Replacing rudeness with radical inclusive love

IMG_2378There are times when we are left stunned by what comes over as another’s rudeness. From words that come out wrong, they have a bluntness and harshness just not intended but nonetheless said, to deliberate prejudice and disdain. And there are times when we may well shock ourselves. What comes out of us comes from within us and reveals our attitudes. I was struck by a very simple comment on the radio recently about Gay Pride marches. It was during a programme marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization in 1967 of intimacy between consenting same sex adults in private. The speaker said, disarmingly, that the opposite of pride is shame. And in the context it dawned on me, in a way it hadn’t before that for a whole group of people who have lived with a sense of shame what Pride marches are about is setting themselves free from shame and hiding, to be who they are. It is their countering of other’s imposed prejudice and disdain.

So seeing something from another’s point of view, how they see that they are seen, by unconscious prejudice or unexamined learned assumptions, can be revelatory for us. This is not ‘Political Correctness’ gone mad, as the Daily Mail might scream at us, but being empathic and understanding just how things feel in another’s shoes.

We get a bit of this in our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 15:10-28). The first part, about food and drains (Matthew 15:10-20) can be a bit confusing. We know that actually what goes in does affect us – diet can affect our attitudes and behaviour. What is more we learn what we see and that shapes us, and this can need challenging. The rules we live by, even dietary laws, shape us. What Jesus has in his sights is that dietry laws which set us apart actually miss something fundamental which he is about to explode in front of them. In him all of us are equal, whatever race or people we belong to. Being a chosen people is expanded in Jesus to incorporate all people, all of humanity.

The ‘see it from another person’s point of view’ moment is that the Canaanite woman’s daughter is dismissed by Jesus as being a dog (v26). When she asks for help Jesus tells her that it is not fair to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs! It is an astounding moment and our jaws should drop when we hear it. There is no spin that gets him out of this hole. It is rude, it is dismissive and that this passage is included at all in the New Testament is remarkable, because it does not show Jesus in the usual perfect light that we have come to expect. Jesus’ words seem to reflect some unpleasant superior and excluding assumptions, and it is not pretty. That the New Testament writers included it meant they had to work out what to make of it because by the time they were writing the Christian church was far from exluding and had extended beyond all boundaries.

And that is what they do with it; it becomes a moment when the tradition which Jesus comes out of, which he enters in being a real person among us at a particularly moment and time, is challenged and bettered by the Canaanite woman. “Even the dogs get the scraps” she replies. And with that the woman’s daughter is healed. This is not because she’s only worth the scraps, but when grace is let loose it extends beyond all boundaries and is truly inclusive and all embracing.   So what starts looking like rudeness becomes a moment when grace gets the upper hand and wins the day. Any notions of being closed off to outsiders and having exclusive boundaries are broken down.

This is one of those ‘stand over here for a while and see what it looks like from this angle’ moments. This is a ‘oh that’s what Pride is about’ moment – it’s the opposite of shame. I don’t know why I never quite saw it in those terms before, perhaps because no one spelt it out quite like that before and sometimes I need to hear things in terms that connect with my brain, with something I can relate to, before I can truly get them.

This week has brought more examples of unexamined prejudice and jaw dropping rudeness. The Klu Klux Klan in the USA has repugnant views. Their white supremacist language and attitudes are like a throw back to an age I thought was long gone, but clearly is not. And we know that when we see racism and prejudice at work in so many places. They are attitudes which make it possible to treat people who are different with less respect and without the dignity that they are due by virtue of being fellow human beings. And it is ugly and violent, abusive and exploitative. So Donald Trump’s failure to grasp this was not just a failure of judgement, but he has revealed yet again that he holds some pretty unsavoury views too. There is nothing new there, nothing that wasn’t revealed in their election campaign. Today’s gospel reading is a moment when racial supremacist notions are clearly rejected and the grace of God is shown to extend to all people, without exception and without reduction.

In God’s grace and with the right level of challenge flowing from that grace a moment of rudeness and demeaning prejudice becomes a moment of transformation. Old attitudes that would exclude and shun are replaced by the truly inclusive love of God, which extends to all. That is as radical and challenging today as it was then.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 20th August 2017

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Prayer: Slavery and Exploitation

IMG_6270There are shocking cases of modern slavery and exploitation coming to court. The most recent concerns appalling abuse in Lincolnshire.  This prayer is for all facing exploitation or enslaved today. It has a passing reference to the seventeenth century pamphlet “Am I not a man? And a brother”, written by Peter Peckard, later Dean of Peterborough Cathedral. He is buried at the East End of the Cathedral.

