Trinity Sunday – Dreams and the nature of God

IMG_7018On Monday I went to the Hay Festival for the first time. It’s quite an event, catering for all ages and with a wide range of speakers and activities. The location, if you’ve not been, is a field on the edge of Hay-on-Wye and it takes place in a series of marquees. One of the talks I attended was by an academic psychologist from Swansea University, Mark Blagrove, working in partnership with an artist, Julia Lockheart. The title was ‘The Science and Art of Dreaming’. They spoke about their project where they interview people about their dreams and the stories. As these interviewees speak, the artist portrays their story in a picture she paints for them. It was a fascinating talk, illustrated with her artwork.

The question arose as to what dreams are and there are various theories. The one that makes most sense to me is that it is our brains making sense of things, ordering them and processing memories. Meaning and experience interweave with some deep psychological phenomena. The dreams might come out in a strange way, with fears and desires, frustrations and successes all swilling around in a wonderfully creative soup. Dreaming deploys the imagination and is part of how we are creative and may be that’s one of the big differences between humans and AI bots. We dream, we imagine, we process in weird and wonderful ways that bring new ideas and possibilities to birth. They are playful, and play is how we make sense and explore reality.

The psychologist spoke about the telling of dreams being important in stimulating empathy, in a similar way to how storytelling, films and novels do this. For him, the telling of dreams is significant and requires the other person to listen as they receive it. That listening and processing, hearing another’s experience and thoughts, helps us see the world from the eyes of another and that develops empathic thinking. He said this is a skill humans developed around 80,000 years ago, not sure how that is known, and its social benefits made it a useful characteristic to have.

Today is Trinity Sunday, when we think of our doctrine of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Dream sharing, story telling, boosting empathy, can shine a light on how we see the Trinity – how we see the nature of God, who God is and how God is. And our icon of the Trinity, painted by Christi Paslaru in 2018 is helpful too because it shows God in an eternal relationship. You should have had a picture of this given to you with your service books. To see this eternal relating you have to make a circle with your hand and look at the image through the circle. If you do that, you will see that the figures are arranged in a circular configuration; they form a circle. There is a dynamic unity about them as each and all relate and respond to one another, which is what that configuration is trying to portray. The icon is a copy of Andrei Rublev’s famous 15th century icon of the three angels visiting Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-19), often taken as a prefiguring of the Trinity.

I thought about this as I was reading Rowan Williams’ book ‘Looking East in Winter’ the other day. In this he talks about God’s life being generative (p79). God generates God in the Trinitarian life. And ultimately God refers back to God, the eternal relating. He calls this ‘God’s correspondence with God’ (p80), which is an image of completeness and eternally relational. This relating is expressed in the act of creation as God’s life is poured into creation. The relational nature of God means the life that is breathed out is hardwired to be relational in turn. As creation exists within the generative nature of God there is an eternal feedback, from which the created order cannot escape. The created is therefore utterly dependent on God for its being, its meaning and its purpose. Life is held in this dynamic relationship that is in the heart and nature of God.

Pressing this further, when we talk of salvation we are talking about something essential to the divine life, not periphery to it. The life made is made in relationship that is ultimately held and not lost. So, however much we struggle and wrestle with our experience of how life can be good and evil, hopeful and despairing, fulfilled and challenged, which may come out in our dreams, all our conceptualising on this has to be framed, has to be seen through this eternal nature of God, who is generative and relational. That makes redemption a purification of what has been tarnished, a repairing of damage, because ultimately we are made, we are held and we are returned within the life of God.

This sets the scene for how we think about the nature of life, the hope in which it is held and the ultimate goal. Rather than being one of futility and punishment, we are made for God and only find our meaning and purpose in God. And ultimately, life given becomes life received back because God is God, and this is how God is in the Trinity. Creation cannot do other than reflect that.

Our second reading (John 16:5-15) included tightly packed thought on the relationship between God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Everything comes from God and is held in this relationship. The whole mission of Jesus was to reveal the heart and nature of God, with salvation being integral to this, because it is of the nature of God.

