A rich story with a real birth at its heart

IMG_7340So, what do you make of Christmas Day? More specially, of the stories that we retell each year? Is this a day that you suspend critical faculties? Or a day of children’s stories, with the glow of familiarity? There are different ways of reading the stories and as we grow older we find we approach them with more sophistication. Actually this is vital if they are to mean anything to us.

One approach seems to be to treat them as almost news reports. A heavily pregnant woman on a long journey of 80 miles to satisfy a peculiar Roman census, as if this made any sense at all. It would have been an administrative and logistical nightmare – just too many people on the move. And how far were they expected to travel to satisfy this bit of faceless bureaucracy? Some of those in the gospels are hundreds of miles from home. Then inhospitable hoteliers or a crowded house means the only space was with the animals, so the feeding trough becomes the only bed available. The Holy Family are migrants. Shepherds receive an angelic visitation and go to see something wonderful. There are clearly human connections, but just how much of this is really to be taken literally? Such a simplistic approach can leave most of us cold. We need to go deeper.

At the other extreme is the approach that just treats the whole story as being just that, a form of religious writing that sets its message in a drama. It should really sit alongside Shrek, Mary Poppins and other holiday favourites. So much of it is written with callbacks to Old Testament references, that it is just a construct from these to express deeper truths. It is the meaning, not the detail that matters. This is highly symbolic writing. So forget the tea towels for shepherds, leave that to primary schools as young children learn the story through play. This story requires us to decode it and understand its backstory. We need to know it so that we can understand it and reflect on its profound inner meanings.

I have a lot of sympathy with that view, but I think there is a third approach which makes more sense to me and it is a bit of a hybrid between the other two. Yes, much of the detail is written up to connect with the tradition and Old Testament allusions. But behind all of this, or more to the point, in the centre of all of this, there is a real birth. The evidence for Jesus having existed is greater than it is for Julius Caesar and no one doubts his existence. So a real man was born. A real man grew up and taught us to love God and one another. A real man was crucified, died and buried. And then the story becomes extra ordinary. It is because of the resurrection, Easter Day, that this birth is more than just a Happy Birthday story of ‘once upon a time a man was born’. Through the eyes of Easter, Christmas enters a much deeper story. And the first gospel writers organized their tale of this extra ordinary man in such a way to get over their central point: in him God was active and showed up into the reality and complexity of real life.

From this the story expands, rather like the universe expands from a big bang leading to stars and planets in their orbits so that one of them, earth, can team with life, and intelligent life at that. It expends with so much allusion and we can make the connections. Connections are another important way we understand this story.

We draw connections between the details of the story and our own lives, with the human story. So a holy family embarking on a long journey connects with migrants and homeless people on our streets. The Christ who comes to us, comes in those we least expect and some artists have chosen to depict the crib scene in these terms. He isn’t found in the palaces – that’s for rulers and the Magi had to learn that the hard way. Not in temples and churches, where everything is organized carefully and with liturgy and structure. No, this is an untidy arrival, when no one knows what to do and they are given a bit of make-do shelter with animals. Scratchy straw for warmth, but protected from it by the swaddling. So when we feel excluded, or are, when life is untidy, we have a place in this story. When others approach us in this untidiness, look deeply because in it God’s blessing has come by.

And look deeply into the manger, in your imagination or reflect on a crib scene. There you see a human life, all human life, precious and vulnerable, loved and loving. This incredible gift of life, of each new day is something to wonder at with joy and thanksgiving. It is remarkable, but even more so when what we celebrate today is that it is treasured and honoured by the love of God. Christmas brings each of us face to face with the loving purpose of our creator. And when things are tough, and they seem to be for so many people, through it, God keeps hold of us so we can rejoice, we can sing, we can join with the angels in their great songs of praises. Christ is born of Mary. He comes to us, abides with us as our Lord, Emmanuel – God is with us.

So, in the heart of this Christmas story there is a real birth, real life, real death and resurrection. Jesus Christ is born for us, as one of us. The profound mystery of God among us is expressed in a story rich with allusions to the Old Testament. These expand our imagination as we reflect on it and allow it deeper echoes to inspire and call us to follow him each and every day. As he is born in the stable, so may he be born anew in us today.

Sermon for Christmas Day, Peterborough Parish Church, 25th December 2018

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Being like stars – shining light, hope and wonder

IMG_2610Stars are very Christmassy. They twinkle, they shine, they have a magic all of their own. And a star is a very familiar part of the Christmas story. A star shines over the place where Jesus is born, so that people will know where he is and also that his birth is a wonderful event. Observing it from a distance, it causes the wise men to wonder and set off on their journey to find him. They bring their strange gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to lay before him. This is why we place a star at the top of Christmas Trees. It is to remember the star that shone over Jesus’ birth, announced it to wise men and drew them to embark on a journey to come and see, to come and adore. Stars invite us to travel and wonder.

