots of ‘ah buts’ how does it apply in this case, not least because coveting our neighbour’s donkey is not that relevant for our world. The book of Deuteronomy contains a lot of this kind of thinking.

Some of the arguments put to Jesus were in the ‘what about’, ‘give us your legal judgement’ category. ‘Don’t work on the Sabbath’ got qualified as ‘but you can rescue a goat from a well if they are about to drown’. Or in other words, don’t be so legalistic that you lose all compassion and sense of perspective.

Equally making idols today may sound a bit odd. We don’t tend to worship bits of wood and stone, have our little gods on a shelf, or sacrifice to false gods. Well, we don’t literally, but we do in so many ways. We make idols out of money, out of status, out of buildings, out of position and career, out of political ideology, out of possessions and so much more. We put so much in the place that should be given to God alone. And we trip up.

This is not the same as finding some places special places where the resonances and the aesthetics speak powerfully to us – though it can be if we decide God can’t speak anywhere else. It’s also not the same as looking at money as a resource that can used to make a difference – though it can be if we regard the pursuit of money as being the most important thing and above everything else. Even companies, which need to make a profit to survive, know that they have other obligations to community, suppliers, customers, workers and all impacted by their trading.

The pursuit of pleasure, in an hedonistic way, is regarded as idolatry in the New Testament. It comes in the category of thinking that life is food and drink, sensual pleasure, clothing and the finer things of life. Jesus was tempted with this in the wilderness and also ticked off the crowd who came searching for him after he fed 5,000 of them. They weren’t interested, he said, in the deeper things of life but that they ate their fill and wanted another free lunch.

One of the things the pandemic has highlighted has been the startling inequalities in the country, not least with food poverty. Despite knowing about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for a very long time, it took the footballer Marcus Rashford to point out what every teacher knows, you can’t teach hungry children. If we are going to look higher, there are some basic needs to be met first. Denial of self is different to being desperate.

Working up Maslow’s pyramid table, the challenge for emotional needs comes when we are stressed and wanting something to make us feel better, be it wine or chocolate, even Jaffa cakes. Lockdown has been one of those times when keeping on track has brought its difficulties. The injunction against idolatry is a reminder that there is more to life than mere existence and satiating cravings. Psychologists know that cravings can make us unbalanced and driven in ways that become destructive. Emotional needs need to be met more appropriately.

Idolatry may not seem the most obvious commandment to reflect on, but it brings us to confront where our lives are out of balance and in danger of being derailed. With placing God at the centre everything else follows because it brings justice, valuing of creation and our fellow creatures – human and other species, it brings us to seek God’s kingdom first and last and always.

So as we journey through Lent, I’m going to enjoy a Jaffa cake as a reminder of keeping God before my mind: it could even be a symbol of the Trinity – sponge, jam and chocolate. Then again I may be stretching that one, so leaving them on the plate may help me with this more.

Sermon for Lent 3, Peterborough Parish Church online, Sunday 7th March 2021

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Remembering and Forgetting

IMG_4832When to forget and when to remember? It’s a question that is bouncing round at the moment, not least because of Black Lives Matter and a reaction to debates around monuments to those who have what we now regard as chequered pasts. The past may be a different country where they do things differently, but it can play on us in the present and how we remember, how we forget, how we make conscious decisions to be inspired and how to be different are topical.

I was struck some time ago by a phrase in a Remembrance Service praying for ‘those who remember because they can’t forget’. And trauma which is not acknowledged can play on our minds, not least when it is triggered by something to remind us of it. We may well find that some of this past year will affect us like a trauma, especially if it has damaged us. Mental health is a serious worry not least for the young – those whose schooling and university time has been so disrupted. What we have been through may take some working through.

Our second reading, today, talks about forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13). There is a time to put things aside and move on. We cannot undo what we did or what was done to us, but we can come to a place of peace with it. It will be to let go of it, particularly its hold on us, and realise that Christ Jesus has made us his own and so in his grace there is a new beginning for us (13:12).

Neil Oliver, the archaeologist and broadcaster, was talking on ‘Any Questions’ on Radio 4 a couple of Fridays ago.  A question was asked about the past, history and what to do with statues. His response was that we need more history not less and things should be in plain sight, so we don’t try to hide or cover up. He spoke about the twin dangers of trying to take credit for what our ancestors have done, a kind of toxic nationalism, where we assume we are superior, and on the other hand punishing for the past, because it wasn’t us or whoever the successors might be.

What matters, he said, is what we do now in the present. So the past is there to enrich and inform us and we should pay attention to it and its lessons, but we have a future to live. So forgetting what lies behind, does not mean no history, it means not being defined by it. But if we are going to be different we have to say we are, because the reality is that those who have kept our ancestors’ calling card will not know there has been a change of outlook unless we say it, demonstrate it and prove it. So, I think some statues need to go, others be interpreted.

If we believe that Christ has made us his own, then pressing on towards the goal, as Paul put it, involves living in light of this. It means looking to Christ to define who we are and where we are going, and not be bound to the past. Paul had to come to terms with this dramatically for himself.

No one should think that this happens in an instant. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was pretty instant and dramatic. But there is gap in the story and we don’t have it. Between that moment and him emerging as a champion of the gospel he disappears for quite a while, around 10 years. The great New Testament scholar, Tom Wright, speculates in his ‘Biography of Paul’, about what might have happened in the missing years.

What is likely is Paul had to work out how to handle his past as a Pharisee, as a persecutor of the church, as someone steeped in a particular way of thinking. Now, in light of his spiritual experience, he had to work out what he did with all of that. And we see this being worked out in some of the more agonised and tortured phrases of his letters. There we see Paul’s workings dragged from the margin into the text as he calculates the answer.

I’ve sometimes wondered about what it means if a leader from today apologises for abuses of the past which took place long before that leader came into office or had any involvement with the organisation. For the apology to mean anything it has to mean that changes have been made so things are now different. The conscious decision has been made. This is not how we behave now. So we don’t trade in slaves and we do treat everyone with dignity and equally. If we don’t or are not yet where we would like to be, then we commit to make the changes needed. What no one wants is an empty apology, which means nothing.

All of us can think back to things from the past that make us shudder – either what we did in our ignorance, our immaturity or foolishness, or even wickedness to our shame, or what was done to us, the traumas that are triggered to be re-lived. We have to find a place that allows us to press on and not be turned into a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife who looked back when told to look forward (Genesis 19). She got frozen in time and that has all the fleshy malleability of rock salt.

The past can inform us, but all of us, in our different ways, have to decide if holding to it will help us live better or turn us into rock salt. Christ came that we may have life, and that prize, as Paul referred to it, is what we press on to attain.

Sermon for Lent 3, Peterborough Cathedral online service, Sunday 7th March 2021

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What’s in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens and Rainbows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How would love respond?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday – holding loss with faith and thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light Candle

Prayers

Be present, O merciful God,

and protect us through the silent hours of this night,

so that we who are wearied

by the changes and chances of this fleeting world,

may rest on your eternal changelessness;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Stay with us, O God, this night,

so that by your strength

we may rise with the new day

to rejoice in the resurrection of your Son,

Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

 

May the risen Lord Jesus bless us.

May he watch over us and renew us

as he renews the whole of creation.

May our hearts and lives echo his love. Amen

 

From Common Worship, Office of Night Prayer

 

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

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Image-bearers of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Consider the Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light candle

Loving God,

your Son Jesus Christ came

that we might have life and have it abundantly;

pour out your blessing upon our nation;

where there is illness,

bring your healing touch;

where there is fear,

strengthen us with the knowledge of your presence;

where there is uncertainty,

build us up in faith;

where there is dishonesty,

lead us into truth;

where there is discord,

may we know the harmony of your love;

this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Church of England, Prayers for the Nation, 2021

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

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Acedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

These bleak and freezing seasons may mean grace

When they are memory. In time to come

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

Telling the story of our journey home,

Through dark December and stark January

With all its disappointments, through the murk

And dreariness of frozen February,

When even breathing seemed unwelcome work.

 

Because through all of these we held together,

Because we shunned the impulse to let go,

Because we hunkered down through our dark weather,

And trusted to the soil beneath the snow,

Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,

Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.

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

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

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