Today is one of those days, when we put the basic foundation in place for all our theology, our reflection on faith and how we see our life as held within the dynamic life of God, which is generative and relational in its essence. As we dream we make sense of meaning, we play with this relating. As we tell our dreams we share stories and experience, our making sense of it. The one who hears our stories joins in a relational activity that boosts empathy and strengthens the bonds of humanity. It is a model which gives us a call back into the heart and nature of God, who as Trinity is the source of all our relating, and it is in this that our lives find meaning, indeed exist at all.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 4th June 2023

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Pentecost – Learning to speak in the language of their hearts

IMG_2681Time to get the map out after that annual trip round the Mediterranean and Middle East, courtesy of our first reading (Acts 2:1-11). The languages can be grouped into five regions – first around the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, now covered by Iraq and bits of Iran, where the Garden of Eden is set; second, the area between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, now covered by Turkey; thirdly we jump across the Med to Egypt, parts of Libya and the island of Crete; there’s a brief mention of visitors from Rome and finally Arabia. It covers large parts of the world as then known where Jews had moved to and settled in, often referred to as the Jews of the Dispersion. There was then a common language, a bit like English can be today, and it was Greek, after the conquests of Alexander the Great 400 years earlier and the legacy of his empire. That’s why the New Testament was written in Greek. So there was no need for a miracle of tongues. Something deeper is at work here.

Whenever we learn a language there is far more going on than just learning new vocabulary. I’m not a natural linguist, mainly because I need to know the context of what I am learning. And that means that although I have to work hard at learning new languages, I love finding out what’s going on under the bonnet, how the engine of the language works. This is the cultural history, the ways people use language to communicate and the meanings they are trying to convey. That is so much richer than just learning vocab and for me helps the vocab stick, a bit like learning names – if I can pin something to the label, something about the person, I’ve got more chance of learning the name than if I don’t.

Something similar has to happen when we think of the mission of the Church and how we share faith. Today is sometimes called the birthday of the Church. What is the culture we are trying to engage with? And what are the language barriers, or cultural barriers? This is part of the thinking behind the events we are hosting here. For those of us who are so comfortable walking through church doors it often comes as a surprise that anyone would find that difficult and  it’s hard to imagine, but they do. They don’t think it’s for them, they assume they won’t be welcome, that they’re not allowed inside. I added the words “you can come inside” to the temporary banner outside precisely to say people are allowed in here and some have come in because they read that. Last weekend, we had 850 people at the two concert performances on the Friday evening, another 350 on the Saturday evening and most of these had not set foot in here or any church for a very long time if ever and this was an easy way for them to come in, in a safe way. Some said, ‘you have made this place more accessible’. We have to hear that. We might think it’s open and inclusive, but so many just don’t know that and what is more, don’t assume it. Even worse, for many the assumption is that we won’t be.

Some cathedrals refer to these events as lowering the threshold, smoothing the way in. I think it’s more than that, it’s aiming to address the cultural divide and make a connection with the language of faith. Everyone who came in was greeted – and we’ve had comments on how impressive this was – and we began each concert with a welcome from either me or Canon Andrew, explaining what this building is, that it’s an ancient sacred space and we said a prayer. No apologies for who we are, but an opening up in the hope that in their own language they would hear something of what we stand for, that in some way the language of their hearts will be engaged. 

There is a dilemma in this and we have to watch out for it. This is now the fourth cathedral I have worked in and I know first-hand that there is a danger that we could become an events palace. When that happens we’ve lost the point. However, when hosting events, which have to be in keeping with the values we hold, we open up a way to connect. And I stress we shouldn’t underestimate just how big a challenge this is.

I have a friend who teaches evangelists. In order to get over the point about not feeling comfortable to step inside, he gives them £1 and tells them to go off and put a bet on a horse. He gives no other instructions. If they’ve never done this before when they come back they talk about how bewildering it was, when they walked in everyone seemed to know what they were doing and they didn’t have a clue, and some of those there looked at them strangely because they clearly didn’t fit or were not comfortable. It was not a good experience. His point, of course, was if that is how they felt trying to place a bet, how did they think people feel whom we expect to just walk in through the doors and know they are welcomed – and our doors are often only half open and even then they don’t open properly. They don’t, and many won’t even try. Something else is needed.

It would be good as part of the tower works to make those doors open fully and put some glass doors on the outside that open automatically so that those who approach can see what they are coming into and, with the door opening, they don’t even have to open it. And in they can walk. The welcome they receive, of course, needs to recognise that they may not know what to do, where to go, how to be, and help them find their way with love and gentleness. When that happens, it goes well.

