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

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Mary Poppins Returns, 2018, Walt Disney Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Poppins Returns, 2018, Walt Disney Pictures

Mary Poppins Returns, 2018, Walt Disney Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Can you imagine that’: imagination and faith

Mary Poppins dolphin

Mary Poppins Returns, 2018, Walt Disney Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Since you went away’: Grief and Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sharing Faith – 7 Disciplines of Evangelism

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West Window – Peterborough Parish Church. Revelation 4

This past week the Church of England’s General Synod has been meeting in London. The theme of this session has been broadly around evangelism. As a word this does not always excite everyone, in fact it can turn people off, but all of us are only here this morning because at some point the faith that matters so much to us has been shared with us. We have been formed in it and grown to where we are now. Evangelism is how the faith in the love of God in Jesus Christ is passed on in what is said and how it is practiced. Words and deeds fit together and each of us in different ways will have some concept of what it means to us. It will be deeply personal, even if we are a little shy at times about how we talk about it, or even don’t talk about it. If our faith doesn’t touch who we are and how we are we have to ask if it is alive within us. Every now and then I get a glimpse of just what faith means to people and it moves, humbles and inspires me.

In the debate on Friday the Bishop of Oxford began his speech by reminding the Synod that evangelism is not easy and what is more we sap energy, morale and confidence if we try to pretend it is. This was like ointment on a wound to me. I have long been dissatisfied by some of the mission and evangelism programmes and statements that have made it sound like we just need to follow this strategy or that programme to achieve the greatest results. Steven Croft, the Bishop of Oxford, outlined the cultural obstacles that we face. What is more he questioned the view that people in churches are blind to the challenge. He finds that most are only too painfully aware how hard it is and are feeling dispirited by it. What is needed is encouragement and a sense that it is doable.

He outlined seven disciplines of evangelism, which deepened and expanded what this is about, set out the wider context beyond the narrow scalp hunting which it sometimes feels is being promoted. The seven begin with prayer, a deep listening to God and seeking the guidance of life in the Spirit. The Church, as he says, is called to abide in Christ and it is through prayer, worship and the sacraments that this is fed. “Contemplation is the wellspring of evangelism.” If you have come here this morning to pray, to worship, to feed on the sacrament, you are on the first rung on his seven-step evangelism ladder.

The second discipline, commitment, is living the faith that inspires us, not just inside church walls, but in the community, wherever we are. This he calls ‘incarnational mission’. God in Christ came among us and is among us. We are to be among others and share this life and love in who we are, what we do, and how we listen deeply to those around us. So if you have come here today and will leave this place “to love and serve the Lord”, as we are challenged to do at the end of the service, you’re getting on with this discipline. Keep it up and develop it.

Third is what is called apologetics. This is not apologizing as if we have done something wrong, though there are times we need to do this. This is defending and advancing faith in a way that tackles the questions of the day. It is to think deeply about our culture, about the questions raised which challenge faith and work on answering them. This is why I talk about the classic three pillars of the Anglican faith: scripture (the bible), tradition (the history of thoughts that gets us where we are) and reason (how we use our intellect to weigh up faith and life). These three are held in faith which seeks to understand. It is the digging over of the ground so that it is ready for a seed of faith to grow. If you think about things, and wonder how faith fits with that or shapes it, you are in this territory.

Number four is the initial proclamation of the faith. This is being prepared to give an account of the light that is inside you, why you think and value what you do. Unless we own up as followers of Jesus Christ, no one will know. This can be scary if you think you will be attacked for it. But I find the world is more accommodating than it used to be, in fact immigration from other lands where faith is so much more natural and assumed, has helped. One of the striking features of the Mar Thoma Church, who have just moved into St John’s Hall, is how they assume that their story is bound up with God’s story in Jesus Christ. It is a challenge to our reticence. We can learn from them and be blessed by their presence and witness. But if you are happy to identified with faith and church, then you are already getting to grips with this one.

Number five is what schools call teaching and learning. Are we growing in our understanding of our faith? This Lent there is a group which is going to use themes from the film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ to make a few connections and help us grow in our understanding of faith. Some take Bible reading notes. It is also the assumption that Christian families will be a place where children can learn of faith from their parents. They will, of course, make their own minds up, but all of us have a responsibility to them to make sure they have some key facts to work with. If you have prayed with a child, if you read or study your faith, even listen to sermons rather than writing a shopping list during them, you are working on this one.

Number six brings in the church. This is the body of Christ, where we belong, are shaped and shape one another in belonging. We find support in a world where the assumptions of faith are challenged and not always understood. The church is not always an easy place because like all communities it has its tensions and people bump up against one another’s vulnerabilities. But it is vital. We need the be part of the church to be an active, growing Christian. If you are here today, if you take coming here to be an important part of your Christian living, then this one is in the shopping trolley too.

Number seven is about planting and forming new church communities. This is how we think about new communities and initiatives. The church needs to be continually formed and reformed. This doesn’t come from nowhere, so the seeds of something may well be sown now which will take effect in time. New initiatives are a fresh response to how people connect up and form into community. Every church and group was once a new initiative. Fresh expressions are nothing new.

All of these began with prayer and worship. And they will only flourish if we begin with a vision and sense of God. Our reading from the Book of Revelation this morning (4:1-11) gave us a vision of God’s throne. It is depicted in the west window (St John’s). Spend a moment after the service looking to see what you can match up. In the passage, we heard of the glory of God and the song of the angelic host, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’. We will join in with this song during the Eucharistic Prayer. As one of the speakers in the Synod debate said, in his tradition the starting place is worship. It is only if we are rooted and grounded in God, in Jesus Christ and call on the Holy Spirit, that we have anything to bring to evangelism. If faith is alive then there is something of immense value to share and it will sing out. If it is not, then no strategy or programme will have any effect at all. It will be a ‘noisy gong and a clanging cymbal’, noise pollution in a world of competing voices and hollow claims (1 Corinthians 13).

I hope as you have heard Steven Croft’s seven disciplines that you have got quite a way along the list. If not, then perhaps this Lent would be a time to reflect on how you can move along it and what needs some work. If you ticked all boxes, where does it need deepening? The riches of God are always far more abundant than we can grasp at any one moment and they always offer us greater blessing than we have previously realized.

Evangelism, how we share faith and help others to find and grow in theirs, is part of the lifeblood of the church. All of us are here because someone shared their faith and inspired us. As that vision of God sets our hearts ablaze so may we have confidence and grace to live and share it in word and actions.

Sermon for 2nd Sunday before Lent, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 24th February 2019

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Jesus the motivational speaker – blessing, promise, challenge and call

IMG_2378Motivational speakers are in demand. People will pay to hear them speak and in some cases high fees. They can lift the mood of their audience and send them out feeling that they can take on the world, or at least rise to whatever challenge is facing them or they are struggling with. It is a gift that can change the psychological outlook and bring the possible to what feels impossible. The best ones do more than just give a buzz, they actually do give people tools to reframe how the world looks and so their message will last longer than the passing moment and emotional high. Some will even make you think, send you away puzzling on what sounds utterly ridiculous but deep down you know is on to something – a kind of brain worm, which acts like an ear worm, a tune you can’t get out of your head but in this case it’s a challenging thought. Today, our gospel reading gives us Jesus the motivational speaker (Luke 6:17-26).

And what he has to say is a brain worm. It sounds odd but you can’t get it out of your head and countless people through the generations have found the Beatitudes inspirational. The world is turned upside down. The ones who look cursed are blessed. The ones who look as though life couldn’t be better are doomed. It is a ‘you what?’ moment in the gospels and Monty Python caught it well in their scene in The Life of Brian where those at the back of the crowd don’t catch it correctly, mishear and think Jesus is blessing the cheese-makers, rather than the peace-makers. It is hard to hear what you are not expecting to hear or even goes against the grain. The mind has to be prepared so it is ready to hear it. I had one of those experiences the other day when someone I was talking to just couldn’t hear what I was saying. He thought the prayer I used before a play in the Cathedral had actually been written by Shakespeare, not by me, which was flattering, but really, no. We were born in the same town, but that’s as far as it goes.

Jesus blesses the poor, the hungry, those who weep, the hated, defamed, excluded, the scorned and the abused. If that has ever been your experience, if it is now for some reason, it does not feel like a place of blessing. It’s a pit and can feel a very deep pit where the sunlight has difficulty reaching. And it is into this dark and damp place, this place of exclusion, that Jesus reaches with blessing and hope. It is a promise of fortunes being transformed. All is not lost and there is a brighter day ahead. God does not abandon the oppressed and this was a radical message for a time when fortune was seen as being synonymous with blessing. The blessed were those for whom fortune had shone and the more riches you had the more blessed you were. Jesus turns this on its head and says we need to look deeper than the shiny bling and fast cars, trappings of apparent success. What he offers is hope because it endures and touches the root of life’s purpose and point.

We can also show this blessing now by how we regard those who are weighed down with troubles and struggle. I was talking with a former service user of Garden House this week – the day facility for the homeless. He referred to it as being “a place of peace amongst the chaos”, a place that “changes lives”. And it changes lives in two directions. It walks, even sits, alongside those who can’t fall any lower than where they are now and displays the love of Christ to them. This love changes them, fills them with a sense of purpose and hope, and lives change. When lives struggle in a dark place, light comes through those who radiate Christ’s love in action. It also changes those who volunteer and many are talking about the affect this and the Winter Night Shelter has had on those who are giving from their place of comfort. They too are challenged with the deeper purpose and point beyond the price tags and trappings. When you have nothing life is stripped back to its core components and hope has to be real to mean anything.

This is all looking beyond where we are now, beyond the dark pit to the bright hope that one day will come where fortune is restored or bestowed. This can sound similar to view that Jesus is overturning. We are blessed when things go well, so the hope of future blessing is really trying to connect the future with now, bring something of the vision of that brightness into the gloom now so that it bless with hope. It can sound like the promise of jam tomorrow. What about jam today? The question that nags away in my mind, the brain worm, is whether there is a blessing in the state of being in the pit – poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled and defamed? For the last group in that list – hated, excluded, reviled and defamed – these come because of allegiance to Christ. So it is martyrdom, suffering because of witness to faith in Jesus Christ. There is a longstanding view that sees martyrdom not as victim but as victor. The stand for truth is the stand for justice and it is blessing because it is to be united with Christ in his suffering and his death. We are in the right place, blessed, because we are in partnership and union with the Christ, who is God among us and is taken, goes to the cross. That is a hard psychological shift to make. God blesses us when suffering for the sake of the gospel comes. We are beloved and in union with him, connected to the purpose and point of the universe in spite of and in contrast to those who oppress. This is one of those brain worms that take time to comprehend and see. It is to abandon ourselves into the love and hope of God in Jesus Christ, fully and totally, even to face suffering for it as we are united with him in it.

The ‘poor, hungry and weeping’ are a bit harder to link up with blessing. There are different types of poverty. One is relative poverty, where we see others with goods we would rather like to have and feel excluded by not having. In this one, the challenge is to decide what really matters. As with Mary Poppins’ Return, Michael Banks realizes that he may have no money but he has everything he needs in the love of his children. Counting blessings rather than gaps. But there is a level of poverty, experienced by far more than often realized, where decisions have to be made between heating or feeding, where basic bills don’t leave enough to survive on. This is grinding and destroys any sense of self-worth or hope. Where on earth is the blessing here?

Whenever we talk of blessing we are also talking about transformation. This is where God’s life and love make a difference and change the world. So the context of Jesus’ statement is his presence among them. God has come among them and that changes who they are and how they are to relate, indeed how the world is to relate. This is a challenge, no mere pat on the head. The Kingdom of God is theirs because God loves them and will not abandon them. The alternative is to long for oblivion. So rather than giving up, shrugging our laissez-faire shoulders, we are to work for changes where the interests of everyone are held to be important, not just those who hold the power and want to grasp more and more for themselves. The problem lies with an idea of who is on top, where life is always a completion rather than really being about cooperation and partnerships. Our success as a species owes more to how we bond and work together than it does to competition. Evolution is not just down to the survival of the fittest, but how we know we are mutually dependent and interdependent. So the poor are blessed because they are part of this interdependence and therefore part of the transformation that God in Christ brings. This is more than blessing to come, it is to bring to effect that blessing now and for all. Blessed are the poor calls for transformation and for values to be turned on their head.

Jesus motivates his crowd with the promise of blessing. When they suffer for what is right they are in the right place, the place he occupies and so share with him in his purpose and love. This blessing is to be lived and shown, it changes lives and is to change how we live together. The poor being blessed is statement and promise, challenge and calling. The Beatitudes are not just kind words, as with so much about Jesus, they recalibrate and turn the world upside down.

Sermon for the third Sunday before Lent, Peterborough Parish Church, 17th February 2019

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Cathedral Core Values: 1 – Generosity

IMG_2423If you want to build a house the first thing to do is to dig the foundations. Without good, solid and secure foundations the rest of the structure will not be stable and there will be a danger of subsidence or worse. Sometimes that requires a raft to be created to spread the load across particularly soft ground. Whatever the conditions, foundations matter. Over the next few weeks, in the run up to Lent, we are going to use these sermons to explore four key foundations for the life, stability and witness of this cathedral. These are our core values and ones we think are particularly important for the whole of this community and how we approach everything we aim to be and do. These core values are Generosity, Integrity, Inclusivity and Joy. I begin today with ‘generosity’. Each of the others will follow over the next three weeks.

For me the foundation of everything is gift. We only exist because of God’s gracious and generous outpouring of his very self in the creative process. The most remarkable thing about life, the universe and everything is that there is something, anything, rather than nothing. We have no right to exist, no right to expect anything to continue beyond death, and the more we explore the complexity and wonder of God’s incredible creation, the more amazing and astounding it is. And it comes from the love and heart of God, given freely and for the love of it. This is the foundation on which we are built. This is the secure ground of who we are and who we hope to be. Everything, absolutely everything is rooted and grounded in God’s gracious giving of himself and breathing life into what he has made.

I have a friend, a Franciscan sister, who asks quite simply and penetratingly where the gift is in any given challenge. There is always a gift even in the darkest moments, though sometimes it is harder to find than at other times. And it is in struggling in the dark recesses of a challenge that we are able to find where that gift lies. Even St Paul found that the thorn in his flesh, a medical ailment that bugged him, had the advantage of being the very sign and indication of his humanity and createdness, preventing him from being too puffed up (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). We are not just smart biological machines, but have passion, experience pain and long for purpose and a point. So what looks on the surface like being a curse can thereby be seen as a blessing and moment of God’s gracious gifting revealed. Seeing life as gift is no mere soft cushion; it has bite and is robust when the storms come.

Our Epistle reading reminded us that the heart of the Christian good news of Jesus Christ is God’s generous giving of himself (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). God is the source of our life and while we have no right to expect it, gives us new life and new hope in him too. The hope of heaven is not to be expected and taken for granted. There is no reason to assume our lives will continue. And so Easter is for us the most astounding news of generous love that we can hear and share. It disrupts what would otherwise be the case. The natural, logical sequence would be death and decay; the movement of the elements back to the core components so that they can be recycled. Christian hope is therefore astounding for its gifting of a part 2, after the break. God is generous and so we are to be too if we are to live fully in the light and hope he gives to us in Jesus Christ.

If we let this gifting, this generous love, loose in our lives then so much follows. The back page of the leaflet ‘Our Vision and Values’, which is being given out today, invites us to apply being generous to our judgements, our actions and the use of our gifts. This is a generous spirit which overflows with God’s grace so that there is no aspect of our being that remains untouched by it. So, briefly, a few reflections on each of these.

There is a great need for generosity of judgement at the moment. It is easy to assume the worst of others, especially if we have a disagreement with them. Instead, there is a concept of interpretative charity, where we give credit and assume the most positive and generous drive to be behind what another says or does. Sometimes this might seem naïve and politics is an area which seems to test this particularly, where dirty tricks are not unknown and there seem to be so many base motives at work. Being generous in judgements, though, raises the game. It presents a higher ethic which can be transformative in its gracious and loving welcome even of those who may have ill intent because it says that is not the norm on which we operate. This is because it is filled with love, which is itself the result of God’s gifting into the world. I know this is not always easy or even the first thought, especially if I am feeling tired and/or paranoid. But I have known the healing and transforming power of grace and generous judgements, which have seen beyond the pain that masquerades as hate or anger, and have reached inside me to embrace the soul that is longing for its healing touch. In it I have grown and been blessed.

The second area is about generous actions. This is where our loving will respond where there is need, step in to provide a space where the cold can find warmth, the hungry be fed, the lonely find welcome and the homeless shelter. It leads quickly into inclusivity, which will be the subject of another sermon to come. Generous actions are by definition hospitable and outward looking because they give, seeking no reward.

Thirdly, the generous use of the gifts and resources God has given us. This is more than money, but it is money too. It changes how we see possessions, our use of time and resources. When what we have is seen as coming from gift then it ceases to be ours, something we possess, and more something we have stewardship of. The martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, in a sermon in 1977 reflected on the biblical notion of property. This he said was ‘something that was lent to the user. Never absolutely given. Always to be used, rented from God.’ The more we have the greater the obligations on us, for everything we have is subject to God’s justice, to the values of Christ’s Kingdom which always turns our values on their heads. Listen the Magnifcat at Evensong and the rich don’t come off well because it is the poor who are exalted. Possessions are themselves gifted, and so not so much ours to hold but to use, to see as a resource for blessing and to make a difference in the world and to the lives of everyone.

We are generous because we know that we owe our very existence to the gift of God. We owe our salvation to his gift too. Everything is utterly dependent on God’s grace. This makes us a people with a tremendous treasure to share. And it makes us thankful, gives us a reason and focus for being thankful. God is good. The word Eucharist, the name of this service, means ‘thanksgiving’. We give thanks to God for food to sustain our living, food to sustain our hope, food to sustain our serving. It is the thankful who are generous and who in turn bless the world: generous in judgements, in actions and in the use of gifts.

So today we begin our reflections on our core values by checking the foundations. Those foundations are built on the heart of everything, God’s gracious, loving gifting without which there would be nothing and we would be nothing. To live in harmony with this, to be filled with this, brings a generous spirit because it is filled with the love that makes us, shapes us and gives hope to our being. And as we saw in the gospel reading, this is never fruitless, but brings blessings more numerous than we can imagine (Luke 5:1-11). Everything is gift and that gifting is our life and peace.

First sermon in a series on ‘Our Core Values’ at Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 10th February 2019

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