 

 

 

God of justice and liberation,

set your people free

wherever they are enslaved or exploited

by evil and callous hearts.

Strengthen and protect with your Holy Spirit

those who stand and work for their release

and remove them to places of safety,

for all are brothers and sisters in humanity

and share in the same honour and dignity

in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

© Ian Black 2017

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Prayer: Racial Harmony and Justice

IMG_8470Following the latests attacks by white supremacists in Charlottesville, in the United States of America, a prayer for racial harmony and justice – that all be honoured as brothers and sisters adopted by God’s grace.

 

 

 

 

 

Lord, your love extends to people of all races and nations

without distinction.

All are one and equal in your Kingdom.

Heal tensions between people of different races

whenever they arise.

Drive from us all prejudice and divisions.

Give courage to those who stand against racist abuse,

that together we may rejoice and delight

as coheirs in Christ

and brothers and sisters adopted in your grace.

Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord,

who with the Father and the Holy Spirit

are one God,

now and forever.  Amen.

 

© Ian Black 2017

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Sound of sheer silence: Elijah’s prompt to radical prophetic action

IMG_8470What do you expect to happen when you pray? Do you expect anything? If you have a sense of God speaking, what form does it take? These are some of the questions that come to us out of our first reading. The Old Testament Prophet Elijah has received death threats and is feeling vulnerable, scared and anxious. He hides in a cave. He has a sense that God is about to speak or he reflects on where God is in this situation. Instead of finding God in the dramatic show of force and power – wind, earthquake and fire – all classic signs of God’s presence in the Old Testament, he experiences God in the sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:12). It is in the stillness, the quiet reflecting, that clarity comes as the clamour ceases and the tension is eased. This is quite a mature and developed spirituality. Not looking for God in big showy signs of power but in stillness and silence.

This is one of the reasons holidays and rest matter enormously. They give space for our minds to still and to be receptive to the prompting of the Spirit and stirring of God in the heart. And we need a balanced life so that these things are found not just once a year, but weekly, even daily: moments of reflection and stillness for the sound of sheer silence to come. Jesus knew this and at the beginning of the Gospel reading, after he has sent everyone away, he goes by himself to a secluded spot to be at one with the divine; to pray (Matthew 14:22-33). It is no accident that after this the storm is stilled and Peter is invited to step out in faith, risking the seemingly impossible. He falters and starts to sink when he sees the strong wind and becomes frightened. The rescue comes in a reminder to trust and step out in faith, even in the face of hostile forces.

The epistle reading continued this theme with affirmation for belief that is deeply rooted in the heart, in our inner being, and for this to be confessed with our lips, in who we are, what we say and what we do (Romans 10:5-15). There is no distinction between peoples; all are equal and share in this divine love, honour and treasuring.

Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Oscar Romero, the murdered Archbishop of San Salvador in South America. He was shot in 1980 because he stood up for the poor and the oppressed. He told the ruling regime that they were to stop oppressing the people. On the eve of his murder he preached these words:

“I should like to make an appeal… to the bases of the National Guard, of the police, of the army. Brothers, you are from our own people. You are killing your own brother campesinos… It is high time you recovered your conscience and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order… In the name of God, yes, and in the name of this suffering people whose groans rise to heaven more loudly every day, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God – stop the repression.”

(Concilium: Martyrdom Today, March 1983 p41-42)

He was shot dead while distributing Communion the next day.

Oscar Romero was one of the Latin American Liberation Theologians who were not popular under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, but have been acknowledged and celebrated by Pope Francis, who is himself from Latin America and has a very different perspective on spirituality and political involvement, on siding with the oppressed.

For ourselves we are facing a serious challenge with exploitation and slavery. The latest case to hit the headlines is from Lincolnshire, with appalling reports of inhumane conditions and oppressive forced labour. Estimates by the National Crime Agency are that every major city will have exploited people, held in modern forms of slavery. And we know that there are exploited and trafficked people in Peterborough because the Salvation Army assist with people getting to safety and there have been high profile cases here. We are all one in Christ, there is no distinction, and turning a blind eye is not an option.