The gift of Pentecost is the challenge to the church today to lower that threshold and meet people in a language and cultural framework they can access. From that, who knows, but we’ve made a start. Learning to speak so that others hear it in their own tongue, in the language of the hearts, is about so much more than vocabulary.

If we are struggling to work out how we do this, the poet-priest Malcolm Guite in his poem for Pentecost tells us that our mother-tongue is to be love and I end with his poem.

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings

Today the hidden fountain flows and plays

Today the church draws breath at last and sings

As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.

This is the feast of fire, air, and water

Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.

The earth herself awakens to her maker

And is translated out of death to birth.

The right words come today in their right order

And every word spells freedom and release

Today the gospel crosses every border

All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace

Today the lost are found in His translation.

Whose mother tongue is Love in every nation.

Sermon for Pentecost, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 28th May 2023

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In-between moments: space to be alert for the gift of God

Screenshot 2023-05-20 at 16.10.01Today is one of those in-between Sundays. It falls in-between the feasts of the Ascension on Thursday and Pentecost next Sunday. And so often we find ourselves in-between one thing and the next. Life is not all big moments, in fact most of it is not, although this weekend it feels like it is. It’s the space on the way, in-between the peaks and troughs, waiting, watching, deciding and mulling. The gospels are full of these in-between moments, sometimes they are obvious and sometimes they are the spaces between the lines. It’s in these in-between spaces that Jesus does a lot of his teaching and the disciples process what has been said and what they have seen.

The 2018 film ‘Mary Magdalene‘, about Jesus but told through the story of Mary Magdalene, gives us a window into the in-between moments  in the gospel. As I watched it, it struck me how much wandering about there was – long journeys between places, the bits which are covered in the bible by ‘and then they went to’. We can tend to think of these as being short hops by car or train or whatever. For them, of course, they were longer walks. And on the way they talked, Jesus taught, and they got to ask questions. An experienced youth worker said to me a number of years ago that it’s not so much the big events that make a difference to them but it’s on the journey to the event that the best conversations happen in the minibus. It’s why the kitchen can be where the best moments of parties occur. And his point was that large numbers is not where people grow, but in small conversations, so he  was speaking in praise of small scale work, where there is intimacy, space and time for a person to engage.

In our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles (1:6-14), which gave us the Ascension – just in case we either weren’t paying attention on Thursday or it passed us by, this is the catch up reading so we don’t miss it – they return from Olivet and walk a sabbath day’s journey, which is only about ¾ of a mile. It’s what happens next that brings us their in-between time that follows. They are yet to receive the Holy Spirit and they are seen devoting themselves to prayer. This is not just twiddling their thumbs, but being attentive to God, longing for all God will give and being open to it. As I said on Thursday, every prayer is a ‘yes’ to God. That ‘yes’ often happens in the in-between moments, the pauses, the small spaces of sometimes snatched time. We could see prayer as being an in-between time, a moment of space made for God to speak, for us to hear, for the Spirit to move us. 

The second reading (1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11) tells the readers to discipline themselves to cope with the gaps in-between things. It is in these gaps that temptation can strike. They need to be alert, watchful, awake. Watch out for the roaring lions who will devour. Being alert, being watchful, is to be clued up to what is really going on and how things impact others. The word ‘woke’, which is now often used as a term of abuse, comes from the black civil rights movement and it was a warning to those who are often persecuted and racially abused to be alert to what might happen to them. There are traps. It’s in the in-between moments that we can reflect and start to think what is all of this really about; to hear the stories of how life really is for others, the critical questioning, and reassess, not with platitudes and easy trigger answers, but the reflective ‘what’s really going on here’. 

I trained at Lincoln Theological College, leaving 30 years ago this year, and my fellow Dean, Nigel Williams at St Asaph, said to me to the other day that he finds those who trained at Lincoln ask questions and evaluate what’s going on – and so we do. I wear it as a badge of honour. We do it in the in-between moments, when we step aside and say ‘let’s take another look at this and see if the picture is actually as we have thought it is’. Being ‘woke’ means being prepared to hear how this is for others, what – whatever it is – does to them, and then reassess whether we need to change. We’ve done that in a lot of ways, and there are more coming to us, which we have to assimilate – gender, sexuality, racial experiences; many complex issues to reassess.

