Power of love overcoming the love of power

Love over powerThis last week we welcomed the Archbishop of Canterbury to the city and diocese. Many have commented on his humanity and humour, his easy manner with faith and civic leaders as well as homeless guests at Garden House. When he left us on Wednesday he caught a plane and flew to Rome to be with the political leaders of South Sudan at the Vatican. A stark contrast to touring Peterborough and Northamptonshire seeing projects, but actually another example of how the Christian church can bring the light of love into human lives and in the case of Sudanese leaders, seeking to bring a peaceful resolution to a bitter conflict. What happened during that meeting in Rome has been widely reported in the press, when Pope Francis got down on the floor and kissed the feet of three Sudanese politicians, each in conflict with the others. It was dramatic, powerful and poignant.

When someone with a major role, beit religious or otherwise, stoops down and humbles themselves before others it has a powerful effect of stripping away the power dynamic in the room. No longer is everyone playing the same game, or indeed accepting the ground rules for how it is to be played. Suddenly one has removed themselves from this and that vulnerability is actually a profoundly powerful moment. It says I am not bound by your recognition of my status, but am appealing, bowing down, before something much greater, in this case the power of the love of God which calls us, holds us and brings us together. It is an appeal to those on the receiving end to connect with that divine power and grace, and stop their warring.

If this sounds familiar, well we’ve just heard it retold in the Passion story of Jesus. On Thursday we will see Jesus break the power dynamic of his disciples, and by extension our own, as he takes a towel to wash their feet. The Lord of lords and King of kings makes himself a humble servant, demonstrating and begging that we live differently. We are encouraged to do the same, but there is so much more to this command than to clean shoes or even expand it to whatever acts of loving service we may come up with – from care for the vulnerable to feeding the hungry. It is also a call to break the power dynamic that looks for our own status and power, position and ranking. I learnt a long time ago that the most powerful hand you can hold is the one that is prepared to leave the game, not as some kind of brinkmanship but really walk away. It is the powerful hand that says this game does not define me or control me. That power of powerlessness, that strong vulnerability, can silence and overwhelm.

The whole of Holy Week is a slow-motion exercise in Jesus refusing to play power politics, but rather calling people to a higher command. His riding in on a donkey – a humble beast, his agony in the garden, his arrest and trial – trumped up and facing false accusations, his being abused before the crowd who become a mob baying for his blood, his humiliation on the cross, dying and burial. It is sacrificial and self-giving, it is to place trust in the higher purpose and power. The story of Holy Week, the most important week of the Christian year, overturns our priorities in so many ways. Here losing life becomes the gateway to truly finding it. The ultimate defiance is to refuse to acknowledge the power of the one who threatens and abuses, and to refuse to give them the status of controlling, of defining the moment.

Through this week we see Christ’s power displayed through what looks like powerlessness, but is actually the complete opposite. In emptying himself of the way the world sees power, in terms of coercion and zero sum wins, he subverts it and redefines the purpose of the whole venture. It is in serving and giving that we find the purpose of life more clearly revealed. It is the power of love overcoming the love of power.

Sermon for Palm Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 14th April 2019

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People of faith, hope and love: Address to Annual Meeting 2019

Screen Shot 2019-04-07 at 15.31.57Our nation is going through a time of deep challenge and great uncertainty at the moment. Parliament is deeply divided over what to do about leaving the European Union. Passions are high among the wider population and all sorts of fault lines have been opened up in our identity, the directions we want to move in and how we are to be as a nation. In the thick of all of this there are nuanced positions and easy caricatures which of course don’t do justice to the position and make it harder to hear and honour the person we may disagree with. It is not surprising that there has been the national call to pray for our nation and we have the prayer card as well as a prayer station by the Lady Chapel themed around togetherness in our difference. This has set me thinking about the kinds of values we aim to live by and therefore the values that we seek to proclaim from our churches and by virtue of belonging to our churches. So I want to spend a few moments with a reworking some guidelines that came out 65 years ago.

A few years ago I came across a card from 1954 and it is signed by the then Archbishops of Canterbury and York. It was entitled ‘A short guide to the duties of Church Membership’. I shared it at the Annual Meeting in 2017, but it is worth bringing out again. I thought two years ago that it needed a bit of a refresh, so here’s my attempt at an update of the core principles for us today.

The church is called to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and to draw people to follow him. That is our core purpose. All who have been baptized and confirmed have agreed to shape their lives on this purpose and calling. And so to do this we will:Screen Shot 2019-04-07 at 15.34.32

  1. Seek to grow in faith and trust, that every aspect of our lives will be shaped by and in the example of Christ.
  1. Commit to pray each day – waiting on God; for the needs of the world and the welfare of all people.
  1. Make time to read the Bible and deepen our understanding of and confidence in our faith.
  1. Make coming to Church each week a priority, so that we can support others and be supported in our common calling. If we are away we will do all we can to join with a local Church.
  1. Share in the Sacrament of Holy Communion faithfully and regularly – to feed on Christ in word and sacrament.
  1. Be gracious, showing and sharing the love of Christ to all.
  1. Be generous with our time, our gifts and our money – in thanksgiving to God we will give to support the mission and ministry of the Church.
  1. Strive for justice and transformation, to make a difference, living with integrity in all things.
  1. Honour and love all in the name of Christ, welcoming all who come as if they are Christ, sharing God’s hospitality.
  1. Share faith in word and action, to help others grow in faith and come to love and serve the Lord.

We will, in short, be people of hope, people of faith, people of love.

It is worth reflecting on these and see how they might influence how we are with one another, how we approach everyone we come into contact with. And when we fall short, be open to others giving a gentle reminder. I was involved in an interview recently for a role with the Light Project Peterborough and one of our questions was about how the candidates would foster and embed a Christian culture amongst the volunteers and staff, a number of whom do not come from a faith background and many who do. It was a good question and it is a reminder that there are ways of being which go with being a follower of Jesus Christ and by baptism and confirmation we have signed up for these. So I have produced these notes on a card for us all to take and reflect on.

St John’s Church has been at the heart of this city since AD 1407, a living heritage of faith and service. Today we aim to be:

  • Open for all,
  • Connecting with our location and the opportunities it brings.
  • A place of prayer, where faith is vibrant and relates to the issues of our day.
  • Hospitable, generous and gracious in all our encounters; a place where everyone is welcome
  • A community of transformation, which makes a difference for the common good.

One of the things we have struggled with has been setting this out in terms of an action plan. This is not least because these can easily become an unrealistic wish list and that does nothing but weigh us down. We have carried out an audit of what we do and mapped these under the 5 Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion. That was a helpful exercise because it reminds us that what we do serves a higher purpose. Over the next few years it would be worth looking at these and deciding one thing to develop or strengthen over the coming year. Not a massive hit list, something else to wear us out, but to help us keep on track with our core purpose, the 10 principles of Christian living and how we aim to be a living heritage of faith and service today.

St Luke’s shares in this purpose, with a particular focus on West Town and the community that live around it. There are things we could do there which would strengthen its visibility and connecting.

The primary boots on the ground in church mission are those who are baptized and confirmed, those who have committed in baptism and confirmation. It has been a privilege, as it always is, to spend time with our candidates this year as they have explored faith in readiness for the Confirmation Service in the Cathedral on Easter Eve.

Before this planning and thinking begins to wear you out, or feel oppressive and more pressure, this week’s Church Times has a very helpful article on God’s speed. The writer, John Swinton, argues that God’s speed is actually 3 miles an hour. That is the average walking speed for human beings. Jesus, who is God, walked at three miles an hour. God who is love, walks at three miles an hour. Love has a speed, and that speed is slow. We do not have to fix everything in five minutes and we are in for the long haul, not just a sprint. That suits me well, because I can walk for miles but I can’t run for a bus. The long haul calls for resilience, stick-ability, commitment and endurance. A church which has been on this site since 1407, and St Luke’s which has been on its site for over a hundred years, is in it for the long haul. What is more we are here all the time. We belong to a community which has a presence here all the time, not just a pop up initiative.

I spoke a few weeks ago about 7 disciplines of evangelism –how we share our faith with others that they too many come to follow Jesus Christ and grow in his likeness. It began with prayer and was shot through with commitment to the long haul. The ten principles of Christian living are missionary and evangelistic. They proclaim the love of God and they seek to draw others, to inspire them in faith.

So please take this sheet away with you. It is through this that we will aim to connect with those around us and who come into contact with us in so many ways.

As I’ve said the major boots on the ground here are yourselves. And the life of this parish, which we are celebrating in this meeting, relies so heavily on those who are generous with their time, with their gifts and their money. Thank you for all you do and give. The booklet of reports sets out the spread of these activities and the commitments behind them.

  • Care of buildings
  • Care of accounts and our funds
  • Ambassadors in Deanery Synod, Churches Together
  • Hospitality – making the places open and serving cakes and coffee, welcoming and looking after those who come for services and events
  • Musicians and servers, flower arrangers and polishers
  • Events programming – from Alun with the CIC and Jonathan for other bookings
  • Social events – times we make and mark community
  • Home Communions and looking after one another – I frequently hear of those who naturally check up on one another and make sure all is well, or come to their aid when it is not
  • Groups and study programmes – one or two new initiatives in the pipeline
  • Ringing bells and looking after the tower
  • Cleaning and tidying up after those who don’t tidy up after themselves!

This is an active place – so many events hosted and our reach is far beyond what might be expected. When I talk with others in the city about their capacity, we achieve an incredible amount with the small band that we are. And this last year we have extended our hospitality to include the Mar Thomas Church, who have taken over the lease at St John’s Hall and along with others I was invited to take part in their service of dedication. A number of us were given tokens of thanks for making it happen.

This year we have said a sad farewell to a number of people:

  • Mike Lilliman, a longstanding friend of the parishimg_8037
  • Vera Savidge, a longstanding member of the congregation
  • Peter Boizot – a long time supporter of this church, as well as being Mr Peterborough. When I took his funeral in the Cathedral, it was one of those occasions when I was very much acting as Vicar of this Church as well as being a Cathedral Residentiary Canon.
  • And Joyce Lyon, who moved to Scotland to be near family.

