20:20 Vision – seeing the pandemic

 

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Just on the eve of lockdown my optician sent me a reminder that it was time for my eyes to be tested again. I was rather pleased at first because I’d noticed that reading was becoming a bit tricky. The restrictions soon scuppered my plans and so I decided to hold off for a while. My eyesight, of course, didn’t improve and I found I was struggling with short-vision, particularly with reading the print in the bible during Morning Prayer; so many zoom, online meetings, live-streamings and recordings were not helping either.

Opticians aim to get us back to what they call 20:20 vision, when everything becomes clear again. Now that I’ve had my eyes tested, with my new glasses everything has become clearer, back in focus and I can read! Eyes are one thing, our sense of perspective and how clearly we can see what is going on are another.

It is a moot point as to whether we ever really get clear vision with what is going on. We struggle for so many reasons, not least some things just might not be in view which change the whole picture. It goes with life, it goes with faith, it goes with any matter we are trying to understand. And these times we are in can feel particularly foggy at the moment.

When we long for wholeness and healing, one of the things we may well need is to have our vision and perspective sharpened, our clarity of view of what is real, so that we can see more clearly.

The great New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, has just published a reflection on where we find ourselves, called ‘God and the Pandemic’. In this he reflects on where we find ourselves drawing on his immense biblical knowledge and scholarship. It’s quite short, just 76 pages long, short for him that is, but he aims to restore our vision, our perspective as we struggle with this virus and what it is doing to us.

Part of his aim seems to be to tackle head-on the apocalyptic theories with their cosmic struggle – the virus being a battle with evil – and those who like wallowing in God’s judgement seeing this as a punishment. He gives them quite short shrift. For Tom Wright, any Christian response has to be firmly rooted in God’s Kingdom, in the hope in and through Jesus Christ. We lament – that is a human, compassionate response to suffering, but we do this trusting in God.

One danger of looking at the bigger picture is we can be tempted to see life as being an illusion: what we are going to through is not real and there is a reality which means it doesn’t really matter. Hope goes deeper than that. The Kingdom response, the one which puts God in charge, always comes with a question – what are you going to do about it? And there the authentic church’s response has always been to roll up its sleeves and get stuck in.

Tom Wright traces this back to first and second century pandemics and the famines mentioned in the New Testament. The response of the first Christians was not to look for who to blame, to punish or even see it as a fight against cosmic evil, but to send relief or go and minister to those who needed help.

When we look for a Christian response we will find God has pitched up with those working tirelessly on the wards – and this weekend sees the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the NHS, staffing foodbanks and night shelters. We will find the God-response in reaching out to neighbours in need, friends in distress and those struggling as hope feels wobbly. It is holding the grieving and keeping services going. This is because there is confidence in the future; God can be trusted.

The result of this hope-inspired response has been that it has impressed. For Romans and others in the first century world, the poor and suffering were not where anyone with any status would devote their time. And it has been a persistent view. But each time those who follow Jesus roll up their sleeves and get stuck in, it makes others marvel at the devotion and dedication, the love in action.

It would make a good mission strategy, but only because it is to walk the authentic Christian way. It’s not a cynical PR ploy, but love in action and that always impresses and makes a difference. We can see it today. And it was one of the factors in the early church expanding and drawing people to join it.

Rather than a cosmic battle, in our reading, such a rich section from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul talked about creation groaning (Romans 8:18-28, 35-39). It is longing, as in labour pains, as it becomes what it has potential to become. Tom Wright goes on to talk of three groanings – first the world in its struggle and travail; second the church in response, lamenting with compassion and anguish at the suffering it sees; thirdly the Spirit groans as it helps us in our weakness to hold trust, to renew hope and confidence that nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. As the world groans, the church groans with it and the Spirit groans to bring about fulfilment of potential and promise.

With that comes 20:20 vision; the picture viewed through the lens of God’s Kingdom established in Jesus Christ comes into focus and we see as if for the first time.

The prayer of St Richard of Chichester is one to hold in this pandemic. It gives thanks to God in Jesus Christ for all the benefits won for us. It prays that we will see more clearly, love more dearly and follow more nearly, day by day. It does this because God’s kingdom is over all and that is the basis of our hope in pandemic and any adversity.

Sermon during Night Prayer with prayers for wholeness and healing, live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Wednesday 1st July. 2020.

 

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Fathers Day: Parable of the Loving Father

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Today is Fathers Day, a day which started out as a greetings card occasion but give us opportunities. As we think about our own experience of fathers and for some of us, what it is like to be one, we can think about what we mean when we call God our Father. Calling God ‘Father’ is pretty much the default setting in Christian worship, though as we explored at the beginning of May with Julian of Norwich, God can also be thought of as Mother and quite a lot else.

The image of ‘father’ has deep roots in the Hebrew faith. The Old Testament is full of references to God as Israel’s father, to the loving and caring, nurturing and guiding, sometimes disciplining and teaching the way to go. How we see that balance will no doubt depend on our own experience and not everyone finds that easy.

It was only when I became a father that I began to understand its depths. The instinct to protect, the love and tenderness of holding a fragile new-born, the fun and laughter, the pride and delight which has continued with each stage and milestone. The proud parent moments which are legion.

Jesus used the image of a loving father in the parable we often misname as the prodigal son – and that is why I decided to change the gospel reading for today  (Luke 15:11-24). It’s not really about the son who goes off the rails. The central figure is really the father whose love will not abandon the son who strays. The loving father longs to embrace with a kiss, to welcome and restore. This is the image we need at the forefront of our minds when we think of God as Father.

Children as they grow need guidance and this comes from many sources. But they have primary carers. Fathering is about being a primary carer, who guides, provides stability for them – through wisdom and experience, shows them how to do things. It’s a shared task, but that primary relationships are the key ones because they have their roots in our genetic origins. There is something fundamental and foundational about being a father. When it goes well, we grow and flourish. When it doesn’t we are injured deeply.

Some years ago I was vicar of a parish with a lot of teenage mums and dads. It had a high rate of teenage pregnancies. The girls were often left fending on their own. A wise woman in the church looked at this and said she thought the young men were scared of the responsibility and the awesome task of being a dad. Some proudly pushed the pram, but many did not. Dads need help to be dads, just like mums need help to be mums. All parents need to be parented themselves otherwise the tasks can overwhelm.

When we look to God as Father, we see one who can cope with the responsibility, but who doesn’t try to do it all for us. This is a model of parenting that lets us make mistakes, and we sure do; who lets us fall because that’s how we grow and learn. The knocks and the bashes are part of becoming. The loving father in our gospel reading allows the son who goes off to do so. He has that freedom. When he asks for his inheritance, he gives it to him.

We might raise some eyebrows there, was that really sensible? Do you give the untrustworthy the resources to behave even more untrustworthily with? Responsibility and dignity require agency, the power to decide to spend or save, to invest wisely or squander. And with that a lot of other questions fly round the room.

The questions about the father in the story quickly become questions about God and how God behaves towards the world. God who does not control every minute detail, but leaves us the agency to decide, to learn and to become. There is a great becoming in being a child of God, in being a son or daughter of our heavenly Father.

Are we trustworthy with this sacred resource? The answer is, of course, ‘yes’ and ‘no’.  Human beings are remarkable in so many ways and a force for good. And yet we know that we also damage the world, damage its people, and damage so much of the ecosystem and other creatures. We are both sons in the gospel reading – the faithful one and the one who goes off. God is Father to both of us.

I caught a trailer when using Google as a quick concordance to look up a biblical text. The trailer was for an American crime drama series called ‘Prodigal Son’ (Advisory ⚠️), starring Michael Sheen. I won’t spoil it for you, but there is a line when the father says to the son “I will always love you because we’re the same”. There is that link that can’t easily be obliterated. Given the father is the serial killer and his son becomes a criminal profiler, that’s a tricky thing to hear.

This is something that Harry Potter has to wrestle with, that there is a link between him and Voldemort. And it takes the wise Dumbledore to point out that it’s not so much the similarities that define him, but in the choices that he makes. These determine the character and the path which can be similar or different. We look for those who will help and guide us as we do grow, to set our feet on firm foundations. We are similar, but we make choices in our becoming.

When we look to our heavenly Father, we don’t see one who makes clones, but allows agency, for us to discover and decide. There is guidance, there is love, there is nurture and there are consequences which we can take as markers for discipline – a more creative way of seeing this than punishments. The point of all discipline should be to help us grow, not beat us down – that’s the difference between loving and abusing.

So as we are encouraged to celebrate fathers and fathering, let us be thankful for those who have and do love us, guide us, keep us and teach us, whose nurture and discipline helps us grow and flourish. For in so doing, they reflect the love of the Father and the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. God loves us because we are the same – we are from his stock, and in his love we become as we choose and respond.

Sermon for Fathers Day, live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 21st June 2020.

 

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Looking for the people who inspire

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Window in north aisle, Peterborough Parish Church

Last weekend there was a big rally and protest in the city centre here for ‘Black Lives Matter‘. This followed the brutal murder of George Floyd by a police officer in America, sparking an international movement of protest at racism and injustice. So many stories have been shared of racist abuse suffered as part of the daily lived experience of those who came. ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a wake-up call, a demand for justice, for equality and respect.

As so often happens, movements spring out in unpredictable ways. A statue of a slave trader was thrown in the dock in Bristol, others covered and removed. There have been calls for so many figures from the past to be knocked off their pedestals. Some of this has produced an angry backlash.

In the middle of this, there have also been a number of reminders of people who inspire today, who acted in their own age and made a difference. I drew attention to a local one here earlier in the week, Peter Peckard, a former Dean of the Cathedral. He inspired abolitionists who went on to bring an end to the slave trade at the end of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries. This is someone who inspires today, provides a moral compass for us.

A few weeks ago we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, who revolutionised nursing and the care of the sick. The lady with the lamp, provided a lamp of light changing lives and inspiring a profession. Friends have been sharing stories of others from their areas – Finedon and Kettering – who also worked for the liberation of slaves.

When there are so many calls to dethrone, to tear down and loud calls of anger to destroy, an important way forward is to concentrate more on those whose lives inspire, who help us find the better way, than those who just wind us up, whom we want to remove. Of course there is valid debate to be had about whom we want to commemorate and who we really should move on from. At the same time, we must ask who the people are whose stories are worth keeping in the centre of our cities and parks and public spaces?

Our gospel reading gave us a list of names of people who went on to tell the story of faith, of hope and love in Jesus Christ (Matthew 9:35-10:8). We were given the calling of the 12 special disciples. There is a baddy in there, Judas who betrayed Jesus and we could concentrate on him if we wanted to get cross and find someone to focus our anger on, someone to tear down. How could anyone be so despicable as to betray Jesus?

But the Gospels don’t do this and Paul’s letters don’t either. They are clear that some are not to be followed, but their main focus is on those who made a difference and inspired others. And there were clearly more than 12 of them. We have to add in the women, not included in the list of the 12 men, Matthias and Justus who were up for election to replace Judas. Paul added to the witnesses in time and there are so many more who responded to the call to follow the Way of Jesus and in so doing made a difference for good.

We identify our call here to be a beacon of faith, hope and love. Our society needs people who are such beacons, who carry the light, the lamp of faith, hope and love. We can tear down statues and structures, but after they have gone splash or crash, what then? It is at that moment that inspiration is needed.

In our gospel reading, Jesus gives those whom he calls a job. He sends them to proclaim good news, to be story-tellers of hope, to point to the Kingdom of God, where the sick are cared for. They are to be people who build endurance, as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans (5:4-5). And by the Oaks of Mamre, in our first reading, Abraham met three visitors, who found in him hospitality which led to blessing (Genesis 18:1-15).

Who inspires you? Who helps you find the light for the lamp? If you could put up a statue in the heart of the city to inspire us today, who would you pick and why?

One person I celebrate is one my predecessors, depicted in a window here. Simon Gunton stayed at his post as vicar of this church during the Great Plague in the 1660s. He even wrote his thanks to God at the bottom of each page of the burial register, for preserving him and giving him the endurance that he needed in the struggle and fear of the pandemic he faced. A blue plaque will soon go on the wall of our house to commemorate him – he lived in a house on the same site, so it is fitting that it is the vicarage today.

Another person to celebrate is Peter Peckard, whom I’ve already mentioned for his inspiration of abolitionists, the call to justice. He did not just shout for ‘justice’, but made it, brought it to pass. Thirdly, Edith Cavell, the martyred nurse of the WW1, former student at the school in the Cathedral Precincts, and depicted next to Simon Gunton in our window. As well as caring for whoever was in need, whether they were allies or Germans, her words sing down the years: “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”.

Three people inspired by faith to make a difference, to point to the Kingdom of God, who proclaimed good news in word, in action and in being beacons of faith, hope and love for our city. Let us look for those who inspire, those whose memory will help us as we seek to respond to the call to follow Jesus Christ as his disciples and apostles today.

Sermon for Trinity 1, Live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 14th June 2020.

 

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Golden Hour – Triumphal Arch to the Trinity

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One of the things I love about this time of year is what many of us know as ‘golden hour’. This is when the evening sunshine hits the west front of the cathedral full on. It glows and the shadows of the arches line up perfectly with the windows. It is stunning and I don’t think it is a coincidence. I think the medieval masons knew just what they were doing and the effect they were looking to achieve.

If you look at the west front behind me, you can see that it consists of three arches and porticos. There are a number of theories about these, but one is that it is modelled on a Roman triumphal arch. These were built to record the victories and prowess of a general or emperor. This one, though, proclaims the power, the glory and victory of God and not some earthly potentate. God, who in the Christian faith, is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer; God who is beyond and awesome, God who comes alongside us and is the one who bridges what would otherwise be beyond reach, God who moves and unites and sets in motion.

So, when the sun hits this west front full on, as it is doing now, the shining, the glowing, the alignment of shadows and arches, proclaims the awe, wonder and majesty of God. We are meant to go ‘wow’, as so many visitors do who come through the Norman Gateway from the square – they reach roughly outside our house, stop and you can see them mouth ‘wow’ as they take in this vista for the first time. The most dramatic are children who are stopped in their tracks. God is awesome, so an awesome building sings that praise in stone and form. And it does that whether the doors are open or shut and ‘golden hour’ usually happens when they are closed at the end of the working day.

The Trinity: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which we celebrate today, is the distinctive Christian doctrine of God. For all the similarities between faiths, the points of connection and mutual understanding, this is our major difference. It is both very difficult to comprehend, well how can anyone comprehend the fullness of God, and also we just know we need something of that complexity otherwise we’d be selling God short. 

Today is not a day for glib statements to try to tame God – just as Aslan in ‘the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is not a tame lion. Today is a day when we need a doctrine big enough to cope with what we are talking about. And I find that each tradition of the church has a shadow side that falls into error when it either loses touch with one of the persons of the Trinity, or over emphasises one of them at the expense of others. 

When we talk of God the Father (or mother, God who is utterly other), if we miss out the immanence of the Son or the dynamic power of the Spirit, we end up with a God who is like an absentee landlord. The world gets on with it without God, is completely separate from God, and we miss the personal, the relational and the loving. This leaves room for the angry parent out to get us. And I know many struggle with that picture. God is as he is in Jesus Christ, who is not out to get us, but came because of love.

When we talk of God the Son, if we miss out the Father who is present all along, and the Spirit’s fire, we can get confused when we look at the cross because in that isolation it can look like a deranged parent sacrificing their child. We rightly recoil because that misses the crucial point of who we are talking about. On the cross the one who gives of himself is none other than God in God’s fullness. In the Son, the Father is present and not separate. The Trinity has to be held together, especially in theories of the atonement, of what we say happens on the cross.

When we talk of the Spirit, if we miss out the Son we  will have some vague sense of being inspired, but we won’t have the rooting and grounding in living, loving and longing; the wind blows without purpose and point. The God who inspires, who is our source and goal, comes among us, is close up and personal in the Son.

So, the arches at the west front of this cathedral, glowing in the evening sunlight, speak of the one to whom all our thinking and acting is to praise. If we keep the three arches, the Trinity in unity before us, we will keep our sense of truth and hope in balance.

This triumphal arch is to God who is beyond our imagining, comes up close and personal, and sets our hearts ablaze with the fire of love. The writer, Janet Morley, expressed this as a dance, reflecting something dynamic and in motion, poetic and vital. And so I end with her prayer:

O God our mystery, you bring us to life, 

call us to freedom, and move between us with love. 

May we so participate in the dance of your trinity, 

that our lives may resonate with you, 

now and for ever. Amen.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Peterborough Cathedral online worship, Sunday 7th June 2020.

 

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Trinity Celtic Knot

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I’m going to begin this morning with a bit of craft activity. And if you would like to join in, this is when you need your piece of cord – 1m in length.

This knot is a symbol of the Trinity – God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It expresses the mystery of God being one and yet at the same time three.

There is one long piece of cord which we have twisted, and threaded and shaped into the three distinct loops but connected to the same continuous line. No symbol or metaphor works completely, but it reminds us that God is three and God is one. God is the source and goal – the beginning and the end; God is alongside us and with us; God is our inspiration and guiding power. We call this Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that connects with the story of our faith.

God the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer; God who is beyond and awesome, God who comes alongside us and is the one who bridges what would otherwise be beyond reach, God who moves and unites and sets in motion.

The Trinity: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which we celebrate today, is the distinctive Christian doctrine of God. For all the similarities between faiths, the points of connection and mutual understanding, this is our major difference. It is both very difficult to comprehend, well how can anyone comprehend the fullness of God, and also, we just know we need something of that complexity otherwise we’d be selling God short. So a complicated knot is rather fitting.

Today is not a day for glib statements to try to tame God – just as Aslan in ‘the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is not a tame lion. Today is a day when we need a doctrine big enough to cope with what we are talking about. And I find that each tradition of the church has a shadow side that falls into error when it either loses touch with one of the persons of the Trinity, or over emphasises one of them at the expense of others.

When we talk of God the Father (or mother – as we said when we remembered Julian of Norwich a few weeks ago, God who is utterly other), if we miss out the immanence of the Son or the dynamic power of the Spirit, we end up with a God who is like an absentee landlord. The world gets on with it without God, is completely separate from God, and we miss the personal, the relational and the loving. This leaves room for the angry parent out to get us. And I know many struggle with that picture. God is as he is in Jesus Christ – a favourite saying of David Jenkins, a former bishop of Durham – God is as he is in Jesus Christ, who is not out to get us, but came because of love.

When we talk of God the Son, if we miss out the Father who is present all along, and the Spirit’s fire, we can get confused when we look at the cross because in that isolation it can look like a deranged parent sacrificing their child. We rightly recoil because that misses the crucial point of who we are talking about. On the cross the one who gives of himself is none other than God in God’s fullness. In the Son, the Father is present and not separate. The Trinity has to be held together, especially in theories of the atonement, of what we say happens on the cross.

When we talk of the Spirit, if we miss out the Son we  will have some vague sense of being inspired, but we won’t have the rooting and grounding in living, loving and longing; the wind blows without purpose and point. The God who inspires, who is our source and goal, comes among us, is close up and personal in the Son.

So, if as we look at the knot and use it as a way to keep the unity of the Trinity before us, we will keep our sense of truth and hope in balance. God who is beyond our imagining, comes up close and personal, and sets our hearts ablaze with the fire of love.

Another way of picturing the interweaving of the Trinity is to think of it as a dance. The writer, Janet Morley, used this image in her Trinity prayer, expressing the Trinity as something dynamic and in motion, poetic and vital. And so I end with her prayer:

O God our mystery, you bring us to life,

call us to freedom, and move between us with love.

May we so participate in the dance of your trinity,

that our lives may resonate with you,

now and for ever. Amen.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church live-stream worship, Sunday 7th June 202

 

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Black Lives Matter

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This Sunday, as well as being Trinity Sunday, marks the retirement of John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. He is the first black holder of that office. He has been known for being charismatic and uncompromising. He is a forceful person. He has been a passionate advocate for social justice and to transform the welfare of people in poverty. He has also been on the receiving end of vile racist abuse. As he retires, we give thanks for his ministry and pray for him as he enters a new phase of life.

I was listening to the comedian, campaigner and actor Lenny Henry being interviewed on ‘Grounded with Louis Theroux’, a podcast for Radio 4. He spoke about his life, his work and racism in the UK. The shock was how much racial abuse has been a part of his life – in the background, directly at him and through prejudice. He referred to racism still going on today, overt, not just hidden, but at bus stops and on the underground. For all we celebrate a multicultural society we know there is this darkness beneath the surface, and both Lenny Henry and Archbishop Sentamu can attest to that.

It can be so easy to ignore and pass-by at the casual and low-level end, but it’s not so easy when it is explicit. When a police officer in the United States thinks it is acceptable to kneel on a black man’s neck until George Floyd died of asphyxiation, there is no longer a neutral place to hide. To be neutral is to say that he acted in an acceptable way, which it most clearly was not, or to not care enough to take a stand. It is to become complicit in it or drawn to be complicit. Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it with characteristic punch when he said ‘when an elephant is standing on the tail of a mouse, your neutrality will not be appreciated by the mouse’. Neutral takes a side by default; it takes the side of the aggressor.

The hashtag and slogan #BlackLivesMatter, circulating at the moment, is an important reminder that racism can lie hidden behind blander statements like ‘All Lives Matter’. Of course, all lives do matter but the point of the specific is to challenge the prejudice, the hatred and the violence. It is to shine a light on the vice and call it out. ‘All lives matter’ can be a way of watering that down. We have inclusion as one of our core values but we have to spell it out at times, just where that rubs so that it is challenged. As Lenny Henry said in the podcast, someone has to take a lead to effect change.

On Saturday there is a demonstration planned to take place in Cathedral Square. Most of us will not be there – because we are still shielding or keeping distance from large gatherings as we are required to do. The church building will be there, though, standing as it does at the heart of the city. As it stands there it can be a symbol of inclusion and value or of indifference. It can be a symbol of standing in solidarity with those feeling unheard and discriminated against, even if we as its congregation are not able to do so physically, through a poster in the main noticeboard. As St Paul put it, in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, all are one (Galatians 3:28). Today he would highlight the racial unity and equality too. The equity needed spelling out then and it needs it now.

Even in lockdown and shielding, we can proclaim the light and hope of Christ. The political challenges continue and there are people who suffer at the hands of others’ hatred and prejudice. When we want to see a more compassionate and caring society, one that does show that all lives matter, it is important to be prepared to make this clear when others are behaving differently, to be specific. Being known by our fruit is more important than posing for photo calls outside churches – especially if the way has been cleared by rubber bullets and tear gas, as for President Trump this week. It’s not enough to hold a bible, we have to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it, then live it in justice, truth and peace proclaiming the love of God in Jesus Christ for all.

God bless, keep alert, and find ways to show the light and love of Christ in this coming week.

Opening Letter in weekly newsletter for Peterborough Parish Church, 5th June 2020

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Shielding and God’s grace with us: Night Prayer reflection on Visit of Mary to Elizabeth

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On Monday our church calendar commemorated a feast day full of joy and promise. Two women, both expecting babies rejoiced together as they looked forward to the birth of their children. One was the mother of John the Baptist, the other Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The feast day goes by the name of the Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth. It is shown in this window and it is a scene of two women greeting one another.

Actually, the greeting goes deeper than that, because as we heard in that passage from Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:39-56), the child in Elizabeth’s womb gives a kick of excitement, and she says her child is greeting the other, Jesus. Even in the womb John the Baptist fulfils his vocation to point to Jesus, to acknowledge him and celebrate his arrival.

So, for a church named after John the Baptist, this is a feast day for us to keep, and that is what we are doing in this service. Just as it is John the Baptist’s vocation to point to Jesus, it is ours too. Whether we are out and about or in confinement, lockdown, or just being careful. Elizabeth in the gospel was in her period of confinement, period of protection when she shielded to ensure as far as anyone can that all went well with the final stages of pregnancy. And Elizabeth is what would be called an older mother, her conceiving being remarkable at her age and so she needed to take care.

In our shielding and confining, even as some of the restrictions are easing – for our economic well-being, our mental well-being, because we just need to get out and about a bit more – we remain vigilant and alert; we are careful. We may feel closed off, but we can still give a kick of excitement at the signs of God’s presence and blessing. And looking for signs of blessing, delighting in them, is an important stage in restoring mental and emotional well-being.

The story of Elizabeth in her confinement reminds us how natural shielding is. It is part of taking care of ourselves and others, perhaps the most vulnerable in the unborn and in those expectant with promise fulfilled. Shielding reminds us that we are all mortal and vulnerable, fragile but also resilient.  We may find that we have inner strengths to draw on that we hadn’t realized, but only if we have fed them with the hope of promise to be fulfilled and the longing for the moment when life will spring forth.

There is also in this touching story of two expectant women, the joy of time spent together. For us that might be delighting in those we are with, in those who call or skype or facetime, even zoom, connect with through social media and email or letter. It might be that these services being streamed are helping connect and bring spiritual moments when the heart can greet and meet and share together in the joy and hope of God’s promises fulfilled. God is reliable and to be trusted to bring to fulfillment the promise of his blessing, presence, peace and eternity.

The passage we heard from Luke is the source of the first part of the ‘Hail Mary’ prayer. She is hailed, greeting, saluted enthusiastically because she is full of grace, of God’s gift to her and to us. The Lord is with her, within her, and as Mary is the God-bearer, an ancient title given to her – theotokos, so are we to be. She is blessed among women for when God is present and grows within us, it is a moment of deep blessing because God’s promise has been and is being fulfilled. We bear God in Christ to the world too.

During the summer last year, staying with the Franciscans at Alnmouth in Northumberland, I came across what I would call a more Biblical version of the Hail Mary prayer, one that is more Christ-centred and keeps our hope there, remembers that it is he who fills the mediatorial space between humanity and the Godhead; we need no other intermediary. So, our prayers are through Christ and no one else. It is an alternative in their Daily Office book, for use when the Angelus is rung.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.

Blessèd are you among women,

and blessèd is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Son of Mary, Son of God, have mercy on us,

now, and at the hour of our death. (p37)

It is a prayer of confidence that God is in control, even when we might be overcome by events, as a woman in pregnancy and child-birth is. God’s gift, God’s grace is with us.

So, for us, where are we struggling in this shielding and confinement? Where are the moments of blessing, of connections made and shared? Where can we find moments of delighting in God’s hope? Where is grace present and bringing gift to us? These are places of healing and well-being. They are moments when we are visited by the Lord who comes to us in surprising guises. We are blessed with Mary and Elizabeth in the greeting of their children and in the hope of Mary’s child. God’s grace is with us.

Reflection on Visit of Mary to Elizabeth for Night Prayer, Peterborough Parish Church, Wednesday 3rd June 2020

 

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Being alert for the gift of the Spirit

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Christ’s Ascension, depicted in the reredos at Peterborough Parish Church

Thursday was Ascension Day, the day we read, as we did in our first reading (Acts 1:6-14), of Jesus’ final moment with his disciples in person. One joker on the internet referred to it as being the day when he started working from home. He promises that they will not be left comfortless, they will receive the power of Holy Spirit and with that they will be his witnesses.

There is also mention of the cloud. In the bible clouds bring mystery into the story. To us they might bring fluffy shapes in the sky or, for the more technologically minded, remote storage to enable easy access wherever we are. We can connect to the cloud and retrieve that file, that document or photographs which have been placed there for safe keeping. The reality of the internet cloud is less romantic and mysterious. It is a bank of computer hard drives in a warehouse somewhere, connected by fibre optic wires and satellites.

Whenever we want to talk about God, we find the images and metaphors that speak most to us. And cloud storage enabling remote access on the move is not a bad one for Ascension and this period looking forward to Pentecost next week. The gift of the Holy Spirit is our access to God’s guidance and inspiration. It moves, opens and changes us. It transforms situations in mysterious ways. Never underestimate the power of prayer. And we will hear next week that the frightened became champions, witnesses on a mission and prepared to stand up to be counted, where previously they hid.

Another phrase from our readings with a strangely relevant twist to where we are now, came in our second reading (1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11). The instruction to ‘discipline yourselves; keep alert’ because there is something out there looking for someone to devour, is bang on message. We are being encouraged by government to do just this. And being alert may seem vague to some in messaging terms, but actually it does convey a stark warning. Shape up, watch out and don’t let your guard down. This virus has not gone away and could come back for a second bite, worse than before because that is precisely what has happened in previous pandemics. So, watch out.

Of course, Peter, assuming the letter that bears his name was written by him, was not talking about a pandemic. He was, though, still warning of things that throw us off course. Being disciplined and alert is to be prepared for the task we face, to be on the watch out for what might come at us. It is to be robust when trials and challenges come. If we live hopefully, faithfully and justly, we have great resources to draw on when times are rough. And they are rough now. They were rough for Peter’s first audience; a church facing persecution and attack.

Ascension is about a leaving with the promise of a return in a different way. Jesus leaves them again. He left them on the cross and with his burial. Still reeling from that, they encounter him after the resurrection and struggle at first to come to terms with this. And now they are going through the loss again. This period between Ascension and Pentecost is one of dislocation and needing to find the bearings again. They have to start re-defining as they wait on the Spirit. This is not given instantly, so they need to be patient.

We are used to this gap, but for them it was not clear what was coming next, and that is always a moment of anxiety, especially if like me you like to know the map, have a picture in your head of the route. We have to learn through this period of waiting and loss to wait on God in faith and hope and trust. We need to wait on God because that is how he comes to us, on those who have made themselves available and alert to this gift.

Their resilience comes from continuing to meet, to pray, to break bread together. Their lockdown was different to ours. But the readjusting applies. We have a great deal of readjusting to do. When we do get back into the church together it will be different. What we have to trust is that God will continue to feed us, to inspire us and equip us for the tasks we face. The Spirit will come and it will bring the new focus and life that we need to face what lies ahead.

So, we have to be alert, to enter the cloud of the memory bank of our faith and our hope. We are singing the Lord’s song in a strange land and it will remain strange for a while yet. In our waiting we will encounter the surprising gift, the answered prayer and the renewed hope.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Sermon for Easter 7, live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 24th May 2020

 

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A beacon inspiring faith, hope and love

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There has been a report that internet searches for prayer have rocketed during lockdown. It seems there is an enhanced interest in spirituality and religious questions. How sustained this is no one can know at this point, but this coincides with these online services seeing far more people viewing them than turned up before lockdown. It might be a giant pause button has been pressed which allows this yearning to come to the surface which lay dormant or just struggled to reach above other pressures. It might be that questions of mortality are to the fore when we are presented with daily death rates. It might be that online worship is easier to peep into than a door is to go through – especially when you can pick your time to pop in. There may well be lots of explanations, some even more subtle. If this is you, I’d be really interested to hear your story.

This is not new. In our first reading (Acts 17:22-31) we heard of Paul coming across something similar as he walked through the centre of Athens. It was such a religious marketplace, with altars to all sorts of spiritual offerings, that there was even an altar to ‘an unknown God’. This is often taken as meaning that they hedged their bets, just in case they’d missed one out. They wanted to cover all bases.

Paul takes this an opportunity to tie to this altar a label naming Jesus Christ as the one they are looking for. He gives an account of God’s love in Jesus Christ and how he offers hope and purpose for them, and by extension for us. The unknown God is named in Jesus Christ and the hope of his resurrection. Stop looking elsewhere, this is the real deal.

The second reading called for us to be ready to give an account of the hope within us (1 Peter 3:13-end). Be ready to say this is what matters to me, this is the spiritual place I go to and where I find purpose and hope. This is what feeds and inspires, provides the light to direct my path. As we delve into the story of our faith, its rich allusions and wisdom, its holding of the dark times as well as the ones of joy and thanksgiving, we find a faith that can cope with where we are. It makes the connection we need with the one at the heart of everything, God.

This crisis has had me looking at the work we had been doing in this church to refresh our vision and what we see the church as being for, and how this directs our planning looking forward. The lockdown rather disrupted all of that, but looking at what we did, it still holds true. I am relieved that it seems to have been robust. We could express our overarching aim as being to be “a beacon of faith, hope and love in the heart of our city”. And this church has shone as that through so many centuries, including the Great Plague in the seventeenth century when my illustrious predecessor, Simon Gunton, remained faithful to his ministry throughout. He is an inspiration.

Being a beacon works in two directions. It is a light that shines out to inspire and give hope. So many connect with that in so many ways as they pass by and call in. I am so sad that this virus has required us to close the doors to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. We know more about epidemiology than was known in the past. So, we take that seriously. But I am glad to be back in here this morning for you, even though we were reminded in our first reading that God does not live in shrines made with human hands, this place does stand as a focus for what we are to be as a beacon of faith and hope and love, to remind us of the story of our faith in Jesus Christ. Prayer hasn’t stopped in here because every time I have come in to check on it, I have said prayers for our city and all its people.

Beacons, as they shine light, also illuminate the shadows and things come to light that were not so obvious before we flicked the switch. It becomes, to mix metaphors, a plumb line, something to be measured against. It sets a standard for us to aspire to and reset the course if we have gone off line at all. May be this lockdown gives us chance to also press pause and think a bit. What matters about a building we can’t all be in, and what doesn’t matter; what is more important?

We aim to be a beacon of ‘faith, hope and love’ and that phrase comes from Paul’s great hymn to love in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 13), the one that begins ‘if I speak in the tongues of mortals or of angels but do not have love, I am an empty vessel that just makes a lot of noise.’ – a loud and annoying noise at that. The faith is the faith of Jesus Christ, the hope is of his resurrection and the love is the love of God revealed and shown in and through him.

It is also the commandment we are to keep if we love God: the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. To show this love in everything we do. And as our gospel reading told us, we show our love for him when we show our love for everyone, when we follow this commandment to love one another as he has love us (John 14:15-21).

When we want to see the unknown God, we will see him in the acts of loving service which are the response to the beacon of faith and hope, the source of which is Jesus Christ. It is to be our aim in this church to be such a beacon to inspire in this generation as our predecessors did in theirs, because:

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

Sermon for Easter 6, Live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 17th May 2020

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Inspiring the future in the way of Christ’s love

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On Friday we commemorated the 75th anniversary of VE Day. This marked the end of the Second World War in Europe. The actual end of the Second World War did not come for another three months with the victory over Japan. This is sometimes referred to as the forgotten war and so there will be more on this in the summer.

When you have been through the best part of six years of conflict and restrictions, indeed rationing was not over, the relief will have been enormous. We are enduring significant disturbance at the moment and it is a battle of life and death, this virus being so contagious and without a vaccine. When this is over, no doubt there will be a major celebration. We can, therefore, understand why, during his broadcast to the nation on 8th May 1945, King George VIth called this “a great deliverance”.

On Friday the Queen reminded us of this and spoke of how her generation had “kept faith that the cause was right”. The message she said for VE Day was to “never give up and never despair”. It is to know the direction, the purpose and hold to it; to be confident in who we are, what matters to us, and where our hope lies.

The earliest Christians, followers of the risen Christ, referred to themselves as followers of “The Way”. St Luke tells us in Acts that it was not until Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch that “the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26), sometime around AD46. The word literally means ‘Messiah People’, people who follow the Way of the Messiah, because that is what the word Christ means. So, we remain people of the Way, but that way is the way of Jesus Christ.

In our Gospel reading we were taken back to this title deed (John 14:1-14). Jesus tells Thomas that he is the Way, The Truth and the Life. As our anthem from Fiji told us,

‘without a way there is no going, without the truth there is no knowing and without the life there is no living’.

The Way is to be firmly rooted and set in the life and hope and truth of Jesus Christ, so that when difficulties come, we are resilient and able to remain stable and secure.

With a lot of people asking what will come out of this crisis, the best answers take us back to who we are and who we are being called to become. That has not changed, whatever the scenery may look like. We are still beloved children of God, inheritors in Christ and shaped by the Spirit. We are people of faith, hope and love. Those lie at the core of The Way because they are built on truth and show God’s life. The greatest of them is love because that is the point, the source and the goal of all that there is.

So, when we want to think about what shape the future should take, the guide is the rule of love. And if we want to protect ourselves then we need to think how love will do this. The NHS, our care system and health care have turned out to be not just a welfare system, but the front line of our national defences. And the more we look at this virus, the more we realise just how interrelated we all are and our world is. There is unlikely to be a solution to this virus that does not join the world in partnership. Rivals, enemies and friends will have to work together. Perhaps a virus can be a force for good after all – as destructive as it is.

And that is one of the side effects of battling any great danger. In the 1940s the world had to come together to deal with an aggressor who threatened the security of everyone through the horrors of the Nazi regime. The cause against this was right, the challenge not to give up or despair because evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction and one of those seeds is its ability to mobilise and unite previous rivals in common cause. So, perhaps we are being called to a more inclusive, equitable and just worldview. That will be no bad thing.

Today is the beginning of Christian Aid Week. While charity begins at home, it is where we learn it, it does not end there. It extends to embrace everyone – become an expression of the rule of love. As we become more aware of the webs that unite the world, so aid is an important part of our responsibility to our global neighbours and friends. Supporting them turns out to be in our own interests, part of our defences, though generosity is the rule of love at work and that is why this week matters. We usually give out envelopes this week, but that campaign has this year had to be online. There are details of how to give in the newsletter.

The Way is Jesus Christ, his light and hope and peace.

The Truth is love, it’s fire and passion and uniting.

The Life is the gift we receive and share and in which we flourish.

May Christ the way, the truth and the life, be for us all our sure ground for faith, our firm support for hope and the assurance of God’s love.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Sermon for Easter 5, Live-streamed Sunday 10th May 202

 

 

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