The gospel reading (John 17:1-11), gave us part of Jesus’ prayer during the night between the Last Supper and his arrest in the garden. It’s another in-between moment. It’s a pause in the drama, where we are taken aside for a moment and Jesus describes the scene so we can take note, be fully alert to what is happening. Jesus feels his work is done, save the final moments, and then the focus moves to what happens after the resurrection, the Ascension and the gift of the Spirit. He prays in detail, not least for the unity of his Church, that as his body; they will be living witnesses of the glory of God and hope to come.

Jesus prays that they will be protected, guarded. The prayer is that attention will be paid to them. It is linked with being alert, on guard, on watch, which we heard in our second reading. David Ford, in his commentary on John’s Gospel (2021 p342), says that the primary meaning here is a plea to keep the disciples holy, that they will keep the commandment of love. It implies a lasting relationship of mutual trust and love. So, stay connected with the heart of faith that it will be alert to all that would disrupt it and in so doing become resilient against such assaults. Being one, being united, is an outworking of this inner attention to the love, hope and life of God.

So today, we find ourselves in one of those in-between moments. It is here that we can be open to God in prayer, awaiting and longing for all he will gift. We can be ready for the glories yet to be revealed. For Christ is risen, Alleluia. He is ascended and from that throne of grace, pours on his children the abundance of his blessings.

Sermon for Easter 7, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 21st May 2023

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Ascension: Universal Christ who fills all in all

IMG_7204So, the annual question. When Jesus ascends, as we have just heard twice, from the Acts of the Apostles (1:9-11) and from Luke’s other version in his Gospel (24:51), where does he go? How far into the stratosphere, the galaxy and universe does he have to keep rising before he arrives “seated at the right hand of the Father” (Nicene Creed)? Where exactly is this located? As soon as you try to take the Ascension at face value and literally, it falls flat on its face when it meets modern cosmology and the understanding of the earth being a globe spinning in space. Images taken from a very different understanding of the earth with a dome covering it and heaven above the dome do not work for us. We have to think differently about it today.

The film The Miracle Maker, the animation life of Jesus, got round this problem of modern cosmology by turning this moment into one of brilliant light as he disappears in bright radiation. There is an explosion of light and with this Jesus is seen no more. No more problems of going up into who knows what or where. Instead it becomes a distributing far and broad, into every corner of all that there is as the particles are sent forth in a burst of bright energy. This, for me, speaks more than a theological ‘hoo-ray up he rises’ moment, some kind of space rocket moment. Though it gives us different problems. Where do the elements go, which those revising their physics GCSEs know can neither be created nor destroyed but only converted from one form into another – actually that’s the first law of thermodynamics about energy, but the principle is the same. The substance of his matter does not just disappear – it has to go somewhere. Perhaps there is an element of Christ’s Ascension being a moment when matter is itself redeemed and we enter into another dimension. But the substance of his matter goes somewhere – everywhere.

It is here our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, may help us. In this, the church is described as being Christ’s body, which is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:22-23). Now it would be a very big stretch to say that Paul is offering us a more scientifically consistent theology here, well before his time. But reading this through our eyes, it can offer a way into this that can help us see something deeper in the myth and the imagery of what Luke and Acts describe as an ‘ascension lift-off’. Paul is saying that the risen and ascended Lord is spread abroad in such a way that his presence and life fill the universe, fill all that there is. The Ascension is the moment when the New Testament writers, and there is a corresponding passage in John, both remove his physical presence from the story, placing him beyond the temporal here and now, and also make him available everywhere, in preparation for Pentecost. It’s a remarkable statement and the power and significance of it keeps going.

What we say about Jesus, as we will in a moment in the Creed and in our understanding of who we say he is, is far more than a prophet or wise speaker who did wonderful works. He is the fullness of God who fills the earth with God’s presence. And if that is not enough, it goes on to say that the church, which is now to be seen as his body, since his actual body is gone, wherever it has gone, is the place where this fullness is seen and is itself filled with it, so that it becomes the fullness of him who fills all in all. God fills the church with God-self.

This is a very high doctrine of the church. And it won’t take long for this to look both unlikely and shaky. Within pages, and not many for that matter, everything we might struggle with in the church today is found to be present then. There are squabbles, arguments, power games and abuses, egos running amok, bad tempers, doubts, exclusions as well as radical inclusions, vices, greed… in short this locus of the fullness of God doesn’t quite live up to the calling. But, knowing all this, and Paul did first hand, doesn’t stop him from saying such a remarkable thing about the church, the community of Christ, the people called to live this fullness; to be the people of the Ascended Lord, whose very existence is the expression of his fullness.

The Ascension is a reminder that every prayer is a ‘yes’ to God. And that ‘yes’ to God, opens a pathway for God’s kingdom to shine through. Every prayer becomes a radical moment when God is put in charge and the radiant glory allowed to shine. The ascended Christ is beyond tribal boundaries and limits, so our thinking has to be more inclusive and open, wider in its scope. Wherever there are signs of the life, light and love of Christ, his fullness is found. That for me is the universalist scope of the Gospel – extending everywhere. And I am a particular type of universalist. Creeds matter. Narrative shapes meaning and how we see, value and cherish, so this is not a watering down of faith but rather a very high doctrine of it. All doctrines and statements of faith are culturally shaped, they have to be otherwise we wouldn’t be able to relate to them. That makes them limited to some extent. Christ’s fullness, the Greek word is pleroma, which can also mean ‘completeness’, is found and present in so many places, even other faiths. It is bigger than any narrow confines we might be tempted to construct, because Christ ascended, is in the realm of God and his fullness fills the earth. Wherever truth is found, that is Christ’s fullness.

So, when we say in the creed, that he “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father”, we are making a profound statement about who Jesus is, where Jesus is, and the church, which is the fullness of him who fills all in all. That is amazing. This is also what we mean when we say Jesus is Lord, because he is the one to whom we owe true allegiance, beyond any other, and who is to rule and reign in our lives. In Christ filling all in all, matter itself is brought within the scope of his redemption, filled with his fullness in that radiant burst of glory.

Whenever you pray, and you have come here tonight to pray, in your ‘yes’ to God, you open up a channel through which God’s rule can be let loose, affirm that his fulness fills all in all and proclaim the redemption of all things, including matter. God’s love at the Ascension is far more radically inclusive and extensive than we could ever imagine. The Ascension is why I am a universalist, but a particular kind of universalist – one who believes Christ fills all in all.

Sermon for Ascension Day, Newport Cathedral, Thursday 18th May 2023

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Coronation of King Charles III – To serve not be served

Screenshot 2023-05-06 at 16.07.34Did you watch the coronation yesterday? If you did, was it as you expected? You may have seen previous ones, but for me and for most people it was the first. What stood out for me is that what happened in Westminster Abbey yesterday was very different to how coronations are shown in films and stage plays. They focus on the crown being placed on the head and the adulation and allegiance being shouted out by the crowd. It is a moment of triumph and glory. There were certainly spectacular moments and lashings of pomp, not least fabulous music, and elements seemed a throwback to a by-gone age, but what we saw yesterday was much more reflective and prayerful. This provided a long build up, a spiritual preparation for what was to come. 

In a deeply Christian service, Charles the King was prayed for, anointed with holy oil – set aside for what was presented as a sacred role. The prayer sung in English, Welsh, Gaelic and Irish was a 9th century invocation of the Holy Spirit, the ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’ (‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’). It is used at ordinations to sacramental ministry. The king was given a stole, a symbol of priestly office. The message of this symbolism is that his is no mere political status, but a sacred calling, a vocation of service for the sake of people under God. That calling may well be by the accident of birth, but it has to be seen by the holder of that office as one where God calls him to live it as a particular expression of the vocation all Christians have to serve God. And therefore the anointed, crowned monarch, receives Holy Communion, which as the preface to the order of service noted is “the defining act of worship for the Church universal”.

The key theme running through the whole service was expressed right at the beginning, when the King was address by a child, a chorister from the Chapel Royal, and it was interesting to see how prominent children were in this ceremony. He was welcomed “in the name of the King of kings”, to which King Charles replied “In his name and after his example I come not to be served, but to serve”. 

The gospel reading was from Jesus’ Nazareth manifesto (Luke 4:16-21) where being anointed is to proclaim good news to the poor, heal the broken-hearted, bring justice and peace. Again, a big departure from how monarchy and coronations are often depicted. This is leadership for a greater purpose, ruling for the benefit of others, not self-advancement and personal gain.

Part of me watched on and thought there is an apparent dichotomy here. As impressive as this is, this man has no real power. The decisions are made by the man who read the first reading, the Prime Minister, and the colleagues of the one who carried the sword so admirably throughout – Penny Mordaunt. The monarchy is a constitutional monarchy in this nation. King Charles is a figure head, but not a political agent and he knows it. The importance of yesterday, of its theatre and pageant, is that what went on sets the tone for how we see ourselves as a nation, though the Christian tone may be a reducing echo. This nation was said to be one where leaders serve, where power is for justice and mercy, where all authority is under the ultimate sovereignty of God represented by the cross surmounting the crown placed on his head. When numbers attending churches are diminished, other faiths are prominent and no faith is the largest group, there’s an argument for a revision of some of this for such a national ceremony in future.

That tone, though, set the scene for the acclamation of allegiance when it came.

“I will pay true allegiance to [His Majesty the King], and to [his] heirs and successors according to law. So help me God” 

The context of this was given by the tone of the liturgy, where power is to be used as an act of service for justice, for mutual aid and the common good. You may not have felt comfortable joining in, you may have said the words with pride, it may have seemed an odd thing to do, but anyone who holds public office – MPs, legal officers, clergy in England – have to make this declaration when they take up office. I was trying to add this up yesterday and I think I’ve made it eight times. Being now in a disestablished church in Wales I didn’t have to do that when I became Dean, but I had to make it when I was made a surrogate for marriages last year because that is a legal role. So I’ve done it already, just over there by the Crindau Chapel, and it was to King Charles as the embodiment of the rule of law, the good ordering of society and the accountability of all authority and legal power.

Some of this may feel incongruous with a Police Act which came into effect this week that can lock up demonstrators much more easily, aimed to curtail lawful, peaceful demonstration along with excesses. Freedom of speech was a theme in our first reading with the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:55-end). A government proposes legislation it knows will face legal challenges. Rights are being eroded for many and we have seen so many examples of profiteering in a national crisis – almost on an industrialised scale. So, having a monarch and making the noble statements in the Abbey only go so far. The challenge is to put the noble sentiments into practice and defend them, to call out governments and others when we think they are acting against them.

I am actually rather ambivalent about the monarchy. When I think about it, the idea of someone holding the role of head of state by birth goes against all democratic principles and I don’t believe in the divine right of kings. I would not lose sleep if we became a republic – as long as it came about by legal, democratic processes – and that is consistent to my mind by the phrase in the oath of allegiance to his ‘successors according to law’. I don’t see that being on the cards, though, for some time yet. Interestingly there was a report yesterday that a candidate needs at least $500mn to stand for president of the USA so it’s not a cheaper option. Heads of state exist to hold together what could otherwise be disparate and fragmented. Their role is to keep the breadth of a nation, or in our case group of nations, together and provide continuity which goes beyond the short-term office of the elected politicians and their whims. So there is something to be said for someone who holds this role for more than a few moments. As we saw last year, the turmoil of three Prime Ministers in one year and ensuing instability is not good for us.

The gospel reading this morning has Jesus talking of a mansion with many rooms and dwelling places (John 14:1-14). He goes to prepare a place for his disciples, and therefore by extension us. It’s a familiar reading and image, not least for its use at funerals, but actually an odd one. Often in the Bible the image is of a royal court where everyone is gathered in the great hall, in one space. Jesus is talking here about many spaces, many rooms and that seems to imply that he is aware of diversity, of difference, of disparate peoples, and the challenges as well as the benefits these bring. The common factor is that where Christ dwells, where his name is honoured and proclaimed, where it is lived in service and justice, righteous living and peace, these are where we are held in the household of God. Diversity, difference, disparate dwelling are held when we can see in a figure head these being honoured, valued and brought together. The noble sentiments of the coronation need to be lived and put into practice.

So, as we are gathered together from all corners of the globe, the nations, our communities into the dwelling place of God, the true Servant King calls us to live the good news he brings. All authority, power and government, is to be an act of service for the benefit of all, a sacred calling and that should inspire and challenge elected representatives as well as monarchs. 

Sermon preached for Easter 5, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 7th May 2023

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The Cross of Wales and the Cross of Christ

IMG_2504We use a lot of imagery in the Cathedral. Pictures and symbols which help us enter into some of the deeper mysteries of the story of our faith and what lies at the heart of it. I particularly enjoy choosing a photograph or an image for the front cover of our service booklets, many of which I have taken. Burning by the altar here is the paschal candle. This is the symbol of Easter, as Christ the light of the world, whose resurrection is the light of our hope, shines out for us. It has been decorated beautifully to emphasise its importance and over the past few weeks I have seen lots of these candles in other places or pictures of them. I have to tell you that ours far outstrips any of the others I’ve seen. It is very special.

Filling the Chancel Arch we have another image; this time of Christ suspended as if on the cross, though there is no cross. It reminds us of his passion and taking into himself all the pains and suffering of the world. Christ has taken away the sting of death and the cross, the Rood, reminds us each time we come in here of that hope. Some of the pains of the world are so raw and difficult that we need this place to lay them, offer them so that through the tears we can see, as it were, in that image the loving eyes of God looking back at us.

Another image or symbol was blessed at the Governing Body of the Church in Wales in Llandudno this week, where Canon Andrew and I were. It is a processional cross, commissioned by the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, to mark the centenary of the Church in Wales’ disestablishment from the Church of England in 1920. It has become a gift to the whole Church in Wales and so is shared with our ecumenical partners. It is to be known as the Cross of Wales. It will have a prominent role in the Coronation Service as it leads a procession into Westminster Abbey. The Cross bears a full hallmark, including the Royal Mark – a leopard’s head – which was applied by The King himself in November 2022 when visiting The Goldsmiths’ Centre in London. You may have seen the clips of him very carefully strike this into the silver with a single hammer blow.

I had the opportunity after the service on Wednesday to talk with the silversmith who made it, Michael Lloyd. On the back are the final words attributed to St David in Welsh – ‘Be joyful, keep the faith, do the little things’. Wonderful words to inspire and promote lived faith. On the front, in the centre is a crystal window. Inside has been placed two fragments of wood – the gift to the King from Pope Francis. A remarkable gift and a symbol of our fundamental unity in Christ, whatever the institutional status of that at the moment. There is in this gift a clear desire for our fellowship in Christ. 

The fragments have been described as being from the ‘True Cross’, in other words wood from the cross on which Christ died. I have to say, that I am more than sceptical about this and this kind of claim was central in the sweeping away of relics of dubious provenance at the Reformation. Claims like this bring out my inner Protestantism. We just cannot know. The earliest reference to it is from the 4th century when Makarios of Jerusalem and Helena the mother of Constantine uncovered some remains. It is impossible for history to verify.  The eyes of faith, though, can see them differently. As I looked closely at those fragments, those splinters – for that is what they are, it struck me that in this wood is a reminder that there really was a cross on which Christ died. That means there was a tomb from which he could rise. The disciples did see him die – even if for most it was from a distance, some were closer by. Some buried his lifeless body. And then they had the most remarkable encounters, which made even their heads ache to try to come to terms with them.

Our Gospel reading this morning brought us two of Jesus’ followers, students, disciples (Luke 24:13-35). We only know the name of one of them, Cleopas, but he’s not listed in the Twelve. Who was with him? Was it his wife, his friend, a companion? We don’t know. But they are clearly trying to work out what they had been told earlier in the day. This passage is set on Easter Day, later on. And they express to the stranger who joins them their surprise that he seems to be the only one who doesn’t know what has taken place – how Jesus was handed over to be crucified and how the women who went to the tomb were given a vision of angels that he was alive. What is more, not believing them, some of the men went there to verify their story – a reflection of a society that didn’t value the testimony of women as much as that of men.

Their companion opens their eyes with unpacking the scriptures and the knowledge of faith. But it is only when he breaks the bread that they recognise him. Is that because he reveals the wounds in his hands, as he does with Thomas? Is it that in the Eucharist we have the ultimate symbol and image of Christ to inspire and enlighten our faith? The breaking of the bread, the meal shared, the gathering together round the table, is where Christ is truely present, which reflects the breaking of bread at the Last Supper to be repeated in remembrance of him. Images and relics from the past can help us look, but it is in the encounter that faith comes alive and is truly fed.

The images, the pictures, the relics – whether genuine or not, all point to something deeper. They are not the encounter themselves and their status is always secondary. At their best they are a window into the divine, but not the divine themselves. It is the spiritual encounter with the risen Christ which sets us ablaze with faith, hope and love. That goes for everything we use here to help us tell the story of our faith. Whatever it is, there needs to be an Emmaus encounter, where Christ is revealed and hearts burn within.

Whether the splinters in the Cross of Wales are from the cross of Christ or merely point to it, unless they help us reflect on the love of God in Jesus Christ and point us to the much deeper encounter with him, they are valueless and a distraction. May this encounter help us tell the story, assist hearts being set ablaze with hope and love, and lives transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. May we all have our own Emmaus encounter and recognise him in the breaking of the bread.

Sermon for Easter 3, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 23rd April 2023

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Love of God magnified and hope revealed in the Cross of Christ

IMG_2441There is an often quoted phrase that Christianity is ‘the most materialistic of all religions’. It comes from William Temple, who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 1940s, in a lecture series he gave in 1935. When he said that Christianity is ‘the most materialistic of all religions’, he wasn’t talking about possessions and goods, but rather that in Jesus Christ, the created order, the material world, is given a special honour. He takes us to the beginning of John’s Gospel where “The Word” becomes flesh and dwells among us (John 1:14). The great mystery is that the full majesty of God can be found, can be seen, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That makes Christianity deeply concerned with the world and this is the place where we find God. William Temple went on to say in his lecture:

“By the very nature of its central doctrine Christianity is committed to a belief in the ultimate significance of the historical process, and in the reality of matter and its place in the divine scheme.” (Nature, Man and God, p 478)

Today, Good Friday, takes us to the heart of what this means and the reason we call today ‘Good’.

This came to my mind as I read the epistle reading (Hebrews 10:1-25). The writer talked of Jesus opening “a new and living way for us through the curtain, that is his flesh” (v20). The idea that Jesus’ flesh is a curtain is itself packed with meaning. This is no ordinary set of blinds to keep out the daylight or provide privacy, but takes us to the curtain separating the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. This curtain separated off the most sacred part of the Temple, the place where God was seen to dwell, where God’s presence was said to be. And that curtain, separating, indeed providing the gateway through to the presence of God, was identified by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews with Jesus on the cross. This ‘curtain’ has been pulled back in Christ, in his death on the cross, which in Matthew’s gospel is ripped open at the moment of his death as it is torn in two (Matthew 27:45-51). The heart of God is exposed in the vulnerability and the fragility of a human life. That makes Christianity the most materialistic of all religions and in the same breath, mind blowing.

God is seen in the stuff of creation and that doesn’t get more tangible than flesh and blood. So what happens to our bodies, with our bodies, through our bodies, is sacred – be that for good or ill. We bless and we injure through our bodies and we in turn are blessed and injured. As this happens God is present and the moment is one of spiritual significance. So it’s not surprising that St Paul referred to our bodies as a temple to be honoured and not defiled (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). And yet, we do defile it and the bodies of others. We see this all the time in violence, ill treatment, self-abuse and the abuse of others. On one side is intimacy, on the other violation, and we can confuse the two.

In the summer, we went to see a play screened as part of the National Theatre Live series. It was called ‘Prima Facie’ and starred Jodie Comer. In fact, it’s a monologue, so she was the only actor on stage for the whole play, and was given a well deserved Olivier award on Sunday for her outstanding performance. The play is about date rape and how a moment of intimacy can turn to become a moment of violation as passion is abused by violence, and consent obliterated by an attack. This becomes a Good Friday moment. The play depicts how date rape and domestic violence are closely linked and not always recognised for what they are.

On this Good Friday, as we focus on the cross, we focus not on some ethereal event, but on the ways this ‘Temple Curtain’ is honoured and defiled, how we magnify the love of God and how we diminish it, and with this how human life is brought to flourish and can be impoverished. This is how our actions work to honour or dishonour God, who is, in his flesh, the curtain we can see of the God we can’t. And how what we do becomes sacred or profaning.

Good Friday is a moment in time, which stands for all time. Each generation reveals the excruciating inhumanity of which people are capable. We have seen it in the most distressing news stories of torture and abuse. We see it in the horrors of war and life being treated as if it is a disposable commodity by warlords who do not care. We see it in the ways sexism has been rife in the police, fire service and so many other places in recent reports.

In Christ human life is sacred. How it is treated is a spiritual concern. And so on Good Friday we are reminded that what we do for the least of those we encounter, we do for and to him. The curtain is ripped open at this moment of defilement and the love of God is magnified, because through it we are not abandoned but held most dearly and closely. Good Friday becomes a moment when the curtain is ripped back and hope is revealed.

Sermon for Good Friday, Newport Cathedral, Friday 7th April 2023

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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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