Living in a city we don’t see the stars as clearly as people who live in much more rural areas do because of all the light pollution we get from the street lights and other bright lights in a modern city. If you go to a more secluded place, where there is much less light around, on a clear night, the sky lights up with a myriad of little lights, constellations and patterns. They are a source of awe and wonder, these strange lights in the sky. And when we know what they are, they are even more amazing. They are signs of how vast the universe is and that it is incredible. It is God’s creation and he loves it.

Just recently if you looked into sky first thing in the morning, before it got light, you will have seen a bright light in the south. This is called the Morning Star and it is a very bright light. It is actually the planet Venus, which is the brightest of the planets, so not really a star at all. Around this time of year the course of its orbit means that it appears just before dawn. It is an unusual sight to see a star while pulling back the curtains just as the day is dawning and it catches my attention every time. The Morning Star as it is known, has been a thing of wonder since the earliest days of human beings. It is recorded in the Bible as being something of wonder and it is one of the ways the first Christians talked about Jesus, as the Morning Star, the one who rises bringing hope and light to the darkness. Just like the star in the sky announces that day is about to dawn, a new hope is coming and will be fulfilled so Christ brings light to the darkness and ends the time of darkness. He is our light, our hope, our way, our everything.

This idea of the Morning Star has very deep roots in the Bible. There are quite a number of references that it draws on. Right at the end of the Book of Revelation, the final book of the bible, as it begins to look to how Christ will bring everything to completion, to fulfillment, Christ is referred to as ‘the bright morning star’ (Revelation 22:16). He is the one who brings about the promise of God’s salvation. He is our light, our hope, our way, our everything.

Much earlier in the Old Testament, the Morning Star is said to come out of the house of Jacob (Numbers 25:17), the origins of the ancient Hebrew People. Salvation will come from them as well as to them. So when Joseph is described as being descended from the house of David, talking of Jesus as the Morning Star connects with this long thread. The central message is that God brings salvation, and that is what the name Jesus means. Joseph is told ‘you will call is name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). Christ as the Morning Star is an affirmation of hope and promise fulfilled; God loves his creation and Christ comes as the one who comes to save us. He is our light, our hope, our way, our everything.

So Christmas, full of bright and twinkling lights, touches the very point and purpose of life, of creation. And John in his incredibly rich prologue to his gospel, which we have just read, sets this out so powerfully and fully.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

The very thoughts and purpose, the planning and wisdom of God were in the beginning and they came among us in this child. Just as words communicate, so the one who is the Word of God, connects with creation, brings creation into being, and therefore is the only one who can bring Salvation to us. Because he is our light, our hope, our way, our everything.

Be like stars shining in the sky this Christmas, lights which bring hope and draw others to want to know more about the faith that inspires you and fires you. Be like stars which announce hope and that life is full of purpose and promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ. There are so many ways we can do this.

We can be people who bring promise and hope into the room. That in itself can be transformative, especially in these difficult days, when our nation is so divided over Europe and so many other things. We are people of hope because the world is God’s creation and he loves it. That gives reason beyond anything else to hope, to trust in God’s goodness. We can be people who draw others on a journey to wonder, because of our infectious excitement that this is a world of wonder and joy, awe and thanksgiving. That lifts the heart and bends the knee to worship. We can be people who live a justice which remembers that God is mindful of all people, loves all people equally, so no one is to be excluded or shut out. Some are shut out because they are hungry or homeless, lonely or struggling to put food on the table. Foodbanks help, but so does asking why they are needed. At a time of year when the Christ-child had to be laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn, the growing number of people who are homeless is particularly distressing. Garden House and the Winter Night Shelter are making a difference to lives here, bringing hope to very troubled lives, to people who have dropped off the edge in so many ways. Christmas, with Christ coming among us, is a celebration that God chooses to get involved in the struggles and concerns of daily living and our striving for justice.

Stars have a special place at Christmas. Among them, the Morning Star shines out announcing to us in that moment just before dawn that light is coming. It is not just a distant planet it is the proclamation of light, of hope, of following in the way of Christ, of everything being caught in the purposes, love and salvation of God. This is true meaning of Christmas. God loves the creation he made and therefore there is hope, there is love to be shared, there is joy to fill our hearts. So, with that have a happy, Christ-filled Christmas.