When we pray for justice, when we pray for release for the oppressed, the answers do not come in letters of fire in the sky, earthshaking forces or a wind to blow away the evils, they come in the stillness and quiet, when we reflect and wonder. When we look at hand car washes and think they don’t look happy or are inappropriately dressed for their tasks. In nail bars where the person working does not speak or engage in any real way. In the case in Lincolnshire, tarmacking driveways where the contractors do not give their staff breaks or the work is all done by hand. Whatever it is, and these are just some of the examples being highlighted for us, we have eyes and see or perhaps don’t see. There are dark forces at work in our land exploiting and oppressing the most vulnerable people. Elijah’s still small voice stirs a shout inside. It is a shout that sends him out with renewed confidence to proclaim regime change in Aram and Israel. It brings radical prophetic action. It is not a calm voice to stay in the cave and feel comfortable.

Jesus walking on the water is not some calm millpond trick either. There is a storm and yet he makes his way through it. That is the heart of this story. It is in the storm that he brings words of salvation and faith. The waves threatened to overwhelm, as they so often do. When we stand against oppression there are dangers. These people are violent. But to pray for the poor, the oppressed, those exploited and those held in modern slavery is empty if we are not prepared to be moved to action by the still, small voice, the sound of sheer silence that is far more powerful than any earthquake, wind or fire. We remember Oscar Romero because he spoke out, not because he remained silent.

So, when you pray, what do you expect to happen? Do you expect to remain unchanged, undisturbed and unmoved? If so, I would suggest that you have not understood what prayer is about or does to us. As with good journalism it comforts the afflicted and disturbs the comfortable. As with Elijah it stirs up radical prophetic action: it brings about the liberation we yearn for and the oppressed cry out for, it requires us to live what we proclaim, in trust and hope, whatever the storm.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 13th August 2017

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Entering the (Galli)Fray over Dr Who!

Jodie_Whittaker_on_becoming_the_first_female_Doctor_Who___I_m_beyond_excited_It is now official, the long awaited news for fans of the cult TV series, Doctor Who, the new Doctor is to be played by Jodie Whittaker.  She will be the first woman to play the role and it is creating a stir – both for and against.  So a few thoughts into the (Galli)fray.

Firstly, the Doctor is an alien with two hearts. I don’t know what gender identity means on Gallifrey, but it is becoming an expanding concept on earth, broader than the binary notions I grew up with – some of which were rather restricted to say the least.

Secondly, the Doctor can regenerate. This involves the rearranging of atoms and since each successive form has looked different and displayed a few quirky characteristics, I guess the DNA may be a bit altered too.  From there chromosomes are not looking so fixed either.  Whatever the outcome here, human beings remain human beings whatever their gender – though of course the Doctor is not human.

Thirdly, the Doctor appears with a different wardrobe each time too.  Here the stereotypes start to have fun – Tardis needing room for the shoes, sonic screwdriver at the bottom of the bag along with who knows what else.  One friend said that episodes will be shorter now because a woman will fix things quicker than a man. To which her husband replied that it will take her longer to get out of the Tardis… Glad we’ve got that over with.

Fourthly, and most important of all, it’s fiction! It’s all made up. The best drama of course helps us to play with reality.  We can try things out and see where they take us.  Gender identity is a contemporary debate – how fixed it is, how binary it is.  It would be interesting to see the House of Bishops include a chapter on Doctor Who in its report on sexuality and gender identity, when it eventually sees the light of day.

So I am looking forward to what Jodie does with the part and may just ponder a few of the more serious issues above – not the shoes.

 

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Prayer before a Mystery Play

IMG_4410We live in a visual age.  Drama, images and story-telling speak to us through all forms of media. Live theatre has a particular enchantment for exciting the imagination as it draws us into the story, as if present within it.

Our forebears knew this too.  The Mystery plays were a mechanism for communicating the stories of the Bible in an age when most people could neither read nor write.  Along with images in stained glass windows these brought the stories of a Latin Bible to life.

This prayer was written to welcome and introduce a Mystery Play, The Trials of Mary, performed by Eastern Angles at Peterborough Cathedral on Saturday 15th July 2017.

 

Mystery Play

God of mystery

you reveal yourself in the stories

of your saving love  at work in Jesus Christ.

