Lent 4: Live-stream – Let there be lights in the sky, awe and wonder

Screenshot 2020-03-21 at 20.36.41Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic all public worship across the Church of England has been suspended. Worship has therefore moved to online live-streaming. Below is the text of the simple service I live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church on Sunday 22nd March 2020, for the Fourth Sunday of Lent.


Sunday Worship

A Simple Order of Service

Lent 4, Mothering Sunday – 22nd March 2020


Good morning. Welcome to St John’s Church in the heart of the city of Peterborough.

Although we can’t be together physically for this act of worship, over the next few moments we can pray together, read the bible, reflect and seek God’s grace to hold us and guide us through all the week ahead will bring.

If you have the order of service from the e-newsletter sent out on Friday, this is the order of service that I am going to use. I am live streaming this at 9.15am in the morning but it will be available on the church facebook page to view later as well.

So, I invite you to be still for a moment as we focus our hearts and minds on the God whom we have come to worship.


Opening Prayer (Additional Collect for Mothering Sunday):

God of love,

passionate and strong,

tender and careful:

watch over us and hold us

all the days of our life;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.



Throughout Lent we have been travelling through the first creation story in the Book of Genesis, following themes in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, by Ruth Valerio, ‘Saying yes to life’. Today brings us to Day 4.  The theme this week is ‘Let there be lights in the sky’.


Genesis 1:14-19

Psalm 23 Between the readings

Gospel Reading: John 9:1-7 (short version) –

(for the longer version John 9:1-41)



Our theme throughout Lent has been the first Creation story in the Book of Genesis. In this we have been following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for this year, by Ruth Valerio ‘Saying Yes to Life’ (SPCK Publishing). It is worth noting that this is not an account of Creation but a poetic reflection using each day as a way to express profound things about the world made and loved by God.

On Ash Wednesday I spoke about God as creator; the creation being the action of his will and purpose. It is not random, but willed and wanted, made from and for love.

On the first Sunday of Lent we looked at Day 1 in the story, at light, and seeing this as showing God’s purpose and active presence.

The second Sunday we moved on to Day 2, where space is made for this purpose to get to work, the space made by separating the chaos waters.

Last week brought us to Day 3, where the land produces vegetation – trees and plants, seeds and fruit trees. The seas are also made, but we have to wait a few days yet for the swarms of sea creatures to emerge. We belong to the earth – it is the setting for our pilgrimage, one which is blessed and blesses.

Today, Day 4, stars and planets light up the sky. Living in a city it always delights me when I am in the open countryside at night and see what light pollution prevents us seeing – the expanse of the night sky. Patterns we are familiar with – the Plough, Orion, shooting stars and passing satellites – we get a greater sense that this planet is in orbit and part of something so much bigger and connected than daily living reveals.

It is this awe and wonder which ignites faith for me. We are part of something vastly more complex than we know. In his video* to accompany this week’s text in the Lent book, Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, talks of an insect being harder to understand than an atom or star. It is this complexity that stands out for him. As our knowledge increases, so does our wonder. This leads to praise and thanksgiving. He reckons that we are less than half way through the life expectancy of the universe. It is billions of years old now, so the future is greater than the past.

This hope of a future which is greater than the past was present in the gospel reading. The short version is just the healing of the blind man. The longer version gives the spat with the leaders who decided to find fault and provoke an argument. Jesus brings sight to the man born blind and in John’s gospel there is always a deeper message to the surface story. He is able to see what he previously could not.

May the wonders of creation expand our wonder, bring us to delight in God’s creative and redeeming love, where conditions and illnesses do not limit the horizon for us, but in God’s purposes there is a hope where the future is much greater than the past.



God of hope and consolation,

In times of anxiety,

may we be drawn by your hope, not driven by fear.

In sickness and in health,

may we find your song of praise to lift our heads in thanksgiving and joy.

When times are hard,

inspire us with your generous love to be mindful of the needs of all people.

In isolation and physical distance,

helps us to reach out to others with words of encouragement and companionship.

Bless all whose work ensures our common wellbeing,

that together we may travel through this vale of misery

to the bright dawn of your new tomorrow,

which is always much greater than the past.

© Ian Black 2020

By name we pray for:

Mothers, all who mother us, teach us to love, to care…


The Lord’s Prayer

We sum up these and all our prayers, the ones we can find words for and the ones we can’t as we say together the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever. Amen.