Sermon for Christmas Midnight, Peterborough Parish Church, 24th December 2018

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Song of Mary: Putting in the effort to effect change

IMG_2242For those who are familiar with Evensong, the song of Mary, the Magnificat, from our Gospel reading will be well known (Luke 1:46-55). Whether this is something that is deeply ingrained in you or not, the Magnificat is a powerful statement. It turns the world upside down. Favour is given to a young woman of low status and this will elevate her ranking for generations to come. The proud are scattered, the powerful brought down and leveled. The hungry receive the good things and the rich are sent away with nothing. Promises of justice and righteousness are brought to fulfillment. It was a shocking, radical, even revolutionary statement 2,000 years ago and it is just as challenging today. It is meant to be words of hope for the oppressed and those suffering most, and stands in a long tradition of such prophetic assurance. But when we remember that this is the gospel with a dedication at the beginning to a now unknown Roman official called Theophilus, a name that means ‘Lover of God’, then it might surprise us that he was so bold. Incidentally, the Latin version of that name, Theophilus, is Amadeus, Mozart’s middle name.

So we have a gospel which is written in the form of a report for an official with the name of ‘Lover of God’. That implies that Luke thought he would be open to being challenged, or at least should be, so Luke may have felt that he was pushing against an unlocked door, so dared to challenge and confront with the full force of what this gospel means. Beautiful musical settings of the Magnificat at Evensong can dull its full force, make it sound like a detox session for the stressed. It is that, but like the best detox sessions, it brings uncomfortable truths which we need to take seriously if we are going to get our spiritual lives in balance which will in turn get our emotional, physical, political and social lives in balance. Those who want their religion free of these things have picked the wrong faith and that is Luke’s assumption in addressing his gospel to the Lover of God. As we approach Christmas we are approaching a festival which says the complete opposite of God being remote and detached. He comes among us in the child in the manger and is worshipped and adored by shepherds. He comes into the complex political turmoil of first century life, rolls up his sleeves and gets involved.

I have been particularly aware this year of people who are not in an easy place this Christmas. I am shocked by the growing numbers sleeping rough on our streets, in doorways all around this city centre, even in the cathedral precincts. Talking with some of them they tell stories of experiencing violence where they were before and so have come away in search of a quieter spot and some sleep in shop doorways because of the CCTV there makes them feel safer. Talking to the manager of Garden House on Friday, he told me about the struggles many have with official forms and the bureaucracy of accessing official help. Volunteers at Garden House are spending hours on computers to help them (one had spent 4 hours trying to sort out the issues) – and so much state help is now only accessible online. Not everyone can navigate this, or even access it. And this kind of help involves specialist skills, which most of us just don’t have.

So when I hear people saying that something needs to be done about homelessness and churches should open their doors, I wonder if they really have a clue what ‘something’ really means. When those on the streets are escaping violence in other places, then ‘opening doors’ requires a lot of care and other measures putting in place. The Winter Night Shelter doesn’t just open doors, there is a lot of other planning and preparation behind the scenes. If we open doors we have a duty of care to people who are vulnerable, not least from who else might be there. That takes more resources than just turning a key.

Another difficult place that has come into the spotlight is mental illness. This has caught quite a lot of media attention recently, with campaigns that it’s OK not to be OK. Being open to this and aware of the struggles behind the smiles can become an easy slogan. But if we really take it seriously then we need to abandon the fantasy that everyone presents in an airbrushed manner. We know we don’t, so why would anyone else. Be alert to what might lie behind how we are. I had a couple of reminders of this over the past week. One with someone whose behaviour would be easy to judge but I suspect more behind it and another where it has driven that person out of their home to live rough in a chaotic way. A media which says something should be done, needs to realize that that something might just be for them to join up the dots to pause before encouraging dog whistle judgements. Mental illness is a very broad brush.

These two brief examples both often come with the label ‘something should be done’. There is no magic wand we can wave, or can be waved by someone else, to remove or cure or sort out these things. There are government policies which could help or may have knock on consequences which exacerbate the problems some experience, but they are not the sole cause, certainly not of homelessness. Some take to the streets because they can’t cope where they are and that can lead to a chaotic episode, distressing for others, but is not easily blamed on faceless ‘others’. Playing the ‘blame game’ is actually a search for an easy option to make a complex situation, which can be too difficult to comprehend, easier which in turn makes it easier to ignore. ‘It’s simple: that lot in power are to blame.’ Well, they may or may not be helping, even making it worse or better, but we have to go deeper.

