Awe and Wonder, Generosity and Hospitality

IMG_1708It feels to me that there has been a change of atmosphere around the cathedral over the past two or three months and it has come from space. Tim Peake’s space craft and exhibition has proved to be phenomenally popular, with thousands coming to see it, to ponder on what it means to be a planet in the universe and on the fragility of human beings hurtling back to earth in what looks like a burnt tin can. Just as we are getting used to the questions and wonder, which that has brought, we have a giant model of the moon hanging under the central tower. It looks much better at night when its internal lights are not competing with the sunlight. People are coming in even greater number to see it, lie under it, take fun photos of it in their hand or propping it up. Again it makes people go ‘wow’ and everyone is enjoying walking round it to examine sides of the moon not normally visible from earth.

The chaplains on duty are reporting lots of questions and conversations which touch on faith and wonder, awe and delight. This has changed the story that we are tending to tell and for the better. For a cathedral that has been through several years of trauma it is so refreshing to be able to tell a story of wonder, of awe and of the majesty of God’s creation. And the people who come are ready to talk; these two features from space are fantastic icebreakers, opening up the conversations. That has made them transformative, even if they bring pressures on paid staff and volunteers coping with numbers far in excess of those we are used to here. Every day is a major event day and so please remember those looking after our guests in your prayers, that they will have the grace and strength they need to be the public face of our hospitality and inclusive welcome.

There is also a third initiative which is and will have a transformative effect on us, but much more subtly. This is the opening up of Garden House to be a centre to work during the day with homeless people in the city. It is not providing food, it is not providing shelter – those are available elsewhere. But it is providing a space where those whose lives have become unstuck in a major way can find some grip to help them get back up again. Housing officers, foot care and haircuts, primary medical services, benefits advice and help with filling in forms are on offer. They need some computers to help with accessing online claims, job searches and registering for housing and benefits, so if anyone has access to several desktops and laptops, we could do with them. This means that the Cathedral, which has itself known what it is to become unstuck and need to find some grip again, is reaching out to help those whose lives have also hit rock bottom by making this space available. It is a pilot scheme and we have yet to see where it goes. But the compassion, the deep faith and the praying heart there, displaying Christianity with its sleeves rolled up, I believe will seep out and change, certainly challenge our priorities. This is when we really do become a place where light, joy, peace and thanksgiving are let loose.

So two stories from around the precincts which are changing the story we tell. The first is about life, the universe and everything; the big questions springing from awe and wonder. This is giving us a joyful story to tell and telling it is uplifting and rejuvenating. The second is much closer to home, it is about the grit of living in all its messiness and complexity, moments of holding on and losing grip, moments when we need to give a hand up for the most vulnerable around us. And as we bless the poor we find we are blessed right back. This was expressed well in a prayer for Christian Aid week back in May:

Holy God,

in your Kingdom

the strong need the weak,

the rich are transformed by the poor,

the fortunate are welcomed by the homeless.

Your Kingdom is built by those

who expect their God to come.

The strong need the weak, the rich are transformed by the poor, the fortunate are welcomed by the homeless.

To our readings then. The first was from the 8th century BC prophet Amos (5:6-7, 1-15). He rarely minces his words and is direct in his challenge. Turning justice into wormwood and trampling on the poor are contrasted with establishing justice and seeking good. Someone who displayed this was the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, who was shot while presiding at Mass in 1980. He spoke with prophetic passion against oppression, using similar challenges to Amos. He told the government troops that they were killing their fellow campesinos and to stop it. This was not received well by the ruling military junta and he was murdered to silence him. He has been remembered as a martyr in the Church of England’s calendar for over 20 years and today he will be acknowledged by our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church as he is recognized as a saint by Pope Francis. We are to live the awe and wonder that we see, the hope that is inside us. In doing this we not only become agents of transformation in the world but are ourselves transformed.

The hapless questioner in the gospel reading (Mark 10:17-31) found that seeking eternal life, to be righteous, would cost him far more than he thought. The comical image of a camel trying to get through a small space – be it a real needle or a nickname for a small gate – the point is still the same, it won’t fit. And trying to live in a way that grasps up treasures for ourselves and is mean rather than generous, hostile rather than hospitable, means we fundamentally miss the point of what living in hope and justice means. This doesn’t fit either. Those who saw blessing in terms of material goods get the shock of their lives when Jesus shows up. And when we come up with all sorts of excuses we are told ‘for God all things are possible’ for those who really live in hope and trust. Or put another way, when we are generous and sit lightly to possessions we find that we have far more than we thought we had and can make a far greater difference to others and also to ourselves.

As we ponder these things the awe and wonder was rooted in the Epistle reading from Hebrews (4:12-end). The word of God is living and active, and in Christ has made known the ultimate hope that we have. That hope spills out, won’t be contained and won’t be sidelined. Grace and mercy are given in abundance to match whatever the need. Just as the universe is beyond our calculating, this planet is blue and green, lush with life, where the moon is grey and dead, the majesty of God is awesome. The wonder of life is the glory of God.

If we are struggling with any of this the Post Communion prayer keeps the prodding going – you will find it printed on the opposite page to the gospel in the Sunday sheet. The holy mysteries of bread and wine – staple foods – are to open our eyes that we may know the way of life and walk in it without stumbling. In the context of our readings, that way of life brings challenge and hope. The eternal is to shift our perspective so that the generosity of creation is reflected in our generosity and grace. In the Collect, which we used at the beginning of the service, as we share the joys of eternal life the Spirit equips us to live it, to live the gospel of Christ.

Today, then, the story we tell in the cathedral has been changed by events bringing awe and wonder, and a project to help the poorest. As we bless them, so we are blessed right back. Hospitality receives in turn a blessing beyond money. We are being transformed in God’s grace. We are to live the awe and wonder that we see, the hope that is inside us. In doing this, we become agents of transformation in the world and find ourselves change and blessed in the process.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 14th October 2018

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Harvest: Food of the Body and the Spirit

IMG_1654Harvest brings a lot of different themes together and some of these come out of our readings this morning. There are three I want to spend a few moments thinking about: seeds and fruit, soil and growth and dependency and trust.

In the Old Testament reading, the prophet Joel proclaims hope to the soil, for animals in the field and trees bearing fruit (Joel 2:21-27). Rain comes in plenty to provide water, much needed for any soil and for life to grow. There is harvest in plenty as the threshing floor is full of grain and then the wine vats are full to overflowing; let the party begin! There is hope, for God will turn previous doom into joy and provision. It is a reading of assurance of God’s blessing.

In the Epistle, the first letter to Timothy, we were given the famous phrases about money being a root of all kinds of evil, that we bring nothing into the world and can take nothing out (familiar from funerals), and being content with enough – something I spoke a little about last week (1 Timothy 6:6-10). We can trust in God who provides but also who provides beyond the confines of this life, which starts from nothing and from which we can take nothing away. We are utterly dependent on God’s grace and love.

The Gospel from Matthew (6:25-33), reminded us that we can’t change anything by worrying, which is not actually much comfort to an anxious person, but he points out that there is more to life than food and drink, clothing and what we possess. There is a spiritual vacuum that tries to fill the empty space with things which neither bring happiness and fulfillment nor do they have any lasting value.

So to my three themes, first ‘seeds and fruit’. There are lots of conkers about at the moment. I have picked up 50 from round by our garage and that doesn’t include the squashed ones, or those the squirrels got to first. [I have changed the prayer station from pebbles to conkers, so you can pick up a conker and place that in the prayer picture later if you wish.] Conkers are hard when they land – they will dent a car roof and hurt if they land on your head. They start off in a spikey outer casing. When they land they break open and the seed bounces. This hard seed likewise breaks open so that it can sprout and put down roots. The shell protects but it has to open up so it can let the shoots come out.

Like a seed unless we break open and risk putting out roots and shoots we will not grow spiritually, or emotionally for that matter. We do this by entering into sacred space, making the space we are in sacred by being still with God; allowing silence and stillness to enable us to reflect and be open to God. When we talk of the spiritual life as being like a seed, seeds do not just grow without the seed itself changing. If we do not do this, if we block it or stop it and hide from it, we won’t grow. There are so many ways we do block it, from fear, anger, hatred, sneering and rushing. Our lives are so full, we actually have to make some space for the seed to grow and it won’t do it instantly, it takes time and patience, and even persistence. It certainly requires commitment and a conscious decision of the will.