Post Communion Prayer for Second Sunday of Lent

Almighty God,

you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves:

keep us both outwardly in our bodies,

and inwardly in our souls;

that we may be defended from all adversities

which may happen to the body

and from all evil thoughts

which may assault and hurt the soul;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


The Blessing:

Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,

fill you with his grace to trust his promises and obey his will;

and the blessing of God Almighty,

the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

be among you and remain with you always. Amen



We are exploring various ways for us to keep in touch over the coming months. Please keep an eye on our social media feeds and website and sign up for our e-newsletter if you would like to receive this direct.


God bless; stay in touch, look out for one another and stay well.


End of livestream.

Posted in Live-Stream Worship, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lent 3: Land and Plants – Identity, Place and Blessing


Throughout Lent we are working our way through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book by Ruth Valerio, “Saying Yes to Life”. This is based on the first creation story in the Book of Genesis. I am using my sermons to reflect a little on the theme for the week so that whether we are part of one of the Lent groups or not we can all join in. On Ash Wednesday I spoke about God as creator; the creation being the action of his will and purpose. It is not random, but willed and wanted, made from and for love. On the first Sunday of Lent we looked at Day 1, at light, and seeing this as showing God’s purpose and active presence. Last week we moved on to Day 2, where space is made for this purpose to get to work, the space made by separating the chaos waters. Today brings Day 3, where the land produces vegetation – trees and plants, seeds and fruit trees (Genesis 1:9-13). The seas are also made, but we have to wait a few days yet for the swarms of sea creatures to emerge.

Land is foundational in the Bible. It is territory and security, space to exist and there is a deep link between it and who we are. The topography shapes people. Fen is different to hillside, rolling hills to moor and mountain, coastal to landlocked and forest to open field. And of course rural is different to urban, suburban and town. The land affects the people too; there is a difference between those who live in the flatlands and those who lives in the hills, rural dwellers and citizens of the city. When I am back in the Warwickshire rolling countryside there is something that connects deeply with me. For others it is the ditches of the fens or other landmarks of their native landscape. When we lived in Leeds, there was something about the Pennines in the distance and the coastal expanses of sand in north Norfolk is distinctive and evocative.

For the Hebrew people the land was who they were, written into their title deeds in the promise to Abraham, the promise to Moses, the hope of return from exile. And the land has been a bit of an issue down the centuries with competing claims on it and walls being erected separating and excluding. In our gospel reading, Jesus has gone beyond boundaries to enter a Samaritan village and we were reminded “Jews did not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:5-42). So God making the land fruitful on  Day 3 of creation brings more than a hint of what is to come. The Old Testament is a story of a people of promise, a chosen people, and the land which is the sign of this promise and chosen status. In the New Testament that promise is for all, so one person’s blessing should bless others otherwise it becomes a curse. These are challenges for the Israeli-Palestine divisions and land disputes in Northern Ireland. If the land is to bless then it should bless all, not just some.

Land and identity is a very contemporary divide between us. One sociologist has split us up into the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’. The ‘somewheres’ are those who are rooted in their place, they belong to an area and they know it.  They live where they belong, and they belong where they live. Their roots go deeply into the soil. With mobility, some moving from place to place, a new group of the ‘anywheres’ has been created. This is those who have moved into new areas, possibility only for a time, and so their identity is not so strongly linked with a particular place. Sociologically they are the ‘anywheres’. This has implications for community and a city like Peterborough is one which has a high proportion of ‘anywheres’ over the ‘somewheres’, in fact the ‘somewheres’ can feel a little outnumbered. I am an ‘anywhere’ rather than a ‘somewhere’, and most clergy are, though through our ministry we become deeply rooted in the communities in which we live, become a sort of adopted ‘somewhere’, though those who are deeply rooted in the place will spot the incomer. A lot of us in this city have moved here, some settled, some with a longing for a lost land – struggling to sing the Lord’s song in this strange land, and some nesting for a season. The land brings location and dislocation. Where do you belong?

For Celtic Christians, there was a deep understanding that here we have no abiding city, and so being prepared to go to where they don’t know, to unfamiliar places was a sign of letting go of all attachment that might hold them back. This was an ‘anywhere’ identity with a purpose, not just being dislocated, but being all embracing. And when I read this quite a few years ago in a book about Celtic spirituality and the willingness of monks like Aidan to go to a new land, it struck me as an important concept to hold to in my own moving and settling and moving. Going where we don’t know and never being the same, is John Bells wonderful phrase in his hymn ‘Will you come and follow me’. It takes the land as a place where the pilgrimage of faith and mission is set, with no boundaries and no limits, but recognising that each place changes us and reforms us as the wind and rain shape and form the land.