The Magnificat sets an agenda of compassion and bias. It says that everyone matters and so those who usually benefit, at the expense of others, will in its vision find that the tables are turned because the balance needs redress. But just replacing one group or person on the top with another from the bottom, doesn’t actually deal with the root problems. A Brazilian educator of the 1970s, Paulo Freire, wrote a book called ‘The pedagogy of the oppressed’. It is a work of educational philosophy which highlights how education can replicate the conditions of oppression and setting people free is a much more complex process than mere revolution. Those who suffer have a nasty habit of turning into oppressors when they come to power and it is important to break the cycle. So while it comes out of a Marxist context, it is by no means without its criticisms. Regime change on its own does not cure the problem.

Luke opens his gospel with an exploration of what it means for ‘something to be done’. It is addressed to someone he calls ‘Lover of God’. The God he presents is not one who remains aloof or distant, but comes close. He does not wave a magic wand from a distance but gets stuck into the complexities, present in a deeply connected way. ‘Something being done’ is then real. For all ‘Lovers of God’, the Song of Mary is a radical reminder to put in the effort to effect change. In doing that it brings hope for us all.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 4, Sunday 23rd December 2018

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Rejoice – Living Hope

IMG_2196Advent is a season of preparation, but it is not to be a gloomy one. That would be impossible to maintain any way with all the bling, the lights, the songs and the carols. So, apologies to everyone who is brushing off the Bah Humbug hats and jumpers, this is very much a party season, a time of joy, even enforced joy – to which I will return. So although in churches we tend to hold back on all of the trappings for just another week, clinging on to Advent, while all around us have gone straight to Christmas celebration – this evening’s carol service excepted, our readings this morning bring rejoicing centre stage. This is Gaudete Sunday and that Latin word for ‘rejoice’ was all through our readings. This is not a recent invention, part of the over commercialization of a winter festival, but as fans of the 1970s group Steeleye Span will know, who had a hit with a setting of a medieval carol under that name, ‘Gaudete’, it is deeply rooted. Rejoice in God and that is the key to the joyfulness.

The colour of this Sunday, for churches which use purple candles, rather than red ones, is pink. The pink or rose coloured candle is for rejoicing. Yesterday I spoke at the Mar Thoma Church’s carol service, which was held at St Jude’s Church. They draw families from over a 40-mile radius and they travel for a service that lasts 3 hours. The commitment is impressive, deeply so, and I wonder how many Anglicans would do that? Does this faith fill us so deeply with rejoicing that we would travel each week up to 40 miles for a three-hour service? I came away quite humbled by their faith, their commitment and their generous hospitality. It was deeply impressive and we could learn so much from them. When they move into St John’s Hall, which will be their new regional home, if we engage with them we may find we get changed by them.

I took a visual aid with me, what I thought was a silver balloon. Well it looked silver in the shop. But when I got it home and saw it in different light, it was bright pink. Not in the slightest bit silver. So I had a visual aid of a bright pink star shaped balloon. Thank God for Gaudete Sunday, for rejoicing, and pink being its colour. I’m sure no one noticed! We rejoice because God is God and the news of Christ dawning on the world is so special that our hearts are to be filled with unrestrained joy.

This can’t be forced. It has to be genuine. Enforced party happiness, if you are not feeling like it does not improve the mood. Smiling and thinking happy thoughts can improve the mood, but if you are not happy, for whatever reason, enforced jollity is about as welcome as a slap, and tends to feel like one, an assault on the emotions. The joy which Gaudete rejoicing expresses is a deeply rooted one, anchored in the hope and faith in Jesus Christ. In the words of the Epistle, we “rejoice in the Lord always”. ‘The peace of God guards our hearts and minds’, protects and raises the spirit so that rejoicing is honest and hope-filled, not the empty false smile. (Philippians 4:4-7) All of us know how to wear the clowns face, that smiles with tears just below the surface. This is not the rejoicing of Gaudete; it is false, a pretense and denial. The rejoicing St Paul had in him is a rejoicing even in and through dark and troubled times and that makes it far more profound.

There is much to depress us. Walk round the city at night and so many people are bedding down in doorways and it is now very cold. The Winter Night Shelter project has begun and is offering beds, love, care and support. It will work with those who come under their care and some find this rescue changes their fortunes, with a way out of that crisis. Some, of course, are in a deep state of despair and are not in an easy place from which to access alternative options. It is complex. And another’s distress can be hard to bear, or we protect ourselves by hardening our hearts and shutting them out. Walking by not even on the other side of the road – we can’t stop for everyone, every day and every night. Rejoicing in the face of such distress is as much of a challenge as it is a proclamation of hope. Working with them is not one of despair, but bringing hope into deeply damaged and derailed lives. And through slow, careful work and getting alongside, hope is brought and dawns in dark lives.

There are moments though when we have to intervene, directly and now. The other night I and a colleague were alarmed at night by the screams of a woman in the precincts. I was at my desk in my study and she was at her desk a few doors away. When we both went outside to investigate we had to intervene to stop an assault taking place. There was big difference between these screams and the shrieks of excitement and high spirits we also hear. So in this case there was no question of it being crying wolf. That woman has found help through emergency nightshelter provision and being put in touch with a refuge. Domestic violence requires our rejoicing to step in and stop it, even face down the aggressor, which I had to do, while my colleague cared for the highly distressed woman. Rejoicing is not necessarily cozy and detached.

Our nation is in crisis at the moment. I spoke about this last week and my encouragement was to pray for the healing of this nation. How do we speak peace, hope and rejoicing into such a challenge? I don’t pretend it is easy, and I have my moments of utter despairing here. This is not party political because our major parties are clearly split. On Thursday on Question Time on BBC 1, the Tory party even fielded two ex-ministers who clearly held diametrically opposing views. Labour show similar splits. There was an interesting article in the Church Times this week which expressed this and argued that wherever the outcome, Britain has Brexited Britain. We are a nation in search of a national identity which coheres and makes home feel like home. Into this we have a role to be so rooted and confident in our faith, in the identity it brings that it makes us open and generous to neighbours and strangers alike. Open and generous are signs that rejoicing is in our bloodstream. The national debate is not displaying many signs of openness and generosity. Holding differences while also respecting and honouring is a sign of maturity and security of identity.

When a system is anxious, and our nation is anxious at the moment, it becomes even more important for people of hope to bring a calming and hope-filled presence to bear. In the words of the Epistle, to “let your gentleness be known. The Lord is near!” (Philippians 4:5) This springs from rejoicing, because it is rooted and grounded in deep faith and confidence in God’s future, God’s saving love. These are core values to affirm and say that a country rooted in Christianity, and this nation has deeply Christian roots, a nation like this must hold these as core values. Gracious, open, generous, hopeful and confident in who we are under God – that is our gift to our neighbours in a time of crisis and deep anxiety.

Advent is a season of preparation, but it is not a gloomy one. We prepare to welcome Christ, who comes among us in surprising guises and in surprising ways. Christ who meets us in the hungry, the homeless, the ill and the most vulnerable, and when we serve them we serve Christ. We prepare our hearts to be ready to meet him should he come again in glory, to be ready to accept and acknowledge the hope and joy of salvation that life is filled with God’s purpose and is held in the heart and love of God. Advent is a time of rejoicing – whether your balloon is silver or pink.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 3, Sunday 16th December 2018

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Brexit and the Baptist – a divided nation at the crossroads


Hands Across the Divide – Derry, Northern Ireland

Our Gospel reading gave us John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-6). These next two weeks of Advent are John the Baptist’s starring moment. In these weeks of preparation he comes centre stage, since that’s his function, to get people ready for the one to come. He is the warm up act. And so that passage talked of making a smooth path through difficult terrain, a highway for the saviour to travel down. With the Brexit debates taking place at the moment, longing for a smooth path through difficult terrain rings a bell. I have quite a lot of sympathy for Theresa May at the moment. Whoever is in the Prime Minister’s seat, they have what looks like an impossible task. There is no clear common ground between those who want out of Europe and cry why can’t they just get on with it, looking for a no deal Brexit, and those who believe that is reckless and fool hardy, a fantasy.

Where we have ended up does seem to be the worst of both worlds, the very vassal state caricatured by the Brexiteers where there is no say. Before we had a vote and a veto, under this we will have none of that. A further people’s vote is probably needed since the first one was just devoid of any detail about what the future looked like beyond wild and irresponsible claims. What is on offer is not what anyone seems to have had in mind. Politicians need to give people that choice, otherwise they will be accused of overturning the democratic will, which is not really the case but how it will be spun and appear. In politics perception matters more than facts. The idea that the people have spoken just ignores how split that vote was two years ago. The people have not given a clear and distinct sound and so it is not surprising that the mandate is not clear either.

This is a very difficult, almost intractable moment in our national life. Tempers are high and inflame quickly. Any mention of Brexit raises the temperature of the room very quickly. We need to take deep breaths and take stock of where we are. It is only then that wisdom has any hope of breaking through. When I hear politicians talking of wanting to crush the opposition, that is a very worrying and toxic climate for debate. A 48/52 split vote is not a moment for wanting to crush the opposition. It is a recipe for serious disturbance. So talking of ‘smoothing the path and making winding roads straight’ are in this case words of caution. One way to do this, of course, would be to battle on and destroy the obstacles and those who are presenting as obstacles. The Bible can be abused if we are not careful and John the Baptist is often seen as an uncompromising character who is very blunt and very forceful in his challenge. There is a place for that, perhaps in a call to wake up and realize just how serious this debate and disagreement is, for social cohesion, for common life and for how we look after the most vulnerable in our midst. There are so many issues of government not getting the attention they require as the energy is distracted by this great matter.

Whatever side you are on over this, and I know that our congregation has people of all sides within it, we have to live together with our differences and that means hearing what it is that leads the others to call out for what they call out for. What does ‘getting sovereignty back’ really mean in a world where major companies cross boarders all the time? What is actually being desired? Perhaps it is anxiety at a world that feels remote, alienating and where power seems to be beyond democratic control. There need to be trade deals and common standards for trading and that by definition limits and compromises. What does controlling boarders mean when mass movements of people are caused by political instability and corruption, mixed up with the need to plug skills shortages? How do those who feel they are not heard get heard above the clamour of other voices which come with so much more power and influence? It’s easy to sling mud at ‘elites’ on whichever side they are on – and lets face it if elite means people who think they are above accountability, then they are on both sides. Brexit has exposed some very deep faultlines in our society and globalized trading, and these have come out in a very distorted and mixed up way.

Within the church, the Anglican Communion is also facing the challenge of holding deeply divided opinions and constituencies together. Sometimes this goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes those who differ listen to one another and sometimes they shout from their respective bunkers. So we have some deep faultlines within our communion. They too present as being over one thing but are actually about something else. Church arguments and splits over sexuality are really about how we read the Bible and relate this to other understandings from medicine and science, approaches which draw on different criteria. And as ever there are nuances in the positions so it’s not a straight contest between binary views but there are shades on a scale. One of the things we have been trying to do is to get people to listen and hear the other. I’ve done this with divided church groups before and it is transformative when it works. People begin to see that their view is not the only view and a way forward is going to have to take that seriously.

Over something like Brexit we have to end up in some kind of treaty arrangement with the rest of Europe and for the rest of the world to know who they are dealing with in trading zones. Trading requires this. You can’t move goods and people can’t move without some kind of agreement that they can cross boarders. The complexities of unpicking 40 years of interweaving do seem to have proved insurmountable in such a short time.

For me John the Baptist’s voice is not to wipe away all opposition and make the roads straight by driving a bulldozer; if people get in the way they will be squashed. That is a recipe for serious civil unrest. And that feels a real threat, so our politicians’ words need to be very carefully chosen to avoid inflaming high passions. For me the voice of John the Baptist, calling out of the pages, is to stop, breathe and listen to voices we are not hearing. The cry for justice from those so easily overlooked, the real challenges of finding new relationships with partners nearby and around the world. John the Baptist has a passion for justice and equity. And the Bible is passionate about those who are most vulnerable, including those who migrate in search of safety. John the Baptist had sharp words for political leaders; that they needed to remember the awesome responsibility given to them. The Old Testament prophets had sharp words when compassion was scarce or oppression present. These challenges still apply and those who play games end up in the Baptist’s firing line.

So today we hear of John the Baptist, his longing for difficult paths to be smoothed so that salvation can dawn. In particularly troubled and divided times we need to watch just how we think that can be achieved. Park the bulldozers and find more relational solutions. We need to live together and build a nation for all. That can mean sitting with the differences and listening to what really lies behind them, not just how they are presented. And listening to take them seriously. There is a bite back in this debate which is still not being heard. We are at a crossroads and whatever the outcome this week, there is a need to bring together deep divisions. The alternative is very ugly. John the Baptist’s smooth path is one for a place of flourishing and justice, not one built on the bodies of opponents. Pray for the healing of our nation.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 2, Sunday 9th December 2018

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Black Friday and the operating system we live by

IMG_2061Have you been shopping till you drop, making the most of the Black Friday Deals? My inbox has been bombarded by adverts for money-saving deals form all sorts of companies. I confess to being a bit of a Black Friday grump so any email headed Black Friday is likely to get deleted straight away. Black Friday is a scheme by retailers in the United States who have had to endure a day of closure for Thanksgiving and so in order to lure people back into shops and online baskets after the shutdown they offer heavily discounted products, as if they’d forget they were there! This means nothing over here, because we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but it has become a major retail event over the past few years and walking through Queensgate over the last few days, many people have realized the money to be saved. For shops I’m not sure it is such a good deal as they have to discount heavily at what is their peak trading period.

Black Friday is a festival of consumerism. The driving ethos is that having is good, and the more you have the better. Consumerism is a distortion of what trading is really about. It takes what should be the exchange of goods we need and turns this into stuff. What consumerism wants is for us to crave the latest thing and because this is only sustainable if we keep craving it will be by definition insatiable: it only works if our craving makes the very thing we have just purchased obsolete. It is a constant chasing of the wind. And it becomes an addiction. The purchases trigger serotonin in the brain, the reward chemical, and we like this, so when we don’t get the trigger the serotonin level drops and we get depressed. Shopping really can become a fix.

Consumerism becomes an enslavement, a treadmill we just wish we could get off. The money expert Martin Lewis tapped into this in a broadcast circulating online this week. During this the audience showed their delight as he said this Christmas only give meaningful presents and dump the giving escalation, where we try to keep up with others and just feel the more we spend the more we are giving value. He was arguing that giving can become far from virtuous and generous because it can become about how we are seen rather than the person receiving and this is toxic.

Behind all of this there is a delusion. Shopping becomes for us a sign of life and therefore the opposite of death – the dead don’t shop. So acquiring more and more becomes a denial of death, a way of trying to push death to the margins, even off the page. Through it we show our prowess and our vitality. And trying to cheat death, even with a credit card, is a timeless and ultimately foolhardy pursuit. Some things may make us happy for a moment, but that moment passes as the gloss wears off and we get bored because something else has come along. Death will not be defeated by things, not even gadgets (and I like gadgets); they quite simply can’t meet the overwhelming force against them!

Today our church calendar gives us an antidote to this existential delusion. Rather than shopping as a distraction therapy from mortality, we are invited to stare mortality in the face and place our trust in the victory of Jesus Christ, through his cross and resurrection. Only the one who has embraced death and risen from it can offer any hope to a world gripped by the horror and ultimate finality of death. Today we celebrate Christ as Lord and King, as the one who is the ultimate source and goal of all that we are, the one who is to be the operating system driving us and shaping how we live rather than just consuming and empty craving. That is why our gospel reading gave us Jesus standing before Pilate, talking of his Kingdom not being of this world, and looking towards the cross and resurrection to come (John 18:33b-37).

Our first reading reflected this further (Revelation 1:4b-8). The refrain at the beginning and the end of that passage was that God is, was and is to come. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Consumerism distracts us with shiny things, with gadgets and stuff. It has built into it an assumption of obsolescence, that we will need to replace the very things we crave for in a never-ending craving. This is the challenge which Eve Poole explores in her book ‘Buying God’. We defeat consumerism by living differently, living with a different, fuller hope and trusting in the power of God, in and through Jesus Christ, to save us, to give life a deeper purpose than just stuff and passing the time. Only through Jesus as the way, the truth and the life, can we find this.

This is radical thinking. It is radical in two ways. Firstly it is radical because it takes us back to core of what it is to be human, to be created, to be loved and a place in God’s purpose. Secondly it is radical because it challenges some of the fallacies of the way our world lives, the way our economic towers are built. The endless pursuit of growth and greed, of profit and wanting more all the time; never being satiated and content with the blessing that we have. The word radical has been linked to extremists and troublemakers. Certainly this is not conformist and for those who want us to endlessly be wanting it is troublemaking. But as the Letter to Timothy reminds us, there is great godliness in contentment with enough. It goes on to talk of the love of money being the root of all kinds of evil, and that evil is not just what we might do to others, but also what this endless craving does to us.

This morning we are baptising a young man from a very different background to most of those who are baptized here. Growing up as a Muslim, travelling in unbelievable hardship to arrive here and converting to Christianity, he has gone through a major shift of thinking. Looking at the words of the baptism service with him is to be reminded just what it is we proclaim and for a Muslim this is earth shifting. ‘Do you turn to Christ, do you repent of your sins and do you come to Christ the Way the Truth and the Life’ – these are three radical questions through which we make statements about who is at the centre of our lives. It is not us, our cravings, or anyone else, it is Jesus Christ, who is Lord and King of all. We say that we aim to live the teachings of Jesus, to live what he said. When we proclaim that Christ died and rose again, we challenge a direct claim of the Qur’an, which says that Jesus did not die and if he did not die he cannot rise from the dead (Sura 4:157-158). We stand alongside people of other faiths in this city to build the common good, but there are differences and at times they touch the foundations of what we believe, what guides and shapes us.

So this morning we will not only baptize one who has recently joined our congregation, we are also challenged with the fundamental basis on which we live our lives. Who is our ultimate hope and goal? Who is the one who gives us hope and purpose? This has sharp edges and for a Muslim it brings far reaching consequences. As we celebrate Christ the King, we affirm directly and clearly that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life; he is our operating system, and we aim to live his teachings in the hope that comes through his death and resurrection.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Christ the King, Sunday 25th November 2018

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Grief and the Surprising Warmth of Hope

luke-payn - Hope springs eternal

‘Hope Springs Eternal’ by Luke Payn for Art at Advent 2014

A couple of years ago I picked up a book in Waterstone’s. I’d forgotten about it, but it has been siting, perched on a shelf and it came fluttering down to my mind the other day. ‘Grief is the thing with feathers’ is an imaginative, half-poetic conversation between a father and his boys on the death of their mother, his wife. Grief comes to stay in the form of a crow who seems to have the desire to care for them, and Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee style, only to stay until they no longer need him (p7). The rasping sound of the crow cuts through the peaceful stillness and announces all is not well. Hearts have been broken and the blackness of the crow, the sound of the crow reflects their mood.

There are moments of profound insight in Max Porter’s work. Where is the noise when grief comes to stay?

“Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamour of an event like this? Where are the strangers going out of their way to help, screaming, flinging bits of emergency glow-in-the-dark equipment at us to try and settle us and save us?” (p13)

Grief is too quiet, far too quiet. It is an emptiness and Henry Scott Holland in a sermon called ‘The King of Terrors’, preached in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1910, talked about how the long silence tells us that death is not nothing at all. It is so much more and the silence, with its announcement of absence, tells us this.

The boys do things to miss their mother more. They make a mess so that it isn’t cleared up and that makes them see she is not there, gives physicality to the absence of physicality. Even absence needs to be present and by small acts of disruption they show they want to miss her and keep wanting her (p49). For the dad, the physicality of missing becomes ever present. “The whole city is my missing her.” (p50) The crow becomes a symbol of the presence of grief in the absence and the silence. It is not just emptiness, but is a filled emptiness that yearns and aches. The rasping and fluttering means it has form in the formlessness of death.

Amidst the “perplexing slow-release of sadness”, the dad finds that he is also surprised by moments of enduring warmth. And he observes that “if crow taught him anything it was the constant balancing. For want of a less dirty word: faith.” (pp105-106) And so it starts to enter into something deeper than just wallowing and being overwhelmed by the power of grief. The balancing becomes a gateway to letting crow go so that grief becomes less noisy in the silence and less ever present. Clouds do break and shafts of light come through.

It is at this point that we have to move from the poem if we want to find overt religious insight. The poem expresses well how grief makes its presence felt and makes us accept its presence and depth. This is not easily brushed aside and as with Purcell’s deeply heart-rending aria of ‘Dido’s Lament’ from his opera ‘Dido and Aeneus’, it haunts and cuts deep into our soul. Dido’s lament, beautiful as it is, is actually one of abandon as her love sails away and she prepares to die. It is one of despair. But within it there is a powerful refrain of the simple plea ‘Remember me’. That remembrance will turn the silence into a presence bathed in the surprise of the enduring warmth. It looks for a treasure box to know that all that was is not lost but held deeply in a place of valuing and loving. ‘Remember me’ is the plea to not be abandoned and lost for ever.

This evening, in a moment, candles will become for us signs and symbols of a profound hope and treasuring, light and the surprising warmth. All is not lost and we are not abandoned forever, even if it might feel like it for a while. When we light these candles we do so with hope and faith, trusting in God’s enduring love and goodness. For nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death, for the love of God holds us and brings that balance that crow needs to dawn so that he can fly away. This is a service to be reminded of the power of God’s love and the resurrection through his son Jesus Christ. We have come here in a profound hope and trust in God.

This trust in God is a theme that was captured in our first reading from the Old Testament book of Lamentations.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning… It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:22-23, 26)

The surprising warmth is a sign of that steadfast love, the salvation that comes and quietly makes itself known. It comes in so many subtle ways and we become aware of it.

This evening we can hold the loss, treasure the memories that need to be treasured, but ultimately place all of life before the enduring redemption that comes through Jesus Christ. From the reality of loss, of the aching and silence comes the new day dawning. All of our lives are held in this grace and it is in this faith and trust that we remember.

So, in a moment, come forward to the chancel and light candles in hope and faith and trust in God’s goodness. Even if there is an aching that endures, the crow brings the balance to our sights and it comes through the surprise of warmth and daylight. Life is good and God is good. For those of faith nothing is lost, all is held in the love of God, who is the source of our life and the goal of our life. That is the power and gift of faith which keeps hold of us and sees us through the darkness and aching silence of grief. As our first reading put it:

‘The Lord is my portion’, say my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’. (Lamentations 3:24)

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving, Sunday 18th November 2018

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