Taking the apple


‘Madonna and Child with St Anne’, Ambrosius Benson, Netherlandish, c.1527 – National Galleries of Scotland

There is a Christmas Carol, Adam lay ybounden, which I must have heard hundreds of times. Sometimes I don’t get beyond the second line, with its reference to 4,000 winters and therefore a timescale with far too many naughts missing, drawing its dating, as it does, from simplistic biblical mathematics. This adds up the ages of the first people listed in the Old Testament and arrives at a wildly inadequate span.



“Adam lay ybounden,

bounden in a bond:

four thousand winter

thought he not too long.”

If I do listen further it talks about if the apple had not been taken from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil then there would have been no need for Christ’s redemption. Blessed then be the time that the apple was taken, for it resulted in the coming of Christ through the childbearing of Mary and the redemption of humanity he brought.

The story behind this was our first reading (Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7). And it has often puzzled me why choosing to know the difference between right and wrong is such a bad idea. Surely that is to take moral responsibility and that lies at the core of what it means to be human. We know the difference between right and wrong, can assess that difference, and are conscious in the present moment sufficiently to hold those notions.

And that is the code breaker for this strange forbidden fruit eating myth. The image of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is actually about what it means to know anything. We can only know through experiencing, not just as a result of mere academic instruction. In today’s education speak, that would be labeled as the need for self-directed learning pathways. So to know we have to experience at some level and participating in human experience involves mortality. Being human is to be free because humans are not pre-programed robots. To live is to choose, to makes decisions, and in choosing we will inevitably pick the right and the wrong ways and thereby we are part of fallible, fallen, fault ridden humanity. We enter the world of sin, the biblical word for this state. The consequence of sin is death and so to be truly human, to know the difference between good and evil, is to be mortal. And that is the gist of the second reading (Romans 5:12-19).

The Genesis story is not an explanation of how this all comes about, despite its vivid depiction of a garden with a couple picking fruit and a talking snake. It is more a description stating this is how it is. And the talking snake is not the devil in any personified, third person, sense. The story predates the emergence of that concept by several hundred years. The idea of a devil as a separate being and mischief-maker did not emerge until after the exile in the 6th century BC. This story from Genesis is thought to be nearly half a millennium older. So the snake is not external to the man and the woman but more the personification of temptation, more within them than outside them. It portrays the human condition, what it means to try to fathom out which course to take and get it horribly wrong at times. Because we do that we are mortal.

So the story of the Garden of Eden, with its innocence, is a story of not being fully human because to be fully human is to sin and to get it horribly wrong and face death. To be without sin is to be without death. Which makes Jesus quite an interesting character as the sinless one, and why our fellow children of Abraham, Jews and Muslims, find his death so abhorrent. To their view, if Jesus died he could not be God because to die is to be subject to sin and to be mortal, fallible and therefore not on a par with God. That is why the Gospels are careful to use the language of Jesus giving himself up to achieve what he achieves on the cross, through death and the power of the resurrection. He chooses to become like one of us, to the point of sharing humanity in its fullest form, even death and therefore embracing sin, taking sin into his very self. It is powerful language. The only way the hope we have in him can be revealed is by one who dies and rises from the dead. Our hope is that this will be ours too. And that is the message we affirm at every funeral and baptism.

Hence that 15th century carol, Adam lay ybounden, hit the nail on the head with its reference to the ‘blessed time that apple taken was’, because through it, because of it, Christ comes to redeem.

Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. The marking on our foreheads with the ash was a reminder that we are born of dust and to dust we shall return. By turning to Christ we embrace the hope he brings in the redemption which deals with the consequence of the human condition, expressed by that blessed apple, and Christ embracing our humanity fully, dying and rising, redeems that situation, removing the impending state of doom.