Having created the land, vegetation, fruitfulness and regeneration is brought forth. Forna and flora in their multiplicity and multicoloured paintbox bring spring freshness, and the air is refreshed and oxygenated. The trees and plants are the lungs of the earth, enabling breathing. Without them we would not be. And if we endanger them we will not be too. So there is a natural balance that has to be respected. It is so startling that commercial interests are threatening the very air we breathe with deforestation.

In the emerging plant life the conditions to support life were prepared long before we came along, or even our predecessors in the evolving species. It is not surprising that trees have been seen as sacred in myths and legends across the world, in sacred poles and holy trees. In the Garden of Eden a Tree of Life stood at its heart. By the oaks of Mamre Abraham greeted three visitors, which is often taken as a prefiguring of the Trinity and an encounter with God. Judges sat judging and Jesus sees Nathanial long before  he approaches, when he was sat under the fig tree, whatever that allusion actually means. A tree of shame becomes a tree of victory as the cross it seen as the tree on which Jesus dies and saves. Two of the magi’s gifts comes from the resin of trees – Frankincense and myrrh. Trees bring life, encounter and signs of hope. 

Vegetation is the gift and flourish of life and fruitfulness. Day 3 of the creation story brings the land with its topographical diversity, plants in their glorious shades and colours. The stage is set long before we come along and it is good without us, it is good for its own sake. We belong to the earth and are shaped by it. Those of us who are nomadic disperse our rooting, but still know there is a place that resonates for us in a way nowhere else quite does. The ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’ have a fundamental difference in their relationship to where they are. For the Hebrew people the land was closely bound up with their covenant of promise and their sense of being. In the New Testament this Covenant is for all and so the land must bless all or it is as curse for all. Celtic Christians, letting go of attachment, turned this land into the setting of a pilgrimage in grace, where boundaries disappear and with the deep understanding that here we have no abiding city, we embrace the unfamiliar and receive the blessing of new lands.

On Day 3 we celebrate the earth and its gifts, our responsibilities and challenges; its goodness irrespective of our presence or absence. In the funeral service we acknowledge that we are made of the earth, from dust, and we return to it. There is something foundational about this day of Creation. It sets not just the stage on which we move but the essence from which we come and on which our life depends. In Christ the land  moves from defining a narrow identity to become the setting for a pilgrimage which is blessed and blesses.

Sermon for Lent 3, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th March 2020

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Lent 2: Separating the Waters – making space for creation


Throughout Lent we are working our way through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book by Ruth Valerio, “Saying Yes to Life”, in our Lent Groups and on Sundays. This is based on the first creation story in the Book of Genesis. I am using my sermons to reflect a little on the theme for the coming week. On Ash Wednesday I spoke about God as creator; the creation being the action of his will and purpose. It is not random, or the product of warring gods, but willed and wanted, made for and from love. Last week we looked at Day 1 of the creation story,  at light and seeing this as showing God’s purpose and active presence. Today we move on to Day 2, where space is made for this purpose to get to work (Genesis 1:6-8). In our first reading, the passage set for this coming week, God is depicted as making space by separating the chaos waters. It is a profound image, but at its heart creation is made, not out of nothing, but out of God. God opens a space within God’s self and from this a very profound thought opens too. God is not out there, somewhere else, separate and remote, but rather the very space in which we exist and the prerequisite for our existence.

This makes God the foundation of who we are. Remove God from this equation and everything collapses in on itself, disappearing in a puff.  This is where our language sometimes trips us up as we talk of God entering the world, God intervening, God being found. All of these phrases are saying something important in their context, but they can play into the narrative that we are separate from God and that is not what Day 2 of the creation story offers to us. It is a remarkable piece of writing. Written in the Bronze Age, it nonetheless carries this profound notion that we only exist because God has made space for us. So the language of tearing open the heavens to come down, in Isaiah’s yearning which occurs around Advent (64:1-2), this becomes more of a thinning of the fabric of creation to reveal what lies at its core and heart. Here the Celtic image of thin spaces, where God is felt more keenly, is so important. And Jacob’s dream of a ladder with angels ascending and descending is such a ‘thin space’ moment in the biblical narrative (Genesis 28:10-19a). God does not come from somewhere else, but from deeply within, from the very essence of who we are. We only exist because of God. 

Remarkably this fits with where science has got to. So we can’t go flying into outer space and expect to find God in his cloud base. The theologian Keith Ward has written about this in mind-bending detail in a book on science and religion. He 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 means we are utterly dependent on God, who holds creation and this is the foundation of all that there is.  So in this remarkable creation myth, God opens up space for us to be and this still resonates today.

