Love-song of the Angels

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There was a phrase in the second carol we sang at the beginning of this service, ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. It came in the second verse and referred to the ‘love-song’ sung by the angels. They bring this love-song to the shepherds in their fields. Frightened and surprised as they are, in the familiar tale told by Luke, the angels tell them not to be afraid. The message of their love-song is peace on earth and goodwill towards all people (Luke 2:8-16). It is a love-song because what might be remote and distant, beyond access comes close. The angels tell of God so loving the world that he came among it in the child Jesus. That’s a phrase from later in John’s Gospel (3:16), from which our Gospel reading was taken (John 1:1-14). The passage about God loving the world goes on. Jesus does not come to condemn the world, but so that it might be saved (John 3:17). These are words to inspire, to hold to. They came at a time of deep political turmoil, so they can speak hope to whatever challenges we face.

It is through the love-song that the gospel reading comes alive (John 1:1-14). What could be deep philosophy for a midnight hour, about the eternal Word, God’s thought and whole rationale for creation, becomes not just pure maths and physics and chemistry but the poetry of music and the sparkle of dancing atoms. There is wonder, there is purpose, there is a love-song.

This past year has brought its moments of fear and hatred. Terrorist attacks, abusive tweets and threats to MPs and wars and conflicts have wrought their violence. And a few weeks ago a disturbed ex-prisoner unleashed a frenzied attack on two young criminologists at Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge, killing Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, aged just 25 and 23 respectively. Their funerals were on Friday last week. Both of them believed in this love-song, that love overcomes hate and rebuilds lives, that everyone deserves a chance at rehabilitation. One of those who tried to fight off the killer had benefitted from Jack’s work and spoke of how his life had been turned around. The love-song, which brings redemption, changes us.

When our thinking and planning become remote and distant, this is the time to hear the angels sing, to be brought closer to the love-song at the heart of creation and redemption’s tale. This love-song is no soft touch. It brings the pain and shame of the cross, it takes on the darkness head-on and as John’s wonderful prologue puts it, the darkness is not able to overcome it (John 1:5). Love is the strongest force there is. It is the source of life, of creation, and in Jesus Christ we see that it is its goal too.

The love-song challenges us when things may seem uncertain, when we may wonder where events are likely to pan out. It is our calling at Christmas to be so filled with this love-song that it colours how we live for the rest of the year. It is grace to embrace. And break down barriers, to overcome hatred. Just like a dog, the love-song is not just for Christmas but for life.

I came across a poem the other day, by Maya Angelou, written for President Bush for the White House tree-lighting ceremony in 2005. It contains words of hope, the hope of Christmas, when thunder rumbles and the sky threatens. It reflects on the love-song of this night.

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes

And lightning rattles the eaves 

of our houses.

Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, 

falls upon snow to avalanche

Over unprotected villages.

The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.

What have we done to so affront nature?

We worry God.

Are you there? Are you there really?

Does the covenant you made with us 

still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, 

Christmas enters,

Streaming lights of joy, 

ringing bells of hope

And singing carols of forgiveness 

high up in the bright air.

The world is encouraged 

to come away from rancor,

Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.

Thunder ebbs to silence 

and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.

Flood waters recede into memory.

Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us

As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children

It rides on the shoulders 

of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.

Hope spreads around the earth. 

Brightening all things,

Even hate which crouches breeding 

in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.

At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.

We listen carefully as it gathers strength.

We hear a sweetness.

The word is Peace.

It is loud now. It is louder.

Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. 

We are thrilled by its presence.

It is what we have hungered for.

Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.

A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.

Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands 

and welcome the Peace of Christmas.

We beckon this good season 

to wait a while with us.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, 

we can create a language

To translate ourselves to ourselves 

and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, 

we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ

Into the great religions of the world.

We jubilate the precious advent of trust.

We shout with glorious tongues 

at the coming of hope.

All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices

To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortals, 

Believers and Non-Believers,

Look heavenward and speak 

the word aloud.

Peace. 

We look at our world 

and speak the word aloud.

Peace. 

We look at each other, then into ourselves

And we say without shyness 

or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.

Peace, My Sister.

Peace, My Soul.

(From ‘Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem’ by Maya Angelou.)

The love-song of the angels brings a transforming stillness on the world and into it.  It brings the love of the creator, which is hardwired into the purpose of life. The covenant made with humanity is cemented in Christ. God has not and will not abandon us. May this love-song, this amazing peace, at the centre of creation through the eternal Word, fill us this night and always.

Sermon for Christmas Midnight, Peterborough Parish Church, 24th December 2019

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Advent 4: Jesus’ ‘Who do you think you are?’

Jesus genealogyEach of the Gospels approaches the story they want to tell about Jesus from a different place. For John, the Gospel for Midnight Mass, it is the deeply philosophical with the eternal Word and light shining in darkness. Mark plunges straight in with John the Baptist baptising in the wilderness and along comes Jesus to inaugurate his ministry as an adult at that point. Christmas does  not feature in Mark. Luke, on the other hand, starts with birth stories, first of John the Baptist and then Jesus. Both are miraculous – John to a woman beyond childbearing age and Jesus to a young woman miraculously through the Holy Spirit. Matthew has been watching BBC1. He sets out his own version of ‘Who do you think you are?’, tracing Jesus’ ancestry (Matthew 1:1-17). We tend to miss this out from our readings in church, presumably long lists don’t excite the ears of those who devise lectionaries, but it is an important list and it comes immediately before where our Gospel reading this morning would have begun if I hadn’t extended it (Matthew 1:1-3, 5-6, 16-25).

That genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel traces Jesus’ line back to Abraham in the Old Testament. The full version is in three sections, each with 14 generations in them and in that list there are a number of women who don’t fit the mould. There are also a few people missing, so we can assume that the symbol of the maths is more important than the complete list. Fourteen is double 7. Seven is the perfect number in Jewish thought, so three lots of 14 gives us 6 lots of 7, and if we are looking for significance, that is one short of the perfect number 7. So it might be that Matthew is playing a game with numbers. The list becomes a nerd’s highlighter pen. This Jesus will begin the age of the 7th grouping, so we are into the perfect realm now. God’s grace has dawned and we know this because the numbers line up – kind of, if we ignore those missed out. The point of this is that for Matthew the key to the Gospel he wants to tell is that Jesus fulfils the hopes and dreams, the prophecies of the past. His is a gospel of fulfilment and so throughout it what happens is punctuated with: 

“this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet”, 

as in verse 22, regardless of whether that prophet meant what Matthew used their words to underline.

A case in point is our gospel reading this morning with the virgin conceiving and bearing a son who is to be named Emmanuel, God is with us (Matt 1:23). As we heard in our first reading the prophecy referred to was about being saved from a very different threat to the one Jesus saves his people from (Isaiah 7:10-16). This section of Isaiah has been dated around 8th century BC and the threat was from an invading Assyrian army. Isaiah’s point is ‘don’t panic’, the threat will pass before the young woman’s child has been born and has been weaned. That might sound like it might take a while, but the point is the pregnant woman will deliver her child and it will grow. There is a future, there is hope, God is with us. This is the point that Matthew picks up on for how he chooses to tell the story of Jesus. Don’t panic, God has this, the plan is being fulfilled. We can trust in God’s enduring goodness and providence. God is with in this child to be born for us.

So what can look like a long, boring list for genealogy addicts, turns out to be a message of hope and surprise. The women included in the list are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, ending with Mary. Tamar was a Canaanite or Aramean. She married Judah’s son Er. He died and she was passed on to the next son Onan, so he could raise up children for his brother. You begin to see where the question about marriage  and the unfortunate woman, put to Jesus later in the gospel came from (Matthew 22:23-33). He also dies and Tamar is told to hang about until the next son, Shelah, is old enough! Tamar is not impressed with this idea and goes off. Meanwhile  her mother-in-law, Judah’s wife, dies. He goes off to sheer the sheep. Tamar is nearby, but in disguise. Judah thinks she is for hire and offers her a kid goat from the flock and with that she is his for the night, though he still doesn’t know who she is. Tamar becomes pregnant and is about to be burned for this when she reveals what has happened. The child is Perez, who  also appears in Jesus’ genealogy (Genesis 38). Put that in EastEnders and you’d say the scriptwriters have gone over the top.

Next up is Rahab another Canaanite (Joshua 2 & 6). She was a sex-worker in Jericho, who shelters the Israelite spies before they capture the city and slaughter everyone in sight. The bible says nothing of her marriage to Salmon, with whom she gives birth to Boaz, so there is a mystery as to where that comes from. She is, though, incorporated into the story of salvation through her assistance at Jericho, a gateway to the promised land and perhaps a link to the fulfilment of this dream and place of residing. 

Boaz leads on to Ruth’s story. She is a Moabite who becomes the wife of Boaz after she seduces him on the threshing floor. She gets a book all of her own in the Old Testament.  Their child, Obed, is the grand-father of the shepherd boy David, the key figure in this Messianic sequence; an idealised ruler referred back to so that the Messiah is a new David, though he rather has clay feet. 

The fourth woman is Bathsheba, who was probably a Hittite and was spotted by King David while she had a bath on the roof top (2 Samuel 11). Bathsheba was married to Uriah who is described as a Hittite, so this gets awkward – though taking into account the previous stories it is probably on-message by now. Bathsheba becomes pregnant, so David’s response is to send her husband into the front line of a battle to ensure that he was no longer in the way. He is killed in fierce fighting. David is condemned by the prophet Nathan for this and the love-child also dies. Their second child is King Solomon, the one who is noted for wisdom and he succeeds David. 

This is quite a list of women but they each open up the story to include people from other nations, people whose stories are not exactly pure. The fulfilment of prophecy, so important to Matthew, comes through some surprising people. We are being set up from the beginning for a story that will bring plot twists and takes us to unexpected places. Buckle up, this is going to be quite a ride.

And the foreigners keep coming. Next up will be the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) and in Mathew it is these star-gazers from distant lands who come to worship and adore, not shepherds from the nearby hillside. This gospel fulfils the hopes because it is for all people. The people Jesus saves is all humanity. 

At the end of the list is Mary, a young woman who could so easily have been given a similar story to Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and Bathsheba. Joseph assumes she has, because he proposes to put her aside quietly, rather than subject her to public disgrace, shame and probably destitution. It’s not clear what cover story they had lined up, but just as the others were used in God’s plan in the story of the people, so Mary is too and Joseph recognises this.

Matthew sets Jesus’ story in the context of a long unfolding story of a people, a story fulfilled in Jesus. At each point God chooses people others would discount and even uses those who would be disgraced and shunned by our PR conscious age. They show themselves to be more open to the Spirit than those who present a more shiny and pure image are. If there is hope for them, there is hope for us. There are surprises and the story of Jesus will surprise more than any before; it challenges preconceived ideas. This gospel is for everyone who opens their hearts to it, for God is with us.

Sermon for Advent 4, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 22nd December 2019

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Advent 3: Good news for the poor

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What do you hear when that Gospel is read (Matthew 11:2-11)? Which words stand out most? Is it Jesus giving an account of what he has been doing? Is it John the Baptist, languishing in prison and pondering if he’s backed the right person; having an understandable wobble in that precarious situation, wondering if Jesus is the real deal? Prison was a mere holding place while someone’s fate was decided and as we know it ends violently for John the Baptist, who is beheaded on the drunken instructions of a lustful ruler.  Is it the powerful being in palaces, wearing fine robes, driving smart cars? Jesus says this is not where you go to hear the good news. Rather, he says, it is with the poor.  The heart of this gospel passage is the announcement of good news to the poor. That is the proof for John the Baptist to trust his judgement. This gospel turns the world upside down and with it our expectations of where to find the vibrancy we so seek. This passage has similarities with Luke’s account of Jesus reading out his Nazareth manifesto, when he says that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him because he has come to bring good news to the poor. And it this being fulfilled that shows his credentials to John the Baptist so that he can recognise who he is (Luke 4:16-21).

As we enter a new phase of our nation’s story, with a new government, this is a timely message, not least when so many areas of the country have crossed what seemed an impossible divide and voted for a party many of them had blamed for all their ills in the past. Some think this is turkeys voting for Christmas, others that it shows just how alienated they have felt, even from the party that is supposed to have placed their interests first. What does ‘good news for the poor’ look like? Is it a package of policies? It will certainly involve some and hearing the Prime Minister speak on Friday morning, he seems to have recognised that votes have just been lent him, so he has to deliver. Let’s hope he does. Is  ‘good news for a the poor’ a radical change where those who serve at tables, clean cars and offices, polish nails and pack online orders in warehouses are given fair reward, seen and heard as people of equal worth and value? Is it drawing them deeply into participation in their communities so that they become part of the solution, which is by no means an easy task given how we have become so isolated and privatised as individuals over the years, persons on our own rather than in community? This has to go deeper than just trying to cover up budget gaps and might require funds committing to make it work, skilled people who can guide and encourage.

Each of these areas is easy to say but requires a change of heart and attitude for them to truly come alive. Honouring means regarding as an equal. Policies need budgets attached, funds committing to make change happen. Participation needs to be nurtured so that communities can make decisions for themselves and shape their own neighbourhoods. This is actually the principle behind local churches in local neighbourhoods. Where they are vibrant is where they are in touch, connect and reflect that neighbourhood. It is also the principle behind the Near Neighbours project, funded by the Church Urban Fund to support work in local communities to bring people together. This marked its first birthday last week.

Good news is not just announced for the poor, something given to, but as it honours, listens, draws into participation, good news comes back in the other direction. One of the remarkable things to come out of so many projects seeking to improve the lives of those at the lowest points is that as we bless we find that we are blessed in return. Those involved in the Winter Night Shelter find this as they sit round the table and hear stories. I found that as I was talking to an asylum seeker during my Sabbatical, a fellow guest at a Franciscan house. Over a shared meal, he spoke about his life, his story. He could have been bitter about the length of time his case was taking, but as he expressed it so simply, each day he was there he was still alive and not enduring what had led him to leave in the first place. It could have been worse, he might now be dead. Hosting Garden House in the Cathedral Precincts blesses an organisation, the Cathedral, that has been so weighed down by finances recently and needs to find large amounts of money to be sustainable. There is a poverty in riches and a wealth in poverty that can turn the world on its head, as we give so we receive.

We see lives being transformed because priorities are being re-set and the masks of security, which actually just hide a deeper vulnerability, slip away to reveal our ultimate utter dependence on God’s grace and love. As the cash registers ring out their seasonal greetings, today on this third Sunday of Advent rather than promises of riches to the already prosperous, we are brought good news for and from the poor. ‘What did you go out to see’, asks Jesus. ‘Fine robes?’ Those are in palaces and the irony is that is not where good news resides.

It could be easy to romanticise about poverty. But it is hunger, debt, inadequate funds, cold and it grinds people down. In a debate in General Synod earlier in the year, Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, called it ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse: Universal Credit, low-paid work, food poverty and austerity’ plaguing so many lives (Church Times 1 March 2019). These are injustices and they need challenging – the new government needs them at the top of their in-boxes, each of the new ministers’ red boxes. If they don’t the communities that voted them in will turn on them and that will not end well. So poverty is no easy place of blessing. Rather it is that light shines in this darkness bringing hope where there could so easily be despair.

A lot of effort has been put into how to grow churches over the past few decades and the result is that we have seen steady decline. The statistics are clear. Philip North has a theory as to why this is the case. It is, he says, because the church has forgotten the poor. Renewal, he says, comes from good news for, with and from the poor, not in shiny projects that appeal to consumer culture in a different guise. It takes longer to grow, to embed, but in time it changes everyone. Providing coffee drop-ins, as we do, where the coffee is affordable, where people can sit with friends or just sit and feel welcomed, addresses this head on. Our cafe serves quite a purpose. One of the things which always impresses me so much about the Franciscan houses I stay in is that everyone is round the same table, whoever they are. There is no distinction and we all meet, share stories and find ourselves humbled and blessed in equal measure because all are guests of the same heavenly Father who loves us each equally and expects us to do the same.

Good news for the poor is actually good news for everyone. Social action and evangelism belong together because the words have to be lived and the words should be about justice, setting people free and bringing lives to flourish in God’s love and grace. If they are not, then they are rather hollow and empty. Jesus announced good news to the poor. When we do the same, we find that good news is for us too, whether we count ourselves as one of the poor or not.

Sermon for Advent 3, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th December 2019

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Advent Wake-up: Duty of Care for the Earth

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On Friday we remembered St Nicholas, the original Santa, usually noted for being nice to children and rescuing girls from exploitation. All very contemporary concerns. Far from the flying reindeer and benign smiling, he has a passion in his story that has bite for the issues we face today. He was also present at the Council of Nicea, when the Roman Emperor Constantine wanted to sort out a dispute between different branches of the Christian church over what we believe about God – how we hold together different persons of the Trinity: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our Creed, the Nicean Creed, has its origins in one which emerged from the end of this council and if you sometimes wonder how it came to be so important that it is recited during our services, remember that it is an agreed statement, setting out the results of deliberations and settling a dispute.  The one we use is actually a later draft from a subsequent council (Chalcedon in AD 451). At Nicea, with all the bishops gathered together in the year AD 325, Nicholas, as bishop of Myra in Southern Turkey, had a particular concern for truth, for Jesus being seen as fully God and fully human, what we express as 

“God from God, Light from Light, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father…” 

Things got heated and rather like in a recent episode from the BBC adaptation of ‘The Name of the Rose’, also set around a council to settle a dispute, there was a punch up. Nicholas crossed the floor to his opponent and slapped Arius on the face.  Remember, he knows if you’ve been bad or good! He was censured for this and had to repent of his behaviour. Passionate, strong and no bland affability, Nicholas was a force to be reckoned with.

Another character, not exactly remembered for being affable and calm, is John the Baptist. In our Gospel reading (Matthew 3:1-12) he had some very choice words for those who wanted him to make them feel better by dipping them in the river. His was a baptism for repentance, to prepare for God’s kingdom about to dawn in Jesus Christ. He looks at the Pharisees and Sadducees, the leaders of the faith, who have also gathered for this purifying, ‘count me in’ ritual and he decides they are hypocrites. He calls them a “brood of vipers” and if they didn’t quite catch that, he tells them that an axe is lying next to the tree to chop it down. And, to spell it out further, they are the tree. If they don’t bear good fruit, this tree is to be cut down and burnt. They are not bearing good fruit, so, ipso facto, they are for the chop.

These are two uncompromising men. They don’t mess about; they say exactly what they think, with no edit button at all, and most of us would not find them at all comfortable. There would be complaints, shouts that they are alienating people, driving division and not at all the kind of people we expect clergy to be today. This Santa would be a bad Santa!  But a theme of Advent is the call to wake-up, to pay attention and get a grip. When we are in a doze something dramatic may be needed to get through our inertia. 

Speaking out, when we feel we have to do so, is partly a matter of working out how we will be heard. And thinking how something will land is well worth a moment’s pause before that late night tweet or email. At least Nicholas had the humility to apologise for his behaviour even though he stood by the stance he took. He had a night in the cells to thank for that cooling off and reflection. His target was a concern for truth, just like John the Baptist was trying to wake up his hearers to take spirituality seriously. It is something that requires a response from us, not just a warm feeling. It requires us to pick it up and live it, to put it into practice, but above all to give our hearts to it. Right faith goes with right practice. We are to do as we believe, to live it. To issue the necessary challenge calls for courage to speak, especially when the hearers may prefer not to be disturbed. So just because someone gets a bit annoyed does not negate the issuing of the challenge.

Something I reflect on from time to time is what it means to speak into the public square. This can be a tricky challenge. It is not always an easy judgement call to decide when to take a stand and when to keep neutral. When we are benign santa, everyone loves us – well, at least they don’t get annoyed at us. When we get a bit uppity, even if we don’t slap anyone physically, sharp words are not usually wanted. There are times to be neutral, recognising that there are people of good will in all political parties. But there are times when being neutral is to take a side and the environment is one of those areas. We are facing such a serious challenge that unless we all change our ways we will sink. What is more, some of the poorest people on the planet will sink first because they live in low lying areas, though living in an area of the country largely made up of reclaimed bog land, and the 18th century drainage programme caused the ground level to drop, if sea levels rise we are in trouble. I saw a map recently which showed that if this happens the Cathedral Precincts will become the beach. The new university site and the development on Fletton Quays will be under water.

Yesterday we hosted a stand on behalf of Peterborough Eco-Faith Network to draw attention to the climate crisis. It is still there if you would like to add your message or get creative over coffee. It is timed to coincide with the United Nations COP25 Climate Change Summit taking place in Madrid. In the Old Testament book of Genesis human beings are set as stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). We are failing in our duty of care. It is time to wake-up, to change how we live and reduce our impact on the planet before it is too late, to live more sustainably and achieve a position where we have net zero emissions. 

On Tuesday at the Hustings here for the General Election, none of the candidates really picked up on the radical timescale needed for achieving this net zero emissions. Paul Bristow mentioned the Conservative target for carbon neutrality, but the others didn’t pick up on this even though I fed them the line. Each of the parties has a different target date for reaching net zero carbon emissions: 

  • Green Party, not surprisingly, sets the most ambitious target at 2030 – 10 years time.
  • Labour had been aiming for 2030 but have changed that to something more nuanced at ‘setting a path towards net zero emissions’ by 2030. Not quite the same thing.
  • Lib Dems, along with the SNP believe that is not realistic, so have gone for 2045 – 25 years time, a quarter of a century.
  • The Conservative party goes for 2050 – 30 years time, a generation away.

The Environment Agency considers 2030 to be the stark diagnosis for standing a chance of averting the crisis, but even then some think that is too late. Whatever date is taken and acted on, the moment to change our ways is actually now and that means each of us reducing by at least 7.6% a year. If you take this seriously, what changes will you make to how you live when thinking about your New Year resolutions?

Insults don’t tend to get people to change their ways, so we live in very different times to John the Baptist, and a violent slap, as with Nicholas, is very much not encouraged either. But telling truth to power has been a noble aspect of Christian witness, since the days of John the Baptist and the long prophetic tradition in which he stood. His key prophetic call was to take faith seriously, to live it. One of the ways we do this is to be faithful stewards of the earth, to exercise the duty of care that we have for the planet and all its inhabitants. Advent is a time to wake from our sleep, to pay attention, to get a grip and to change our ways. Just as it applies to the spiritual, to make it real, that faith is to be lived out, not least in our stewardship of the earth for the sake of all God’s creatures, great and small.

Sermon for Advent 2, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 8th December 2019

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Generous Advent

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This is becoming an annual game, but this year’s crop of outlandish Advent Calendars is no less extravagant than last year’s. Top of the list at £104,000 is the Tiffany Jewellery Calendar, with a different piece of bling for each day to add that extra sparkle to your watching and waiting. More modestly, Fortnum and Mason offer an Old Rare Whiskey calendar for £1,000. For those who want to save on the washing, Happy Socks offer a new pair for each day at £104.96. Meanwhile at John Lewis their beauty calendar is similarly priced at £105.00 – no messing with loose change there. At the more sensible end, Hotel Chocolat offer their calendar for £26 and Divine have been offering a much more reasonable Fair-Trade calendar for a fiver, whereas the Real Advent Calendar has been even better value at £3.99.

These calendars were discussed on Radio 4 the other day because there has been a campaign to challenge the excessive consumption and acquisitiveness. This was seen as a radical option, which of course it is, if we take radical to be going back to the fundamentals. Advent is a time to ask what really matters and fasting and denial are a way Christian spirituality has traditionally encouraged this. Rather than acquire more stuff, consume more unnecessary chocolate or alcohol, the focus is to aim at living more sustainably. This Advent, with the climate challenge we face to reduce energy and carbon consumption by 7% a year, living sustainably is a timely message. We have to learn a different way of living and being; we will have to learn to curtail the endless increase in consuming that has become a way of life and something to be taken for granted. Endless growth has limits.

Friday was Black Friday and if like me you tried to drive round the city you will have seen how gridlocked it was with queues of traffic bringing people into the centre to shop for bargains. This is based on a marketing tool to encourage spending, which gives bargains to the cash strapped, but it is also a tool of the excessive consumerist culture that we are subjected to. When an event which was designed to get people back into the shops after the Thanksgiving public holiday in the United States of America now lasts a week, leaving aside that we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in this country, something is horribly out of balance. It feeds a craving for having where a bargain is seen as something to be grasped, even if you don’t actually want or need the goods on offer – the enticement tempts and dangles something attractive but not actually needed. We have to get this back under control and the best place to start is with ourselves and our own cravings. Living with enough, consuming no more than we need to consume is not a bad way to approach this season which can so easily be characterised by excess and over indulgence.

There is a radical alternative, which gives the whole basis of this a flip. Some are looking at what they can give as they join in with a Generous Advent. In Generous Advent, rather than opening boxes to take out a gift, looking at what’s for me, the flip is to put a series of boxes or baskets to one side and each day put in another item as a gift for someone who needs it more than you do. It can be a food bank Advent  to feed the hungry rather than more chocolates we don’t need. Rather than socks to save the washing, put a pair of socks in the basket for a homeless person who needs a pair. Rather than cosmetics put in toiletries and personal hygiene items for someone who can’t afford them. With this our watching and waiting takes on a different tone.

Advent is a time of preparation, when we prepare to greet the Christ who comes in the crib and also who will come again at the end of time. Our Gospel reading (Matthew 24:36-44) reminded us that we don’t know when that will be. We are to keep awake, be ready. In other words, live as someone who is living in anticipation of Christ’s arrival. And this is where Advent as a season of reflection and self-examination comes in. If we prepare with more consuming, with more acquiring, with more excessive living, then this is what we are preparing for. And we know that this is a distraction from the real goal and point of life. Riches, status, power and glory are all fading vanities. They will come to an end, but they provide a way to shut out that stark and sobering realisation. This is why Jesus said it is so hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. It is hard because it can be a distraction from mortality, from hope and from living for the Kingdom rather than for today’s comfort alone. Poverty is not fun, but riches can be a different kind of poverty, acquiring can impoverish the soul and impoverish contentment. Cravings are rarely satisfied because they are often a sign of something deep being empty and these commodities are the wrong thing to try to fill it with.

The Epistle (Romans 13:11-14) also reflected on this theme with its encouragement to live honourably and not in revelling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarrelling or jealousy. That rules of out the EastEnders Christmas special which usually promises a fight and debauchery in one form or another. Living honourably in this context is to live in the hope of Christ, who comes and fulfils, who is the one we should really crave for.

Advent looks forward and the calendars should point forward too. Having a treat each day, be it shiny things, socks or something for the taste buds, is not actually the point. Advent bids us to live in the light of God’s future, to hope in him and find as we do contentment. As we live in harmony with the earth, with justice and diet, we will be much more at peace. A Generous Advent is one inspired by the hope of Christ.

Sermon for Advent Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 1st December 2019

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Love is stronger than death: Remembrance Sunday

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Looking through hymns for Remembrance Sunday, and also readings and prayers, a common theme emerges. The imploring is for war to cease, looking forward to a time when peace will reign and there will be an end to fighting, to killing, to hatreds and violence. We could be forgiven for thinking that either God is not listening, or more to the point humanity isn’t, and this is a vain hope. Peace can be seen as the temporary pause between wars, a brief moment when conflicts quieten and we conduct those struggles through other means. Which is of course, not what peace is. Peace is not just a pressing of the pause button, but a reconciliation and uniting of common cause so that the flourishing of all is advanced. Anything else is not really peace at all because in the heart the hatreds and injuries fester ready to erupt again and wreak havoc.

For those of us longing for the day when war will cease and the shouts of battle will be turned to cheers of praise, our first reading speaks (2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-15). Paul was writing to a beleaguered and persecuted church in Thessalonica. It is one of his earlier letters, written around AD51. News reaches him in Corinth that the Christians in Thessalonica are wondering when Christ will come again and relieve them of their sufferings. He seems to be taking his time. If you were to sum up his letter in a Tweet it would be something like:

“Hold your nerve and stick at it. Don’t be conned by fake news.”

False reports of Christ’s return were abounding and people led astray in all sorts of ways. If there was a message for today, then that would be it. We are surrounded by misinformation, lies and deception in politics. The first casualty was truth and it was injured a long time ago. Holding our nerve and sticking at it is a message we can be renewed and strengthened in.

The passage we heard, ended with encouragement to stand firm and hold fast to being living witnesses to the hope, light and love of God in Jesus Christ. Whatever assails us, whatever fake news abounds, whatever hatreds, we are to remember that the way of Christ is the way of truth and peace, and it will always win through because it has the ultimate victory. It is better to be on the side of the angels than the one that leads to destruction. Put another way, Michelle Obama said, “when they go low, you go high” appealing for rising above the fray and going for the moral high ground, dignity intact. ‘Being the change we want to see’, words often attributed to another great leader, Ghandi, is one way we can bring it about, we can act as salt and light and yeast, as we are bidden to do in the Gospels. We want peace, so we have to live and breathe it, to be it, to proclaim it in how we are. When this happens it can have a remarkable affect on those around us. 

Remembrance Sunday is always a poignant moment, standing in the autumn sunlight and cold air, with its silence. Silence is the only response we can make in the face of the horrors and loss of life. It should sober us. It is a different emotion when reflecting years later to the moment when battle ceases. That can be a simple sitting on a rock with a quiet ‘it is finished’. Those are evocative words for us, because those are Christ’s words from the cross just before he died. A moment has been reached when conflict no longer has the upper hand. That will feel very different depending on whether this is a peace-treaty that brings reconciliation or is one of victor over vanquished. When there is liberation then one has to be put down and Paul implies in his letter that this is indeed what will need to come to liberate those in Thessalonica enduring great suffering. So the poignancy of the moment will vary with how we approach it – later reflection, post battle relief, victor-vanquished spectrum, moment of liberation.

This leads to another theme for Remembrance hymns, prayers and readings, that of justice. Without it there is no peace because that is the root of flourishing we seek for all.  And here we hit up against another theme, in the hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’. It is the line about a love that asks no questions that always sticks in my throat. It can be read as a love that will give willingly and in the service of others, trusting the one who commits them. But as we know too often that kind of blind allegiance is misplaced as political leaders who commit troops to action prove to have clay feet. And so if we are building a nation for peace and justice we need a love that asks lots of questions. And that is not incompatible with going high when others go low, because it is a search for truth and the solid ground on which justice and peace can be built, sustained and  can therefore flourish. Remembrance falling during General Election campaigning is a reminder that keeping faith, holding our nerve and sticking at it and not being conned by fake news requires calling to account and respectful challenge. Our patience may get tried, but that is the challenge as we seek to be the change we want to see and hold the high ground.

I will give the final word, as is fitting, to D-Day Veteran Harry Billinge, who was being interviewed on BBC Breakfast on Friday morning (8th November 2019 – 12:10 mins in). He was asked by Naga Munchetty what his message to young people would be, making sure they know the history and the lessons learnt. He replied that they need

‘to learn to love one another. There is a lot of hate in the world, greed and nonsense… It is a pity really that we don’t have a month of prayer because we have so much to thank God for. “Turn back O man, foreswear thy foolish ways.” We have been stupid. We are so clever, we can blow one another up but we don’t love one another. That’s the strongest thing on earth. ‘Love is stronger than death’.”

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 10th November 2019

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Hymn: Christ the Saviour (87 87 D)

A hymn based on ‘Follow me: Living the sayings of Jesus

In Babilone 87 87 D

1

‘Take this bread’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘eat and share in life with me,

with thanksgiving bless and honour

all the gifts to set you free.’

May this cup of hope revive you

on your journey through this world

filled with grace to follow justly;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

 

2

‘With this towel’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘I will wipe my people’s feet

washed in streams that flow from passion,

met at altar and in street.’

May the love that leads to service,

reaching out to all in need,

be a sign of Christ’s embracing;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

 

3

‘When you come’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘to the altar with your gift,

check your heart for buried hatred,

lest it make too great a rift.’

As forgiveness makes us worthy,

as a treasure lost and found,

make our own an act of blessing;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

 

4

‘See this coin’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘with the head that tells of power,

make it work for all God’s people

bringing hope to spring and flower.’

Use it wisely, use it justly

to achieve so much for good.

Bless the gift from God’s own bounty;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

 

5

‘When you pray’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘use the words within your heart.

Ask for bread and for forgiveness,

seek the grace to play your part.’

Bow before the holy mountain

where God’s people have been led,

drinking from the living fountain;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

 

6

‘See this cross’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘take it up and follow me

as so many have before you,

share its shame and victory.’

Walk in hope of Easter triumph,

when all things shall be redeemed,

in the love of Christ’s own promise;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

 

Optional Doxology (2nd part of tune)

Alleluia to the Father,

Alleluia to the Son,

Alleluia, Holy Spirit;

Praising God, the Three in One.

 

© Ian Black 2019

 

Suggested tunes – with hymn numbers:

In Babilone (A&M 229; CP 168; HO&N 571)

Everton (A&M 781; AMNS 132; CP 573-i; NEH 498;)

Corvedale (A&M 806; CP 598-i;)

Lux Eoi (A&M 194; AMNS 80; CP 137; HO&N 9NEH 103;)

Blaenwern (A&M 721-ii; AMNS 464; CP 301; HO&N 428-ii; NEH 408-i;)

 

Key:

A&M – Ancient and Modern: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship

AMNS – Ancient and Modern New Standard

CP – Common Praise

HO&N – Complete Anglican Hymns Old & New (orange cover)

NEH – New English Hymnal

i or ii – First or Second Tune

 

This hymn is based on the themes in my book ‘Follow me: Living the Sayings of Jesus‘ (Sacristy Press 2017). It was written during my Sabbatical in the summer of 2019. It is offered for free use, with just the appropriate acknowledgement ‘© Ian Black 2019’.

It will go to any tune of the 87 87 D metre, but I think it needs to be one with energy and ‘In Babilone’ (above) suits it well. While this might not be well know, it is fairly easy to pick up so should prove quick to learn.

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