This is mind-bending stuff. But it has profound significance for us. In a time when walls are being proposed by Donald Trump to keep people out, and Banksy has just opened a hotel in Bethlehem next to the wall separating Israelis and Palestinians,  Jesus as the new Adam, builds a bridge between God and his creation. We are not separate from the divine, as if God lives on a far away, remote planet, only making the occasional visit to check up on what we are up to, get a bit cross and throw a few thunderbolts about. God is in the mix, in the thick of it all, and because of that there is hope. This dust, this mix, has purpose and tingles with God’s love. This makes those temptations of Jesus in the wilderness a denial of the loving purpose at the heart of everything (Matthew 4:1-11). And Jesus’ replies call us back to that central hope that God has established a bridgehead, indeed there cannot be a separation: it is a false claim to say that he is absent. The apple taken is a blessed apple because of this.

The first temptation is to turn stones into bread. Jesus’ reply is that bread is not the only point to life. We don’t live by physics alone, though we can’t live without it. We depend on the word, the purposes of God, for our reason to be, our causing to be, and our continued being. The second temptation is a crazy suicide stunt. “Jump off a high tower and watch the squadron of angels come to your aid.” It is the temptation to deny the full humanity that comes from that blessed apple. By taking it, by embracing the cross, Jesus fulfills for us the hope that our fallible, sin-ridden, state is not retched and hopeless. So when the cross comes the mind-worm is sown to call on the snatch squad to get him out of it. That is the central theme of Martin Scorsese’s 1980s film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. For all its controversy at the time, it was a reworking of this temptation: when the time comes just cut that dying bit and go straight to heaven. Well that doesn’t help us, because we don’t cut that bit, so if there is to be hope it has to be hope after death, not instead of it.

And then there is the third temptation. This is the one about worship. We worship God because God is God. It is the response of awe and wonder, of thanks and praise for the blessing that is life and new life in Christ. To worship something else is a false orientation; we face the wrong way. We can worship ourselves – remember the snake is not outside us, but inside us. We can worship false hopes: money, experiences of ecstasy or various levels of pleasure, image and power. And power is the invidious one here. The voice of the Tempter offers ultimate power to the one who has it any way and has chosen to give it up so that he can be one with us that we may be one with him.

The temptations are a challenge to Jesus fully taking on the state that comes from the apple being taken, to be fully human and therefore mortal. And in turn, it challenges the purpose of this coming among us to redeem, to bring hope where there would otherwise be doom. Life is not pointless, but filled with the hope and love of God. By Jesus embracing this project, the apple of doom becomes blessed, for its consequence is redeemed. The purpose of life is found in the love of God, and while it is fragile, fallen and fallible, formed of dust to which it returns, it is also held in embrace of God in Jesus Christ fully one of us. For that we reject the final temptation and worship the only one to whom it is due, God.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Lent 1, Sunday 5th March 2017

Image: ‘Madonna and Child with St Anne’, Ambrosius Benson, Netherlandish c.1527 – National Galleries of Scotland. Blessed Virgin Mary and her mother, St Anne, offering the Christ-child an apple, they forbidden fruit Eve offered Adam in the Garden of Eden, symbolising his bearing the sins of humanity.

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Refreshing faith, hope and love each day

867f23d8b1e94f5ca7b39dc39a27cf55_870On Monday we hosted an event to celebrate and support the contribution that people who have come here from other countries have made and do make to the life of this city. Called ‘One day with us’ it was organized because after the Brexit vote many of them are feeling vulnerable and uncertain about how welcome they are. Some spoke of the abuse that they have received from people telling them to go home. It was reported on local news and there was a prominent feature on it in this week’s Peterborough Telegraph. I was struck by the comments of one woman who talked about the rhetoric and slogans from people like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage and how she saw these as being very similar to comments she heard in Bosnia during the 1990s when she lived there as a child. That led to genocidal violence. Her words are a salutary warning.

Words matter and we need to guard our tongues. We do not want to become a people of hatred and division. And the story we tell ourselves and allow others to get away with telling, over time, shapes how we see the world and those who share it with us. The rhetoric around ‘fake news’ is invidious. Clearly all news comes from a particular perspective and events are interpreted in the telling, but to lie and make up what is not true is dangerous. There is an old adage that a lie repeated often enough becomes normalized and accepted as being the truth. That is how propaganda works and it is how advertising works, so it all depends what the message is. It is also how sharing good news works, for our purposes the good news of Jesus Christ. If we say it often enough, not least to ourselves, it shapes us and becomes the story we use to view everyone and everything around us. That is why regular worship, daily praying, is so important in Christian living and spiritual formation. Just like I’m not fit to face the world before at least 2 mugs of coffee in the morning, I’m not ready either before I have begun with prayer. The morning praying resets the calibration in my outlook and hope, it restores in grace.

The reading from the second letter of Peter (2 Peter 1:16-21) was a reminder of the importance of repeated messages. The passage actually begins a few verses before the section we heard, at verse 12, where the writer says that he is going to go on and on reminding them of the hope they have, even though they know it already. He will do this to refresh their memory. They need to keep this hope, this story of grace, refreshed in their minds so that it provides the lens through which the world is viewed. It is based in real events, real encounter with God. This is not cleverly devised myths, but has eyewitness encounter behind it.

That eyewitness encounter is difficult for us to assess. We may believe it, we may wonder, we may discount it as ancient texts that we can’t assess. And that cloud of not knowing, at best, and scepticism or even hostility, at worst, is the background noise we have to contend with in how Christianity is viewed by a population who do not share the story. So it is important for us to be renewed in the story because it is not reinforced or sustained anywhere else. While the church often fits the model of its host culture, it is also to stand outside it and bring something fresh into the mix. We have a gospel of hope, of love, of redemption and new life. That gospel is not the default setting of the stories we meet everywhere else. We are to be people of that hope, love, redemption and new life. There is a purpose to the life we have and that purpose lies with God. Purpose and point are not concepts western, consumer culture models beyond enjoyment and satiating desires. ‘Eat, drink and shop because that is where purpose lies.’ That is shallow and we are called to point to more, to the love at the foundation of everything.

Into this renewing and restoring in hope, the Transfiguration, which we heard in the gospel reading (Matthew 17:1-9), is a story of a profound religious experience. In it the three disciples are given a vision or are onlookers to a moment when the glory within Jesus was made known. It is difficult to know exactly what happened or lies behind this. Was it something for Jesus to strengthen him for what was to come? This event is placed just before the final journey to Jerusalem and the crucifixion in Matthew’s gospel. We need moments of deep revelation and insight to see us through the hard times and struggle. Moments of profound seeing can be formative and something we call back on when we need to be reminded that the hope is grounded and has a basis in reality. So it might be that the disciples see a private moment and that gift of intimacy enables them to be able to recall it later when they try to make sense of all that has been. Peter clearly draws on it in his letter, written many years later. And if we have to stand up to protect the vulnerable or those feeling threatened and unwanted, then it is important to have a clear sense of what hope, love, redemption and new life look like when they are lived.

Peter’s desire to capture the experience and to build a shed to hold the moment in is very believable. In fact the Christian church has spent 2,000 years building structures to capture the vision of holiness and contain the sacred. That makes it safer to deal with because you know where to find it and where to leave it. Church buildings are substantial aid memoirs for a story that is known, places to meet in and shelter in. But there is a warning here: the encounter, the experience is not to be contained like that. God always refuses to be boxed in. To go back to the epistle, our challenge is to keep the story alive in sharing it and living it, until the morning star rises in our hearts. The Morning Star is Christ, and the rising in our hearts is him so infusing us that we don’t need outside reminders. That may well not be achieved until the end of time, but in the meantime the challenge is for the Transfiguration to be something that takes place inside us. The encounter touches us deeply within and the hope that springs through Christ and from him works on us.

If the encounter takes place inside us, rather than outside us, then we are able to recreate it, connect with it, wherever we are. Sacred space becomes not just in the booth built where something once happened, but on the hillside where there is no booth, in the city square, not just in the church standing next to it. We connect with it when we meet the stranger, the vulnerable foreigner, looking not to be tolerated but accepted and appreciated, as the woman put it on Monday at the ‘One day with us’ event.

On Wednesday we will enter Lent. It is a time to be renewed in the story of hope and daily praying. Take one of the leaflets from Christian Aid home with you. Use it each day to provide a moment wherever you are for prayer and refocus on the gospel of hope, love, redemption and new life. Feel free to make a contribution counting blessings each day, but above all, use the sheet as a prayer aid. That will then become for you a moment of Transfiguration within and that will refresh faith and hope and love, and in turn how we are with those we know and those we don’t know.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 26th February 2017

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Key word full house: murder, anger, adultery, lust, divorce, false witness…

IMG_2378There have been a number of high profile cases of false witness in the past few years. From MPs wriggling out of a publicity storm after they have said something they later regret or even abuse they have issued at another, to police fitting someone up for political ends, to the solicitor fabricating claims against soldiers in conflict zones, giving a false account still shocks and alarms. The positive side of this is that, for all our cynicism, we still expect to be able to trust what someone says. That of course assumes that when someone gives an account they are able to recall what was said, or did or didn’t happen, accurately. And we know that people have a tendency to change the narrative as they recount it. Deep inside there is an edit button that has been pushed and it is hard to face a story that doesn’t show us in a completely favourable light.

I was talking about this with some colleagues the other day about how hard it can be for people to face up to and accept that they might have messed something up and may indeed be responsible for something with serious consequences. Whenever I have spoken with people who carry major amounts of guilt or know that they have been caught doing what they should not have done, there is often a tendency to mitigate their actions or even change a few details and it is a skilled person who can help them face what they would rather not face. None of us are exempt from this and if we are honest this is a glass house that none of us would be wise to start throwing stones around in. We need to feel safe to say what is dark about our own actions and what has resulted from them; a safe place where a new future can open up, even if we may have to live with the consequences as they continue. Bearing false witness is something we do far more frequently than just deliberately lying. We often bear false witness to ourselves, and so become delusional.

Jesus’ statement at the end of our gospel reading (Matthew 5:21=37) that rather than swearing oaths, the name of God should be so infused into our hearts that our ‘yes’ or ‘no’ should be sufficient. No further proof should be needed, not least for ourselves. The heart of integrity is what counts most, not just obeying the letter of the law. What is just, what is honest, what is truth-filled, what is life-giving and therefore a source of blessing; these are the questions which really count and they lie at the core of that gospel reading; the spirit of the law rather than the letter. And this passage follows on from where last week’s gospel (Matthew 5:13-20) ended with Jesus saying not one stroke of a pen of the law will pass away; that Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Righteousness is to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, meaning a higher standard is expected than even they achieved. And when we want to know how you can exceed the righteousness of those who aim to live the law to its ‘nth’ degree, Jesus sets it out with an exacting standard. Don’t just follow the letter, but take it further and follow the spirit. Let it fill your heart so deeply that it changes you profoundly.

So with that in mind, the depths of anger and murder, adultery and lusting, divorce and the double standards at work in how that operated take on a deeper tone. It is of course wrong to murder, but Jesus takes it much further to include “if looks could kill”. The seething in the heart, which does not cool, the humiliating words of abuse, captured by ‘you fool’, are brought within the scope of this commandment. If you have anger in your heart you are in a perilous state. And we can all feel angry when passions run high and what we see as being wrong has happened. The aim is for reconciliation and a putting right of what is wrong, rather than trying to rub out the one who commits it – and of course, as we know with how we bear false witness in the retelling of stories and event, that commission can have more than one side to it. Reconciliation rather than annihilation is the language of the rainbow after the flood in the story of Noah. Wiping out the offenders does not work, so we need a new plan, where redemption and restoration reign supreme.