If that is the case, then it also means that we will only find our true identity, who we are, in God. Everywhere else where we might search is a distraction from this fundamental reality. As St Augustine put it in his famous prayer, now the Collect for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity:

“Almighty God, 

you have made us for yourself, 

and our hearts are restless 

till they find their rest in you”.

This was reflected in our Gospel reading where Nicodemus has a conversation with Jesus about being born again (John 3:1-17). Jesus tells him that unless someone is born from above, from God, they will not be able to see the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, and in John’s Gospel that is a symbol of being in the dark, without light, which if we think back to Day 1 last week means without the presence and purpose of God showing him the way, the truth and the life. He will only find his way when that light of God’s purpose and presence dawns for him; when he connects with the foundation of the universe and finds his true identity in the purpose of God. He will remain restless until he finds his rest in God.

Another of those confusing phrases is when we talk about finding God. God is not an item we can lose and pick up, so the parable of the lost coin rather confuses here. Rather when we find God, to bend TS Eliot’s phrase from his ‘Four Quartets’, we will arrive and know ourselves as if for the first time. We see through the light of God’s presence that we have discovered the purpose of the universe, that we exist because of God, and therefore we will discover who we really are. Here we will find and be found by the true meaning of everything.

This space of creating is made through separating waters. This makes water sacred, yet we turn it into a commodity. It is the foundation of life and without it there is no life. The origins of life are traced to the hydrothermal vents in the sea. Probes sent to other planets look for signs of water because that is deemed to be the prerequisite for any life forms to have developed there, or exist there. So it is significant that it is the separation of waters that make the creating possible. It makes observational sense. Water rises out of springs. Water falls from the sky. When you dig down you find water and the sea is below the mountains. Therefore water above and water below has a deep resonance for us and for our ancient ancestors. Water flowing, bubbling and active is a powerful symbol. It is a sign of blessing and when Jesus talks of giving living water to the woman at the well meaning she will never be thirsty again, while she wants to have this to prevent her having to keep coming to the well, she comes to see that he is talking about something much more profound (John 4:4-30). The living water is that which refreshes our deeper need for meaning and purpose, for our identity to be rooted and grounded on the foundation of everything.

With the separation of the waters our true identity is made possible and in this space-making for us lies our true identity. A sign and symbol of this, which also involves flowing water, is baptism. Through this we become children of God, heirs of grace, people who are forming into Christ-likeness. This ritual washing bathes us and revives us, anoints us with this commission to live as children of God, of hope, of purpose and thanksgiving. 

When we think of water, it is not too great a leap to be mindful of the climate crisis and its impact on water. The Environment Agency has predicted that in 25 years we could have a severe shortage in this country. And we are used to too much and too little of it already with the seasons bringing drought and flood. This will impact further on communities and where people live. Water brings life, it also threatens it as the forces of nature can overwhelm us. So our dependency on God, on the waters of life, brings a challenge to live in harmony with the natural balances of creation. If we don’t, we are in trouble.

Day 2 of the creation story, brings God making space for us, for creation to exist in his purpose and presence. We depend on God and we find our true identity when we recognise this and live in harmony with it, when we seek to grow in Christ-likeness. It is through the waters that we come into being and through the waters of new birth that we are born into new life in Christ.

Sermon for Lent 2, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 8th March 2020

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Lent 1: Light – God’s presence bringing purpose and hope


This year we are travelling through Lent with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, ‘Saying Yes to Life’ by Ruth Valerio. Three groups are meeting during the week and on Sunday, the sermon will explore some of the issues in the coming week’s chapter so that we can all join in. The book is based on the first creation story in the Old Testament book of Genesis (1:1-2:3). I  spoke on Wednesday about God as creator; the creation being the action of his will and purpose. I drew a comparison with another creation story circulating in Babylon when this one was written, the Enuma Elish. This sets creation in the context of a battle between squabbling gods. It is therefore the  random by-product of struggle, conflict and violence. The Genesis story is very different. God wills the world into being, speaks it and it is the object of his delight. We owe our origin to divine love and so there is hope in this purpose and plan. We are not a disposable by-product but willed and wanted.

For the Old Testament reading each week we will be using the one that accompanies the chapter in the book for that week and so today we explore light.

“Let there be light”, and there was light. God saw the light and it was good. (Genesis 1:3)

Light is a sign and symbol of God’s presence. The passages which underline this are numerous and rich. ‘The word is a lantern to our feet and light upon our path.’ God’s glory is radiant. Light banishes darkness and ‘the darkness is not able to overcome it’. We stumble in the dark, we see our way in the light. With light there is order, there is direction, there is beauty.

Light is complex. We will all know the science demonstrations where light is shone through a prism and its constituent spectrum is revealed,  the same principle we see on a rainy day with a rainbow as the light of the sun is reflected, refracted and dispersed through the water droplets. This light brings colour, even for those of us who struggle with certain parts of that spectrum. The colours of the rainbow, the visible spectrum of light excites imagination and brings a rich variety to the world. 

The colours of the rainbow have long been associated with moods and characteristics.  There seems to be something deeply resonant in them and these are reflected in the colours used in our vestments for the church’s year.

Red stands for violence. The colour of blood is used for the martyred saints, whose witness led them to their deaths. Red is also the colour of the Holy Spirit, the fire of God’s love. Fire is hot, passionate and powerful. So the passions of violence can also be the passions of desire and action. Red stands for active love, resilient love and enduring love.

Orange is the colour of hope. It is bright and in the fruit that bears its name refreshing and rejuvenating. Hope is the fire in the heart that brings the light of God’s purpose to shine in glory and wonder. It can give us the energy and drive we need to carry on and go forward.

Yellow is the colour of joy. Another bright colour, it is the sun shining, warming and bringing the spirit and heart to skip. A bright sunny day fills the heart with joy and lifts the spirit. Yellow is a colour for celebration and we use yellow, or gold, perhaps an amalgam of yellow and gold, for major celebrations which mark the glory of God in Jesus Christ – Christmas, Easter, moments when hope and joy are centre stage.

Green is the background colour of nature. It is lush and fresh, the colour of grass and leaves. This is used for the long summer months of ordinary time in worship, when life grows and flourishes. At this time of year, in March, when it is still a bit cold, we can look with longing eyes to the warmth of spring and summer, to the green season when nature is at its most splendid. We also see the signs of its dawning as fresh green shoots begin to emerge. We rely on the natural world for our life and these chapters are concerned with the environmental challenge we face. How we green our living, our praying, our planning is a serious question to face.

Blue is the colour for possibility. Intriguing as a link, but the blue sky and blue sea are vast expanses which stretch out before us and so much is beyond our gaze. So perhaps the origins of possibility come through the blue sky gazing and thinking, the looking out to sea and wondering what is beyond. It is also the colour associated with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who brought the possibility of his presence among us to birth. In Mary possibility becomes reality in her ‘yes’ to God. It can do the same in ours.

Indigo stands for love. As a natural colour additive, Indigofera Tinctoria whitens. It is an optical enhancer, restoring washing that has yellowed, especially in hard water, and is used in cosmetics. It purifies the look. Likewise, love purifies what has become tarnished. Love brings us alive and revives. As a deep blue, the depth of love and its strength are implied. 

Violet stands for destination and so it is a good colour for Lent and Advent. During these seasons we think of our goal and the journey to get there. We are aiming to deepen faith, hope, joy and grow in possibility and love. The rainbow is with us.

There are, of course, colours outside our visible spectrum at the ultraviolet level and the infrareds. Light shines even when we are not able to see it and there is a hope beyond our gaze. 

When we think of light, and the greening of our thinking and planning, we naturally turn to how we generate it. The development of renewable energy and low emissions is called for all the more urgently. The serious climate change challenge to prevent the earth’s temperature rising by more than 1.5°, calls us to reduce our CO2 emissions. There is no option on this. The challenge is acute and we have to rise to it or we will perish. The science is now so clear and we are seeing the effects in floods and winds, heatwaves and droughts, the extreme weather in both winter and summer. This is affecting communities in this country and in the poorest parts of the world. The climate activists, not least the young who demonstrated in Bristol on Friday, are sounding the alarm. If that warning is to turn to hope it has to be developed into actions and changes. There are things we can all do and there are things which need to be on the macro level. Even at that global level we have the power of lobbying and when a voice becomes a shout it becomes unignorable; those who try to ignore it will be moved aside. 

Day 1 of Creation brings light. It brings colour and purpose, God’s presence to shape the chaos into a world of love and desire. With light comes the possibility of teeming life, which will follow in the coming days or weeks. It brings hope and joy, the purposed journey towards a destination. It brings passion and endurance, resilience and action. 

“Let there be light”, and there was light. God saw the light and it was good. (Genesis 1:3)

In that light we live and move and have our purposed being, because the world is not the by-product of squabbling gods, but the active will of God’s presence. With its colour pallet, light shows this presence and brings the possibilities into being so that there is hope and joy. Be carriers of that light as people of hope and promise in Christ, who aim to make a difference to the glory of God.

Sermon for Lent 1, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 1st March 2020

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ash Wednesday: Remember you are dust

IMG_4694Coronavirus seems to be spreading further around the world, with more towns in Europe being isolated and schools nearby sending students home, some even closing to be deep cleaned. I have been struggling over the past few days with a chesty cough and the hypochondriac in me wondered if it might be Coronavirus. It turns out, probably not, just a chesty cough. Nonetheless these contagious diseases remind us that we are mortal and Ash Wednesday is a day that we particularly confront this stark reality. We ‘remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return’. Last year’s palm crosses have been burnt and turned into ash so that it can be used to mark our foreheads with a sign and reminder of our mortality. As this is done we hear those words:

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

This is not a counsel of despair and gloom, but one of hope and faith. This dust comes from God and is held in being by God, so there is hope, there is joy.
This Lent we are following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, by Ruth Valerio ‘Saying Yes to Life‘. This is a series of reflections on the first Genesis Creation story and in place of the set Old Testament Reading each week we will use the passage from that story on which the coming week’s chapter is based. I am going to base my sermons on these too. We begin today with God creating.

Despite being the first chapter of the bible, this story is not the oldest passage in the bible. It dates from around the 6th century BC, when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. It is a counter to the creation myths they heard there and so while there are similarities there are also great differences and one in particular.

One of those creation myths comes from the Babylonian text, the Enuma Elish. This tells of gods in a cosmic struggle. In that squabbling Marduk slays Tiamat cutting her body in two and out of one half creating the heavens and the other the earth with the great rivers of the Euphrates and Tigris flowing form her eyes and her breasts made into the hills. The blood of another defeated god was used to make human beings. In the Enuma Elish, creation is the product of a cosmic struggle, wrought in violence and that conflict is hardwired in. It is a world of battling and struggle, of the strongest defining the terms.

While there are similarities, the story of the Hebrew bible is that creation is planned and purposed by God, the one God, who is the sole Creator of all things. It flows from loving purpose and desire, not conflict and violence. When we remember that we are dust, we remember that we are dust that comes from God’s loving purpose, willed and intentioned. This is a very different narrative.

As we journey through Lent we do so in faith and hope and trust, for we are dust willed into being by a loving God who calls us to be faithful to Christ.

Based on sermon notes for Ash Wednesday, Peterborough Parish Church, 26th February 2020

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Hygiene at Holy Communion


This morning I want to give over this sermon to explaining in more detail the instructions which have been issued by the Bishop concerning hygiene at Holy Communion. These involve a change in a practice which has been gathering pace over recent decades, namely intinction – dipping the communion bread into the wine. In short, the headline is this practice has to cease as of now and I’ll explain more in a moment. There is also advice for those of us who prepare the altar and bread and wine, and also administer it to make sure we have clean hands, involving using antibacterial gel before touching it. For everyone there is the encouragement to be conscious of how easily disease can be spread by our hands so to pass the peace with the right hand and receive the bread with the left. There is antibacterial gel around the church at key places if anyone would like to use it and of course you may well bring your own.

The trigger for these instructions, issued on Thursday this week, is Covid-19 Coronavirus and its spreading throughout the world. There are health implications from this and also from the practice of dipping the bread which have caused the House of Bishops to seek medical advice and it is on this advice that their instructions are issued. There are also deeper theological issues about the nature of Communion and what we think we are doing. First the relatively simple and straightforward – the health and hygiene of what we do.

Dipping wafers into the wine presents two significant health risks. The first is the accidental contamination of the wine by fingers going deeper than we intend, so that they touch the wine. Most people are very careful not to go to deeply into the chalice but it is easy to accidentally go deeper than intended. The Bishop’s letter says that the fingers and hands are a greater risk of infection than the mouth. Catching any illness through the shared chalice is extremely rare, not least due to the antiseptic qualities of both silver and alcohol. This has frequently been noted. But when there are infectious diseases about, and when there is a major health concern, it makes good sense to take sensible precautions. So this is one reason why the Bishop has said that the practice of intinction, dipping the bread in the wine, should stop and I’ve been instructed by him to make sure that happens. When I spoke to him yesterday about this he told me the authority for it comes under the oath of Canonical Obedience which I swear when appointed. He can tell me to do this and has.

