Thorns in the side – real intelligence over artificial


Peterborough Hospital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touching the holy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Being John the Baptists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Compassion, Conviction and Courage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pilgrim’s Prayer

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

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

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

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


A Pilgrim’s Prayer

God of life and love

as we journey through our days

on roads smooth and rugged

fill us with the hope of Jesus Christ

that the beauty of this place

may be for us a sign of your Kingdom

of justice and peace

and inspire us with your Holy Spirit

to be people of praise and thanksgiving.


© Ian Black 2018

Posted in Blog, Prayer | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A big house for a big family – Welcoming all as Christ.

IMG_0952On Friday we welcomed members of the Muslim community, representatives of other faiths and civic dignitaries to an Iftar meal, the breaking of the Muslim fast during Ramadan. The event took place outside the west end of the cathedral on the green. As predicted it has drawn a bit of fire from some who are either angry or upset about this. Some thought we had lost our minds in allowing this and the Muslims were being insensitive, though they were there at our invitation and welcomed by the Dean. For some it presses buttons around inclusion and integration. Would Muslims welcome us to celebrate Easter outside their mosque? It is not quite the same thing. The party was a community event for all, though clearly with the Ramadan celebration it carries a narrative around their prophet Muhammad that is not ours. So there are legitimate cautions around this, but there are also bridges and hands of hospitality which proclaim love and friendship. One of the Imams quoted Bishop Michael Curry from his high energy Royal Wedding sermon when he spoke about the transforming power of love. What’s not to like?

Later today we will welcome 900 fairies outside the cathedral. Life here is varied to say the least. This is an attempt to beat the world record for the number of people dressed as fairies in one place and of course 900 is the iconic number this year as we celebrate our Christian heritage here. Fairies do not appear in the Bible, but we are again offering hospitality to a cause that aims to promote compassion, generosity and wishing the best for people. Anna’s Hope, the charity, was set up in memory of a 3-year-old girl who died tragically of a brain tumour. She loved to dress up as a fairy, as many small girls do, and so this carries her childlike delight in a magical world where all is possible and good triumphs over evil. The good fairy godmother of pantomime and Disney cartoons is there to protect and promote wellbeing. It is a dream of things being better in the transforming power of love. What’s not to like?

Celebrating 900 years here takes us back to our roots and those are set firmly in the Benedictine Rule that the monks here followed. One of the guiding principles of this was and continues to be hospitality to all who come. As the Rule of St Benedict says, ‘Let all who come be received as though they were Christ’ (Chapter 53). We are to greet them with love, honour and blessing in the name of Christ and we do that to all. Every event begins with a prayer, which one of us leads. And the Dean on Friday used my 900th anniversary prayer to welcome the Muslim community and others who had come to be together as they broke their fast, to delight in the transforming power of love. It is a prayer that talks of awe and wonder, new life, love and care for all.

There are differences in how we celebrate and the story we tell, and these matter. We don’t try to pretend that we are not really Christian and our Muslim brothers and sisters would not want us to do that. In fact I find contact with them reminds me to be confident in my faith as they are confident in theirs. It is when we are confident that we are better able to greet with hospitality and love and welcome. Confidence and commitment breeds hospitality and enables us to be generous because it is not threatened by the others existing. So to receive those who come as though they were Christ is to be firmly rooted in the heritage of our faith, the gospel of love, new life and transformation which this ancient holy place sings at the top of its voice – at the top of our voices. So be under no illusions we do not forget who we are and with George Pace’s enormous gilded crucifix hanging in the centre of the nave here, with its Latin tag that the cross is the still place while the world turns, we’d have to screw up our eyes pretty tightly to try to do that. The transforming power of God’s self-giving, hospitable and sacrificial love shines out to all who come here.

Our gospel reading had its critics and those who were concerned that Jesus had lost his mind (Mark 3:20-end). This follows on from last week’s reading where Jesus breaks the Sabbath restrictions on preparing food by helping himself and his disciples to a snack while walking through a cornfield. A strict interpretation of the Hebrew religious law would not prepare food during the Sabbath rest. And Jesus responds to his critics by breaking this law further in healing the man with a withered hand. Again that could be construed to have been work and the surgery should have been shut. This man Jesus doesn’t seem to know when to stop! He clearly must have a demon – which may seem quite a leap in logic to us, but it shows how off-beam they thought he was being. Jesus restores rationality by pointing out that Satan can’t destroy Satan otherwise he destroys himself! It’s a nonsense claim that they are making. In effect he replies that they need to get a grip, or the more diplomatic among us might suggest they get this into perspective, restore balance. (But in my head I prefer ‘get a grip’.)

And Jesus goes on to reflect on what it means to be part of his family. Sometimes I think he puts things in a deliberately provocative manner to get the attention and make us think. So he is not being insulting to his mother and siblings, but using a Rabbinic shock tactic to say ‘listen up’. He says something which makes them say ‘what?’. And then goes on, ‘Now you are paying attention here comes the real point’. ‘If you do the will of God you are not merely disciples or followers, but my closest relations – even my mother, and my brothers and my sisters.’ And ‘sisters’ is in the Greek, so the embracing goes further than just a band of brothers – everyone is included here, which is a quiet radical inclusion, more transforming power of love. In years past welcoming Roman Catholics to celebrate a Mass here would have been radical, and we did that the other day too. We too just don’t seem to know when to stop because the radical love we see in Jesus doesn’t either.

Doing the will God being a mother or brother or sister has echoes or hints and is extended in other passages and themes in the Bible. St Paul had to struggle with how to be hospitable and accept hospitality. A question he wrestled with in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 8) was whether or not to eat food sacrificed under other religious practices. Halal wasn’t around then, but it is relevant. He argued that it was important to remember who you are and not pretend that what is important to you is not important. So if you are asked to affirm something that goes against the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or denies him, then gently decline. But food is food, so don’t over worry. Hospitality is good and to be delighted in. And on Friday the hospitality was the overriding presence. Later in Mark’s gospel (9:38-41) Jesus talks about those who are with us being not against us. When we are building bridges, strengthening bonds and looking to proclaim light and hope in a world of darkness and hatred, then welcome all friends wherever you can find them. Everyone who works for good is not against you! When we welcome and share hospitality and fellowship, we have an opportunity to relate, to engage, to grow in understanding. There is an opportunity to testify to the hope within us. If we erect barriers and refuse to meet, then there is no discussion or opportunity to grow.

Crucial here is the remembering who we are and not denying the light and hope of Jesus Christ. And have confidence in God who came among us in Jesus Christ. So anyone who shines light and hope is connecting at a deep level with the love of God let loose in the world. For as we remind ourselves at every wedding, “God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16). So there is a deep point at which we connect and share a common currency as fellow, beloved creatures, bearing the image of our creator. This is hardwired into creation and it comes from God. So we can join with others. But, and there is a ‘but’, don’t fall into the trap of thinking everyone thinks the same really because narratives matter and they carry all sorts of implications and allusions. And that is where dialogue becomes real when we tease out together just what that means. Sometimes, though, it takes someone who comes at things from a different faith tradition to remind us of aspects of our faith we have forgotten – in this case fasting to delight in goodness, to experience what it is to be hungry to truly empathise with the poor, the importance of simple and humble living, and also of being thankful. Such dialogue won’t happen though unless barriers come down, hospitality is shared and the hands of friendship extended.

So we welcome lots of different people into this place, just as has happened through the west doors for 900 years – and on this site for much longer. They have been and are a diverse group with different backgrounds, outlooks and identities. Some agree, some don’t agree. But all of us are welcomed by the true host, who is enthroned in gold, suspended on the cross from the ceiling, showing just how much love matters and costs. At the heart of this service is the sharing of a meal, in bread and wine, as we break fast together and celebrate the foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people. When we affirm this love, this transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ extending to everyone, we become Christ’s mother and brother and sister. It’s a big house here, for a big family.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 10th June 2018

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

Stories, Sabbath and Integration

IMG_0868Stories matter and the story we share particularly so for bringing people and communities together. Having a common story that tells how we got to here, mapping out the centuries past, is an important part of a community’s identity. And it is important to ensure that each generation knows that story and therefore understands what makes this people who they are, why they see what they see and understand what they understand. I often find I understand people so much better when I know their story and it improves how we relate. We need to know who we are talking to; we are not just talking to some kind of biological robot. To be human is to have been shaped by a story, a journey, and some of that is our personal one and some of it is the bigger story of the people where we are. Each person brings something different into that mix and so the story evolves.

I was at the Cohesion and Diversity Forum meeting for the city the other week and our subject was looking at Integration. There is a Government green paper, the ‘Integrated Communities Strategy’, which has been produced and is out for consultation. The key message of it is that Britain is on the whole a well-integrated society but in too many parts of our country communities are divided, so people don’t mix. This not mixing leads to mistrust, misunderstandings and it prevents the most isolated from taking advantage of the opportunities which belonging and participating in society brings. And the green paper identifies what it sees as being a number of drivers of this poor integration. These are the pace of immigration – where people have arrived at a greater speed than can be assimilated (and we might add the failures to be welcoming and enable joining in), school segregation where children do not meet and so grow up without meeting, the low levels in some communities of being able to speak English at an adequate level, segregated communities where people of different backgrounds just don’t interrelate, employment levels in these places, some cultural attitudes and how much social mixing there is. It is quite a wide range, but related collection of issues. There is an agenda aimed at tackling each of these areas, which in Peterborough looks at language, young people, tackling segregation, increasing economic opportunity and looking at some cultural blockers. Interestingly the budget for addressing the growing homelessness problem in the city is coming out of this agenda, not least a Migration Limitation Fund!

An important factor in Integration will be how we tell stories about who we are. And in the discussions the Heritage Festival came up. How do we use, as a city, this opportunity to tell the story of this city and not just battles? This is a city where people have arrived over many centuries, but where is the story of those who have come here in the last 50 years? How do we help one another understand the story of this place and also the story of the people who are now here, which has to come together? Some of these stories will intersect, and not always well. Those who have ancestors who were slaves mean we all have to come to terms with Britain’s past involvement in the trade and its abolition. Those who come from former Empire lands and places of British rule and misrule, will require a coming to terms with this. Heritage is a mixed legacy. I find in each place I live, I don’t really inhabit it until I have a sense of its story – the good, the bad and the ugly. And sometimes I need to know just what darkness, untold stories lurk beneath the surface, but are still working on the corporate psyche.

The importance of story featured strongly in our readings this morning. The book of Deuteronomy (5:12-15) reminded its readers that they were once slaves in Egypt. Their common story has slavery, oppression, liberation and the forming of that people as they journeyed through the wilderness. The Sabbath, then, so fundamental as a weekly day of religious observance, is a day to remember who they are, their story. God has chosen them and shaped them. God has defined who they are. That story is important for them to remember.

But Jesus was not limited by it and neither should we be by our stories. Walking through a corn field when he and his disciples were hungry, no story should interrupt them from preparing food – just like King David raided the larder when his men were hungry. A man with a withered hand was healed, despite the expectation that the surgery would be closed (Mark 2:23-3:6). The point he was making was that while the story of the Sabbath is important, it was made to assist who we are not us made to serve it. Remember and live, be set free, which is what Sabbath connects with, and being free from hunger and a crippling disease are dramatic ways of demonstrating that.

Stories also set out the direction of travel. They shape how we see the world. So the Christian story is rooted in God the creator, the redeemer and the sustainer of our life. It proclaims the love of God in Jesus Christ and calls on us to live that love in everything we do and are, and to draw others to join in, to follow Jesus Christ too. That is the story that this church sits here to proclaim and stand as a witness to. It is not just an old building that has been around for a while. The Sabbath is to remind us of the heritage of faith which has brought us to this point and which we live today.

And at the heart of this service is God’s presence in word and sacrament. The bible readings have an honoured place, rightly so, in all our worship. They are the story of our faith and it is a living story to inspire and give the hope that means while we might get ‘perplexed, we do not fall into despair’, ‘afflicted we are not crushed’, and however we are ‘struck down, we are not destroyed’ (2 Corinthians 4:5-12). We also remember through bread and wine, as we share together in a meal that has the primary intention of keeping the story of Jesus in front of us: his life, teaching, dying and rising.

So stories matter. They remind us who we are and they change over time as new people bring their stories to join in. Integration requires stories to be known and shared, to be learnt along with the language, and to be celebrated. When they bring different outlooks these need to be brought into the open so that there can be mutual understanding. There is no dialogue if that does not happen and just like we need to know what is important to others, they need to know what is important to us. And significant festivals are part of making that known, to others and to ourselves.

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy… Remember that you were a slave… and the Lord brought you out.” (Deuteronomy 5:12,15) In doing this we are not just observing laws, but allowing the story to shape us, the story of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Trinity 1 – Sunday 3rd June 2018

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment