Brexit and the Baptist – a divided nation at the crossroads


Hands Across the Divide – Derry, Northern Ireland

Our Gospel reading gave us John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-6). These next two weeks of Advent are John the Baptist’s starring moment. In these weeks of preparation he comes centre stage, since that’s his function, to get people ready for the one to come. He is the warm up act. And so that passage talked of making a smooth path through difficult terrain, a highway for the saviour to travel down. With the Brexit debates taking place at the moment, longing for a smooth path through difficult terrain rings a bell. I have quite a lot of sympathy for Theresa May at the moment. Whoever is in the Prime Minister’s seat, they have what looks like an impossible task. There is no clear common ground between those who want out of Europe and cry why can’t they just get on with it, looking for a no deal Brexit, and those who believe that is reckless and fool hardy, a fantasy.

Where we have ended up does seem to be the worst of both worlds, the very vassal state caricatured by the Brexiteers where there is no say. Before we had a vote and a veto, under this we will have none of that. A further people’s vote is probably needed since the first one was just devoid of any detail about what the future looked like beyond wild and irresponsible claims. What is on offer is not what anyone seems to have had in mind. Politicians need to give people that choice, otherwise they will be accused of overturning the democratic will, which is not really the case but how it will be spun and appear. In politics perception matters more than facts. The idea that the people have spoken just ignores how split that vote was two years ago. The people have not given a clear and distinct sound and so it is not surprising that the mandate is not clear either.

This is a very difficult, almost intractable moment in our national life. Tempers are high and inflame quickly. Any mention of Brexit raises the temperature of the room very quickly. We need to take deep breaths and take stock of where we are. It is only then that wisdom has any hope of breaking through. When I hear politicians talking of wanting to crush the opposition, that is a very worrying and toxic climate for debate. A 48/52 split vote is not a moment for wanting to crush the opposition. It is a recipe for serious disturbance. So talking of ‘smoothing the path and making winding roads straight’ are in this case words of caution. One way to do this, of course, would be to battle on and destroy the obstacles and those who are presenting as obstacles. The Bible can be abused if we are not careful and John the Baptist is often seen as an uncompromising character who is very blunt and very forceful in his challenge. There is a place for that, perhaps in a call to wake up and realize just how serious this debate and disagreement is, for social cohesion, for common life and for how we look after the most vulnerable in our midst. There are so many issues of government not getting the attention they require as the energy is distracted by this great matter.

Whatever side you are on over this, and I know that our congregation has people of all sides within it, we have to live together with our differences and that means hearing what it is that leads the others to call out for what they call out for. What does ‘getting sovereignty back’ really mean in a world where major companies cross boarders all the time? What is actually being desired? Perhaps it is anxiety at a world that feels remote, alienating and where power seems to be beyond democratic control. There need to be trade deals and common standards for trading and that by definition limits and compromises. What does controlling boarders mean when mass movements of people are caused by political instability and corruption, mixed up with the need to plug skills shortages? How do those who feel they are not heard get heard above the clamour of other voices which come with so much more power and influence? It’s easy to sling mud at ‘elites’ on whichever side they are on – and lets face it if elite means people who think they are above accountability, then they are on both sides. Brexit has exposed some very deep faultlines in our society and globalized trading, and these have come out in a very distorted and mixed up way.

Within the church, the Anglican Communion is also facing the challenge of holding deeply divided opinions and constituencies together. Sometimes this goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes those who differ listen to one another and sometimes they shout from their respective bunkers. So we have some deep faultlines within our communion. They too present as being over one thing but are actually about something else. Church arguments and splits over sexuality are really about how we read the Bible and relate this to other understandings from medicine and science, approaches which draw on different criteria. And as ever there are nuances in the positions so it’s not a straight contest between binary views but there are shades on a scale. One of the things we have been trying to do is to get people to listen and hear the other. I’ve done this with divided church groups before and it is transformative when it works. People begin to see that their view is not the only view and a way forward is going to have to take that seriously.

Over something like Brexit we have to end up in some kind of treaty arrangement with the rest of Europe and for the rest of the world to know who they are dealing with in trading zones. Trading requires this. You can’t move goods and people can’t move without some kind of agreement that they can cross boarders. The complexities of unpicking 40 years of interweaving do seem to have proved insurmountable in such a short time.

For me John the Baptist’s voice is not to wipe away all opposition and make the roads straight by driving a bulldozer; if people get in the way they will be squashed. That is a recipe for serious civil unrest. And that feels a real threat, so our politicians’ words need to be very carefully chosen to avoid inflaming high passions. For me the voice of John the Baptist, calling out of the pages, is to stop, breathe and listen to voices we are not hearing. The cry for justice from those so easily overlooked, the real challenges of finding new relationships with partners nearby and around the world. John the Baptist has a passion for justice and equity. And the Bible is passionate about those who are most vulnerable, including those who migrate in search of safety. John the Baptist had sharp words for political leaders; that they needed to remember the awesome responsibility given to them. The Old Testament prophets had sharp words when compassion was scarce or oppression present. These challenges still apply and those who play games end up in the Baptist’s firing line.

So today we hear of John the Baptist, his longing for difficult paths to be smoothed so that salvation can dawn. In particularly troubled and divided times we need to watch just how we think that can be achieved. Park the bulldozers and find more relational solutions. We need to live together and build a nation for all. That can mean sitting with the differences and listening to what really lies behind them, not just how they are presented. And listening to take them seriously. There is a bite back in this debate which is still not being heard. We are at a crossroads and whatever the outcome this week, there is a need to bring together deep divisions. The alternative is very ugly. John the Baptist’s smooth path is one for a place of flourishing and justice, not one built on the bodies of opponents. Pray for the healing of our nation.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 2, Sunday 9th December 2018

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Black Friday and the operating system we live by

IMG_2061Have you been shopping till you drop, making the most of the Black Friday Deals? My inbox has been bombarded by adverts for money-saving deals form all sorts of companies. I confess to being a bit of a Black Friday grump so any email headed Black Friday is likely to get deleted straight away. Black Friday is a scheme by retailers in the United States who have had to endure a day of closure for Thanksgiving and so in order to lure people back into shops and online baskets after the shutdown they offer heavily discounted products, as if they’d forget they were there! This means nothing over here, because we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but it has become a major retail event over the past few years and walking through Queensgate over the last few days, many people have realized the money to be saved. For shops I’m not sure it is such a good deal as they have to discount heavily at what is their peak trading period.

Black Friday is a festival of consumerism. The driving ethos is that having is good, and the more you have the better. Consumerism is a distortion of what trading is really about. It takes what should be the exchange of goods we need and turns this into stuff. What consumerism wants is for us to crave the latest thing and because this is only sustainable if we keep craving it will be by definition insatiable: it only works if our craving makes the very thing we have just purchased obsolete. It is a constant chasing of the wind. And it becomes an addiction. The purchases trigger serotonin in the brain, the reward chemical, and we like this, so when we don’t get the trigger the serotonin level drops and we get depressed. Shopping really can become a fix.

Consumerism becomes an enslavement, a treadmill we just wish we could get off. The money expert Martin Lewis tapped into this in a broadcast circulating online this week. During this the audience showed their delight as he said this Christmas only give meaningful presents and dump the giving escalation, where we try to keep up with others and just feel the more we spend the more we are giving value. He was arguing that giving can become far from virtuous and generous because it can become about how we are seen rather than the person receiving and this is toxic.

Behind all of this there is a delusion. Shopping becomes for us a sign of life and therefore the opposite of death – the dead don’t shop. So acquiring more and more becomes a denial of death, a way of trying to push death to the margins, even off the page. Through it we show our prowess and our vitality. And trying to cheat death, even with a credit card, is a timeless and ultimately foolhardy pursuit. Some things may make us happy for a moment, but that moment passes as the gloss wears off and we get bored because something else has come along. Death will not be defeated by things, not even gadgets (and I like gadgets); they quite simply can’t meet the overwhelming force against them!

Today our church calendar gives us an antidote to this existential delusion. Rather than shopping as a distraction therapy from mortality, we are invited to stare mortality in the face and place our trust in the victory of Jesus Christ, through his cross and resurrection. Only the one who has embraced death and risen from it can offer any hope to a world gripped by the horror and ultimate finality of death. Today we celebrate Christ as Lord and King, as the one who is the ultimate source and goal of all that we are, the one who is to be the operating system driving us and shaping how we live rather than just consuming and empty craving. That is why our gospel reading gave us Jesus standing before Pilate, talking of his Kingdom not being of this world, and looking towards the cross and resurrection to come (John 18:33b-37).

Our first reading reflected this further (Revelation 1:4b-8). The refrain at the beginning and the end of that passage was that God is, was and is to come. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Consumerism distracts us with shiny things, with gadgets and stuff. It has built into it an assumption of obsolescence, that we will need to replace the very things we crave for in a never-ending craving. This is the challenge which Eve Poole explores in her book ‘Buying God’. We defeat consumerism by living differently, living with a different, fuller hope and trusting in the power of God, in and through Jesus Christ, to save us, to give life a deeper purpose than just stuff and passing the time. Only through Jesus as the way, the truth and the life, can we find this.

This is radical thinking. It is radical in two ways. Firstly it is radical because it takes us back to core of what it is to be human, to be created, to be loved and a place in God’s purpose. Secondly it is radical because it challenges some of the fallacies of the way our world lives, the way our economic towers are built. The endless pursuit of growth and greed, of profit and wanting more all the time; never being satiated and content with the blessing that we have. The word radical has been linked to extremists and troublemakers. Certainly this is not conformist and for those who want us to endlessly be wanting it is troublemaking. But as the Letter to Timothy reminds us, there is great godliness in contentment with enough. It goes on to talk of the love of money being the root of all kinds of evil, and that evil is not just what we might do to others, but also what this endless craving does to us.

This morning we are baptising a young man from a very different background to most of those who are baptized here. Growing up as a Muslim, travelling in unbelievable hardship to arrive here and converting to Christianity, he has gone through a major shift of thinking. Looking at the words of the baptism service with him is to be reminded just what it is we proclaim and for a Muslim this is earth shifting. ‘Do you turn to Christ, do you repent of your sins and do you come to Christ the Way the Truth and the Life’ – these are three radical questions through which we make statements about who is at the centre of our lives. It is not us, our cravings, or anyone else, it is Jesus Christ, who is Lord and King of all. We say that we aim to live the teachings of Jesus, to live what he said. When we proclaim that Christ died and rose again, we challenge a direct claim of the Qur’an, which says that Jesus did not die and if he did not die he cannot rise from the dead (Sura 4:157-158). We stand alongside people of other faiths in this city to build the common good, but there are differences and at times they touch the foundations of what we believe, what guides and shapes us.

So this morning we will not only baptize one who has recently joined our congregation, we are also challenged with the fundamental basis on which we live our lives. Who is our ultimate hope and goal? Who is the one who gives us hope and purpose? This has sharp edges and for a Muslim it brings far reaching consequences. As we celebrate Christ the King, we affirm directly and clearly that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life; he is our operating system, and we aim to live his teachings in the hope that comes through his death and resurrection.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Christ the King, Sunday 25th November 2018

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Grief and the Surprising Warmth of Hope

luke-payn - Hope springs eternal

‘Hope Springs Eternal’ by Luke Payn for Art at Advent 2014

A couple of years ago I picked up a book in Waterstone’s. I’d forgotten about it, but it has been siting, perched on a shelf and it came fluttering down to my mind the other day. ‘Grief is the thing with feathers’ is an imaginative, half-poetic conversation between a father and his boys on the death of their mother, his wife. Grief comes to stay in the form of a crow who seems to have the desire to care for them, and Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee style, only to stay until they no longer need him (p7). The rasping sound of the crow cuts through the peaceful stillness and announces all is not well. Hearts have been broken and the blackness of the crow, the sound of the crow reflects their mood.

There are moments of profound insight in Max Porter’s work. Where is the noise when grief comes to stay?

“Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamour of an event like this? Where are the strangers going out of their way to help, screaming, flinging bits of emergency glow-in-the-dark equipment at us to try and settle us and save us?” (p13)

Grief is too quiet, far too quiet. It is an emptiness and Henry Scott Holland in a sermon called ‘The King of Terrors’, preached in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1910, talked about how the long silence tells us that death is not nothing at all. It is so much more and the silence, with its announcement of absence, tells us this.

The boys do things to miss their mother more. They make a mess so that it isn’t cleared up and that makes them see she is not there, gives physicality to the absence of physicality. Even absence needs to be present and by small acts of disruption they show they want to miss her and keep wanting her (p49). For the dad, the physicality of missing becomes ever present. “The whole city is my missing her.” (p50) The crow becomes a symbol of the presence of grief in the absence and the silence. It is not just emptiness, but is a filled emptiness that yearns and aches. The rasping and fluttering means it has form in the formlessness of death.

Amidst the “perplexing slow-release of sadness”, the dad finds that he is also surprised by moments of enduring warmth. And he observes that “if crow taught him anything it was the constant balancing. For want of a less dirty word: faith.” (pp105-106) And so it starts to enter into something deeper than just wallowing and being overwhelmed by the power of grief. The balancing becomes a gateway to letting crow go so that grief becomes less noisy in the silence and less ever present. Clouds do break and shafts of light come through.

It is at this point that we have to move from the poem if we want to find overt religious insight. The poem expresses well how grief makes its presence felt and makes us accept its presence and depth. This is not easily brushed aside and as with Purcell’s deeply heart-rending aria of ‘Dido’s Lament’ from his opera ‘Dido and Aeneus’, it haunts and cuts deep into our soul. Dido’s lament, beautiful as it is, is actually one of abandon as her love sails away and she prepares to die. It is one of despair. But within it there is a powerful refrain of the simple plea ‘Remember me’. That remembrance will turn the silence into a presence bathed in the surprise of the enduring warmth. It looks for a treasure box to know that all that was is not lost but held deeply in a place of valuing and loving. ‘Remember me’ is the plea to not be abandoned and lost for ever.

This evening, in a moment, candles will become for us signs and symbols of a profound hope and treasuring, light and the surprising warmth. All is not lost and we are not abandoned forever, even if it might feel like it for a while. When we light these candles we do so with hope and faith, trusting in God’s enduring love and goodness. For nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death, for the love of God holds us and brings that balance that crow needs to dawn so that he can fly away. This is a service to be reminded of the power of God’s love and the resurrection through his son Jesus Christ. We have come here in a profound hope and trust in God.

This trust in God is a theme that was captured in our first reading from the Old Testament book of Lamentations.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning… It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:22-23, 26)

The surprising warmth is a sign of that steadfast love, the salvation that comes and quietly makes itself known. It comes in so many subtle ways and we become aware of it.

This evening we can hold the loss, treasure the memories that need to be treasured, but ultimately place all of life before the enduring redemption that comes through Jesus Christ. From the reality of loss, of the aching and silence comes the new day dawning. All of our lives are held in this grace and it is in this faith and trust that we remember.

So, in a moment, come forward to the chancel and light candles in hope and faith and trust in God’s goodness. Even if there is an aching that endures, the crow brings the balance to our sights and it comes through the surprise of warmth and daylight. Life is good and God is good. For those of faith nothing is lost, all is held in the love of God, who is the source of our life and the goal of our life. That is the power and gift of faith which keeps hold of us and sees us through the darkness and aching silence of grief. As our first reading put it:

‘The Lord is my portion’, say my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’. (Lamentations 3:24)

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving, Sunday 18th November 2018

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Don’t jump to the end of the story: live now as you hope for


Original art by Chris Duffett. Displayed in St John’s Church on Good Friday 2018

Every age has had its people carrying placards proclaiming that the end of the world is nigh. Every now and then there is the latest prediction that the world will end on Tuesday at midday. There was a time when the news reported cults gathering on mountain tops – not quite sure what they expected to happen up there, since if it’s the end of the world you’re pretty much guaranteed to see it wherever you are and then promptly not care any more! And having lived through so many, we now don’t really expect it to happen in such a cataclysmic manner. That said, back in April an asteroid as big as a warehouse was spotted just hours before it whizzed passed planet earth – it was a near miss that, if not earth ending, would have disrupted a few things. An asteroid the size of a bus comes close about once a week. Add to that the need to take climate change seriously and we might not need to wait for the big one to hit.

So the disciples asking when calamity will come is not so odd after all (Mark 13:1-8). They lived in times with heightened apocalyptic expectation. Paul in his letters displays an assumption that the end will come soon. And it didn’t. One of the reasons behind writing the gospels may well be that the end didn’t come. So there was a need, as the original witnesses died, to ensure that the record was not lost. And the writers set to work to order things in the ways they did to capture the inner picture, the central story of the faith. God was among us in a unique and decisive way in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection made a profound difference to the universe on an even bigger scale than an asteroid hitting the planet. And that significance is even more important than the planet itself, let alone the buildings and structures we treasure and invest so much in.

That gospel passage (Mark 13:1-8) comes at the end of a string of teaching, going back to Chapter 11, set in and around the Temple in Jerusalem, the focal point of the Hebrew faith, their hopes and aspirations. The central theme in this is that status alone is not enough. Jesus’ authority is questioned and, in response, we have the parable of the wicked tenants who are thrown out of the vineyard and lose their special status. The first commandment is to love God; scribes are denounced for pomp and being puffed up. A widow giving, as the poor so often do, far more in proportion to what she has than those with great wealth who make great show of what to them is not much. Jesus then foretells the destruction of the Temple and the disciples think the moment has come, getting a little brain drunk on this heady mix.

Stones are impressive, but for Jesus they are just vehicles, a means through which hearts can be signposted to the real deal. And it is the real deal that counts most. God is what counts most. Everything else could be seen as just passing the time in comparison. And yet that raises some very perplexing questions about the purpose and point of life, if it is just transitory and passing.

Recently, in the Cathedral, we hosted a talk by Professor David Wilkinson, head of St John’s College in Durham. He is a scientist and a theologian – with PhDs is astrophysics and theology. He was invited to speak about the connections that can be made between science and faith, and how they are far more compatible than is so often thought. As he spoke about the time scale of the universe, in terms of 13 billion years, and human beings appearing in just the last few hundred thousand years, and our mortality which makes us so futile in the grand scheme of things, the puzzle is that God bothers with us. As the Psalmist wondered so many millennia ago, when you consider all that there is, the planets and stars in their obit, the wonder of creation, what are human beings that God should be mindful of them? (Psalm 8) And so it seems that there is something deeply holy and spiritual about the very matter that makes us, that we consist of. We may be made of dust, atoms and the same fabric as the rest of the universe, but it is very special dust and for some deeply mystical reason it is honoured and valued by God, its maker. This makes matter, existence, this temporal and fragile life, creation not just some kind of passing fancy and distraction to pass the time. For God time is a blink of the eye and vastly longer than anything we can imagine, so there is no need for God to make something to relieve boredom.

Jesus takes the disciples’ natural fascination with end times and reminds them to pause a moment and not jump to the end of the story. They are here and now, and this is where their attention is to be, to stick with it and ponder more deeply. How are they living, how are they longing and hoping? Does their looking to the end affect how they are now? If not, they are not really thinking about it. Following Jesus, being a disciple, is not merely a status but a call and invitation to be. The scribes and others were criticized for not taking what this means any where near seriously enough.

When I listen to scientists like David Wilkinson I get a glimpse of what that phrase in the creed about the ‘resurrection of the body’ could come to mean for us. This is way beyond anything the authors of that statement could have had any inkling of in their pre-scientific age. For them it meant that the dead were reanimated, got up and walked about. They knew that bodies decay and cease to exist, but they didn’t know about the movement of atoms and matter, how decomposition becomes re-composition of something else as energy is neither created nor destroyed, but moves from one form to another, as stated by the first law of thermodynamics. If matter has some role in the purposes of God and is in itself an expression of the deep character of God, then redemption will touch it too. And even though we cannot know what this will mean in practice, it becomes an enticing image and notion that the stuff of being is itself caught in the redemptive purposes of God. As with the most complex areas of science here we enter the world of metaphor and model.

This also means that end times are linked with present times. We live now as we hope for then. We seek to bring into the here and now the values and aspirations of all that we mean by the term the kingdom of God. So when Jesus says ‘Beware no one leads you astray… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs’ (Mark 13:5, 8b), he is pressing them to dig deeper and not get sidetracked. God is God. As creator, God made everything that there is and he had a purpose in doing so. This all matters and so as we look to the kingdom to come, we are to reflect it in the kingdom of now: the glory to come is also to be anticipated now – in Christ it has been realized. We are to live it.

Creation has a purpose and that purpose lies with God. Put another way, in the very familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that the Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, that it will come to be realized now and each of us can play a part by being a space, a created space, where that is welcomed. So don’t fuss about what is to come, there’s enough to concentrate on now. We are to live in the light of the kingdom of God, of the purpose at the core of all things. In this we make Temples and ourselves as temples into places where God’s reign and redemption is anticipated and let loose.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, 2nd Sunday Before Advent, 18th November 2018

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Armistice 100


There but not there figure in Peterborough Parish Church

On Friday I had the honour of taking part in the reading of the names of the 1,180 men and one woman from this city who were killed during the First World War. This has been taking place on the steps of the Guild Hall over the past two days – it takes that long to read them with details of their address, place of death, age and burial place – if known. What stood out for me, in the brief section I was involved with, was the ages. So many, far too many, were either in their teens or early 20s. And the list just kept going on. The cost was enormous and so today, with its anniversary of relief that the guns fell silent, is a sobering day when we pause to take stock of all that had been and just what this had meant. One hundred years on, this is history, but it was moving to hear people reading the names of their relatives and therefore the direct personal link that this is our history, our ancestry, our heritage.

There have been a lot of programmes and column inches given over to stories about the First World War, analysis of its causes and what came from it. Some of these have pointed to the hidden stories. One of these was on BBC TV News last Sunday evening (4th November 2018). It told of servicemen’s bibles, given to them and often taken out and held by them as they lay dying. I have taken many funerals over the years of ex-servicemen who treasured their service issue bible and read it every day. They didn’t come to church, but there was a connection through these books to their sense that ultimately their hope lay in God. When you have faced the guns, the shells and the mud, the mind is focused on a higher purpose beyond the smoke of battle and cries of the dying. It is a moment of being completely exposed and beyond any rescue in this life.

There has been quite a bit of research into the role of army chaplains in the trenches. A long way from the poet Robert Graves slur in his biography ‘Goodbye to all that’, that chaplains were lazy and ineffective cowards, hiding away from the front line, so many stories have emerged of them being alongside their men. There are the famous ones like Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, affectionately known as Woodbine Willie for giving out that popular brand of cigarette to the men in the trenches, and many more. Some died along with their men either being hit by shells or snipers’ bullets or, like Revd Wilfred Harding, who died at Passchendaele whilst retrieving wounded soldiers from ‘no man’s land’ in 1917. In personal letters, collected by his granddaughter, under the title ‘The Half-shilling Curate’, Methodist chaplain Revd Herbert Cowl talks with matter of fact underplayed honesty of the dangers he was in. He describes conducting burials as shells landed near by and removing his clerical collar because it made him a target for the snipers. He was injured when a shell landed on the building he was in and very nearly died. On the way home his ship hit a mine 4 miles from Dover, in the same incident that sank the Lusitania as it went to their aid. It was his bravery in ensuring others found safety that won him the Military Cross.

In the summer, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe, we went to a performance of a play about Woodbine Willie by Searchlight Theatre Company. It told a very human account of his conversations about life, faith, fear and trust in God, in the mud and poor sanitation of a trench. He set up a ‘vicarage’ sign to show that he could be found there, brewed tea and gave out his characteristic Woodbines. We saw him discussing men’s hopes and love for their girls back home, their fear of going over the top, his comfort as a young man lay dying in his arms. Studdert Kennedy was also awarded the Military Cross for bravery in searching out the wounded while under heavy fire and helping them to the dressing station.

After the war, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy wrote a book called ‘The Hardest Part’. In this he ponders on where God was in those trenches. As an experienced priest he knew of squalor and urban poverty. And so some aspects found a ready place for him to assimilate – squalor in trenches and squalor in slums are different contexts but both bring suffering and despair. On the battlefield, though, the issues were more starkly drawn in the speed of life and death. The starkness of the horrid unblinkable vision into the depths of human destructiveness brought his thoughts to the fore. For him it was the cross of Christ that was the key to the heart of God in human suffering. God who is not willing in Jesus Christ to remain impassive and distant, but shares in our suffering and pain. It brings with it an invitation to live in a particular way. So for Studdert Kennedy, Christianity was not so much a collection of religious ideas as a ‘way’: a way of being as well as a way of living. Ahead of us lies the image of the New Jerusalem, the celestial city to which we travel and with that vision the bible ends – I spoke a bit about that last week. Now we live with the imperfection and at times horror of the evil humanity is capable of. Between these two, imperfection and heavenly city, stands the cross of Christ – holding, redeeming, opening the gateway to the heart, love and salvation of God. This is because God loves the world to the end.

And so the title of his collection of poems and reflections, ‘The Hardest Part’, is taken from his rhyme ‘The Sorrow of God’, written in dialect:

The sorrows o’ God must be ‘ard to bear

If ‘E really ‘as Love in ‘Is ‘eart,

And the ‘ardest part i’ the world to play

Must surely be God’s part. (quoted pxxxii)

For Studdert Kennedy only the cross can survive the battlefield. This is a theme that was picked up by the great 20th century German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. Reflecting on God in the trenches can only be done ‘within the earshot of the dying Jesus’ (pxxxiii). And he quoted Studdert Kennedy: “It’s always the Cross in the end – God, not Almighty, but God the Father, with a Father’s sorrow and a Father’s weakness, which is the strength of love. God splendid, suffering, crucified – Christ.” We need God as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – to hold the horror of the mud and guns and dying of the trenches. Anything else is just not present and therefore irrelevant.

We come then to our Gospel reading, this morning from Mark (1:14-20). This gave us Jesus proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom and the call to repent and believe in it. This is followed by calling fishermen along the seashore to follow him. Jesus goes to where they are, in this case at work by their fishing boats, but in Studdert Kenney and Herbert Cowl’s cases, and all the other chaplains, where the men were in the mud of the trenches. They are called with doctrine and faith – the Kingdom has come near – God in Christ is present with them, but also with a call to follow a way, his way. To be and not just believe.

On Remembrance Sunday our remembering is not just a roll call of death and loss. It is a sober pausing to reflect on what happens when we stray from the kingdom of justice and peace and travel a road that leads to so much destruction and death. It is a call to the ways of peace, to build social relationships where all are honoured and oppression is ended. That pause and call is as real and necessary today as it has ever been. When we have disagreements – and there are many not least with the mess we are in over Brexit and with how we care for the poorest in our society, welcome the stranger in need and protect from those who wish us harm in terms of organized crime and exploitation – when we disagree it is important to remember that those on the other side are our neighbours and fellow siblings in Christ. Battles destroy lives, but also the bonds that connect and build.

We pause and remember because God does not remain aloof, but calls as he comes close to us in his Son Jesus Christ, even into the darkest, most desperate places. It is the cross of Christ that gives the call the credibility and ultimately hope in the trenches, in urban destitution, when confronted with our mortality.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Remembrance Sunday 11th November 2018

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Prayers for Armistice 100

IMG_1918This weekend, as I lead prayers at the War Memorial in the centre of Peterborough on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, I will use two prayers which I wrote at the beginning of this commemoration in 2014.

The first reflects that, while we recall war with Germany, they have been our friends and partners for over 70 years. So, likewise we pray that those with whom there is conflict now we will come to share with them in a new tomorrow.

The second was written to mark the 100th anniversary of the events which led to war and warns that we take stock of that, the cost, and being mindful of the road that leads to death and destruction we don’t forget so that we don’t travel it once more.


100th anniversary of World War 1

God, who in Christ,

came to reconcile the world to yourself

redeeming all that had been lost in sin and division;

hear our prayer for all who fought,

from this nation and the Commonwealth,

and also from nations once our enemies

but now our friends and partners,

that those with whom we are in conflict now

may likewise come to share with us in a new tomorrow

where peace and concord reign

and all may flourish in the freedom and purpose of your love

through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Lest we forget

As we stand in solemn silence

and recall the terrible cost of war and conflict

give us courage to take stock

of all that led to the hour;

the evil intent,

the opportunities to step aside

and embrace a different path not taken,

the confrontation and aggression

with violence in the heart

that would not stop.

May we learn to build true peace;

to nurture the channels and bonds that unite;

to respect and honour all people,

however different they may be.

Keep us ever mindful of the road that leads to death and destruction

lest we forget and travel it once more.

For the greater love that lays down its life

in your Son, the Prince of Peace,

won for us eternal hope

and a Kingdom built on true justice;

we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


© Ian Black 2014

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Holiness let loose in human lives

IMG_8470It has become quite a well-worn observation that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city. People, and the biblical thread, find one another and set up camp together – for protection in numbers, support and companionship. We are not made to be alone, but for relationships and belonging. And when we want to know what it means to be human, we find this in our relationships with others, with the environment, with God. We and our brains are more than machines because we relate to our surroundings and those who trigger emotional responses in us. We are conscious and can make more than programmed responses. And so when we want to know what it means to be holy, to live a life that shines with the light and glory of God, we have to look to those who help us see this in their lives, in the way those lives interact with others and in the hope and joy we see there. These are the saints and we have just entered the church season of the saints, of the holy, of the light of Christ shining in human living.

Today is All Saints Sunday. Keeping this on a Sunday is a relatively new development and it has taken an ancient festival of the communion of saints and made it a pivotal point in the church calendar; it has made it the beginning of a season focused on the Kingdom of God. With this, November is given a framework of light, hope and peace, and this is the lens through which we assimilate everything that is to come over the next few weeks. This means that when we commemorate next week – the horror, sacrifice and darkness of war – we will do so in the light of Christian hope which brings reconciliation, the pressure for peace and all that brings us together, to relate, rather than what divides and sets us against one another in hostility. We will do this in the light of redemption and resurrection where death and destruction do not have the final word. This came out in our Gospel reading (John 11:32-44) where death does not have the final word and Lazarus is brought back to life. When we remember those who have been special to us and have died, as we will do with the cards brought forward to be placed on the altar later in this service or at the special service in two weeks time, we do so in the hope that no life is lost and all are held in the love and redemption that comes through Jesus Christ. It is a season when we focus on God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness, of light shining in darkness.

The beauty of the saints is that they give us worked examples of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the messiness and complexity of real life. They are not impassive statues but, in their rich variety, are remembered because they managed to shine light into whatever challenges came during their day. For some it is the witness of their blood, as martyrs who refused to deny their faith even when threatened with death. For some it is their teaching which continues to inspire down the centuries and still speaks to us today. For some it is their writings and insights, which help us make connections or give words to express what we struggle to put into words. For some it is the challenge of prophetic witness, standing for justice and defending the weakest and most vulnerable, reminding the powerful of their responsibilities and obligations. For some it is the leadership they gave which was transformational and shaped a people. Saints help us see what it means to follow Jesus Christ in every aspect of our lives and because they have done it we are not let off the hook when we try to argue that it is harder for us. Yes it may well be hard, but it was hard for them too so in God’s grace we can rise to the challenge.

The saints say to us that to be truly healthy we need the Spirit of God. And in an interesting essay on healing, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, talks about healing as being filled with God [Holy Living: The Christian Tradition for Today (2017) p13-27]. The process is one of becoming a place that is inhabited, rather than one that is empty. Being empty we seek to fill up the space with other things – easy gratifications, possessions and things which don’t bring lasting value or pleasure. Rowan Williams draws us back to our biblical origins as creatures made of dust and clay, who have life breathed into us. This life is from the life of God and so we become who we really are when we accept that creation is inhabited by God. This deeper presence that the saints point to, we see in their faces that they have been and are inhabited by the Spirit of God. This is how we see lives transformed and transforming of those around us.

To put some more flesh on that, this means that the story of our faith is in the driving seat for lives lived in holiness. This is a story of purpose, of love and all that brings people together to live in hope and with thanksgiving. It isn’t mean, it isn’t grudging, it isn’t angry all the time, even if some things do make us cross. There is a gracious way of being which shows that love dwells inside, the house that is occupied is occupied by love. And that brings blessing, brings life-affirming embrace to all who come into contact with it. Transformation is a popular word at the moment, and we need to be clear about what makes something transformational. In the saints it is when the presence, call and power of God are made known and let loose. It is when we live in harmony with the story of faith, its central themes are given physical shape and form, and we bless the earth, setting people free and enabling flourishing.

So as the Bible begins in a garden, it quickly gathers people around it and it ends in a city. This was reflected in our Epistle reading where the vision of heaven is of a celestial city (Revelation 21:1-6a). This city is a place where people dwell together in peace. There is no death, no crying, and God’s presence is ever present. The saints are those in whose lives we have seen this reflected, who bring heaven to earth so that we see holiness shining as a light shines in the darkness. The calling of all of us is to be such people, whether it is in ways which seem great or small, and the small can make a profound difference as was shown in a recent episode of Doctor Who on Rosa Parks, the black civil rights activist from 1950s America. It was the power of a small action, like refusing to accept the racism which demanded that she give up her seat for a white, and the boycott of that bus company which followed. Small acts of kindness and being positive can be transformative where the tone and mood around might be otherwise. It brings light and hope, proclaims resurrection life, and that death, hatred and destruction do not have the final word.

Today we celebrate the saints; the holy being seen and let loose in human lives. Holiness brings people closer, it does not make them isolated. It is a vision of a celestial city where we find who we are as we relate to others, to our surroundings and ultimately to God.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, All Saints Sunday, 4th November 2018

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