So we come to the second area which comes out of the readings, ‘soil and growth’. What kind of land does the seed fall on? This was a question opened for us by the prophet Joel, but it will also remind us of the famous parable of the sower with the different types of ground providing receptive or hostile environments for the seed. Joel tells the soil not to fear, for God has done great things. Some intensive farming damages the soil, chemicals strip it of its fibrous quality and rich nutrients. It needs to be fed, to lie fallow so that the grass can be ploughed back in and be enriched naturally. And so we need to feed, on word and sacrament, to allow the story and presence of God to work on us and in us. This is how we prepare the soil that is our inner being, allow the soil of our own lives to be blessed and enriched.

The third theme from our readings, ‘dependency and trust’. Both readings from Matthew and 1 Timothy spoke of this. We bring nothing into the world and take nothing out. We cannot change anything by worrying. Life is more than clothing, food and drink. Money, specifically the love of money above all things, brings woes and leads to what is actually fools gold. It has no lasting value and doesn’t fill the spiritual void within us.

So harvest is a time we give thanks to God for the soil that receives the seed – our bodies and lives; for the seed that grows, that brings fruit in character and makes souls; for our dependency on God and that we can trust in hope and God’s gracious provision. Harvest is a moment when thanksgiving is centre stage, the thanksgiving that should be with us all the time. We give thanks for food for the body and the spirit.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Harvest Festival, Sunday 30th September 2018

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Caring for Creation

astronomy-discovery-earth-2422We have entered the beginning of autumn. The leaves are starting to turn and fall, and round by our garage the conkers are dropping too. Harvest has been under way for some time, is being gathered and stored. During this time our minds naturally turn to all that sustains our life and our dependency on the earth. We are creatures who depend on all that God gives and enables to be provided, without which life could not survive. And so during this period, in which our harvest celebration next week will fall, we are encouraged to think about creation. Our order of service gives these weeks that flavour. Environmental concerns are probably the biggest threat facing the planet, and the damaging contribution of human beings to global warming has been and is devastating. The poorest will feel this acutely but so will we living in one of the wealthiest nations. We are seeing it in the weather and rising sea levels, which for this part of the country is not good news. Noah is seeming less like a story!

Our readings may not look that obvious to fit with this theme, but they carry a stark message and warning to us. The letter of James (4:1-3) warned of cravings at war within us. These are the source of conflicts and disputes, and lead to violent acts. It is the desire to have what cannot be sustained and the refusal to accept that we have to limit our cravings, our wants, that are damaging the very earth on which we depend. And for those of us who love the technological advances with electronic gadgets and the ability to travel, there are sharp realities for us to confront. The technology on which I depend in so many ways uses scarce and finite resources. Even solar power has its down side in that the components of the panels and the electronics have to be mined and processed. This too is not without an environmental footprint.

According to a report this week, across the country there are 39 different versions of what can be recycled by the local authority. Peterborough is pretty good, as local authorities go, since it recycle far more of our waste than many others do. But recycling is only one of the three ‘R’s of environmental concern. Reusing and repairing come above it. Crucial in this is another ‘R’ – reducing what we use and throw away. Plastic drinking straws and disposable, single use bottles have both recently been targeted. And quite rightly too. Even combustible disposable plates and cutlery still require use of land and power to excess. It is our excess and lack of moderation to feed our endless and restless cravings that have driven so much of the problem. For some of us this has been a lifetime’s concern and it feels like it has been a long wait for everyone else to catch up. At yesterday’s Diocesan Synod the diocese has joined the trend for reusable cups, sourcing a bamboo cup which can be bought for £7, branded with the diocesan logo.

We are stewards of the earth. We have evolved and developed into sentient, intelligent and highly dexterous creatures. We subdue the earth, harness it and shape it in ways no other creature or species can. This brings with it responsibility to manage what we do in a way that doesn’t just consume with no regard to the consequences or impact. As moral creatures, we have to be aware of the effect what we do has on everyone and everything. This planet can be damaged. The rich and delicate eco-balance can be tipped to a point when it will no longer sustain us. And then it will continue without us. And it is incumbent on us to pass on to future generations a world we would like to have inherited, not one used up and polluted. This moral and spiritual imperative is one of the 5 marks of mission: to care for creation, to treasure, to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

To do this, we have to master our cravings and learn some self-discipline and self-denial. As we grow up we have to learn to moderate our desires and our consuming. If we don’t we get into trouble and that has been a problem with the economy as well. Endless consuming does not lead to our wellbeing. We need to develop and strengthen the concept of ‘enough’, sufficient and no more.

So when Jesus tells his squabbling disciples, arguing about who is the most important, that they should be like children, we might spot the irony (Mark 9:33-37). They are after all behaving like spiritual infants, who haven’t learnt how to control their cravings and their gluttony for power, prestige and position. But what he does is to take a child, embrace it and set this person of low status and not power, prestige or position into the position of honour. Welcoming the unimportant, being concerned for the one of lowest status, having regard for those we can’t see and who can’t do anything for us, is how we welcome and honour Christ. Caring for the environment is a key way we do this. It honours the poorest, who suffer most. It honours those who come after us and don’t want to have to clear up our mess or worse reap a whirlwind from our carelessness and disregard.

So in our church seasons sits these few weeks at the beginning of autumn. In these we are to be mindful of God’s creation on which we depend so greatly, of our stewardship responsibilities to treasure creation and be mindful of the effects of what we do. Into this embrace we will hold our harvest celebration next week. We will be thankful for all the good gifts around us and show that thankfulness in lives that bless and treasure, that are satisfied with enough, that seek to live in harmony and balance with the natural rhythms which sustain life on this planet. This is a moral and spiritual imperative and a mark of Christian mission.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church – Sunday 23rd September 2018

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Taming the tongue: Amazon, Wonga, Low Pay, Tax and the Archbishop

Screen Shot 2018-09-16 at 13.34.27Words have tremendous power. The old adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is complete nonsense. Bullies know this. Political campaigners and advertisers know this. The clever memes on social media know this. Name-calling, insults and lies spread about someone can hurt deeply and are designed to. They are an aggressive act, which is looking to do damage to their target. And in the same way, words of blessing and healing can do a tremendous amount of good. They can offer hope, sooth the anxious and isolated. They can mobilise others to action to make a difference and transform. Behind these is the reception they receive. Is the ground on which they fall fertile and conducive to their seed? Are those who hear them ready to believe the worst or the best, suspecting of conspiracy or knowing that sometimes things go wrong, even when there are good intentions.

There is a principle in moments of conflict and deep disagreement when we make a conscious effort to interpret what we hear in the best possible light. Our political climate and the way so much of the news reports come to us, do not encourage this. They look for the worst, for the base motives and the conspiracies at work. Sadly they often find them, but if a fruitful way forward is going to be found then giving the benefit of the doubt opens up the chance of finding a way through. Our paranoia needs to be bridled and kept in check lest it master us.

So our readings this morning all touch on the power of words. For James (James 3:1-12) it is that whether we bless or curse comes from our inner character. That character may be showing strain, wariness from past experience and suspicion, as well as temperamental predispositions. Those are not malicious in themselves, but can affect just how we respond or comment. The gospel (Mark 8:27-38) also touched on who we are being seen in what we do. Jesus asked who people said that he is and the response was based on what they saw and knew. Suffering being part of the way of Jesus came as a shock to them, with some sharp words for Peter, and being reminded that being prepared to be true to who we are and what we believe, even if this leads to suffering, are strong and difficult words. Have the courage of your convictions because if you truly believe in this, then nothing else matters as much. What will it profit to gain the world and yet forfeit the eternal? In the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 50:4-9a) courage in the face of beard pulling and spitting was held up for ultimate vindication.

None of this means that we can’t say something critical and the Bible has sharp words at times, especially when matters of justice and oppression are at stake. Words have power to call to account, remind and confront. Even when being critical their aim is to heal and bring a miscreant to their senses. Look carefully at the Old Testament prophets and we find this is what they were aiming to do. It is in this spirit that Archbishop Justin Welby got up to speak at the TUC earlier in the week. His fire was aimed at a major employer in this city, the online retailer Amazon. He criticized them for being a ‘tax dodging, employee exploiting parasite’. My paraphrase, but his words were strong. While the company are adamant they pay the tax required by law, that is not the same as what is fair when payments are made to parent companies in other countries, with lower tax regimes, and the effect of these being to achieve a substantial reduction in that liability to tax. With a turnover of nearly £2bn, tax of a few million seems rather low. If we do the maths, that gives them a profitability of something like 1%, which would imply frighteningly stark margins and doesn’t match their rising share price. They are not alone; many companies do this and we’ve heard a great deal about them over recent years. They are not contributing to the common life of the nation on which they depend.

The ‘employee exploiting’ refers to low pay and zero hours contracts. The morality of zero hours contracts very much depends on how they operate. There is a long standing and accepted practice of casual engagement as staff are needed on a temporary basis. And some work flexible hours, expanding and contracting as work is there. So if zero hours is casual work, and we take people on on that basis in the cathedral, it is a way of bringing in extra staff for one off occasions. The questionable side comes when there is a requirement to work and the risk being unfairly shifted to the employee who is not equipped to bear it. Employment brings responsibilities, even if orders come and go. If there is a requirement to show up each day then there should be a basic level of pay, with extra hours as available. This is a more responsible and just way to behave.

The low pay, to be legal, will mean that they only pay the government minimum wage, rebranded as the living wage, which in reality it isn’t. That is currently £7.83 per hour (a mere £3.50 for apprentices) whereas we pay the Living Wage Foundation’s level of £8.75 as a minimum. The parasitical element of this is that they are relying on the benefits system, funded by taxes they don’t pay fairly, to top up the living costs of employees who can’t make ends meet. Zero-hours compounds the problems. As we know universal credits are not going well and so many people on low pay find themselves at foodbanks, run by churches and other volunteers, and at debt advice, and going to loan sharks, like Wonga. Enter stage left, the MP Frank Field and his suggestion that the Church of England call together a group of ethical financiers to take over the loan book of Wonga. An imaginative idea and one I hoped would happen when Wonga went into receivership at the end of August, and Tweeted to that effect, so who knows the power of a Tweet, not least if others say something similar. It creates a groundswell for an idea to bed in.

So we have sharp words mixed with ones of hope, which makes them a blessing. Words of challenge about the justice and consequences of actions – corporate, governmental because they create the legislative climate, and personal. Words of hope and blessing with the prospect of how we can make a difference. Just to add to the complexities here, it turns out that the Church Commissioners have investments in Amazon. And a superficial look would either accuse this of being double standards, of hypocrisy, or an embarrassing oops moment. Actually there is a more subtle judgement here. Investments can be used to change a company’s ethos and practices. The power of the shareholder to work with the board of directors is quite strong if the holding is large enough or they get organised. And I know that the ethical investments group does this. There comes a moment when a company refuses to listen and then a decision to disinvest comes. This is where investment money is used to work for good. And life is compromised, so sometimes there is a decision to work from the inside rather than shouting from the outside. So I don’t see an inconsistency here, it depends how it comes through. And there have been Church Commissioners who have made this point this week, not least the head the Share Centre.

Words have power and our thoughts this morning are taken to how we use them, to our assumptions and whether we are looking to build up and transform, or just attack and destroy. To my mind it should always be the former, and if I stray into the latter, then that means I have some work to do on what has wound me up so much. Anger that turns to aggression always has an injury in the background that needs healing. It may be the stone we need to pick up, hold and then place on the hand in the prayer station by the Lady Chapel. Let go of the burdens that weigh you down, that are too heavy to carry and need to be jettisoned for the sake of our health.

An encouragement from today’s readings is to watch our words and what they reveal about us. They are to be a means of blessing and healing, of challenge and grace in order that justice and freedom may ensue.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 16th September 2018

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More than spiritual ‘Red Bull’

IMG_2378Far be it from me to disagree with Jesus, but there are good reasons for washing hands and food before eating. The Gospel reading we have just heard is therefore one of those puzzling passages (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23). What is more we know that what we eat can affect our behaviour and our mental state. The chemicals can change our brains and so it can ‘defile’ and bring on all sorts of strange behaviours. And evil intent does not get into the heart without coming from somewhere else. People learn what they see and experience, and this changes us, be it from lacking the control to fight unhealthy passions and impulses, not having the strength of will or character to deal with these, or seeing as normal unhelpful ways of responding in situations and we could do with a better influence on us to help us learn a better way of responding.

Jesus is not actually talking about the psychological drives within us, or dietary balance for wellbeing and mental health, or basic food and personal hygiene. He is going deeper than this. He is challenging his hearers that words and rituals alone do not cut it or cover up when we are spiritually deficient. What is the tone and character that drives our thoughts and actions? Where are these really rooted? And here we enter one of those interconnected debates.

In the Hebrew faith, and we know it ourselves, rituals and actions can be a powerful force in shaping how we see the world. They reinforce through very subtle and powerful means what is important and have a symbolic function. So carrying the Gospel book in procession into the church at the beginning of a service says this book is important to us. But it only has any effect on us if we actually read it, mark it and inwardly digest it. Just carrying a book does not do much for us on its own. Saying certain prayers at certain times of the day or before meals or whenever, does not do much to us if it becomes formulaic and we are not really present in the moment that the words are said. Ritual alone may impose certain behaviour, or conformity, but it does not necessarily change our character, not on its own that is. It needs to be accompanied by a narrative, by a story and script that says this matters because… this is important because… we do this because it helps us see that this is where the sacred lies or it reinforces how to live in faithful trust. And that might be about the sanctity of life and every life, it might be that some functions and roles require respect and honour otherwise we have a deep problem.

Rituals pop up in all sorts of places. In court the judge holds the key position and is beyond contradiction. People stand when he or she comes into the room and the court is only in session when they are present. This affirms the absolute authority of law and that reinforces its importance for good order. Everyone must respect it and is subject to it. We have democratic processes to change the law and to challenge it if that is what we want to do. But in court we know that the judge has a role that places them in the seat where law is to be and is honoured. The judge, as a person, may well be flawed in various ways but they are expected to embody the law they uphold so that when they sit in that place there is integrity.

The same goes for clergy. While it is a longstanding principle that the efficacy of the sacraments is not dependent on the worthiness or unworthiness of the person who administers them, people want and expect to see reflected in them the standing they give to what they do. There has to be integrity, that they behave in a manner that is in tune with the gospel and ritual that is being espoused, all the usual limitations taken as read. So if there is a serious breach of trust there, then there are ways to deal with this. As with judges, they are expected to live in a way that reflects what they uphold. Integrity matters. The ritual and the character should match. The ritural on its own is not enough.

So ritual speaks of the character deep within what is being honoured and declared. It might also fulfill a practical function too – like washing hands and food – but the primary focus for Jesus in this passage is the meaning behind it. It is no use just washing things without making sure that we look at what might need cleansing deeper inside how we are. This is why Jesus called some of those leaders hypocrites and in other places ‘white washed tombs’, and they didn’t take kindly to him for that.

This was expressed further in the Epistle reading (James 1:17-27). Ridding ourselves of sordidness, rank growth in wickedness, and instead welcoming with meekness the implanted word that has power to save our souls. Being doers of the word, not merely hearers. How deep does this go? What is the fruit that evidences this? And how do we really strengthen the character of grace and truth so that it penetrates, seeps deeply into who we are? Well, there is no quick instant ‘Red Bull’ like way to achieve this. Energy drinks cover up something else – lack of sleep, lack of energy for other reasons – and offer a pretense that all is well and we can function at a certain level, when in reality we can’t. And as we have seen this week with proposals to ban high energy drinks being sold to children, what goes into a person from outside does indeed change them, because the chemicals affect the brain. So it is the affect that we are concerned with not just the outward action. How is a particular act affecting our character and how is this bearing fruit for us?

This is why the central ritual act in our church worship – the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing of bread and wine – is an act of remembrance. Through and in it we don’t merely have magic food, a kind of spiritual Red Bull, but we are to remember through it and in it all that Jesus was, is, did and said: his life, his passion, his teaching, his resurrection and his affirmation of life in abundance. It is the whole act that counts, from opening greeting, through confession and absolution, songs of praise, words of hope, to prayer and blessing. Then we find, in the words at the end of the Epistle (v27), that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We are to be shaped by the Kingdom of God, which calls us to justice, hope and blessing, self-giving, thanksgiving and recognition that we serve a higher purpose than our own immediate gain. In calling to remembrance, this act becomes for us a moment to reinforce and reconnect with what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. May God give us grace to live the faith that lies behind everything that we do in ritual and for those rituals to be reminders for us of this vibrant and transforming faith. And don’t forget to wash your hands and food too!

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 2nd September 2018

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Space and the Cosmic Christ

IMG_1379We gather this morning within eyesight of an amazing object. In the north transept is Tim Peake’s spacecraft, in which he returned to earth in 2016 from 6 months on board the International Space Station. It is quite something and when you look at the science involved truly breath-taking. We talk of this building, this Cathedral, as inducing awe and wonder in those who come, built as it is employing the science of physics and maths, so that the forces and lines combine with stunning effect in astounding architecture. So many who come here are wowed by what they see and leave having been touched by a glimpse of something deeply spiritual and inspiring. Space travel is also remarkable, even though it is nearly 50 years since Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission. We might take it for granted, but the narrow margins for error are such that achieving lift off, let alone re-entry, is truly incredible.

A few days after opening our exhibition, Tim Peake was quizzed on BBC Radio 4 about science and religion (2:20 into the programme). His reply was that looking at the earth from space made him open to the possibility of intelligent design behind creation, and also that it could have been a spontaneous random event and have just come to be. Science and religion answer different questions. Science looks at how and what existence is in terms of maths, physics and chemistry. Religion asks different questions about purpose, reason for being and delights in wonder. Awe and wonder are the foundations of faith and what better vantage point than beyond the horizon, beyond the clouds, beyond the atmosphere. This is amazing. Faith is born in the wonder of that amazement as we contemplate and ponder what lies at its source and its goal, its purpose and meaning, its ultimate dependency. That we can do this is itself a further cause of that faith.

On 20th July 1969, just after the Apollo 11 landing craft had touched down on the surface of the moon, one of the astronauts, Buzz Aldrin contemplating all that had just taken place decided this was the moment for a ceremony of gratitude and hope. He wrote some years later in his memoir ‘Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon’ (2009):

“Weeks before, as the Apollo mission drew near, I had originally asked Dean Woodruff, pastor at Webster Presbyterian Church, where my family and I attended services when I was home in Houston, to help me come up with something I could do on the moon, some appropriate symbolic act regarding the universality of seeking… I settled on a well-known expression of spirituality: celebrating the first Christian Communion on the moon, much as Christopher Columbus and other explorers had done when they first landed in their “new world.”

I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out the communion elements along with a three-by-five card on which I had written the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon. My comments to the world were inclusive: “I would like to request a few moments of silence… and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” I silently read the Bible passage as I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given.” (pp25-27)

The wonder of space, of time, of how our small planet floats in the vastness of the universe, is a moment to be still and reflect, to be thankful. For viewed through the eyes of faith, this is a wonder to behold. That in all that there is, we have the life we have, of love and hope, passion and praise. That there is so much more to this universe than we can comprehend or have any inkling of. And deep within the science and the silence, there is the purpose of God who brings it into being and holds it; not just the first cause but the one on whom it depends. Space can feel empty, but it is not, it is the blanket of the eternal in which we are enfolded with the love of a creator who is far more magnificent than we can ever know. Without it we would not be.

Not only do we gather this morning within sight of a craft which has been in space, into this blanket which enfolds us, but we are also not far from the great mural in the ceiling of the Apse Chapel, at the east end of this great Cathedral. This depicts Christ as the vine with the 12 apostles on the branches. Around it is that text Buzz Aldrin read as he took Communion on the moon, from John’s gospel (15:5). “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” Those vine branches extend beyond the limits of our imagination. They reach to the moon and beyond. Nothing, no distance, can separate us from God’s love and presence, and however far we travel we remain within God’s universe, which is far bigger than we can fathom, enfolded in the blanket of the eternal.

The old argument that science and religion don’t mix is very stale. They mix, meet and inform our understanding, making it so much richer. When we talk about Christianity being a universal faith, space travel reminds us that if we take that seriously it will expand our gaze to places we never saw as being possible before. In the words of the 11th century Archbishop, St Anselm, faith seeks understanding: it is through the eyes of faith that we seek to understand more and more. This is not in conflict but rather the two, faith and science, enrich our understanding together.