The second health area concerns people with gluten intolerances. There is a scale of severity with this. For some it is mild, for others it is acute. When bread is dipped in the wine small fragments, sometimes larger, break off and contaminate the wine. This can be severely hazardous for some. We have people in our congregation who are gluten intolerant and we owe it to them to care for them. This is the other reason why the Bishop has instructed this change, the ending of the practice of intinction. It is not a temporary measure but a permanent one.

All of the administrants have been informed of this change and so when you come for Communion if you do not want to sip the wine,  for whatever reason, please either move away after you have received the bread or simply keep your head bowed and they will pass you by, but they will not offer you the chalice to intinct from.

There is a rarer practice which is also to stop and that is receiving the bread directly into the mouth onto the tongue. This causes me to contaminate my fingers and that causes a real risk of cross infection. So if that is your practice, please now put out your left hand, the opposite one to the one you passed the peace with, receive the bread and bring your hand up to your mouth yourself. The bread is not too holy to touch. You are, after all, going to eat it.

For some these instructions will mean they receive Communion in one kind only – simply the bread. It is a very long tradition in the Christian Church, that we receive all the benefits of Holy Communion even if we are only able to receive in one kind. This goes back to at least the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, when understandings about the Eucharistic doctrines were being codified more fully. This is because Christ is not split. Whatever happens at the Communion – however we see the significance and spiritual aspect of Communion – it is the action of the Holy Spirit who is feeding us in Christ. Therefore by partaking of one we partake of the whole. This was confirmed at later Councils. And the Church of England has not changed this understanding.

In the Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission in 1981 the essential unity of the Eucharist was affirmed. The Eucharist is not one act, where magic food is shared or taken. It is an act which includes the gathering of the community to worship and it is in this gathering that the celebration takes place. Christ is present in a number of ways. Christ is present in the gathering, when two or three are gathered together. Christ is present as the eternal Word when the Bible is read and scripture opened for us. Christ is present in the sacramental actions of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing. In the words of that International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission report:

“The ultimate change intended by God is the transformation of human beings into the likeness of Christ. The bread and wine become the sacramental body and blood of Christ in order that the Christian community may become more truly what it already is, the body of Christ.” (ARCIC p22)

Christ’s presence is not confined to the consecrated elements of bread and wine but in the wider gathering and action of the community of faith. The bread and wine represent and become vehicles of this. But Christ is not divided, so what we receive, affirm and acknowledge in one element is the same in the other. We share in bread and wine if we can because we honour Christ’s command at the Last Supper, from which Communion is derived – to do this in remembrance of him. If we are not able to receive both elements, and not everyone is, then as a community gathering we participate in the corporate act where this is the case, so it is still honoured. 

Now I realise for some this will involve a major shift in practice and it may take time to come to terms with it. 

A copy of the Bishop’s instructions is displayed on the noticeboard in the church and also in the vestry. I have also placed it on the Church website and posted it yesterday on our Facebook and Twitter feeds.

As a church community, which gathers to share in Christ, we aim to look after one another. These instructions are intended to help us do this, so that our feeding on Christ may be life-giving and not life-damaging. Christ is not divided. What we receive in one kind is the same in the other, so we are not diminished by this, even if it feels odd at first. Christ’s presence comes in various ways throughout the Eucharist: in the gathering community, in the sharing of the word in scripture, and in the sacrament. In all, the aim is to be transformed into his likeness to live to his praise and glory in the world.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 23rd February 2020

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Living as citizens of heaven: making a difference and being seen to do so


At the end of our gospel reading Jesus tells his hearers that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees they will not enter the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:13-20). This passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount. He has just given them the Beatitudes, when he explains what being a citizen of heaven looks like.  He then goes on to tell them that this citizenship is not something to hide. It is to shine out, like a lamp. It is to make a difference, like salt. And if we truly live as citizens of heaven then we won’t hide who we are and we will make a difference for good. This is the key to understanding that word ‘righteousness’, which is to exceed that of those who should be the experts to follow – the scribes and pharisees. As we know with Jesus in the gospels, he exposes hypocrisy and points out when those we expect to live up to high standards fail to do so. The standard is set high.

The root of the word ‘righteousness’ is in being just, in following the correct path. To do that we need to be reinforced in the road map and that comes through being deeply rooted in the teachings and wrestling with the faith that shapes us. For Anglicans that has long been the three pillars of Scripture (the Bible), Tradition (the journey that has brought us to this point) and Reason (how we bring in all of the things we know from other disciplines). We have brains, we have God given skills of evaluation and reason, and we should use them when working out what is true, what is just, what is right. There is no place for using faith as an excuse for thin thinking or bolstering prejudice. We are to let our light so shine that others may see our good works and give glory to God (v16).

