Gospels and Anti-Semitism

2a3a7e58bfe9aa948c47362c7a13911b--holocaust-memorial-day-holocaust-remembrance-dayThere are passages in the gospels which, as we read them today, can make us do a double take. One was in the reading we’ve just heard (John 6:51-58). It was subtle and you could easily miss it, but with the news over the past few weeks, any sentence that begins ”The Jews then…” can make us tense up and brace ourselves for what is coming. The Labour Party has been under the spotlight of the press for how it is dealing with anti-Semitism in the party, and in particular their non-acceptance of one or two of the examples in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. The definition itself is quite simple, anti-Semitism is anything that shows hatred towards Jews, be it words, actions or images. It then gives some examples of what this can look like and it is one or two of these examples that have caused the problems.

Most are obvious and easy to sign up to. So, for example, blaming all Jews for the actions of some is regarded as dehumanizing and stereotyping. It is discriminatory and prejudiced. It expresses an inherent hatred of a people as a whole. There are two, though which cause more reflection, even debate. This has included some Jewish people themselves who find them controversial. There is nothing wrong with criticizing the State of Israel for a particular policy or action as we would criticize any state for a similar action or policy and that is made clear in the examples. This is not hatred of a people; it is criticism of an action. The challenge comes when it talks about the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and what that means. The challenge comes in how this is working out, not least for Palestinians who question this particular policy where they are not treated as being equal. All should be treated equally within a state, whatever their racial background. So this one is not quite as straightforward as the definition implies. It is disputed.

Also disputed is the drawing of comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and that of the Nazis. This is crass insensitivity and would clearly cause offence given the Holocaust, but seeing it as hatred requires some explanation. It might be seen as an attempt to say, look the actions of the state are so oppressive and dehumanizing of Palestinians; the oppressed have become the oppressors. But it is a highly inflammatory way of saying it given the history. It will no doubt cause offence, and using that example shows a disregard for the other which could display anti-Semitic sentiments. It is unlikely that anyone with any level of sensitivity and regard would pick that comparison. So, some of the IHRA examples, which accompany the definition, have their critics, and some of those critics are Jews themselves.

And so we come back to the gospels. There are passages in them when if we are not careful we can find ourselves being asked to affirm comments that sound like they are attacking all Jews. And that should make us wince or at least put us on our guard lest they lead to a place we do not wish to go. When John’s gospel talks of ‘the Jews’, bearing in mind Jesus was a Jew, and so were the first disciples, he means something specific. He means the Jewish leaders and a particular group of them. This does not mean all Jews across all time and we need to be clear on that, especially in the light of so many centuries of anti-Semitism and reading the gospels this side of the Holocaust. As we have seen anti-Semitism is current and we need to be clear that these texts do not back it up; clear to our subconscious selves as much as anyone else.

Meanwhile, the Tory party has got itself into hot water over Islamophbia and the comments of Boris Johnson and others. There is a great line in the Church Times editorial this week. It says you can post a letter in a Burka, as long as you are wearing it as you walk to the post box. Again Boris’ comments on how a very small proportion of Muslim women dress were offensive. The same is the case with referring to nuns as penguins, which a writer in the Peterborough Telegraph this week seems to think is OK. No it’s not. That is offensive too. Good manners mean we treat everyone with respect, even if we think they are dressing oddly to our way of seeing things. If you don’t understand why they wear what they do, if you can, ask them. It is acceptable to say that you find it odd that you can’t interact with the people who are hidden behind their clothing and even that it seems to make their presence less present, but that is not ridiculing, it is engaging in debate, especially if there is an opportunity for the other to respond. We can also wonder at the cultural forces at work for them and on them. The same goes, though, for the forced uncovering of so many others from westernized dress codes and the body shaming that goes with it. This is severely affecting psychological health and wellbeing. And it is worth keeping a sense of balance here. It is estimated that only 1% of 5% of the population wear the Burka.

The more worrying aspect of the comments is that they have demonised a group, made them more vulnerable, and assumed they are a threat, all for political motives and personal ambition. This is where it ceased to be debate and became aggressive. As with the Nazi comment for Jews, it has crossed a line of insensitivity to display an underlying hatred or at least a view that they don’t matter.

Earlier this week the singer Aretha Franklin died. One of her songs was ‘R E S P E C T’ and it told us to ‘find out what it means to me’. It was a response to an Otis Reading song, where the man in his song made it clear he was boss and expected to be shown respect by the woman. Aretha Franklin’s response was ‘if you want respect, you had better shape up and show it to me’. Finding out what respect means to someone else is not a bad thing to do. Why do some people find words which don’t matter to others offensive? They will have triggers, which cause painful memories and associations, and so using them is regarded as lacking respect and not treating the other with full dignity and love.

The ‘N’ word for black people is widely known to be offensive and President Trump is being accused of having used it on his American version of the TV show ‘The Apprentice’. It is offensive because of its association with slavery and the way some refer to Pakistani people touches similar buttons of their humanity not being honoured. Then we hear comedians like Reginald D Hunter, whose Edinburgh Fringe show includes the ‘N’ word in its title, and the singer Kanya West who uses it in his songs. This is them making a point about how they are seen as black men, and not encouraging its use as a term of endearment.

Showing deep honour and respect for all people, whoever they are and whatever their background is one of the characteristics we see in how Jesus behaved towards people. Those who ‘eat his flesh and drink his blood’ are the ones who receive eternal life (John 6:54), and that is not limited to any group or background or culture. It is not affected by a dress code and we have come a long way from the days of Sunday Best and hats. We are to be careful how we live, as our Epistle reminded us (Ephesians 5:15-20), with sobriety, with thankfulness and making the most of the time we have: to be people of blessing to all we meet and encounter.

We have to treat with care a number of passages in the gospels where they refer to ‘The Jews’. These are not licence or encouragement for anti-Semitism. The writer has a specific group in mind, not a whole people. After all Jesus was a Jew, as were his first followers. And by extension today there is no excuse for using language which dehumanizes anyone. All should be honoured and treated with ‘R E S P E C T’. All are welcome, invited under the same terms by a Jesus who honoured and respected all people.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Trinity 12, Sunday 19th July 2018

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Mary Magdalene: The First Apostle

IMG_1467Today we are celebrating the feast day of Mary Magdalene, one of the women who followed Jesus and took him seriously. She remained with him at the cross and in John’s Gospel she is the first to discover the empty tomb and encounter the risen Jesus there. This was a revelation that earned her an ancient title of ‘Apostle to the Apostles’. She is the first to announce, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). That title ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ first appears in the writings of a 9th century German Abbot, Rabanus Maurus, and was repeated by the great 13th century scholar Thomas Aquinas. She is not given the title ‘Apostle’, but ‘Apostle to the Apostles’. The implication is that she didn’t do any ‘apostling’ herself but she was entrusted a message and sent to the Apostles to tell them. If Paul can claim to be an apostle, even though he came on the scene later, the failure of the church over the centuries to give Mary Magdalene the same title and therefore full recognition is part of the checkered history we have. And it is only in recent years that there has been a fresh evaluation of the role of women in the early church, and indeed in all sorts of areas of history. If the only people you notice as being in the room when you write history are the men, then eyes get blinded to who else might have been present. The same goes for other differences – ethnicity, social background to name a couple. So Mary Magdalene is the First Apostle, who was also ‘Apostle to the [other] Apostles’.

Taking notice of who is in the room and who might just be shaping what happens is an interesting aspect of historical study and also noticing what makes things happen. Some people are very good at taking the credit for developments, projects and moving things forward, not least because they hold a particular office that gets attention. But behind them, even alongside them, and probably of more significance, are all those who make up the team; the others who contribute far more than they ever get the credit for.

So today, as we celebrate Mary Magdalene, we celebrate those who announce and bring into the room the crucial piece of a picture or information that means things can get moving. After all it is her news that made the male disciples get off their backsides and go to see. It is her news that changed an empty tomb into a visual aid of resurrection. Mary brings hope and new life into the room where they were in the grip of despondency, fear and death.