May the retelling

ignite our imagination,

inspire our living

and renew us in hope;

through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

© Ian Black 2017

 

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Being present: listening deeply and responding

IMG_8470I am a fan of the radio and tend to have it on throughout the day. Often, though, it is just a background wash to whatever else I am doing and I don’t really pay attention to what is on – be it music or spoken word. Hearing and listening are not the same. We can hear music but not really take it in or delight in the sounds and richness of the texture. The same goes with the spoken word, even sermons and speeches, conversations and in meetings. Hearing the words and sounds is one thing, but to pay attention means that we capture the meaning and the depth of it. We are bombarded with sounds and words from so many sources, not least electronic devices, and we develop a filter to reduce how much actually gets through. We stop paying full attention and this can reduce our readiness to listen deeply not least when we come to worship. To really pay attention we have to be still and listen, and listening is a whole body experience, one where we are truly present in the moment and not distracted by something else.

There is quite an industry in this ‘being present in the moment’ and we call it ‘mindfulness’. Go into any bookshop and you will find quite a selection of books on mindfulness. But it is not new. The principles are very ancient. The special prayer which we have for each week, called the Collect, is a moment of prayerful mindfulness, being collected and present, gathered into a moment of focus. And the first part of this service is designed to get us into the zone of worship, which is why it is called ‘The Gathering’. We gather together, we collect together, we are present in this moment, present in the presence of God. And then we stand a chance of listening, not just hearing.

For a last minute person, like myself, who can tend to rush in at the last moment, this is a challenge. I know that I need to stop and breathe before I am able to focus, to turn hearing into deep listening; to pay attention. And it is only when we truly pay attention, are present in the moment, that we can fully appreciate what is being said or offered to us. It is only when we turn up that we can realize that God is waiting for us and has been for quite a while. This makes the moment an opportunity for transformation as the love of God, as the grace of God can be a gift to us and within us.

Turning up and paying attention lies at the root of our Gospel reading (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30). Part of understanding that lies in seeing where it comes in the gospel – what comes before it and what has been chopped out of the middle of it, because there is a cut in the middle of the section we heard where 5 verses have been omitted. The chapter begins with John the Baptist in prison. He had heard what Jesus is doing and so he sends a message, ‘Are you real or are you fake?’ Jesus praises John and then he asks his hearers what they expected to find in John. ‘Don’t just hear the words and enjoy the show, but what response have you made to him?’ He then gives the answer. They are like children playing in the market. They pipe for weddings and wail for funerals. People have heard but not listened. They did not respond as they should have responded. The wise are shown by how they act, wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. So the implication is clear, by not responding they have shown themselves not to be wise.

We then have 5 verses missed out from the gospel. In these Jesus lays into his home area. They have seen the miracles, crowds have been drawn and attracted to the spectacle, but the message to repent has fallen on closed ears and minds. The judgement will be harsh.

And then we come back in. What the wise should have seen and heard, children did. The expected order is turned upside down, as so often happens in the gospels. Despite all of this failing to pay attention, the invitation remains. Jesus says to them, in one of the most cherished phrases in the New Testament, ‘Come to me, all who are weighed down with heavy burdens and find true peace’. A yoke is an instrument of control – for animals to make them work, and for prisoners to confine them and keep them in check. With a play on words the binding, the yoke, which Jesus offers fits with their deepest desires. This yoke, this discipline, brings freedom and life.

It is the call to listen deeply and shape life on the teachings and hope of Jesus Christ. Rather than being oppressive this is the path of true liberation and flourishing, because it brings us into contact with the image of the one in whom we are made and redeemed.

Discipline is not a fashionable concept or word. The concept tends to go with the idea of coercion and domination, bullying and trying to make people what they are not. I frequently meet people who have had negative experiences of the worst kinds of religion going. It engenders all sorts of difficulties and damages them for a long time. This is not what Jesus says in our gospel reading. He says, come to me and the yoke I offer fits you; it is light, it is liberating. That which truly blesses us brings us life. That is what blessing means.   So often we have the choice between things which are life-giving and those which are destructive of self and others. And so discipline, having a reference point, a sense of direction and what it means to be healthy spiritually as well as emotionally, is vital. The call from Jesus in our gospel reading is to come to him for that reference point, that health check.

Working out what that means is not instant. It takes a lifetime to begin. But it will only begin when we turn up, when we are truly present and don’t just hear the Word of God, but listen and pay attention. It requires a response from us and so the words of comfort in our gospel reading are only comfortable if we take the call behind them seriously. That call is to be shaped in the image of Christ, to act on what he says, and to live his teaching.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th July 2017

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