So we celebrate today the life and witness of the churches in this parish – in the city centre as well as in West Town. There is a great deal of life in these churches. A few Sundays ago I stood at the front and looked out and it dawned on me that over half of the congregation were not attending 6 years ago. As the Bishop of Oxford reminded General Synod back in February, anyone who pretends that evangelism is easy is both deluding themselves and demoralizing those who are working hard. But it is not an impossible task. It starts with prayer and ends with it too. Throughout it all, we hold to the core purpose of the church which is to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and to draw others to follow him. And in doing that, I leave you with the 10 guiding principles: prayer, deepening faith, commitment to church and sacrament, being gracious and generous, striving for justice and transformation, honouring all people and seeking to inspire others to grow in faith.

It is actually not as difficult as we might think. It just requires each of us to commit to play our part in faith and hope and love.

Address to APCM at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 7th April 2019

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‘Trip a little light fantastic’: light to shine the way


Mary Poppins Returns, 2018, Walt Disney Pictures

Today is the last in our series of sermons for Lent drawn on themes from the film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’. This has taken us on a journey with the Banks family, the nanny who arrives flying under an open umbrella and who leaves the same way, when the wind changes. The first week brought us reflections on grief and loss, springing off the death of the children’s mother and how they miss her deeply. The second week bathtime fun in the bubbles gave us the place of imagination for faith. A chipped bowl, took us further into the fantastical with the Royal Daulton Music Hall and a song about the cover not being the same as the book. With this we thought about who we really are and our identity in Christ. Last week a trip to a woman who can fix anything, but for whom sometimes the world gets upside down and needs righting again, gave us hope in dark times, the presence of Christ and how this gives the world the flip it needs.

Today then, we arrive at the grand finale. As they leave Topo-trepo-lovski’s house, the London fog rises and they have difficulty finding the right way to go. The lamplighters are out attending to the street lights and a song and dance about tripping the light fantastic, finding the light for the way brings us to reflect on where we find the light to shine the way. A very good place to end a Lenten journey.

The true light to lighten all people, in the words of John’s prologue to his deeply reflective gospel, is Jesus Christ. He is the light of the world, the one who brings light as well as shines light. He brings the light of hope, that creation is not the lonely, abandoned and isolated place some try to convince us it is. God our source and our goal, the one for whom we exist and without whom we would not exist, brings light into being. The beginning of creation is the explosion of light and energy, radiating across time and space, bringing time and space into being. It is an awe-inspiring concept.

Jesus is also the light because he shows us how to live, so that we can find purpose and in that our way out of wandering aimlessly and hopelessly in the fog of despair and lost ways. For some this can be more dramatic than for others. That comes through his teaching which shows us how to live with one another and with God. It is the way of loving service, where true living involves giving. The true leader is one who knows that they are really the servant, and will sacrifice themselves for their people. It is the way of love, not just an emotional feeling but a deep and profound love that connects, unites and binds together even those who disagree – and we are certainly living through some foggy days at the moment where that light is needed. It is the way of forgiveness – knowing we are forgiven for that is what God in Jesus Christ shows us, brings to us, and also that we are to forgive. Not being able to do this eats us up from the inside in bitterness and resentment and that is not a happy place to be.

It is the way of generosity, which honours the gift in knowing that it is best shared and put to good use. Money is not for hording but to enable things to happen, to serve God’s kingdom of justice and peace, blessing for all. It is the way of self-giving love, sacrificial living, and that can be costly but ultimately life-giving. And underneath and holding all of these is the way of prayer and sacrament, feeding on God in word and spirit, in bread and wine blessed and shared for us. The path is well laid out in front of us, we are invited to walk it in hope, placing our hand in the hand of Christ and so being able to find our way through any kind of fog.

If those areas sound familiar, they are of course because they are taken from the book I wrote a couple of years ago called ‘Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus’. They are also reflected in 10 Core Principles for Christian Living, which I am going to say more about in my address to the annual meeting a little later on. These are 10 ways to help us live the commitment made at baptism and confirmation. Through these we find the light for the path. That light shines when we:Screen Shot 2019-04-07 at 15.34.32

  • seek to grow in faith, so that every aspect of our lives will be shaped by Christ.
  • Commit to pray each day, waiting on God; praying for the needs of the world and the welfare of all people.
  • Make time to read the bible and deepen our understanding of and confidence in our faith.
  • Make coming to Church each week a priority. If we are away we will do all we can to join in with a local Church.
  • Share in the Sacrament of Holy Communion faithfully and regularly, to feed on Christ in word and sacrament.
  • are gracious, showing and sharing the love of Christ to all.
  • are generous with our time, our gifts and our money – including in thanksgiving to the church.
  • Strive for justice and the transformation of the world, to make a difference, living with integrity in all things.
  • Honour and love all in the name of Christ, welcoming all who come as if they are Christ, sharing God’s hospitality.
  • Share faith in word and action, to help others grow in their faith and come to love and serve the Lord.

In short, we aim to be people of hope, people of faith, people of love.

There is a sheet with these set out on them on the table at the back. It is hard to take in a list all at once, so please do take it and read it and reflect on it.

These core principles are a reworking of something I found on the internet a couple of years ago, guidelines issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 1954. I have given them a reworking, updated them for today and their aim is to help us to fulfill the mission of the church as disciples of Jesus Christ: to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and to draw people to follow him, to find the light for the path. This church [has been / is] a living heritage of faith and service [in the heart of the city since 1407] and this is how we enable it to be that living presence today, in and through us as we live to serve God.

So we have come to the end of our Lenten journey with Mary Poppins. We end it with light to show the way, to show there is a way to go and a place to aim for; a place which draws us forward, already prepared for us. The light of Christ is the light of hope he brings and we live in that light in all we are and do. That light blesses us and sends us to be a blessing to others.

Fifth sermon in a series for Lent based on themes drawn from the film Mary Poppins Returns, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 7th April 2019

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‘Everything’s turning turtle’: Hope in dark times


Mary Poppins Returns, 2018, Walt Disney Pictures

Throughout Lent we have been exploring themes arising from the recent film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’. This picks up the story when the children in the first film have grown up. Michael, the young boy, now has a family of his own. Their lives have been struck by tragedy when his wife died and the family home is struggling with mourning and the hole she has left in their lives. In the first week we used that as a springboard to explore grief and loss. The second week brought us the practically perfect nanny and fun at bathtime as they dived into the bubbles. That gave us an opening for imagination and faith. Last week a chipped bowl took us into a fantasy world of the Royal Doulton Music Hall and a song about the cover not being the same as the book. With that we thought about who we really are, integrity and identity. Today we combine those moments when the world is turned upside down and needing to find hope in dark times with Mothering Sunday. These fit together better than we might think.

First, to set the scene. The children go on an outing to see if they can get that chipped bowl fixed. It belonged to their mother and got damaged in a squabble between the siblings, so it carries far more significance and emotional importance than it might otherwise have had. Fixing it is therefore about fixing more than the porcelain. They need fixing too, but then that is why Mary Poppins has turned up. They visit the eccentric Topo-trepo-lovski. She can fix anything, but has moments when the world is dark and then she can’t see through the fog of gloom and despair, just like the children are in a bit of a fog and can’t see through to how it can be made better. These are sad days, ones where there is too much darkness to see clearly, when everything looks gloomy and lacking in hope. On these days everything turns turtle, flipperty flop, upside down like an up-ended turtle and then she doesn’t know her up from her down, her east from her west. It’s not a happy place to be. Is she depressed? Is there something else that causes this gloom? What is needed is to get the view changed, so that things are the right way up. Getting alongside her seems to make a difference; being there, accompanying her makes it feel less scary and weird.

Being there is a much under valued skill. It is the importance of presence, of turning up. It is the gift of time and with that comes valuing and honouring. It is one of the profound gifts of the Christian faith that it talks of God showing up, being present in the person of Jesus Christ. He displays the divine empathy with who we are and what we face. Knowing this changes everything. The world and creation is not so lonely a place. It is to know that there is hope, however dark the world may seem. It is knowing that we are loved, valued and held. These are all themes which fit rather well with Mothering Sunday: presence to accompany times of loneliness, to comfort, to love and reassure with hope.

Mothering Sunday is one of those days when things can get a bit odd. Stereotypes abound about what a mother is like: washing up, cooking, caring, putting food on the table… the list is almost endless and we know that many fulfill these roles, but also that they can be shared. Most mothers do still act as the primary carer, but there are many whose household is different or shared. For some there are two mums, for some none, for some that role is taken by someone else, even dads. And for some there is deep grief over loss, the aching of not ever having given birth, relationships being what they are, often complex, sometimes damaged, it’s not the straightforward day some might like to think it should be. We tread with care in this turning turtle world. And just like the world of the eccentric fixer, Topo-trepo-lovski, things can get out of place, out of shape and the wrong way up. We need help to sort them out and bring the world into focus and change how it looks.

Those themes, of being there when needed, reminding of hope and comfort, of loving and reassuring, are key for our growth and wellbeing. When the world is upside down and dark these help bring it back to where it should be. They are key themes in our faith and how we see God in Jesus Christ holding and loving creation. To live in tune with it is to embody these qualities and so give them form and life. We are to be people who inhabit them and display them.

The God we see in Jesus Christ is not an absentee, overstressed authority figure, fully occupied with much weightier matters to be concerned with our small trials. What we see is someone who stops along the way and gives full attention to the lost by the wayside, the crippled, the blind, the woman suffering with bleeding and those easily shunned and pushed to the margins. Even on the cross Jesus spares a word for one of those crucified with him and for his mother and close friend. Christ sees into the heart and recognizes the gifts and possibilities we often don’t even recognize in ourselves. It is the power of one-to-one conversations that can only happen with the gift of time and presence. In these healings take place – healings of mind and body, of spirit and hope. The excluded are included, the guilty restored in forgiveness, the lost and wandering found and brought into the fold. So much of what we want to celebrate on Mothering Sunday connects with how we see God at work in Jesus Christ and it is in these places that we find our lives reflecting the love of God.

All of us know there are times when we do these things and times when we fall short and don’t quite manage it. We can’t always show up, can’t always be there with the love and embrace, and can’t always do it for everyone. But we see in our mothering an image of how God in Jesus Christ acts and how he turns the world upside down again so that it is the right way up. The Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) is precisely about this flipperty flop world where the rich have too much, the poor not enough, the hungry longing for scraps from the table of those who are over filled. As our souls magnify the Lord, so the presence of God among us, announced to Mary by the angel, gives the world a flip and things start to change, to be transformed in his image, in his justice and in his love.

So on this Mothering Sunday, as we also continue our journey through Lent with the new Mary Poppins film, the world is flipped so that it is right the way up. It comes through loving presence that cares, that comforts, that reassures with hope.

Fourth Sermon in a series for Lent based on themes drawn from the film Mary Poppins Returns, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 31st March 2019

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‘A cover is not the book’: Identity and Choices

Mary Poppins Returns, 2018, Walt Disney Pictures

Mary Poppins Returns, 2018, Walt Disney Pictures

This Lent these sermons and our Lent group are based on themes taken from the film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’. This was in the cinemas around Christmas last year. Whether or not you have seen the film the themes can stand on their own. The film picks up the story when the children in the first film have grown up and Michael, the young boy, now has a family of his own. Their lives have been struck by tragedy when his wife died and 17 Cherry Tree Lane, the family home, has a cloud of sadness over it, the pall of mourning. In the first week we explored grief and loss. Last week the nanny who stays as long as she is needed turned up attached to the youngest member of the Banks household, Georgie’s kite. As to be expected she has a few surprises in store and bathtime involves a dive into the bubbles for an underwater world of imagination and fun. This brought us an opportunity to look at the importance of imagination for faith.

Today we are going to move on to look at who we really are. The children get into an argument in the nursery. A squabble breaks out over a ceramic bowl with a picture of a carriage scene on it. The bowl gets chipped and because it belonged to their mother this breakage hurts more than a broken pot should. It is a link with the very person they miss most and so the grief is very strong. Something more than glue is needed here and with a spin of the bowl the children and Mary Poppins jump into the picture on bowl and into a cartoon world where dogs and horses talk. They end up at the Royal Doulton Music Hall fair and in the big top a show is about to begin. In this imaginary world the cartoon characters recognize them instantly as being important guests and they have front row seats.

A song ensues about the cover not being the same as book. What matters most is what is inside and this is where the true value and true nature is seen. The story can be very different. A cover is not the book and this becomes an exploration of how different people can look one thing on the outside but are actually something very different inside. They look respectable but are they? They look one thing but who knows what is really going on inside. Often this is reflected in the choices people make and how they display their character and identity. To mix up my films for a moment, there is a scene in one of the Harry Potter films (and indeed the book) where Harry is worried that he has some strong similarities with Voldemort. His headmaster, the wise Dumbledore, tells him that it is not in how they are alike that matters so much as in the choices they make. This shows the real difference between them. What is inside will make a profound difference to what they do.

Jesus said something very similar when he talked about what is inside a person defining them, not what food they eat on the outside (Matthew 15:10-20). Character comes through and that gives the lie or the truth to who they really are.

Our Epistle this morning came from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I read through the whole of that letter the other day in one sitting. I recommend doing this, it gives a much better sense of the thread than the way we tend to chop up the books of the Bible into chunks to be easily digested. 1 Corinthians was written by Paul to a church that he felt needed quite a few things setting straight. They had rather lost the plot, not least in terms of personal morality and that came through in the passage we have just read (1 Corinthians 10:1-13). Paul tells them to live lives that reflect their status in Christ; their outward living should reflect their inner faith and hope. How they live is to spring from what they believe. The cover is to reflect the book and at the moment it is not. This won’t do and he gives them quite a telling off. The implication is that the cover is false because the inside is not true. They need to shape up.

There is quite a bit going on at the moment about integrity in public life and in private life. We only have to read the press to see stories where those who should be trusted and looked to as example-setters fall flat when we dig a bit deeper. The Recall Petition that we have in this parliamentary constituency has been triggered by a conviction in court that calls into question the trustworthiness of the current holder. To be an MP is to be one who makes laws and so it is incompatible with that office to have been convicted in court for perverting the course of justice and that is why she was sentenced. If you read the judge’s summing up, he was compassionate but also clear “I sentence you on the basis that by November 2017 you realised what was going on and took the disastrous decision to stand by the false information that had previously been submitted by your brother”. That is perverting the course of justice, whatever the family loyalties that lay behind it, and that is why the Recall Petition has been triggered by the Speaker of the House of Commons.

The difficult for all of us is that there can be misplaced loyalties and these can get us into bother. We are expected to act with integrity and sometimes this requires what is known as ‘courageous integrity’. This is where we make a stand that costs us personally because we have to point out that what is happening is not right and needs to be addressed. We cannot maintain integrity if a certain situation or course of actions continues and it can be courageous to make this stand. It might lead to having to blow the whistle or call in a higher level of authority to bring in the necessary accountability. That can be a very uncomfortable position to be in, it can be painful and stretch at loyalties and friendships. But it is what is required when trust is placed in us. If we don’t do it, we conspire with whatever is happening that should not be happening and we become complicit in it. In that turn of events the story inside the book that is us fails to match the cover illustration. A cover is not the book and we show our character, who we are, by the choices we make.

Jesus had some more harsh words where integrity was questionable. He called religious leaders whom he accused of hypocrisy ‘white-washed tombs’ (Matthew 23:27-28). They look smart and bright on the outside, even pure and clean, but inside there is a rotting corpse. Like an apple that is being eaten away from the inside when we cut into it, it is not as appetizing as we had hoped, so the motives and inner plans of these leaders did not match their outward appearance.

The gospel reading we heard this morning used another image, this time of a fig tree that didn’t bear fruit (Luke 13:1-9). For someone wanting to harvest it for food in due season, it is no use if it doesn’t produce ripe fruit. The verdict is to chop it down. It is wasting the soil, a drain on nutrients that could be put to better use. But a stay of execution comes so that it can be given another chance, with appropriate feeding and care. The implied message in this is that while there will be times we don’t measure up, that does not mean we are irredeemable. With nurture and care, with mentoring and guidance, we may find that we can grow and shape up. All of us will have people we are grateful to because they gave us the guidance and inspiration we needed to grow in grace and in what the Bible refers to as the stature of Christ; to grow to be like him and shaped by him. Character doesn’t come from nowhere, it needs shaping, inspiring and enabling to grow and develop. Look for good role models to help you and see how you can be a good role model for others.

A cover is not the book. We display who we are by how we live, the choices we make, especially when the going gets tough. Integrity, when it is tested, may need to be courageous; we need to step up and be counted. If we proclaim the faith of Jesus Christ we are to show it in how we live with integrity and that brings certain standards. We all need role models for this, and ultimately our aim is to grow in our likeness of Christ, to be shaped by him and thereby be people who display his grace and love and blessing.

Third Sermon in a series for Lent based on themes drawn from the film Mary Poppins Returns, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 24th March 2019

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‘Can you imagine that’: imagination and faith

Mary Poppins dolphin

Mary Poppins Returns, 2018, Walt Disney Pictures

Throughout Lent we are exploring themes drawn from the film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’. This was released in cinemas around Christmas last year. It’s not necessary to have seen the film to follow these sermons, each of the themes can stand on its own, though there may be some cross over. Last week we began with a grown up Michael Banks – the young boy in the first film. He married and lives with his three children – Annabel, John and Georgie – in the old family home, 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Tragedy struck when his wife Kate died about 6 months earlier and the strain is showing. They all miss her deeply. Last week we used this to explore grief and loss, the pain of the long silence that the death of someone close brings. This provided an opportunity to look at what we think happens when someone dies, where they go and what the Christian hope is. Today the film moves on.

The youngest child, Georgie, about the same age as Michael was in the first film, goes out to fly his kite on a windy day. It is at this moment that the nanny who stays until the wind changes, until she is no longer needed, decides to make her entrance floating in on the tail of Georgie’s kite. He runs home and bursting through the front door announces to his bewildered father that his kite got caught on a nanny. The look of surprise and disbelief turns to amazement when Michael finds himself once more face to face with the nanny who is practically perfect in every way.

Michael’s sister, Jane, has come round to visit and so with mouths wide open they greet the nanny who has come to look after the Banks’ children once more – Jane and Michael of course, oh and the other three too. Why use the stairs when you can slide up the bannister? Bathtime for the children today brings a new magic. With somersaulting dolphins in the bubbles, they slide into an underwater world of imagination, defying logic. They enter a world where it is possible to move beyond the impossible and explore reality through different eyes – the eyes of imagination and fun. The children need fun and play, the ability to push boundaries from the known to the unknown, the logical to the outrageously fantastical, to explore new possibilities. Cold logic without the imagination is cold indeed.

There is a world of difference between imagination and delusion. And the world of faith can touch both. What is real, what is true, what is beyond our imagination, what is disturbing and destructive? These questions play with us if we let them, torment us if we let them, send us down blind allies of delusion if we let them and excite us with previously unseen possibilities if we let them. Faith and imagination are good friends. Imagination always starts with what we know and then makes leaps into what is possible, even stretches what we regard as being probable. Faith is a leap of the imagination from the known world into a glimpse, even a sense that there is something deeper behind it, even between the bonds that hold together the atoms. Last week we touched on the physical sphere being made up of space dust, and so we are made of the same space dust as everything else. When we say ‘remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return’, as we did on Ash Wednesday, we know that what it means to be physical and human is to be part of a world of physics and chemistry. The cosmic is part of who we are.

But the cosmic is far from being cold and dull. Between the atoms there are spaces and it is in the bonds between the atoms that holds them together that the elements are made. What we think of as solid is actually not as solid as we think and without the bonds holding those elements together would not be so. So there are dimensions we can’t see, and some of what we call laws of science are actually working theories to make sense of what we know by leaping with imaginative logic. The theory will stand until someone disproves or challenges it with an alternative theory. Scientific theory actually uses the imagination far more than we tend to think. Push this too far though for the world of faith and the danger is that we make God into a god of the gaps – a placeholder until we have a better understanding that fills it, rather like dark matter stands for what is not known but sensed to be present. It does though remind us that all of our pronouncements about God have a provisional nature to them, we may well have to change them. ‘Now we see through a glass, dimly, then we will see face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). What is remarkable is that despite so many advances and giant leaps in understanding, faith persists. So many times God has been declared to be dead, an unnecessary ‘placeholder’ and a redundant idea, but God refuses to play dead. Faith in God is as alive today as it has ever been, but what is meant by God has changed from an old man in the sky to something much more nebulous and harder to grasp.

Imagination is our brain at play and it is how we explore reality. It is through play that children learn and explore the world, find out where the boundaries and what new possibilities there are. So if we are going to explore more deeply into God we have to allow our imagination to flourish. And here our first reading invites us to dream (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18). Abram has a vision in the night of an ancient covenant-making ritual. Animals are cut in two and someone is invited to walk between the portions, in this case it is a flaming torch. The message is stark, if you break this covenant you will become like these portions of meat, cut in half and torn open. It is vivid and blunt. The bond that has been made in the covenant, unites so strongly that it affects our very being – break it and you break yourself. It is of course picture language and so much of faith is actually picture language, where we use what we can describe to talk about what we can’t. In this case carcasses to stand for the bond between Abram and God where breaking this will be like splitting your very self in two. This is the power of story and poetry to enter into the cracks of logic to lift our gaze and be inspired.

Here we find the power of myth, which our ancestors knew so well. Myths are not fairytales; they are stories trying to express a profound truth about the deeper mysteries of life using imaginative stories. The Book of Genesis begins with creation myths and these are good examples. The first one uses the image of a series of days and God making things, splitting waters, sending stars and planets into their orbit, bringing life into being and delighting in the task. No one, when it was written, thought this is actually how the world came into being, in just 6 days, they had no idea about it. It is an imaginative story to express a deep belief that God made the world, is the beginning and the end, the source and goal of creation.  Later a talking snake slithers and whispers into the heart bringing rebellion. This imaginative and rich story tells us that there are consequences to being creatures who know and can understand. To know comes with being mortal, being able to decide courses of actions which may bring destruction and upset. Here we confront what it means to be autonomous and not merely robots with artificial intelligence. Real intelligence is imaginative, creative and part of our mortal condition.

There are stories about creation being God’s flight of the imagination. Drawing pictures with an amazing colour pallet, modeling planets and creatures out of clay and sparkle; creation is a true work of creativity with space dust. Things leap, things fly, electrons buzz and breath is breathed into living beings who can move with autonomy, feel and be passionate, love and form such deep bonds. It is a wonderful, awe-inspiring world of beauty and marvel. This awe and wonder is the beginning of faith because from it and through it, through contemplating all there is and its intricate, dynamic playfulness, human beings start to ask questions and wonder at what might be. The imagination, leaping from what we know to what we think can be possible, is the place where creative spark is encountered and let loose. It is the place where faith and the deeper questions are born, because it is a place where we let our minds see something new and fresh, be opened to possibilities we would otherwise be closed to.

So today, with the nanny caught on a flying kite, somersaulting dolphins and a swim in an underwater magical world – a dive into the imagination – we enter the roots of faith. Creation is playful, though it can be dark at times, but it is also awe-inspiring and wonderful. The imagination is the gateway to the mystical and all that brings faith alive. It opens our minds to fresh possibilities. Creation is the product of God’s imagination so it should not surprise us that our faith is born in the same place.

Second Sermon in a series for Lent based on themes drawn from the film Mary Poppins Returns, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 17th March 2019

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‘Since you went away’: Grief and Loss

IMG_2538Throughout Lent, these sermons will be following themes drawn from the film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’, which was released in cinemas around Christmas last year. It is not necessary to have seen the film and the DVD release date is now later than originally thought when this plan was put together. So we’re not able to show it as hoped. Each of the themes is a stand alone, so it is not vital to catch each one if for any reason that is not possible. During the week there is an opportunity to come together to talk about these in a Lent group. The venues have had to change because of the Parliamentary Recall Petition using St Luke’s, but I think we now have them settled. The leaflet has been updated if you would like a reminder. Today we begin with the first of these themes: ‘grief and loss’.

The film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ takes us back to 17 Cherry Tree Lane, the family home of the Banks family. Michael and Jane Banks, the children in the first film, have grown up. Michael married and has three children: Annabel, John and Georgie. Jane lives elsewhere but calls by to check all is well. It quickly becomes clear that Michael’s wife, Kate, has recently died and so Cherry Tree Lane is not a fun place to be. There is deep sadness. Everyone misses Kate. Added to this, Michael is not coping well and has got behind on the repayments on a loan he took out with the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank – where his father used to work. Remember that incident in the first film with the tuppence and the ensuing panicked run on the bank?

Michael is up in the attic looking through boxes stuffed with memories and personal items. He comes across Kate’s jewelry box. He holds it as if a sacred box, one which forges a momentary link across a great divide he can’t span, the divide of death. He sings about how they’ve not spoken in awhile, things are in disarray, the magic has vanished since she went away. Winter is gone, but not free from the room, the cherry blossom is gone too. The deep question he then poses, with a heart-rending sigh, is “where did you go”?

It is a moment of the long pain and aching of grief, the ‘long silence’ as Henry Scott Holland calls it in his long sermon on death, the silence that tells us that death is not nothing at all. It brings the pain of loss and grief, of yearning and aching, of an emptiness when the love has been so deep and strong, and nothing can fill it. Where did you go?

Some years ago I conducted the funeral of a young man who died in tragic circumstances. His father found him hanging in his bedroom. When it came to putting an inscription on the gravestone, their first request included words about wanting to go up to heaven and bring him home. The yearning was so strong, they wanted him back and who can blame them. But wanting to bring him home are not words of Christian hope, so not ones for the gravestone, though I understood fully how heart-felt they were. A gravestone in a Christian churchyard is not just a memorial but also offers a witness of hope to others who chance upon it. A different sentiment is needed.

Where are they? What happens when someone dies? Where does the person we knew go to? These are questions asked so often and there aren’t any easy, neat answers that really cut it when the grief is raw. Actually, those who ask are not really looking for a deep philosophical answer, full of rich theology. This is a cry of the heart in anguish and grief. It is a question, though, that takes us to the heart of our Lenten reflections; death and hope are key themes for Lent. This is a season that begins with a reminder of mortality with the marking of the ash on Ash Wednesday and the words ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’. We are dust, made of the atoms and fabric of creation. That tingles with the life of God, but it is fragile, vulnerable and temporal: it comes to an end, and all of us must and will face this.

When we wonder what happens at death there are two competing views. One draws on Greek thought and one on Hebrew thinking, and they are different. The Greek tradition, which has similarities with Viking myths of Valhalla, is the language of passing, of continuity and souls leaving the body to go on a journey, with or without the paying of ferrymen. This is a view which thinks of us as being immortal and eternal. The life we have is permanent, even if the flesh is not. The Bible puts over a very different understanding, though you will hear the other view very frequently in churches and see it on gravestones all over the place. If you look hard you may well find it in memorials and gravestones in the church. But it is not actually what Christianity affirms because at its root it sells us short. There are passages in the Bible that can sound like this, but actually they are saying something very different and crucially more hopeful.

The great New Testament writer St Paul was not actually interested in eternal souls. He was more bothered about how heaven and earth had met in Jesus Christ and with this a new Kingdom had been brought about. This created a new way of being and so we touch the eternal in living in tune with this kingdom, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. In his great passage on death in 1 Corinthians 15, just a couple a chapters on from his great hymn to love, so popular at weddings (1 Corinthians 13), Paul uses the image of a seed. When you look at a seed and then look at the flower or plant it becomes, the difference is enormous. It is beyond imagining. He uses this as a symbol of transformation. God loves us too much to leave us as we are. We are changed, as Charles Wesley put it in his hymn, ‘from glory into glory’. The body and life we have after being dead is completely different. Resurrection is a new life after the state of being dead, not just after or beyond death. So a new realm and a new way of being is on offer, which goes into a very different state, one which leaves us with questions and puzzlement now. This is redemption. We are not left as we are and I, for one, know that is needed.

Jesus tells one of the criminals crucified with him that today he will be with him in paradise (Luke 23:39-43) and his disciples that he will prepare a place for them in one of the rooms in his father’s mansion (John 14:1-3). This is no mere walking through a door into another room. The general trajectory is one of transformation, new life, not continuing life. The hope held out to us is something that is far better than we can imagine. We imagine what we know, what we have, what is good and what is loving. We want more of that, much more. Just another day… and another… and another… The hope offered to us is that the God who brings life out of nothing, out of the strange cosmic soup which flings atoms and elements across space, which brings them together so that there can be a spark causing life to generate, this God keeps hold of that life and values it in a way that draws it into his very heart, for it is from there that it came. God is our source and goal, beginning and end.

So the short answer to Michael Banks’ question, “where did you go?”, is into the heart of God from whence you came. New life, resurrected life, is a transformed existence, because there are things about us that would be better not carried into eternity. And who knows if we meet others again, are in any state to do so, or even if this important to us? It can be a comforting thought in the emptiness to think we do, but actually that’s not the point. The point is that the life we have comes from God, belongs to God, is best lived for and in God, and so ultimately can only exist and be held in God. In that, in Christ, we are gathered and united with all people, for the hope is shared, and whatever that means in reality will be just fine.

“Where did you go?” Where we all belong, in the heart and life of God. That is the hope of life, of death and of new life in Christ.

Sermon for Lent 1, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 10th March 2019

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