Our gospel reading this morning, which came from an earlier part of John’s gospel to that text about the vine and branches (John 6:56-69), continued the passage where Jesus reflects on himself as the bread of life, that eating bread and wine we commune with the foundation of the universe. What better way to celebrate the awe-inspiring nature of space travel and the marvels it opens up. And even if this is too difficult for some, like Peter, after whom this Cathedral is named, we find that in Jesus are the words of eternal life for he is the Holy One of God (vv68-69). Or as we stand next to the space craft, he is the Cosmic Christ, the one who reveals what is both beyond the world and the very ground on which it depends. This is a deep moment of philosophy. The theologian Keith Ward, in a book on science and religion, encourages us to look beyond even big bang to what he thinks is the real question, that creation depends on God. God is not just the origin, but that origin, that creating is an expression of the dependency we have and creation is held by God as the foundation of all that there is.

Space travel expands our horizons and our theology with it. When we talk of Jesus as the vine and we being the branches, and do this on the moon, dependency on his life and love takes on a much deeper significance and meaning. In turn, to talk of him as the bread of life, is to say that in this Eucharist we commune with the foundation of the universe. And so I end with the prayer I have written to accompany this exhibition, which reflects on these themes and all that this space craft brings before us.

Lord of time and space,

all creation springs from your love;

earth, moon, stars and planets in their orbit.

You give order to this universe,

bringing life into being.

As we gaze in awe and wonder,

and discover more about the cosmos,

may we live in harmony with it,

be deepened in faith,

and rejoice with thankful hearts;

for nothing separates us from your love,

which reaches beyond every horizon;

through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 26th August 2018

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A Space-Inspired Prayer

globe-328140.pngTim Peake’s Soyuz Space Capsule has landed in Peterborough Cathedral and is proving to be a phenomenal draw. People are coming to see it in their thousands each day and the cathedral is alive with their excitement and wonder.

To help with a prayerful response to the questions, wonder and marvelling which this is raising I have written this prayer, which is being given to them free of charge.

It draws its inspiration from a number of themes and comments.

Space travel brings an altered perspective. From that vantage point the world is seen both in the wider context of the cosmos and the vastness of space, and also out of its usual horizons. It raises questions about faith and God as Lord of not just our planet but the whole of creation, which reaches far beyond our gaze and our comprehension. Tim Peake said on BBC Radio 4 (at 2.20 into the programme) on 14th August 2018 that from the vantage point of the International Space Station he could both imagine the possibility of the earth being the result of intelligent design and also it being a spontaneous random event. He was therefore agnostic about this, but open to both possibilities. He also saw no conflict between faith and science, they approach questions from different places and use different tools.

I have also discovered that Buzz Aldrin, one of the first men to walk on the moon in 1969, just as the Apollo 11 landing craft touched down on the lunar surface, received Communion, the bread and wine through which we remember Jesus, which he had brought with him. He asked everyone to be quiet for a moment, reflect on all that had taken place and give thanks in their own way. This prayer encourages us to rejoice with thankful heart. Communion on the moon affirms that even that distance, literally being out of the world, does not separate us from the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

My prayer begins with a clear statement of faith that God is the creator – the origin of all things and the one who sets the earth, moon, stars and planets in their orbit. The created order enables life to be brought into being, to emerge through evolution. Quest for knowledge deepens faith.

Discovery about the cosmos, which brings awe and wonder, also brings responsibility to live in harmony with it. We are damaging our planet and the ecological challenge is great, even critical. The more we see of space, the more we become aware of the intricate balance that has led to our planet supporting the conditions for life and it serves as a wakeup call to unsustainable living.

It is an incredible privilege to have this space craft in the Cathedral, nearby where we say our daily prayers. It has the character of a sacred object, for it prompts profound questions about our place in God’s creation. It reminds us that God’s world is on a vastly greater scale than our small planet. Space is the blanket of the eternal in which we are enfolded and held in being.


A Space-Inspired Prayer

Lord of time and space,

all creation springs from your love;

earth, moon, stars and planets

in their orbit.

You give order to this universe,

bringing life into being.

As we gaze in awe and wonder,

and discover more about the cosmos,

may we live in harmony with it,

be deepened in faith,

and rejoice with thankful hearts;

for nothing separates us from your love,

which reaches beyond every horizon;

through Jesus Christ our Saviour.


© Ian Black 2018







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