The concept of adultery in the time of Jesus carried a profound double standard. The man committed adultery against the woman’s husband or fiancé, not against his own wife. So it damaged the other’s marriage not his own. It is one of those defences that may pass the Bill Clinton test, but I very much doubt passes the Hilary Clinton test. I can’t imagine when he had to explain what he had been up to with Monica Lewinski that Hilary saw the legal niceties, whatever her legal training. There may be a legal get out clause but it will still be a cold night on the sofa. The prohibition is extended to lusting and all the myriad ways in which we treat others as commodities for consumption rather than people of integrity and inherent worth. The heart carries some deep secrets, some dark secrets and there are whole industries deployed to appeal to them. Advertisers know this and exploit it. False and untrue concepts of what constitutes an acceptable body image can have a devastating effect on young minds and older ones, with the ever-pervasive obsession with youth and young image. It is another aspect of bearing false witness, because it is an untrue, unreal identity and an untrue set of expectations being placed on people.

Truth runs much deeper than just the words we say, though that matters enormously: let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’. Truth extends deep into the heart and is to so inform our being that it is embedded in our thoughts and the actions that flow. Justice, honouring and integrity are watchwords here. This notion is pegged onto anger and looks killing, adultery and looks thrilling, divorce and double standards abounding, and oaths and trust imbuing. We are to be true in our being not just the outward appearance.


Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th February 2017

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Let your light so shine

img_1062What makes a nation great? This is a question that has been floating around the internet this week with a video of a Q&A session in an American university. One student asked a panel why they thought America is the greatest country in the world. Leaving aside the local patriotism, one of the panel answered that it isn’t. He went into an angry monologue about all the things that are wrong with it and it is clearly a critique of some of the darker aspects of recent years and being espoused now by their new president: torture camps, the attacks on liberal thinking, low ranking for life expectancy and infant mortality, and so on. But he went on to say it used to be great, and then he listed the contribution that the nation had made to advances in science, learning, innovation, liberality in thinking, culture and moral reasoning. Well we could join in. The point was to ask what is the real test of a great nation, of a people. And sadly the panelist in the video didn’t go on to inspire his young audience with something along the lines of ‘And it can be great again, go and make it so’. That would have been an inspirational video, rather than just a rant.

That kind of inspiration was what our first reading was aiming to do (Isaiah 58:1-9a). There is a prophetic attack on the state of the nation: rebellious, sinning, self-interested, oppressive employers, quarrelling, violent, blinkered vision and a failure to see what is around them. Instead the religious observance that is sought is one where justice is lived: the oppressed are set free, the hungry are fed, resources are shared for the good of all not just a few, and the homeless are sheltered. Then and only then does light break forth like the dawn and healing spring up like plants growing from seeds, the seeds of righteousness. Rather than just moan about how things are, the role of the prophet is to inspire a different way of being, to call people back to living in harmony with the justice and purpose of God. When we do that we are like a light for all to see, one that makes the world brighter rather than darker.

So into that tradition walks Jesus in our Gospel reading (Matthew 5:13-20). His call is for his followers to make a difference and to be seen to be people who make a difference. Salt is only good on chips because it is salty. It can only preserve meat because it dries out the moisture that the bacteria feed on and breed on. It is only good to make roads safer because it lowers the freezing temperature of water and so melts the ice. That same principle makes it good for drawing out red wine spillages on tablecloths and carpets. It has properties that make it useful for cooking, preserving, making John the Baptist’s straight paths safer in cold weather and cleaning. Actually salt can’t lose its saltiness; it is against its nature to do so, it would cease to be sodium chloride. A chemical change would have to take place. Likewise to be a disciple of Jesus Christ means that we are expected to live as people of hope, justice and faithfulness to the Gospel. If we don’t we cease to be disciples!

There have been attempts to deal with the puzzle of the saltless salt, explaining it as impurities in the rock which when the salt dissolves leave behind something that looks like salt but is actually not salt. That may well be in the imagery, drawn from life-scenes around at the time of Jesus, but the point remains, if salt loses its salt it is no longer salt. Likewise if the people lose their grip on justice, on their commitment and identity drawn from their faith in God, then they cease to be the people of God. This passage after all follows on from the Beatitudes, which are often taken as a recalibrating of the spiritual tone, and is itself followed by further teaching on what it means to live the heart of the Law.

Jesus carries on, this time with a city on a hill – perhaps Jerusalem, with lamps on lampstands, and the bizarre behaviour of lighting a lamp only to hide it so that its light fails to shine. The effect of the ‘bushel basket’ is that of a snuffer used to extinguish the light so that it goes out without smouldering. Anyone who cares for candles in churches knows that snuffing stops the wick from continuing to burn so that you have something to light next time you want it. Blowing them out not only makes a mess with the wax but the candle continues to smoulder and you lose the wick. The completeness of the extinguishing makes the image of a useless light even more powerful. Lights have a purpose and we are to be people who shine light in the world and the world needs it.

There is a lot of violence around. This can make us frightened, but we combat it with love, generosity, compassion and openness. In that warmth the freezing temperature is lowered and the spillage stains drawn out, as with ice and wine. I was in a meeting this week when we talked about recent stabbings in the city, involving gangs. Communities are saying ‘no’, which shines a light of hope into areas where that is needed. There is anxiety among European nationals living here, unclear what Brexit will mean for their residency status. Words of welcome and embracing, calls for protection of status, shine a light in the darkness of worry and instability, and challenge xenophobia. There is no place for hatred of the foreigner. There is a mood of anti-liberality, by which I mean the whole ‘post-truth’ nonsense and refusing to listen to experts, as in people who might actually know something about a subject so that prejudice and muddled thinking can reign unchallenged. There is a need for liberal Christians to be heard and to stand up for the critical thinking that gives faith credibility and intelligibility. It is a vital component in Anglican DNA, part of our saltiness and light.

Each of us in our own small corners can be lights of hope, of grace and of faith. Each of us can be salt by virtue of just being who we are shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and living it. By coming here today you have come to be renewed, refreshed and restored in that grace. That makes us all, collectively, a powerful and inspirational force sent out into the world. The salt of the Gospel is to be in our chemical make-up.

So what makes a nation great is people who live as lights and as salt, as people inspired to make a difference for justice; people of hope and faithful living. “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (v16)

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 5th February 2017

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Bishops Report on Same Sex Relationships

church-of-englandThe House of Bishops of the Church of England has issued a report for the General Synod of the CofE on same sex relationships. This follows three years of facilitated conversations among selected groups of people from the dioceses. The aim of these conversations was to assist careful listening among people with profoundly different views to inform the church’s ongoing discussion.  The purpose of the report is to distil where we are now, not to be the final word on the matter. It recognises that there are profound differences of opinion, not least among the bishops, so it begins from a realistic place.

The report begins with a clear and unequivocal statement that “all human beings are made in the image of God”. This sets the tone and throughout the report there is an underlying valuing of the inherent dignity of all people, whatever their difference. Full Stop. That means there is no place for homophobia. It is the tone that I find the most encouraging aspect of the report. There is a solidity to this, which holds the turbulent disagreement moving around it. Whoever drafted this (it is issued under the name of the Bishop of Norwich) is secure in their confidence and faith in God’s hold on both Creation and the Church.  That’s how it came over to me.

It recognises that how we talk about one another affects how we are heard. This alone has the potential to be a prophetic witness to the world.

“We are called to live the gospel and share it with those whose lives we find attractive and those whom we find it hard to love; with those we hear willingly and those who reject us… That witness will be immeasurably damaged by allowing our differences to break us into fragments.”

We stick together, or “walk together” as it is put, because that is who we are and how we are to be.

The report sets out where it believes the Church to be:

There is no consensus for a change to the existing law or doctrine governing how marriage is seen by the Church of England. It is between one man and one woman.

There is a desire to allow some bounded freedom to be more consistently welcoming and affirming – ‘bounded’ meaning that the definition of marriage is as it is and clergy are required to minister in a manner consistent with that.

A fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for LGBTI people is needed.

There is a need for the teaching document Issues in Human Sexuality, published in 1991, to be revised substantially. The House of Bishops proposes to do this.

New guidance will be issued for clergy about what they can do and what they can’t in their ministry and the services they can provide to celebrate relationships.

What is interesting in the report is that it has a provisionality about its language: “current doctrine”, “current situation”, the acknowledged divergent views. The conversation continues.

There is an appendix of legal advice on what is currently allowed and what would need to change if so desired, with some options depending on what is wanted.

Unlike some others who were much quicker off the mark to comment on this I found it much more positive. The tone is different and there is a solidity, stability, sensitivity and reality about where we are which is welcome.


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Candlemas: Feast of honesty

img_6803Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, has all the ingredients for a cute festival (Luke 2:22-40). There is a newborn baby, just 40 days old; adoring elderly people gushing about the child; proud parents celebrating a new life, their first-born son; candlelight shining from the reference to him being a light to enlighten all nations – wow that is some accolade; and then the sacrifice of pigeons. Perhaps the last, sacrifice of pigeons, may not be so cute, not unless you have a particular hatred of the flying vermin and want to slaughter a few, and round here that might be understandable.

Jesus’ parents were fulfilling the requirements of the Old Testament law for a firstborn male child (Leviticus 12:1-8). The requirement was that the mother was considered unclean for 40 days after the birth of a boy and for a girl that is doubled to 80 days. After this time they are to bring to the Temple a lamb, less than a year old, as a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtle-dove as a sin offering. If they can’t afford a lamb, then two pigeons or two turtledoves can be offered instead. So the subtlety here is that Jesus had the poor person’s offering made for him indicating that his parents were of limited means.

If we dig a bit deeper, then this festival is not so cute. There are some stings and challenges in it.

First of all is the whole notion of cleanliness and implied misogyny. Why is the woman regarded as being unclean because she has given birth? And why is the period of uncleanness doubled for a girl child than for a boy child? What is this saying about women’s bodies and what we regard as being taboo? On Friday I caught the journalist and Times columnist Caitlin Moran being interviewed on Desert Island Discs on Radio 4. She writes about natural bodily functions and posed the question why do we regard menstrual blood as a taboo but our TV screens are filled with the blood of violence all the time? One is about the gift of life and without it there is no life. The other is about death and violence, destruction and hatred. We have strange ideas about taboo, taste and decency. We strain at gnats and swallow camels, to borrow another image. So to our ears talk of purification after childbirth is very strange and it is something the modern church and congregations have jettisoned as no longer being relevant or wanted.

On Wednesday I was at a Cohesion and Diversity Forum meeting organized by Peterborough City Council. The subject was Sex and Relationship Education, Sexually Transmitted Diseases and the services available. My day started with youths on the scaffolding, rats in the city centre, then SRE and finally a PCC in the evening. I had earned a gin that day. But there are some subjects which if we make them taboo put people at risk, and there is need for a safe space to talk about who we are, what are natural bodily functions and shared by everyone, what is healthy, and what is unhealthy. The House of Bishops has just issued a statement on sexuality and again we will struggle with the conversation, to be real about it, and not pretend, though they have called for the tone of those debates and exchanges to improve. British reserve makes some conversations hard to have.

Then there is the poverty. Jesus’ parents clearly struggle but are still fulfilling their duty under the Law. Giving is often greater as a proportion among those of more reduced means, among the poorer, and certainly in terms of the sacrifice involved in the gift. When you have to make an effort for something, think very carefully about using scarce resources on it, then it costs us more, and shows how much it really does matter. The provision of a poorer person’s offering means that it being within grasp was recognized in the Hebrew Law. Still, poverty is real and it is there in this story.

Giving to the church is to be from our first fruits, not our loose change at the end, after everything else. It should be a sign of how much this matters to us. And churches often struggle for cash because the giving is not really realistic and some are immune to the message. And responses to this vary. Some get angry at this message because they know deep down they have been busted. Some feel guilty because they would actually like to give more but can’t. From the outside it’s hard to judge what is a cheap excuse and what is a reason. Some could afford not just a lamb but a flock; some will struggle to catch a couple of pigeons, though there are a few of them around here they can have. In terms of the Temple, there was a business in selling acceptable grade birds for offerings, with buy-now-pay-later loans. Jesus later gets very angry with this rigged trade and throws the tables round causing quite a stir, in another purification ritual, his cleansing of the Temple. Given his impoverished upbringing, it may be that he understood how this rigged trade made life worse for the poor and had seen it first hand.

On excuses, when thinking about giving what do you exclude first of all from your income in order to decide what is a realistic level? How far down your priorities does giving to the church come? I surprised one man a few years ago when I told him that school fees were not a priority. That was a life-style choice and giving should be above them. Private education is spent from riches and is not a basic, especially when many are calling on foodbanks for help. The same goes for expensive holidays. Some of us don’t go on them.

So we assume that Jesus’ parents were poor. It would be an interesting twist if those who say that Joseph as a carpenter was really the owner of a joinery business turn out to be correct. Their giving would then have been a bit tokenistic to say the least – but I don’t think this passage supports that. What does your giving say about your means and priorities?

Simeon calls Jesus a light for all nations in what is now known as the beautifully crafted Nunc Dimittis of Evensong. But he goes on. This child will be destined for the falling and rising of many, a sign that will be opposed as he exposes their real inner thoughts. He will challenge and they won’t like it. The result will be that for Mary it will be as if a sword has pierced her soul as she watches her son die. I’ve often wondered at Baptisms what this child will become, as with the question at John the Baptist’s birth, but I’ve never pondered out loud whether this child will meet a violent death, as Simeon did. It would certainly dampen the mood!

There is lots of blood in this gospel passage. We have thought about Mary’s, the bodily functions of reproduction and childbirth; the pigeons offered as a sacrifice, as sacrificial giving; and now Jesus on the cross, dying for our redemption and salvation, and Mary’s soul pierced.

The final section brings us Anna, an 84 year old widow, who hangs out in the Temple, night and day. She had been married for 7 years and then widowed, spending the rest of her life alone. Why did she never leave the Temple? Is this the place that she finds spiritual consolation for the grief untimely borne, that she cannot cope with anywhere else? Is she one of those women I have met over the years whose love of their life died, be it tragically or through warfare, and who found no one else could match up? What sadness does Anna carry inside her each day? This is the place her sadness can be held and offered, and where it is safe to be still with it. Thanks to be to God that there are places where that can happen.

Candlemas is a feast of honesty. We have the poverty and wealth, the generosity given or not given. We have the challenge of what we regard as taboo and whether that is actually focused where it should be. And we have the pains and sorrows held in a space they can’t otherwise be held or even opened up in. We have the light of hope and commitment for what really matters to us. Jesus Christ is the light for all people, where life as it really is is brought into his loving and redeeming embrace.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 29th January 2017

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Holocaust Memorial Day – A Prayer

img_7427Each year, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Concentration Camp is marked as Holocaust Memorial Day (27th January).  We remember the atrocities committed in the Holocaust of the Second World War and in genocides since.  In remembering we renew our commitment to live in peace with justice, and to prevent all that would lead to such atrocities being committed in our own generation.

Outside Peterborough Parish Church is the city’s memorial stone to victims of the Holocaust and genocides since, and the annual commemoration is held in the church ending with the laying of a wreath at the memorial. Below is a prayer I wrote for use at this commemoration.


A Prayer for Holocaust Memorial Day

Hear the cry, Lord,

which echoes down the years

from atrocities and violence

perpetrated against your children.

To anguished hearts, bring your healing grace;

to the grief stricken, bring the hope of salvation;

to the lives lost, bring your redeeming embrace.

Open the eyes of those who would repeat

these horrors anew;

challenge them with your justice

and inspire compassion.

Take away all evil intent

and replace it with your peace and unity,

that the world may resound

with the song of your love. Amen.


© Ian Black 2014

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