There are some key debates bouncing around at the moment. Few people are looking to churches for answers not least because what they often hear does not make sense to them or connect with how life is. And there have been some spectacular failures of integrity and process, not least with safeguarding, which have damaged our image and reputation. Why should anyone listen if they see the gap between words and deeds. This should concern us deeply. In spite of this, I still find that there is a yearning for meaning and for faith to make sense. When we fail to speak into this, or fall short of what is expected, I think there is a great sense of disappointment. And when we do speak with faith-filled intelligence and behave as expected, there is a look of relief and deep interest. The challenge is to become known for thoughtful, intelligent comment and reflection, which actually helps people live righteously, justly and find the path that is life-giving. The challenge is to live with integrity and behave well.

If we are to enter into debates and discussions with the spirit of righteousness, being rooted and shaped by the path of faith, then this is not just a matter of repeating whatever we hear elsewhere.  There is a distinctive faith view which should help us see deeply into issues of concern and bring some fresh thinking to bear. There are some trends which are to be challenged and the church has been at its most vibrant when it is able to articulate why it takes a different view to what might be the dominant one. So in a culture which values people according to how rich they are and what they have, the path of faith will offer fasting, denial and restraint. Consuming more and more is not a good way to be, and we are learning this truth from the environmental angle, where we are encouraged to reduce, not just reuse and recycle. Living simply and with balance has long been a Christian virtue.

There have been trends that assume money is king and profit is the most important criteria for investments and trading. There is a growing interest in ethical investments and looking at the wider responsibilities which trade and investing brings. All trading enters us into a web of relationships, many hidden and far from sight, but should still be our concern. How much is the person who makes what we enjoy paid? What are their working conditions? How does the company care for the communities in which it operates, or does it just exploit them for its own ends? What difference does their trading make?

Tax justice came into my inbox this week as Bewiched, the independent coffee shop on Bridge Street, Tweeted that it pays more tax than Caffe Nero, a multinational brand. Tax dodging is not being ended and it denies communities vital funds. When our government is cutting services and councils are struggling with reduced budgets, tax dodging is not victimless. We suffer from it directly. The way of righteousness requires loopholes to be plugged, even more than they have been. 

Safeguarding has become a major area for ensuring that we live up to what we proclaim, that our righteousness exceeds. The disclosures and exposures over high profile failures, where even a former Archbishop of Canterbury has been shown to have failed to protect the vulnerable, these are not moments when the church has been seen to be righteous, just, honourable or true. There is a major challenge going on at the moment for it to get its act sorted and it needs to do this. I think this diocese is actually on top of this and we take safeguarding very seriously in this church. Megan, our safeguarding officer, and I recently sat down to review where we are and to check that we have everything in place that we need to ensure everyone is safe and looked after. There will be some follow up from this, as rules have changed, and this will require us all to catch up with role descriptions to be clear on the expectations, responsibilities and accountabilities for what we do, Disclosure and Barring Service checks so that we can prove we have done everything we could do. This is part of us letting our light shine – being transparent and open. No one is exempt. I have to complete a DBS clearance every 5 years and if I don’t then my licence to officiate as a vicar will be removed. I have to keep my Safeguarding training up-to-date otherwise I will be deemed to be failing in my duties. So I am no different to anyone else. Please don’t be surprised if you hear from us in the coming weeks asking for various things to be brought up to date.

This is one of the fastest changing areas of church life. The rules we work to change frequently and they are set nationally. Previously we were told we couldn’t DBS check our administrator because they weren’t engaged in what is called a regulated activity. This time round all of the applicants were asked to complete a confidential declaration and the successful candidate will be given a basic DBS check because of the responsibilities and trusted position they have.

Having given his hearers a statement of 8 ways that they can see what it means to be a citizen of heaven, the Beatitudes, Jesus pressed this deeper. He told them that they will display this by being seen as a light shines out and in making a difference as salt flavours food. In doing this they will live the righteousness of God – God’s justice and following the path of truth. Be seen, make a difference, follow the path of life and blessing. These things challenge us so that we have something profound to say to a world wanting to see integrity and hope. We are to be shaped by our citizenship of heaven and to live up to this by making a difference, and being seen to do so.

Sermon for 3rd Sunday before Lent, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th February 2020

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment