No barriers to grace – Woman at the well, a model of what it means to be the church

Screenshot 2023-03-12 at 14.42.56

Woman at the Well, from The Chosen, Series 1, Episode 8

Every now and then someone points out something they have discovered which is filling them with joy and opening their eyes to things they’ve not seen before. And I’m grateful to Carly for sharing her enthusiasm and passion for a series about Jesus, which you can find online. It’s called ‘The Chosen’, just search for that and it will come up. It aims to tell the story of Jesus’ life and ministry, to provide a multi-season, episode-based portrayal of Jesus that can be “binge watched” like box sets on streaming services like iPlayer or Netflix. I suppose it’s the ultimate version of ‘The Crown’.

As the series go through, Jesus is shown meeting different people and the writers imagine the scenes around what happens. It’s a bit like the film adaptation of a favourite book and I’m still deciding if it is entry level or assumes you know a bit about the story. I suppose you get different things out of it depending on what you know already about the story. There was a trend in the 19th and 20th centuries, which went under the broad heading of the Quest for the Historical Jesus. This was an attempt to make a deep dive into the stories in the gospels and see what could be pieced together about the real man and what he did. What is memory and what is later embellishment or theological commentary? ‘The Chosen’ is akin to a contemporary version of that search, trying to imagine what Jesus did and it draws on scholarship about life at the time. It stands in a long line of dramatic portrayals on the big screen like ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ or Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’, musicals like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and even animations like ‘Miracle Maker’ (which had Rowan Williams behind it).

One episode of ‘The Chosen’ has Jesus arriving at Sychar, a Samaritan town, at the heat of the day. This was our gospel reading this morning (John 4:5-42). It’s the little details that we often miss that tell the heart of the story, which the creators of this TV show have picked up on. It is noon, the hottest moment of the day. The women, whose job it was to fetch the water, would do this at a much cooler moment, earlier in the morning. Only those who they didn’t want with them for some reason go at a later time. And that’s the key the to this woman’s story. She is judged by everyone, blamed and shamed for well, who knows what has happened to her with different relationships. And remember, as I saw pointed out recently, marriage has for most of Christian history been a contract between two men exchanging property, rather than a loving consensual relationship. So her back story could well have a lot in it.

The makers of the film have spotted how Jesus manages to have deep and honest conversations with people, ones that honour them. He doesn’t belittle or look for fault, certainly not on this occasion. It’s only those who greet him with hostility and suspicion, who attack, that he rounds on and points out their hypocrisy. He has a way of taking the complexity and messiness of life and seeing deeper into a person who is struggling with all sorts of pressures and conflicts. And this encounter at a well in the heat of midday is no different. 

There are comedic moments. She tells him he has no bucket, so where is he going to get his living water. And she brings the reality of her life by saying if he gives her living water she won’t have to keep getting it from a well outside the village and lug it back the half mile to her house. It’s a reminder what happens when spiritualised language meets the every day concerns that can so occupy and overwhelm. In other-words, that’s fine for you but meanwhile I have to get the water. Not for the first time, Jesus encounters someone prepared to have a feisty conversation with him – honest and real.

It’s a strange moment that Jesus chooses this woman to be the one to whom he reveals who he is. And it says something profound about how he identifies people. Those whom he chooses are not the obvious candidates. Look at the named disciples. Her response mirrors the male disciples who left their nets or tax booths or whatever their trade was to follow Jesus. She leaves her water jar, the reason for going to the well, because she has found something more life-giving, sustaining, thirst quenching. Jesus finds the people who respond in their hearts – honest and real – and that is the key criteria he uses for whom he chooses.

In John’s gospel it is often the women who catch on first to what is really going on. Mary, Jesus’ mother, forces his hand at the wedding at Cana and prompts him to perform the first great sign in that gospel, turning the water into wine. Here, the story of Nicodemus precedes, which we heard last week, and his encounter ends in uncertainty as to what he will do. He does pop up later insisting on a fair trial and then in receiving the lifeless body from the cross, so something worked away in him that meant one encounter was only the start. The woman at the well is different. She responds straight away and leaps off to tell her village all about him. It gives her the bravery to tell those who may well have been hostile to her, a bravery the Apostles didn’t find until Pentecost, and Nicodemus until the cross. 

Jesus does a further thing. He drinks from a Samaritan vessel. This is something good Jewish people didn’t do. The enmity between the two parts of Israel was such that even their drinking vessels were seen as tainted. This, Jesus blows open, by the simple act of asking for a drink. He is breaking boundaries, between Samaritan and Jew, male and female, chosen people and rejected people. In short he demonstrates that there are no boundaries to grace.

The woman becomes a witness to Jesus, just like the male disciples. She goes to tell anyone who will listen and even if they won’t, all about Jesus. This woman is so fired by her encounter, by the liberation of being honoured and set free from the shaming eyes that so oppress her, that she runs off with renewed vigour. She is a model of what it means to be a disciple of the Christ. And early in the morning, on Easter day, another woman, who had been oppressed by a mental distress, is the first to encounter the risen Christ. And likewise she is so fired by that encounter that she runs to tell the others. Her name is Mary Magdalene.

These women give a model of what it means to be a church, of the job facing each of us. To go, tell, be filled with the joy and hope of believing that we can’t keep silent. Grace knows no bounds, honours the shamed, blesses those others would curse and sets us all free to follow with joy and hope. I recommend looking up ‘The Chosen’ – binge watch if that’s your thing. But however you are marking Lent, may it continue to be for you a journey where a deeper encounter with Christ is honest and real, life-giving and life-renewing. 

Sermon for Lent 3, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 12th March 2023

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Removing the poison of hatred to dare for peace

IMG_0620As we begin Lent, today being the first Sunday, there are lots of opportunities being publicised to help us deepen our faith and grow in our spirituality. Lent is a time we use to grow and enrich our faith. Perhaps the most surprising to come my way this week was from a podcaster called Sahara Rose, which I hasten to add was shared by a friend and not someone I follow. She has been advocating the spiritual benefits of twerking and belly-dancing. Before anyone gets worried, I have no plans to take up either. But it rather caught my attention.

It turns out that twerking, the dance move favoured by a number of female pop stars involving the rhythmic movement of the hips, is a modern term for a traditional African dance move. ‘Twerk’ is a shortened form of ‘to work’ and it literally means working your body, giving yourself a workout to get things moving and stimulate some hormones and positive energy.

Before it gets dismissed, and it has been pilaried by some, it’s not a million miles away from Taylor Swift’s song ‘Shake it off’ where she is responding to bad press and those who snipe and gripe and pick fault.

The players gonna play, play, play, play, play

and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate

So, she’s just gonna shake it off, shake it off. Or if you prefer your references from the 1958 film ‘South Pacific’, you can wash that man right out of your hair. And many young women are speaking today about the effects of objectivication, of the toxic masculinity from bloggers like Andrew Tate and the whole culture that oppresses. They want to shake it off, to be empowered by the work out or even just wash it out of their hair, and who can blame them.

The spiritual thread running through these is that the negative words of others can easily become self-hatred and self-condemnation, if we take them into ourselves and so they need to be got rid of. If we do let them take root, they start to poison the body, the mind, the soul. They becomes a toxin in the system and what’s true for our personal system can also poison the body politic, how we as a society or community or culture respond and act. This works in so many directions and with so many different challenges, oppressions that come our way.

Friday was the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Large parts of that country have been reduced to rubble, millions have been displaced and thousands have died. The grief, the pain, the horror is unspeakable. We’ve had Ukrainian people come to this Cathedral who have been unable to stay in here because the pain of what they are dealing with is too intense, and they’ve left in tears. I spoke with a woman at the door whose husband is on the front line and she can’t talk to him on the phone because if she does the Russian forces will work out where he is and shell him. So she came in, lit a candle and left. That is what she could manage.

The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a thought for the day reflection on Friday. In this he talked about how it is important to tell the truth, to tell the story, to be real about the devastation and the massacre that is taking place in Ukraine. Truth sets us free, and the deeds of darkness need to be brought into the light. Lies and deceit don’t heal, but truth does. He spoke of giving sacrificially to support refugees and aid a nation fighting for its survival – and yes that does mean military aid. But he went on that we should also

“dare to imagine a seemingly impossible future, and work towards it in partnership with the oppressed, truthful but not hating the oppressor. There must be a future with a just and stable peace…, based in truth.”

The last part of his thought, to ‘dare to imagine’, requires quite a lot of shaking off of pain, hatred, bitterness. It is to dare to reach out for what seems impossible but with God can become possible. To not let the poison, the toxin of hatred prevent peace built on justice and truth prevailing. To not let it lead to hatred of the oppressor, but honest confrontation with the reality of actions to look for a new future.

Twerking, shaking off, washing out of hair, whatever it is that helps you remove the poison of pain and suffering, so that you can dare to imagine the seemingly impossible future and work towards it, Lent is a time for a spiritual work out. That is no mere leisure activity, but one that involves confronting with the truth and the love that avoids hatred. It is to embrace redemption in Jesus Christ, risen from the grave after he died on the cross.

Sermon for First Sunday of Lent, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 26th February 2023

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God saw that it was good – Delighting in Creation no

IMG_7367On the east end wall in the chancel is John Piper’s mural. People see different things in it and many visitors ask what it represents. It’s actually purely abstract, but looking at it can be like one of those ‘what do you see in an ink blot’ tests. When I look at it, I see the primordial soup of creation as creatures and geological features emerge out of it and then recede back into the swirling shapes. Along with others, I can see animals and birds, people and river beds. I think of it as an image of God creating.

Our first reading (Genesis 1:1-2:3) brought us the first of two creation stories in the Old Testament. It is thought to have been written as a hymn or song in praise of creation, not a description of what happened, as if that was possible to write. Each day is a different verse, so it was designed to be used in liturgy, for a festival. I did think of truncating the reading, it is a bit long, but it’s such a wonderful piece that it was worth hearing the whole song. It is a poetic delighting in God’s loving creation, with flourish and imagination let loose. God is at play with a box of tricks and out of this springs all that there is. A key phrase recurring at the end of each day, summing up what has taken place, is that ‘God saw that it was good’. There is delight and blessing at the heart of creation. ‘There was evening and there was morning’, another day.

I stress some of this, because for some reason, despite decades, even over a century of scholarship, the view is still heard that we believe the world was made in 6 days – actually the comment is usually 7 days, missing the point that the Sabbath is for rest and delight. We don’t. The universe is probably about 13.7 billion years old and has evolved over that time from first spark to where we are now. Every time I hear the Christmas Carol ‘Adam lay ybounden’, with its line “4,000 winters thought he not too long”, I wince. Wonderful music but duff maths. It follows a time scale that asserts the world is just 6,000 years old, with Jesus appearing 4,000 years after Adam and Eve, hence the line, and we know there are human remains older than that, let alone anything else. So let’s be clear, these creation stories in the bible – for that is what they are – are poetry and no one should take poetry literally.

It is the idea of ‘delighting’ that I want to concentrate on this morning and use this to offer a balance to the language of sustainability that has become a mantra, not least with the climate crisis that we face. Yes, we need to live in a way that is in balance and harmony, taking out no more than the world can replenish and not doing lasting harm that can’t be repaired. That goes under the tag of sustainable. I read an article by an environmental thinker called Norman Wirzba, professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Duke Divinity School in USA. In this he argues that the way the concept of sustainability is often used draws on the language of commodities and utility. The value of the earth is not seen as being intrinsic to itself, but how it can provide a mine of resources to be used and exploited. So sustainability becomes making sure that there is a plentiful and constant supply of these goods so they can be used.

The language of Genesis is somewhat different and if we too see that creation is good, delight in the beauty and wonder, then we start to see the world and all that it offers differently. And that’s his point. Here we see all that there is as gift, as a sacred gift. Here the value of creation is not in what we assign to it, say this is valuable because I can use it, but it is valuable in itself. The value of creation lies outside of our commodification and utility – usefulness. And he suggests, that viewing this way is so much more positive than the desperate search for survival, which can grind us down quite quickly.

Adam in the book of Genesis, is put in the garden to till it. He is there to participate in God’s gardening ways, to not just provide for needs but to experience life as precious, as something that must be received and greeted with gratitude and care. He works in partnership with God’s creative purpose and delighting.

Norman Wirzba makes a further point. He suggests that rather than referring to the ‘environment’ we should talk about the world as ‘home’. An environment is simply what surrounds us, and therefore not integral to who we are, as such, and what we can become. Home is where we live, or abide to use another biblical word. And abiding is about so much more than subsisting or dwelling. Abiding is about flourishing and having the purpose of being. It is a word rich in imagery. Jesus says that he is the vine and we abide in him; what is more separated from him, we can not live or flourish. 

By thinking more on God’s delight in the creation, as it being not our environment but the home where we abide, this leads to gratitude, thanksgiving and praise. We delight in the beauty, the diversity and the wonder of all that there is.

It is only since the space missions that we have seen that ours is a unique planet in a vast universe. The blue planet stands out as different on the skyline of a very dark universe. It is covered in water and green vegetation, held in a delicate balance that enables it to give rise to life and support it, to be a place where life can abide – dwell and flourish. If we look at it through this lens, the narrative changes from doom and panic to a hope-filled reason to sustain and that is a much more positive way to approach the challenges we face. God saw that it was good, it is worth living in harmony with it, not just for utility and protection, but because it has value in itself, derived from the love of its creator.

Our first reading gave us an imaginative song delighting in God’s creative work. At the end of each verse or section, God looks at what has become and sees that it is good. This delighting gives it an intrinsic value. When we talk of sustainability, the ecological challenge, let us not lose sight of this. I’m not convinced that anything is purely abstract, it always stems from someone’s imagination and that is the product of so much that flows out in these strange shapes. As I look at John Piper’s swirling soup of creation, as I see it on the east wall of this Cathedral, I can let it help me delight in God’s creation. It is where we abide, and it is good.

Sermon for Creation Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 12th February 2023

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Candlemas and AI

Screenshot 2023-01-28 at 12.55.33Just before Christmas, a piece of AI, Artificial Intelligence software, was launched. The ChatGPT language-generation artificial intelligence bot went online, the child of an American research and development company called OpenAI. ChatGPT stands for ‘Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer’ and as the name implies, it works by trawlling through the internet, using its pre-trained data to pull together statements and information to create the text the user wants. Some educators are worried about this and how it can be used to generate essays and homework. Some have been having fun with it. My favourite so far came from a humanities professor, who asked ChatGPT to produce a train cancellation announcement in the style of the Book of Revelation.

And there came a great voice out of the train station, saying, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of demons, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.”

And I heard another voice from the tracks, saying,

“The train you were to board, shall not depart as scheduled, for the Lord has seen fit to cancel the journey. Let he who has ears, hear the words of this announcement, and take heed.”

Those who feel that the rail network has become apocalyptic may relate to this more than others, but you can see from that fun example how it pulls the threads together. I decided to ask it to write a sermon on Candlemas and AI – more on that later, or may be this is it.

AI may act like a brain, being able to draw from various sources and string together something that appears rational, but it is not a brain. It is a simulation. And we have learnt over recent years to be wary of who programs and the gendered and other biases that creep into the progamming. If the internet is heavily loaded with certain assumptions and approaches, then the AI bot will find more to draw on from that.

What makes us different to a bot, different to a Bladerunner style replicant, if you know the film, is that we have genuine awe and wonder. We are mischieviously creative and spontaneous. Yes we can analyse the influences that go into the pool of experiences from which we draw, but there is still that spark that makes human different to machine. Our brains are not just algorithmic calculations to produce what seems to hit the mark. Creativity brings the genuinely new and otherwise unexpected into the room.

What we bring to our faith is not an empty datastick seeking the latest upload of software so we can act and respond in predetermined ways. What we bring is flesh and blood, emotions, wonder, delight and desire, longing and hopes, love and anxieties, frustrations and failures, success and senses; we bring our experience. We bring who we are and how we are, where we are in time and space. These are the kinds of things that the writer and theologian Eve Poole describes as ‘junk code’ to those who want to create a perfect response mechanism. And yet they are what make us human and not a bio-processing unit. Eve says, the so called ‘junk code’ is actually the pearl, the golden nuggart that makes humanity sparkle and shine, that makes souls.

At Candlemas, Jesus is presented as the light of the world, as a human being. He doesn’t just regurgitate facts and knowledge that has been heard or programmed in. He brings something genuinely new and personal. God did not become a robot, who performed tasks and gave answers that conformed to all the expectations. In fact, we know that he challenged quite a few of them in Jesus. Candlemas, brings not a robot but a child being presented in the Temple with his mother and the light comes through the humanity, requires the humanity, because what he brings is not just knowledge, but passion. This child will die and rise – that is something robots can’t do. This was reflected in the Epistle reading,

“Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18).

And so what did ChatGPT come up with for my mash-up request of Candlemas and AI? It didn’t do a bad job. It gave me a brief explanation of what Candlemas is and also what AI is. It then told me,

“As we celebrate Candlemas, we remember the presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the recongition of him as Messiah. We also reflect on the way that technology, like AI, can bring about new possibilities and change the way we live.

Just as Simeon and Anna recognised the potential in Jesus, we must recognise the potential in AI. We must use it for good, for the betterment of humanity… We must also be mindful of its dangers, and ensure that it is used ethically and responsibily.”

It ended with a link between the candles we light in this service, and the light of Jesus and AI being used to bring about a brighter future for us all.

Not bad, but it recognises that AI is artificial and not the real thing. We still need the bits of ‘junk code’ that make life life, that enables us to make those ethical judgements and decisions.

On this Candlemas day, the light of Christ comes in a real human, with all the passions and creativity. The light is not an alien one, but one that comes in and through the real humanity of Christ. Candlemas reminds us of this and salvation comes because of it and not inspite of it. Jesus the human being is far more than a visual aid or an angel. He is creation being entered to be redeemed, and that only comes through that sharing in who we are, in real time and space, flesh and blood. As Jesus shared in our life, so we are bidden to share in his, to delight in the quirks and wonder, the mystery that is human life, created by and for God.

Sermon for Candlemas, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 29th January 2023

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‘The boy, the mole, the fox and the horse’ – a new take on the Magi’s gifts

Screenshot 2023-01-07 at 13.41.09Over Christmas a new heart-warming story emerged involving The boy, the mole, the fox and the horse. You may have caught it on BBC 1, and it’s still on iPlayer. It provided the basis of the BBC1 ident between programmes. It tells the story of a boy walking through a snowy landscape. He is lost and meets various animals on his way. Each encounter gives him a special insight about life and I want to explore these this morning as we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, to open a different window on the magi’s familiar gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, brought by them to the Christ-child.

The first animal he meets is a mole, who pops his head up through the snow. The mole asks the boy what he wants to be when he grows up and he replies ‘kind’. The mole says, ‘nothing beats kindness; it sits quietly behind all things’. It is tender, respectful and in its warmth we grow. It seems to have become undervalued by some at the moment, especially on social media which amplifies the angry and the aggressive. Concern for the feelings of another is often rubbished, but it shows emotional intelligence, and we all know what it is like when our own feelings are trampled on by the brutality, aggression and unkindness of another. 

Kindness is not the same as saying whatever is easy for the other to hear. It can mean saying the hard thing that they need to hear, but doing it in a way that helps the other hear, think about it and grow; to build up, rather than crush or seek to injure. Those who lash out in such ways often show more signs of their own hurting crying out for help.

Reality checks can be hard to take, but we know that we grow through them, but only if we are loved and given the space we need to grow. Kindness is about healing and curing, mending what is broken and enabling new life to emerge. It sits alongside the magi’s gift of myrrh, an ointment to heal alements and injuries. Being kind is to want the other to flourish and grow, to be set free to live and rejoice. So perhaps another way of looking at myrrh is to think of kindness and how it makes a difference, heals and sets us free.

The boy and the mole find a fox caught in a trap. The fox is angry because he is hurt by the jaws of the trap on his leg. The mole dares to risk freeing the fox even in the face of the fox making threats and being aggressive. After he has set the fox free, the boy tells the mole that what he has done was noble. The mole replies that one of the greatest freedoms we have is how we react to things. Deciding how to react, deciding to act is what makes us human and not robots. To do this we need wisdom, the ability to decide, to make a judgement and to be gracious. This is pure gold and King Solomon in the Old Testament, when he was asked what he wanted from the Lord, chose wisdom above all other riches.  When the magi bring gold, they bring the ability to choose, to decide, to act, to make a difference. Gold is a currency of action, but how it is used requires wisdom. Another way of seeing gold is wisdom, the ability to choose and choose well, to make a difference for good.

They meet a white horse and he gives the boy a ride on his back. They dash through the countryside, but in a storm the boy falls off with a big bump. The horse bends down and tells the boy that although life is difficult, to remember he is loved. Falling off, failing, makes us feel judged and found wanting – we might feel that we are condemed by truth, reality. Truth, though, does not condemn us, it loves us and in this loving truth we are held deeply even in the moments when things don’t go well, or we have not done well. Love picks us up, truth picks us up, because the world exists because of the greatest truth there is, that we are loved by God. At the end of the film, the purpose of life, the truth, is said to be ‘to love and be loved’ – love is the way, love is the truth. The magi brought incense, a sweet smell of worship and adoration, rising to purify the air and stimulate the senses. It is the smell that says we are loved and in turn we give loving worship to our creator and redeemer. The magi’s gift is the sign of truth, which is love.

During Communion, the choir will sing an arrangement of Benjamin Britten’s ‘A New Year Carol’. Written in 1934, it sets a folk song which may well have its origins in Wales. ‘Levy Dew’, the words in the chorus, describe a ceremony once performed early on New Year’s Day morning in North Wales, gathering foliage, drawing fresh water from the well, and using it as sign of blessing and good fortune. The phrase ‘Levy Dew’ may come from the Welsh phrase “llef ar Dduw”, ‘a call to God’. Of course, that is what the magi do – they call to God as they bring their gifts.

The song also brings water and wine. These are symbols of the Epiphany too, as they are a reminder that the first moments that Christ is made known in the different Gospels are his baptism (in Mark) and at the wedding at Cana in Galilee (in John). Only Matthew brings the magi. The bright gold wires and bugles that do shine are the stuff of heaven and Revelation. His making known is for a purpose, to bring truth, and so back to the gifts and how they help us see that purpose, the truth, in gold, frankincense and myrrh, or wisdom, kindness and love. These are held in the adage for testing when to speak and what to say: “is it true, is it necessary, is it kind” – wisdom tells us if it is necessary.

So we too sing ‘Levy Dew’, we call to God in praise and thanksgiving as the magi bring gifts to help us see a better way of being and living in the light of the child before whom they bowed in adoration and we are invited to do so too. Myrrh for healing and kindness, gold for moments of deciding well with wisdom, and incense rising as smoke to stimulate the truth of love – and the bugles shining with the hope of heaven. And we can test our words with the simple series of questions triggered by the magi’s gifts, “is it true and loving (incense), is it necessary or wise (gold), is it kind (myrrh)”.

Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 8th January 2023

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Word becoming flesh – radical message to change the world

IMG_1975One of the things I love about Christmas, or more to the point the days that follow over this week, is sitting down and reading all the Christmas letters we’ve received from friends. This annual friend fest is a chance to catch up with their news. Some just add a few lines to their card or send an email. So I sit down and delight in the warmth of friendships formed and sustained over many years from all the places we’ve been privileged to live. It’s a reminder of how God blesses us in and through other people and the gift they are to us, indeed, the gift we are to each other. I get the same feeling decorating our tree with decorations  collected over the years from each place and the memories flood back.

Some of the letters I’ve seen already have brought news of retirements (which from my contemporaries is a little strange to read as I have the best part of a decade before that comes to me) and some talk of their new adventures. Some of new arrivals and a new generation emerging. Some of medical struggles or sad news we hadn’t known about previously – a loved partner going into care, or a death or an illness that is taking its toll. The tears and smiles are mingled, but the overwhelming sense is one of being blessed in these people who have kept in touch and send their news. The tears are because of love shared and the net gain makes the tears more bearable with a thanksgiving for all that has been.

I recently admitted that I am not a fan of tinsel. Not a fan is an understatement. The choristers responded in characteristic style by wrapping my secret Santa present in it. I like sparkle and twinkling lights. I like the bright joy of so much around this time, but tinsel is not my thing. It’s the decoration brussels sprout. Whatever your view of tinsel (or sprouts) a Christmas which is only tinsel will not serve us well. There needs to be more to this festival than party. There needs to be something that can hold the joys and the sorrows, the tears and the smiles – of which there are many. Something with more bite to bring the radical good news announced by angels, witnessed by shepherds and which caused wise men to set off on a long journey in awe and wonder.

The heart of the Christmas story, which we have all come here to celebrate tonight, is that God is with us in the thick of life. The joy of parents over the newborn, the anxiety of the pregnant Mary and concerned Joseph looking for a place to stay, and Mary giving birth in strange surroundings. Fast forward and all that child grew to become, to show who he was in his teaching, his death and supremely in his resurrection. But you don’t get the resurrection without the birth, the vulnerability, the love and tears, the joys and pains, the sharing in the grit of life. 

So today’s festival grounds our faith in all that life brings our way. It’s not an escape from it. And takes all of that, showing that it matters to God and is held. It doesn’t give an answer that takes away these tears and smiles, rather one that holds them in loving purpose. What Paul in his writings referred to as the birth pangs of the new creation (Romans 8:18-25). And John, with his deeply philosophical opening to his gospel, which we have just heard, with the Word becoming flesh, takes us into the deeper reflective pondering on the meaning and purpose of the universe, of creation. In this big picture, he holds whatever is on our menu for these coming days – whether that includes tinsel or sprouts, twinkling and sparkle, meeting up with friends and family or plans disrupted by travel difficulties or illness.

A meme has been floating about, and it’s a musical one. It is the chord played on the organ in the final verse of ‘O Come all ye faithful’, to accompany the lyric “Word of the Father” and it’s the sound of Christmas – listen out for it at the end of this service. I like it so much I bought the mug (and I’ve even put a bit of chorister tinsel round the handle). Only heard in this service and in the morning on Christmas Day, it announces that God is with us, the eternal purpose of God is with us, there is hope and there is reason to be thankful and joyful, even through and in any tears shed or shared. “O come let us adore him”.

Christmas has more bite to it than just a mere jolly time and for that we can be truly thankful. We are caught up in the mystery of a universe of starlight, of the power of love to transform lives – including our own, of how grace changes us and everything for the better in God’s saving presence among us and for us. There is a radical message that calls us to radical action – to feed the hungry, bring comfort to all who mourn, bring a message of joy even in the struggles of life. It is a message that comes to us in the middle of struggle. The birth of this child as ‘God with us’ changes the world and calls on us to join in that radical plan. This Word becoming flesh is more than dry philosophy; it is grace and truth, God in action to change the world, to save the world, and calls on us to join in.

“The Word [of the Father] became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

May that be the source of all your joy and hope, and sparkling this Christmas.

Sermon for Christmas Midnight Eucharist, Newport Cathedral, Saturday 24th December 2022

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The Great ‘O’s – Advent Antiphons

We have now entered my favourite part of Advent. These final 7 days from yesterday to Friday is when Advent changes gear. And our daily praying in the evening includes a series of ancient texts. These are known as the Great Os, because each of them begins “O” – ‘O Wisdom’, ‘O Emmanuel’, ‘O Key of David,’ and so on. They are antiphons or little themed texts placed before and after the Magnificat, the song of Mary, at Evening Prayer. No one knows when they were written or by whom, but they were already in use by 8th century.

These little parcels of rich spiritual reflection are addressed to God, using scriptural titles and pictures that describe something of Christ’s saving work. You will know them better through our first hymn this morning: O come, O come Emmanuel – John Mason Neale’s wonder reworking of these texts.

This morning I’m going to use a Christmas Tree decoration as a symbol of each of these, explain them briefly, and then hang the decoration on a little tree here.

The first begins ‘O Wisdom’.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other mightily, and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence. (Cf Ecclesiasticus 24:3; Wisdom 8:1)

The decoration I have is this small bible. It actually is a bible. If we open it up we will find the text in very tiny print inside.

The Wisdom literature of the bible looks to all wisdom coming from God. The creation is brought into being by God’s intention and one of the ways of seeing Wisdom is the dove, the Spirit which moves over the waters of creation in the first creation story in the book of Genesis. Wisdom inspires prophets and dreamers. It brings visions of awe and wonder, a sense of purpose and direction, and moral guidance. It is this divine purpose and active presence that John’s gospel says came among us in Christ – when “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth”.

So, we give thanks for the holy wisdom that is the source of our life, guides our steps and in Jesus Christ brings hope. We place Wisdom on the tree, the first decoration in the form of a Bible.

The second text is ‘O Adonai’, which means ‘Master’ or ‘Lord’. 

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm. (Cf Exodus 3:2, 24:12)

The name of God is holy in the Bible. When Moses first encounters God, this takes place at the burning bush – depicted in this bauble, our illustration and decoration for today. Here Moses receives his commission to liberate the people from slavery. Not entirely convinced of this plan, Moses asks who he should say has sent him. With that God reveals his name as “I am”. ‘Say “I am” has sent you’. That name is so holy that the writers of the Bible used ‘The Lord’ as a way of writing it instead.

‘I am’, ‘the Lord’, is the one who needs no further explanation and none is given. God is the one who just is. “Before the world was made, I am.” After everything has come to an end “I am”. In the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, God is said to be the beginning and the end, the first cause and the last hope. He is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last letter of the alphabet in Greek, or in English – the A and the Z. 

To call Jesus ‘Master’ and ‘Lord’ links him with the divine name. In John’s Gospel there are the great “I am” sayings, when he makes the connection directly. Some respond with outrage, picking up rocks to throw at him. Some bow down in awe and wonder, adoration and praise. This deeper meaning is reflected in the antiphon as we say ‘O Adonai’, calling Jesus ‘Master’ and ‘Lord’.

The third is ‘O Root of Jesse’. 

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer. (Cf Isaiah 11:10, 45:14. 52:15; Romans 15:12)

In the Old Testament, Jesse is the father of King David and Matthew’s Gospel begins with verses we don’t hear very often in our services because they can sound like just a list of names, which they are. Read flatly, this can sound like the telephone directory. But it is far more than just a list of names; this is Jesus’ “Who do you think you are” moment, like on the TV show. His family tree is laid out before us. And it’s a surprise.

It starts with Abraham and works its way through the generations until we arrive at Joseph, husband of Mary. This takes us through King David, the one whom the Messiah, the promised one, had the great call back to. The Messiah was looked to as the new King David, to be in David’s line – to sit at the end of this family tree.

In art, this has been shown as a Jesse Tree. The root actually comes from Abraham, but it is referred to in the Bible as the stock of Jesse. The tree shows Jesus fulfilling the hopes of all the years, of all the history and the culmination of the journey of the ancient Hebrew people.

A Christmas tree does not have to be the pagan symbol some say it is. It can be a sign of Jesus fulfilling the covenant between God and humanity. And so the whole tree becomes our symbol.

The next, 4th, Great O saying is ‘O Key of David’.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. (cf Isaiah 22:22, 42:7)

Keys unlock and they lock. They open the way and they close it off. Jesus is the one who opens for us the gate to God and to his presence, the gate to heaven and the eternal. With this we place our desires and our motives – the agency we employ to make things happen and open doors.

Here’s a challenge, how do we help others find liberation, freedom and open for them the way that leads to faith in Christ? Are we a sign of an open door, or are we in effect barring that door preventing them from coming in? It’s a challenge. But each of us who follow the way of Jesus Christ has a place to open the way for others.

But the principle door opener is Christ himself, who out of love removes the barriers between the mystery and awesome wonder of God and ourselves. Jesus is the key of David. May he unlock our hearts that the way to his eternal life may be an open door for us.

The 5th antiphon is ‘O Morning Star’, or ‘O Dayspring’ as it is sometimes called.

O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. (Cf Malachi 4:2)

Stars shine at night, but around this time of year there is a bright star in the morning, called the Morning Star. This star lights up not the night, but tells of the promise of the new day. And with Jesus a new day dawns, a new day in God’s love for us.

The morning star is actually Venus, the brightest planet. It remains bright and beautiful in the first light of morning, as the ‘Morning Star’. When it is in conjunction with Jupiter and Saturn, it is a particularly spectacular sight. This star is one of the contenders for the  magi’s star, a star that leads in hope and promise.

Astronomers have long looked in the skies with awe and wonder. It has brought with it reflection on our own place and the more we know about the vastness of the universe and the uniqueness of this planet, the greater the awe and wonder. The star on the tree is a moment to reflect, to be struck by planets in their motion and how we are dependent on the life and love of God.

The penultimate text brings glitter and it leaves a trail. It is a crown and a crown needs a king so we say ‘O King of the Nations’.

O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay. (Cf Isaiah 28:16, Ephesians 2:14)

We pray to the God of Justice for all who hold high office – Prime Ministers and First Ministers, the King and Presidents of other nations, those who sit in parliament, the Senedd and our local councils – all whose decisions affect the lives of others. St Paul tells us that we should pray for them that we may be well governed and we pray for them regularly here.

All human power is limited and transitory, however important and powerful someone may be or seem. One day their kingdom will be no more. Royal tombs, for all their grandeur, are all lifeless mausoleums with rotting corpses inside. The King of the Nations calls on us to raise our sights and build on the values of a kingdom that really does endure, that lasts for ever. As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’, we are reminded of the values of justice and peace, honouring and flourishing for all people. 

The crown is a reminder that all authority owes allegiance to Christ above all else, and certainly not itself. We pray that we may live as signs and agents of Christ’s Kingdom.

We come to final antiphon, which John Mason Neale made the first in his hymn. It is the greatest of them all, Emmanuel, God is with us. We pray ‘O Emmanuel’.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour; Come and save us, O Lord our God. (Cf Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22-23)

It is Matthew’s gospel which spells this out for us. “He will be called Emmanuel, God is with us” and we heard that in our Gospel reading this morning.

Our decoration is a bauble, depicting the nativity scene – with Jesus, Mary and Joseph. 

Times are hard at the moment for so many people. Emmanuel says that God is with us, we are not alone, we are not abandoned. God holds this, holds us, holds creation. Even a cost of living and fuel costs crisis, cannot break that hold. The child in the manger, whom we celebrate at Christmas, is Emmanuel, God with us. 

Wherever you are, have a truly happy and blessed Christmas. May your tree remind you of the saving work of God in Jesus Christ and shine for you as a symbol of light and hope and peace.

Sermon for 4th Sunday of Advent, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 18th December 2022

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2021 Census Results: In a changed landscape, need to learn to speak a new language

IMG_6634This week the statistics for the religious picture of England and Wales were released by the Office for National Statistics. These are based on the responses to the 2021 Census and they have been widely reported. The number of people self-identifying as Christian has dropped significantly from 59.3% in 2011 to under half the population (46.2%) in ten years. The big rise was in those who described themselves as ‘no religion’, up from 25.2% in 2011 to 37.2% in 2021. In Wales the figures are starker still with ‘nones’, what sociologists of religion call those who say they have ‘no religion’, overtaking the number of Christians at 46.5% and 43.6% respectively. Drill deeper and in Newport ‘nones’ and Christians are close at 43% and 42.8% respectively – pretty much level pegging.

These represent the big challenge that we know we face. It is a reminder of the cultural backdrop in which we minister, profess our faith and seek to draw people into a closer encounter and relationship with the good news of God in Jesus Christ. The language of faith, which previous generations could rely on, is not there and hasn’t been for quite a while. All the strategies that have been familiar have not worked and are going to work even less successfully as time goes by. Mere leaflets, posters and other things which will have spoken a shared language when Christianity could be assumed to be the cultural tone of our society are going to land like all the other junk mail that comes through the door. In short we have to work harder and smarter, to learn to speak a different language in a changed landscape. And many are not equipped for it; we need to listen to those who are fluent in a new cultural language. Our guides will be the younger members of our community.

Well, that’s one interpretation, and I agree with it to a point. The heart of our faith, though, remains the same. Christ came to change lives, to call us to grow in holiness, to pray, and to put that into practice in how we relate and care. He came to announce that life has a point and that point lies with God’s grace. We were created by the will of a loving creator and that love does not let us go, even at the point of death. It calls us to changed lives, ones that live in trust, justice and peace. It calls us, to use the gospel imagery, to be light and salt (Matthew 5:13-16) – to bring light wherever there is darkness and to bring out the flavour and beauty of where we are. To be yeast (Matthew 13:33) that takes dry flour, fluffs it up and something much more abundant – the bread of life – comes into being. What does it mean to be light in dark places? What does it mean to be salt and bring out the flavour, to help people flourish? What does it mean to be yeast, to make a difference and transform a situation?

The Bishop of St Asaph, Gregory Cameron, responded to the publication of these statistics by reminding us that the challenge remains to “demonstrate to society why we still believe faith is life transforming”. We cannot assume that the people around us know this or think it. In fact there is a strong chance that they don’t. He said, 

“We have become a society where we can be more honest about faith, and societal expectations are, if anything secular rather than religious, so to profess a faith is to stand out, rather than to blend in.” 

In other words, what we have gathered here to do this morning is weird to most people – who do not have the language, culture or understanding of worship or prayer as we do it, let alone the Christian narrative – the stories of faith. This is alien territory – to them and to us who have long since stopped noticing how different this is. And those of us who conduct life events see this very sharply and have done for a long time. What we are seeing is a continuing trend.

Before we despair, these statistics only give a partial snapshot. There has been a lot of work into those who self-identify as ‘no religion’. It is not a clear or homogenous group. Only 56,000 people in England and Wales described themselves as Humanist (10,000), Atheist (14,000) or Agnostic (32,000) out of 60mn. That offers a much more complicated and hopeful picture than might be assumed at first sight. When I was a student, a long time ago, one of my lecturers talked about the difference between Religion with a big ‘R’ and religion with a small ‘r’ – I can’t remember who he was talking about now. Big ‘R’ is institutional faith, signed up and belonging. Small ‘r’ religion is the more difficult to pin down spirituality, a sense of the numinous and ‘other’, the stirrings of awe and wonder that stands looking at the stars and ponders and dreams. That shows no signs of dying. It is an approach that can start to engage with the deeper meanings of biblical narratives and see connections – the kind of thing we try to do here as we preach each week, connect with Stormzy or whoever. But in doing this, we have to recognise the new language needed and that our culture does not start from a shared place. We have to work harder to begin the conversation.

The other area of hope is that when people see Christianity that seems real – deeply spiritual and pursuing social justice; Christianity with its sleeves rolled up and which is more human not less, more truly human is where good spirituality takes you – then they start taking notice. It catches them by surprise, as it caught those who saw the first Christians at work by surprise – their caring for the weak and vulnerable impressed because it was different. Feeding the spirit and feeding the mouth are intimately joined. When people come into this building and are struck by something they can’t identify, by a peace and spiritual depth, God is at work, as God has been here for 1500 years. When they see the caring, they see God at work through it and take note.

Our readings this morning provide more connection with this new world order than might seem obvious. Isaiah (11:1-10) gives a vision of a new world order, where peace and justice are the rule of the day and they flow from the Root of Jesse, from the promised one to come, whom we announce to have come in the child in the crib, the Christ who comes among us. It speaks of lives changed by the power of God.

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 3:1-12) we were given John the Baptist coming to prepare the way for the Lord. He is the warm-up act and we need John the Baptists today who will go as those who announce, who stir the hearts so that the awe and wonder, the religion with a small ‘r’, have somewhere to latch on to so that they can find out more. We are in times where the people have lost touch with the faith of their forebears and the connection needs to be made again. It has gone cold and needs to warm up. We have to give an account of the light and hope within us and join up the dots where we can.

The second reading (Romans 15:4-13) ended with one of Paul’s incredibly powerful and pregnant phrases – a good note with which to end: 

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Filled with the Spirit’s power, with joy and peace, with hope, we have light to bring to spiritual darkness, our own and others. And I see it. I see it in some of the newly ordained, those training and those exploring vocations. I see it in those who gather for quiet prayer and in the eyes of those who come forward to receive communion. 

This church is not dead and it’s not dying. But it is changing and it has to continue to change to be able to speak to a generation that doesn’t know the story, doesn’t share the cultural expectations and background, and has grown cold towards what we do and stand for. The task remains the same, to be people of hope, of joy and peace. And the God of peace will be with you and in you.

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 4th December 2022

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Christ the King – ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown’: trusting God beyond all others

IMG_0528On Tuesday night there was a programme on BBC1 Wales about the rap artist Stormzy. His style of music is a mix of rap and Gospel and it provided a gentle, calming at the end of the day. One song cut through for me, his track ‘Crown’. It was the line “But heavy is the head that wears the crown” that made me sit up a take notice. Those who are fans of Shakespeare will recognise that straight away as being a popularised version of Henry IV, Part 2 (Act 3, Scene 1), where the burden of leadership for the king draws the comment “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown”. It is a line that comes in response to the king’s inability to sleep as war approached.

The idea of the crown being heavy to wear is never far away when we celebrate Christ the King, when we use the imagery of kingship to talk of Christ. When in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels, Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is and they give the dramatic reply that he is the Christ, the Son of God, it is followed by his talking about his approaching death and resurrection (Matthew 16:13-21; Mark 8:27-31; Luke 9:18-22). This burden, this responsibility, that comes with being the Son of God, the Christ, the Promised One, the one who will save, God among us, is heavy on his head. And of course, the crown he wears is the crown of thorns, if it wasn’t clear enough. That would make anyone’s head heavy or uneasy.

Stormzy’s song begins with him searchin’ every corner of (his) mind, looking for the answers (he) can’t find. The searching, the looking, the desiring, is heavy too. It brings for him implied responsibilities. He is struggling with fame and what that brings. “Any little seed I receive, I have to share it” and “Any little bread that I make, I have to break it”. Is that bread as in money, sharing gifts received, as thanksgiving becomes generosity, even obligation? Does it carry the echo of Christ at the Last Supper, breaking bread to share his life, his love and his blessing? If that seems fanciful, each section of the song begins with a reference to Jesus, “Amen, in Jesus’ name, … I claim it” or “declare it”. The Gospel element of his music gives this a double meaning of personal fame and leadership, and how we mirror, imitate Christ as his followers.

Sharing bread, breaking bread, be it in the Eucharist around the altar or sharing money and things, connects us with the heart of bowing down before this Christ as king. We share in his banquet as invited honoured guests, where we are fed for service, sustained for the psychological and spiritual battles that lie ahead. And there are many as we contend with doubts and fears, anxieties and struggles, competing visions and convictions, power struggles and the games people play. We share of our resources in feeding and giving. We also share them in a challenge to the economics of our society which can be ordered to protect only self-interest, which is a false narrative because the best protection comes collectively rather than in isolation. It is surely not beyond our whit to so order this that all flourish in the goodness and bounty of God.

I am struggling in my mind at the moment with the nature of our economy which is not working. It seems to be based on a system of illusions. Money is not really based on anything tangible. It is based on trust, the trust that there is a stable government that will collectively order society so that we can function. The £10 in your wallet or purse is only worth whatever that is worth because everyone agrees it is, or at least enough do. As soon as that is threatened it collapses like the ephemeral pack of cards. Governments issue bank notes, create money, and pay for it with debts that they create and issue where interest is paid to those who buy that debt, and the governments pay for that by printing, creating money, some of which comes out of taxes and the moving of goods and services in exchange for more imaginary tokens. And round it goes in an extremely complex web of trust. But there is actually nothing there, nothing tangible – not since the gold standard ended in 1931. There is no pile of anything tangible behind our financial system. The small boy who shouts ‘the king has no clothes’, is perceptive and also deeply worrying, because as soon as everyone agrees, it all crashes. Ever wondered why we are in a crisis? And this system works for those who can play it, and against those who can’t. My worry is that this system has become a monster that eats the more vulnerable, if not itself.

It is not surprising that those who manage this, have heavy heads. Who wouldn’t have. They are juggling with the wind. It makes my head hurt just trying to comprehend it. Leadership based on fantasy, on illusion, is not at all as secure as it might want to be. It is always vulnerable to the small boy pointing out the illusion-come-delusion of the king wearing no clothes.

All leadership is based on a system of trust. There has to be something real and honest behind it, otherwise it really is chasing after the wind, as the book of Ecclesiastes would put it (1:14). Referring to Christ as king, brings not quite the strong image we might conjure up, the clothes that are not there. It brings vulnerability to events, to plots, to the machinations of fortune. And when Christ adopts this title he does so with embracing the cross, the passion, the crown of thorns, his death. 

The glory comes with the resurrection and what that displays about him. He is the one whose status transcends the changes and chances of a fleeting world. This is a kingship that goes to the other level. Stormzy struggles with looking for answers, with his purpose and the responsibility that goes with the status of being an image leader, one others look to. Christ struggles in the garden with the cup he is about to take, with the passion he is about to endure. ‘Heavy is the head that wears this crown.’ And thanks be to God that he does because through it all of us find there is a lasting place of redemption and salvation. This king has clothes, has substance and lasts beyond even death. We can trust in him beyond all others.

Sermon for Christ the King, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 20th November 2022

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Daniel and the Lions: Plots, Populist Politics and Promoting Peace

IMG_0191What is the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den really about (Daniel 6)? The book of Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, is a book in two halves. The first six chapters give a series of stories about a Jewish captive called Daniel. The second half gives a series of visions. While it is set around 6th century BC under the Persian empire, it was probably written much later, around 164 BC. Our first reading came from the first part – stories about Daniel. It’s central theme is about the providence of God, how God’s purposes hold through all the ups and downs of events, and it is a book that aims to encourage faith and trust in God.

Daniel has been able to interpret the king’s dreams and because of this he gets promoted, attaining high office with positions of great influence. His wisdom, which he attributes to God, shines through. This brings out jealousy in others, those who don’t measure up, and they plot against him. They want his power and position. So they plot, and manipulate a king who doesn’t stand up to them for whatever reason, and Daniel is seemingly condemned to an unpleasant death as dinner for some hungry lions.

The pretext for their plot is Daniel’s worship of God. He refused to worship in secret, to keep it private and internal. This is because the aim of worship is to glorify God; it is not just something to be done in private, so Daniel does not regard it as a mere private matter. For the book of Daniel, God is God of all and not just a private lifestyle choice. The edict of Darius, the King of the Medes and Persians, is therefore foolish in the extreme; to claim, to demand, that he is to be worshipped and anyone who worships anyone else is to be put to death. The conspirators have tempted Darius with hubris and self-aggrandisement. It’s the antithesis of what worship is supposed to be. It also misses the point of Daniel, that his wisdom comes from being open to God, not from himself. When we gather to pray, to preach, to sing, to read, the focus is not on us but always on God and should open hearts and minds to God. Anything else is egotistical and bogus. Daniel survives in God’s providence and there is a quick about face by Darius, who seems to turn from persecutor to champion of Daniel’s faith. Maybe, maybe not. Does he really get it – that Daniel points to God, and that God is not something to be harnessed or possessed, rather worshipped, listened to and followed. There is a fundamental shift, difference, of understanding here.

Some of what happens in the story of the lions is very familiar. Exactly what led to the king listening to the conspirators is not clear. He seems to be fearful that his power will be diminished if he doesn’t concede to their demands and falls for the flattery of self-worship and adulation. He falls for all the allures of populist politics, which we have seen far too much of in the USA and also in Britain. Those with power can often feel that their grip on power is loose and fragile. It can lead to persecution of minorities, to demonising of those who are different, to abuse in order to protect power, or a shallow grip on it, to divert through division and scapegoating.

The outcome of this story is that those who conspire and set Daniel up, fall into their own trap. Daniel is saved. Those who plot overplay their hand as they so often do, and they are brought crashing down. They end up on the menu for the lions’ dinner. Those who seek to be populist can find themselves being eaten by their own scheming and deceptions.

The second reading brought us the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). It is familiar. It talks of different soil conditions from the deeply hostile hardened, rocky soil where nothing grows, to fertile soil where the crop will settle and grow in abundance. If we try to link this to the first reading, the faith of Daniel will bring out different responses depending on how those who view it are themselves prepared – what kind of soil they are. Are they hard-hearted, concerned for their own position over all else, or ones seeking to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God? And this works for politics, for church and community life. It comes down to the ego and how it will drive fruitful mission and how it will work against it because the heart is actually focussed somewhere else.

Remembrance Sunday is a day to be alert not just to the cost of war in lives lost and harmed, but the hardnesses of the heart that make war more likely or the heart more receptive to it. If anyone is seen as being dispensable for some personal gain, even protection of fragile and a weak grip on power, where power is for its own sake rather than the higher good of all, then throwing Daniels to the lions becomes easier to imagine and even execute.

And remember the words of King Darius just before he passes sentence on Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’ (Daniel 6:19). It’s the statement of a weak king who recognises the evil he is about to do but feels powerless to prevent it because the tide is against Daniel and it is more expedient for him to be sacrificed than to risk the throne. 

We could draw parallels of Putin’s war in Ukraine, the demonising of groups now to build up political power – all the ways we see populist politics creating a toxic climate. We can scale this down to those moments when conspirators will turn on someone because, if they can stir up trouble, their own power base will be advanced, or maybe even protected in clubs, workplaces, even churches – they are not immune.

The warnings of Daniel and the soil condition survey in the gospel reading take us to the heart of our own hearts. Do we seek God’s kingdom above all else, even our own advancement? And will we refuse to make someone else expendable in the pursuit of our goals? If the answer to these is no, then on Remembrance Sunday we have the conditions ripe for conflict, for destruction and the evils of warfare – beit between nations or withn them, even within the smallest groups. Remembrance Sunday calls us to promote and live in peace with justice and, as these readings remind us, that starts in the heart.

Sermon for Evensong, Remembrance Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 13th November 2022

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