Mary’s story is rather sketchy. She has been conflated with other women characters in the Gospels and the story of her being a ‘fallen’ woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with tears and fragrant oil, and drying them with her hair is wrong. This is not her, but her symbol has become the jar of oil for anointing. You can see it in the east window in the Lady Chapel [in St John’s] on the ground beside her as she kneels before the resurrected Christ. She is described as being someone from whom seven demons had been driven out (Luke 8:1-3) and that would make her a person who had known what it is be fragile and vulnerable. In the film Mary Magdalene, which was in the cinema earlier in the year, she is regarded as having a demon because she was feisty and refused to do as she was told. Disobedience was taken to mean she must be possessed. She is, accordingly, subjected to a healing ritual, in which she nearly drowns, and this looks very much like spiritual abuse. To try to heal what is not actually broken, but a sign of spirit and independent thinking, and to try to drive out demons which do not exist is an abuse of power and an oppressive act.

And there are churches which will do this. To carry out an exorcism is a very serious thing to do and requires the bishop’s approval. It should not be carried out by people who are not authorized to do this precisely to protect those who are vulnerable. They are so rare that they almost never take place, and not on people. Last year the Church of England outlawed therapies to heal gay people of their sexuality, and the government have announced that they will introduce legislation to make it illegal. The reason is simple, these people are not sick, so they don’t need healing, no more than the rest of us do, and not of their orientation. Jayne Ozanne, when she came here a few weeks ago, spoke about being subjected to such therapies and the singer Vicky Beeching has spoken about how such abuse drove her to edge of suicide. It has driven others to do so. Viewed from here the healing of Mary would be the liberation that comes with acceptance, love and welcome. We just don’t see the world in terms of demon possession, but the story can still speak to us through this kind of symbolic interpretation.

So Mary Magdalene does not stand for the ‘fallen women’ in the Gospels, but for those who endured much, those who were fragile and found an embrace and welcome into the community of his followers. She stands for all who have struggled with things which torment them or who don’t fit the boxes we want people to fit; those who may been subjected to much abuse and harmful behaviour by others who got their needs so wrong. She stands for those who despite weaknesses were entrusted to be storytellers of the astounding, world-changing, good news of Christ’s resurrection. She stands for those who are easily overlooked when deciding who has made the difference as the praise and the adulation are taken by others; those whose contribution is invaluable, whom we need to have in the room and see as being in the room.

There are many Mary Magdalene’s in churches, in fact many of us may find her story resonates with ours: damaged, in need of healing of the effects of pain and suffering, not least at the hands of others, and yet who are sent as apostles to bring vital news to change a room filled with death and despair into one of hope and resurrection life. Mary Magdalene is a real saint, overlooked, yet at the heart of the story. She is the ‘First Apostle’, the one who is sent to apostle the other apostles. True apostolic succession works this way as the ones who hear in each generation also receive healing and are enabled to tell the story to others, who in turn tell the story as they are set free to do. Her message is simple, “I have seen the Lord”. We can only tell what is real to us, of a faith that inspires, ignites passion and compels us to go out as we are set free to go. May Mary Magdalene be for us an inspiration as we look to be set free to tell the story of our faith, to be apostles of the love of God in Jesus Christ and so enable others to tell in turn.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Mary Magdalene, Sunday 22 July 2018

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Thorns in the side – real intelligence over artificial


Peterborough Hospital

On a late evening bit of channel hopping a few weeks ago, I stumbled across the film ‘Lucy’ on Film4. It is a sci-fi thriller about a woman who develops enhanced abilities of mind and body after a new drug is absorbed into her bloodstream. She is tricked into becoming a drug mule in Taipei in Taiwan. This puts her under the control of violent drugs traffickers who surgically insert a bag of these new mind altering drugs into her abdomen. At her destination these will be cut out. There is a violent incident during which she is kicked in the stomach several times and the bag bursts causing the drug to be absorbed into her system. The result is she develops heightened abilities of telepathy, being able to use her mind to move and manipulate objects, mental time travel and the ability to not feel pain or other discomforts. Her personality changes too as she becomes emotionless and ruthless. It has interesting moments and is an exploration of the potential power of the mind, of its untapped limits mixed in with some eastern mysticism too.

Towards the end of the film, Lucy advances so far that she can enter the computer networks – this is where the sci-fi elements become trippy. And the film ends with a statement that “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.” The implication is that transcending emotion, the limitations of pain and suffering, and being able to advance in mental abilities beyond those inhibited by these things makes us more fully who we can be. If you like, it is the cessation of emotion, cravings and attachments that makes us more fully who we have it in us to be. That is quite a claim and St Paul in our epistle reading sets out a very different understanding.

In his second letter to the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 12:2-10) Paul discusses boasting. He talks about people who have experienced profound mystical spiritual experiences and been taken up, as he puts it, into layers of heaven, or spiritual insight most of us can only dream of. It is a heady place to be and one which could lead to boasting of how special that person is. And Paul hints at some of the causes he might have to boast. But he will not do this, because it would be to miss the point. He goes on to mention the thorn in his flesh, possibly a recurring ailment that bugged him and gave him jip. He looks on this as being an angel who serves to keep him humble. And it is a very different way of looking at suffering and pain. This is not something to be overcome in the sense of no longer feeling it or it not being a nuisance. This thorn, this means of torture as it could be translated, is rather a way that he stays grounded and remembers that he is creature and not creator. It is a reminder of mortality.

This is a very different understanding to that of the sci-fi film Lucy, where such sufferings are a weakness to be conquered. For Paul those weaknesses are the sign that we are fully human and rather than making us less emotional and less empathic, they increase these things and in them we find what makes us human rather than some form of biological robot. We feel, we sense, we know through experience, we weep and bleed. And it is in these things that we find a profound gift, the gift of life that is vulnerable, humble, precious and sacred. The quest for artificial intelligence will always be a pale imitation without the emotional and the ability to feel pain.

So Paul won’t boast of things that do not matter. He will boast of those which do, his weakness and the overwhelming love of God which takes this frail, fragile and almost futile-looking life and gives it the full honour of being regarded as his beloved children. In this is our true strength. And this makes intelligence real rather than artificial.

There is a similar thread in the gospel reading (Mark 6:1-13), but we have to read between the lines to find it. Jesus has gone back to his home town. Many are astounded that this carpenter can now talk with incredible wisdom and they wonder where he has found it. They thought they knew him. They thought they understood his place as a carpenter and here he is performing wonderful signs and speaking with such profound wisdom. Rather than just being amazed they take offence, which does seem a little odd. Can’t they delight in one of theirs coming of age? It is as if he has crossed a line he should not cross and they don’t like where this might lead. It is disturbing and unsettling.

But it is the reference to his mother, his brothers and sisters which provides us with the key to where this wisdom is shaped. As we hear and read the story of Jesus we find someone who is deeply compassionate, who understands the depths and power of human emotions. Last week (Mark 5:21-43) he responded immediately to Jairus whose daughter was dying. He healed the woman bleeding and who had suffered for so many years. This is not someone who is detached from the pain and anguish of real life. And wisdom is not either. It is not cold, it is not detached, it is not aloof. It is rather tried in the crucible of human passion and toil – a carpenter knows hard work, how wood has to be shaped and hammered into place; this carpenter understands life from the inside.

So when we want to know what to do with life, which has been 1 billion years in the making and shaping, it is not to be detached from the emotional and the visceral. These are an important and vital component of who we really are and provide the clue as to what we should do with this life. They are the signs of love and compassion. And it is out of love and compassion that the Christ comes. And it is in the pain and suffering, the struggle and gift of the thorn in the side that we understand more fully where love rests. Because without these we would be robotic and that would be emotionless, compassionless, ruthless and not a world we should aspire to. It would be artificial and not real.

Interestingly, the boys trapped in the caves in Thailand have sent letters to their parents. Emotional contact matters to their wellbeing in what must be unimaginably difficult circumstances. And on Tuesday we hosted a talk as part of Pride Week, by a leading evangelical Christian, Jayne Ozanne, who helped us explore through the power of her human story the complexity of human relationships and our emotional wellbeing. It was an occasion I was very glad we hosted because of the conversations I had afterwards with people who had not realized that they would be welcome in a church. This is because of the treatment they have had elsewhere. I don’t think I fully appreciated in advance just how important what we did was going to be. And it came through hearing real stories, shared by real people.

So St Paul, in what might seem an odd reading, helps us see that the purpose of life is not to escape it. We are not to seek a mental state that tries to pretend suffering and pain are not real, we are not looking for the triumph of the ‘rational’ over the emotional in a cold intellect. That is artificial and not real. What we seek is to be truly human, truly loving and loved, to know through the thorns in our sides that we are mortal and yet deeply loved by God. In this we find a fuller compassion and solidarity with one another. And that leads to transformation in so many ways. The sign of Jesus’ mission is the transforming and healing acts he did. It is not to tell people to pretend they don’t matter. This carpenter understands from the inside and it is through living life fully, even painfully, especially including the thorns in the sides, that we are able to truly be children of God.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Trinity 6, Sunday 8th July 2018

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Touching the holy

IMG_6790Our Gospel reading shows Jesus having a busy day (Mark 5:21-43). He has travelled across the lake by boat and is greeted by a great crowd on the other side. A leader of the synagogue approaches him and falls at his feet. It is dramatic, it is humbling, it is desperate. Jairus’ daughter is seriously ill and he will do anything to save her, so no humility is too much for him – he is past caring about such trivialities. Every parent will recognize instantly how he felt. There is no question about whether this is worth his time; Jesus goes with him. There are some things that when you get the call you just go.

On the way the crowd presses in. And a woman decides this is her moment. She has suffered for many years, spent a great deal of money on trying to find a cure. Women and bleeding are unclean matters in first century Palestine and so coming into the crowd is risky, approaching Jesus is risky, but what has she to lose? Still, she tries to do this covertly. ‘If I just reach out and touch him I will be well.’ She doesn’t want recognition; she very much doesn’t want recognition. She just wants to be healed, quietly and without fuss. That is familiar, when something is so serious, we don’t want a fuss, we just want it sorted.

Does she think this is magic? It is a world of the superstitious and the supernatural. But it is faith, which means trusting in God, that heals her. That is not the same as magic, which is the manipulation of elements and who knows what else. Faith means trusting in God – whatever. And ultimately of course there is no guarantee that she will get what she wants, as understandable as her plight is.

There is something about reaching out to touch the holy. Shrines and holy places have been the focus of much pilgrimage over the centuries and still are. People come to touch the holy, to find something tangible with which they can connect and feel that they are able to grasp what is otherwise difficult to get hold of. It can be fragments of a saint or something associated with them, it can be buildings – places where the holy feels more present. And all of us access this in reaching out for bread and wine and connecting with the holy through the ordinary of food and drink. We are physical beings and need to have physical expressions, vehicles to help us travel from the material to the spiritual, from the present to the eternal.

The point of these things is not to be the holy itself and we need to watch that this does not get confused. Their value is how they help us connect with God and the holy. TS Elliot in his poem Little Gidding, referred to the church there as being a place where ‘prayer has been valid’. And that validity, that tradition of praying, becomes a well we can draw from and find encouragement from. So when we touch what we see as holy items, go to places we see as being holy places, what makes them holy is the encounter with God that they usher and facilitate. For the woman with bleeding and great shame, it was the touch of the garment. It then became a moment of blessing as Jesus honoured and sent her on her way in peace. She longed, she hoped, she cried out and her cry was heard.

Touching the holy is no mere knick-knack hunting. We are not picking up items for the sacred mantelpiece where they can gather dust and be gazed at occasionally. We are seeking to make a connection with all that lies at the root of existence, with the very purpose of life itself. We seek to connect with God. We seek to connect our deepest desires and longings with God, ultimately to place our trust and hope in God’s mercy. That is something we can all relate to and also find that we are sent on our way in peace by the Christ who hears, loves us and blesses us as we reach out to him.

Sermon preached at St Luke’s Church, Peterborough, Trinity 5 – Sunday 1st July 2018

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Being John the Baptists

IMG_7179I hope you will allow me a moment of personal reflection alongside our patronal festival this morning. Twenty-five years ago on Wednesday I was ordained as a Deacon in Canterbury Cathedral. It has been quite a journey over a quarter of a century and one which actually fits rather well with celebrating John the Baptist, our name saint, today. In some ways the job of the church fits rather well with John the Baptist, not least in the social context in which we find ourselves. John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord, he called people from where they were, linking with their spiritual aspirations and desires, and got them ready for the Christ to appear. As a churchwarden said to me in my first incumbency, it has been our vocation to be John the Baptists – to move this place to where it can flourish more fully in the future. And with all the emphasis in the church on growth and mission, we mustn’t forget the vital role of John the Baptists in the stages of faith development and moving people on in their questing and journeying; preparing the way of the Lord, making the path straight for that journey to continue one step at a time.

So twenty-five years ago I arrived at the town centre civic church in Maidstone as the new curate with our newborn son. It was a whirlwind of a fortnight – James was born on Tuesday, I moved house on Friday, went back to Lincoln on Sunday, brought Sue and James back down to Kent on Monday (with the dog wondering what we’d put in the car by mistake as the horror dawned on him that this bundle was here to stay) and then went on ordination retreat on Wednesday to meet up again in the Cathedral on the Sunday! Not a sequence I would recommend and certainly not over that timescale!

I think ordained ministry is the greatest privilege in the world. It brings access to people and despite all of the scandals and shocks of how some in the church have behaved, we are still trusted in a way no one else is. People say things to us they have never said to anyone else. And breaking confidences is a serious matter, because without trust we have nothing. A lot is expected of those who wear this collar. Some of it is un-meetable, some of it reminds us of the serious responsibility given to us. As the bishop says in the ordination charge, ‘remember the greatness of the trust committed to your charge’. All of it points to the deep longing people have for there to be people who bring light, integrity and hope to birth. So when clergy mess up it rocks a community so much more deeply and it can pollute the waters for many years. I know this because I’ve had to deal with the legacy of predecessors who have not behaved well.

And the access which ordination gives is to everyone. That includes those at the top table, wherever that is, and those who are not even in the room: the homeless, the Lord, the business chief and the cleaner, celebrity and the notorious prisoner, those celebrating, those crying, those unable to cope and those whose decisions affect many people’s lives and they know they carry a great weight. It is a ministry of service, which remembers that people, whoever they are, are first and foremost souls before God. All are loved and cherished and all matter equally. Being a deacon is where clergy start, and the word ‘deacon’ is the same as servant or assistant. With so much emphasis on leadership, that is actually what cuts it with people. Showing an interest, listening, being there. And there are times when I become aware that ‘being there’, showing up is what matters most. It is a ministry of presence and all that brings. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t, sometimes the competing demands crash against one another. We are not airbrushed, as this community is not, it is a real community and we are all real people who bump along. To be an inclusive community means we are not airbrushed.

And one of the things I have learnt over the years is that there are times when I run out of capacity. Sometimes I am over tired and need to rest. Sometimes I am not fit to be allowed out in public, not until I’ve a little nap and regrouped. And this is a reminder that everything does not depend on me. In fact it doesn’t all depend on you. It depends on God. As I saw the other day in a post somewhere online, it is God who calls and moves, all I have to do is love. And that is what I’ve also learnt, that the requirements aren’t actually that difficult. They are to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. I have a strong conviction that this is God’s church and if we are faithful in prayer, service and commitment to make a difference around us, the faith will rub off and be attractive. A lively faith community is infectious and anyone coming through the doors can smell it instantly. They know if this is a place that prays. They know if this is a house where they can find love and acceptance. They know if the lives have been touched by grace, which is not the same as being airbrushed by the PR gurus. Despite all the fakery around, ours is a culture that longs for the genuine – the real deal. Sometimes people don’t know what to do when they find it, but they know they want it and can recognize it a mile off.

There have been times when I would have run away from some of this ministry, it has just felt too difficult. Sometimes it is hard and feels without reward, not least when it feels fruitless. Of course it is not fruitless, we just don’t see it all the time. If you do gardening you can see the result of the work straight away – beds dug, shrubs pruned, lawns mown. In this ministry, you see nothing most of the time and then years later you might get a glimpse of just how something has helped or made a difference. But when I am feeling particularly sorry for myself I usually find a serious pastoral matter comes to mind – anointing the dying, listening to someone whose life is in bits – whatever it is and it is a sharp reminder of just what matters most. It is holding lives before God, sitting alongside in the praying and the struggling, reaffirming hope and resurrection life. It is to be touched by grace when grace is most needed.

So today we come here to celebrate the saint after whom this church is named, St John the Baptist. It is a day to reflect on the gospel of hope that lies at the heart of this community of faith, of what is in our title deeds. John the Baptist does that well, because he is the forerunner. He is not the main deal himself and does not draw people to follow him. And neither do we. That would be idolatrous, placing ourselves in the place of God and therefore egotistical. As St Paul reminded us a few weeks ago, we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves in his service (2 Corinthians 4:5). And that is what a deacon does. Proclaims the love of God in Jesus Christ and calls on all of us to live lives dedicated in his service – in word, prayer and deed. It is what this church is called to do and to be.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Patronal Festival – St John the Baptist, 24th June 2018

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Compassion, Conviction and Courage

IMG_4952One of the things we do really well in this country is our ceremony. We know and are well practiced at putting on a good show. We can rummage in the dressing up box and come up with robes and gold chains to add to the spectacle and drama of a civic occasion. We even had a guard of honour from the Heritage Festival re-enactors as we made our way into this incredible gem of a building this afternoon, which is a fabulous stage for such an occasion as this. And music, rehearsed and honed over so many hours, lifts the heart in praise and adds to the sense of dignity. Breathe in deeply and it is quite a heady mix. Breathe in too deeply and it can become toxic. It is good then, to have had five passages from the Bible to add a counter balance to save our souls – a Psalm sung to the Anglican chant, Old Testament and New Testament readings and two canticles taken from St Luke’s Gospel.

These passages all have some sharp things to say to us, words of challenge for compassion, conviction and courage. And it is under those three words – compassion, conviction and courage – that I want offer some reflections for civic leaders on this moment of dedication at the beginning of a new mayoral year, and by extension for the whole Council, for whom we pray here and in St John’s, the city Parish Church, regularly. You and your work are in our prayers because you need prayers and we know how great the responsibility is that has been given to you. And we also know how seriously you and your officers take that. What is more we know just how great the challenge is that you face with tight budgets that don’t really balance to meet the needs which are growing in inverse proportion to the money given to you. The first tranche draft budget for next year, released this week, reminds us that your funding from the central government has been cut by 80% over the last 7 years and each year I am amazed that you manage to keep going. It is important to ‘Stand up for Peterborough’ and that means that national party spin needs challenging too. Again I know that message is being taken to central government. It is important to stand up to your national parties too.

That may be leaping straight to ‘courage’, but let’s start with ‘compassion’. I know that you care deeply for the people of this city, for the life and well being of this city. I know this because I speak with you and you tell me this in all sorts of ways. A major issue is homelessness and it is a difficult one to crack. The causes are as complex as people are, and they are as varied as people are. Each homeless person has a story, which doesn’t fit neat boxes, though there are common themes of poverty, being unable to cope, mental illness, substance dependencies, loss of hope, desperation. The list goes on. From the outside it is easy to judge. Sitting alongside we become aware that there is so much more to it, to each person. Which is why I am delighted that our new Mayor has chosen the Light Project as one of his charities, of which I am a trustee – a project working on the street, running the Winter Night Shelter in partnership with local churches and working to provide the longer term mentoring and support that the recent report from the charity ‘Crisis’ highlighted as being so desperately needed. That work needs to find the funds to make a longer term provision a reality. And it is our compassion that will give us the drive to make this happen.

Second comes ‘conviction’. We need to be inspired by a higher ethic than just political survival or naked ambition. I know so many of you have sought office to make a difference. Our readings gave us a clear manifesto that puts justice and mercy at the centre of the stage (Micah 6:8). Justice means that all are honoured, given the dignity that they are due because they are beloved children of God, just like we are. The Psalm told us that it is a vain shadow to just try to heap up riches, that our hope needs to be in God, in that bigger ethic than passing glory, which neither lasts nor is of much value (Psalm 39:7-8). In case we hadn’t caught on yet, the New Testament reading rammed home the message with Jesus’ Nazareth manifesto. What’s he there for: to bring good news to those who don’t hear it much – the poor; to proclaim release to those who are locked up in all sorts of ways that oppress and imprison; to give sight to those who have lost it and set people free (Luke 4:18-19). And to keep this drilling into our brains, the choir sang the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, which turns the world’s priorities upside down from those of the rich and powerful to the poor and weak, those most easily overlooked (Luke 1:46-55). The reason for this again, came in the Nunc Dimittis – to bring light to lighten all peoples (Luke 2:29-32). Evensong seems a cute, gentle service, but it packs a punch.

When we want to know what the first purpose of government is, the Bible is quite clear – it is to ensure justice for everyone. Any talk of defence being the first duty is actually talking about means to achieve an end. The end is justice; the means are multiple. It is all the ways that people feel and see that they are honoured, that access is enabled, that the priorities of the integration agenda being championed are taken forward. Again another example of how I see your compassion being expressed in convictions and policy.

This leads to my third ‘c’, ‘courage’. Not everyone agrees with us all the time. We know that here. We get stick when we show hospitality to people others think we should keep at a distance. We get stick if we speak out on an issue. Anyone who raises their head above the parapet is likely to be on the receiving end of critical comment, sometimes direct abuse. It takes courage to not just say what is popular or do what plays to the gallery. But if what we do is driven by the compassion of justice and mercy, honouring and that bigger perspective, which this beautiful place represents, then it stands on some firm convictions and we need the courage of those.

There is a valid place for lively, questioning debate and alternative policies are rightly put forward. People do and need to have the courage to speak as they see it. That is democracy and it is a treasure to be protected and enlivened. And we all need that humility that will be open to someone else spotting the flaws in our reasoning when they come. After all, the Psalm also reminded us that our days are numbered, we are not permanent, and need the humility that this should bring. Our first reading advised that we walk humbly with God – the God of justice and mercy.

As we begin a new mayoral year, may God bless you all with a spirit of compassion, conviction and courage for the serious and weighty responsibilities we the electorate have given to you on our behalf, on behalf and for the good of all the people of this wonderful and diverse city.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Cathedral for Mayor’s Installation, Sunday 17th June 2018

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A Pilgrim’s Prayer

IMG_0866I have been working on the new souvenir guidebook for Peterborough Cathedral – writing copy and ensuring that there is a common voice for the whole text. It is a truly collaborative effort and I think we have produced an excellent book to mark the 900th anniversary year. It has been important to balance the need for history with conveying that it is a living Christian church.

To bring all the themes together, and round off a final section on it being ‘A Sacred Space for All’, I have written this prayer, ‘A Pilgrim’s Prayer’. It reflects work by Dee Dyas and the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at the University of York on how the boundary between visitors, tourists and pilgrims is both thin and permeable. Visitors can find themselves surprised to leave as pilgrims. And so the guide book ends with a prayer for them to use, either in the building or when they read the book at home.

The prayer recognises the vast array of reasons people come and the concerns they bring. It also draws on the cathedral being a sign of the Kingdom of God – its grandeur designed to draw hearts to the glory of God.

As we pray for all who come, so we invite them to pray for us.


A Pilgrim’s Prayer

God of life and love

as we journey through our days

on roads smooth and rugged

fill us with the hope of Jesus Christ

that the beauty of this place

may be for us a sign of your Kingdom

of justice and peace

and inspire us with your Holy Spirit

to be people of praise and thanksgiving.


© Ian Black 2018

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