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

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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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Safe from harm: a sermon for Safeguarding Sunday

Safeguarding SundayBack in the summer we had a visit from someone who brought into the cathedral a camera that took 360-degree photographs – ones that enable you to stand on a spot and see the view you would see if you were to spin round. This gives a sense of context and what is just out of shot, to see a fuller picture. That sense of seeing the fuller picture, seeing in the round, seems to me to be quite a good way into looking at safeguarding and today has been designated in this diocese as Safeguarding Sunday. I think one way into this is to think about seeing things in the round, so we get a fuller picture and take that fuller picture into account when planning what we do and how we respond to those who come through the doors or even don’t make it that far. 

Safeguarding first came on the radar of the Church with the publication in 1993 of ‘Safe from Harm’, which was a report and guidance produced by the Home Office. I remember going on my first training shortly after and it has been a regular requirement for ordained ministry since. Anyone who has been a school governor will have had this too. This is one of those areas where we can very easily tread on things which are difficult for people, for ourselves – we don’t know on the surface who is carrying what and the trainers are very good at making that explicit at the beginning – they are sensitive to what might be triggered in people as this subject is explored, and it can trigger. The same goes for this Sunday, for this sermon, and please do speak afterwards if you would like to.

That makes the whole area so much more important. We will know the statistics about how many people have been attacked or approached inappropriately, the teenagers who get requests to send intimate pictures – something those of us who are older never had to deal with, those who have been assaulted, emotionally abused or coercively controlled, those whose psychological state makes them vulnerable and in some situations can put them at risk. So we train, we plan activities carefully, and as we do we need that 3-60 vision which sees not just who or what is in front of us but the wider picture of how what we do in one place impacts others. Sometimes we get it wrong or miss something – but a church that takes safeguarding seriously is trying to do things better.

The Church in Wales handles safeguarding centrally and that means that we are required to adopt the policy produced centrally. The Cathedral Chapter discusses this each year and reaffirmed its commitment at its most recent meeting on 25th October. It is a standing item on the agenda for each meeting. We have two Safeguarding Officers for the Cathedral – Sue Smith and Hilary Sloan – who take their role very seriously. We have an external Provincial adviser, Wendy Lemon, because Fay cannot do this for us as a Cathedral Warden and therefore Trustee of the Cathedral. Their details are on the physical noticeboard by the west doors, outside the choir vestries, in the clergy vestry and in the cathedral hall. This is something that I updated and strengthened when I arrived here last year.

Churches have not always behaved well and the Church in Wales has been playing catch up in recent years. The Independent inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which reported last month, highlighted deficiencies in Wales in its interim report a few years ago. Big changes have been brought in and these are mandatory. We take them seriously.

There are twin dangers with safeguarding. One is that we think we know everyone and we don’t need it here. The other is that we can come to view everyone as a threat. Take that to extremes and it would destroy relationships. The best approach I heard is to have what was called ‘respectful uncertainty’. Respectful, honouring dignity, but recognising that there are things we don’t know and being prepared to hear when what we wouldn’t expect is said. Having been a chaplain in a Category B Prison with a sex offenders’ unit, I know that those who offend don’t always raise immediate suspicions. But if we plan safely, then odd behaviour will have more chance of standing out. Be under no illusions, though, those who want to offend can be very, very devious, often grooming whole communities to cover their tracks. They go on a charm offensive and create a climate where no one would think of challenging them. The classic wolf in sheep’s clothing. I have learnt to trust the sniff test – if it seems or smells iffy, keep digging until suspicions are either allayed or sadly confirmed.

There are different levels of safeguarding training. The basic one is open to everyone. The more who do it, the more we are all aware. Those who are volunteering for the nightshelter will have to do the next level of training and this is already arranged. There are also DBS criminal record checks. All of those who work with our choristers have had to do this too. So we have a lot in place already. And there are safe practices to make offending so much harder to do.

At first sight our readings might not look particularly themed on safeguarding. But look deeper at what is going on in that gospel reading (Luke 20:27-38). Andrew and I were talking about this yesterday. It sounds like a conversation about the resurrection and how it is possible, which of course it is. But behind it, is an assumption that this poor woman is the property of the men she marries. She is passed from one to another on their deaths as if a chattel to be passed around. Her role was to produce children and with each brother dying childless the others picked up the role. You could interpret this as caring for her in a society where widows were vulnerable, but it has a darker side to it, which today makes us squirm.

Treating people as property, as vessels for self-gratification is at the heart of safeguarding concerns. It is people being abused for someone else’s desires and not respecting their own agency or consent, manipulating them into a place they don’t want to be. Abusing the vulnerable gets very short shrift in the Bible.

Jesus’ response can be seen as him challenging the assumptions of the woman as property. In the resurrection she is no one’s property but is herself before God: honoured, loved and valued for who she is, in her own right, not who she belongs to.  It’s a radical challenge, which we can miss if we accept the distorted view that treats some as commodities for others appetites. This is something that time and again Jesus challenges. The passage fits with safeguarding more closely than we might at first imagine.

How we treat one another matters. Safeguarding is about how we create as safe an environment as we can. The aim of it is to care for everyone – to ensure that no harm is done and to respond appropriately when it turns out harm has been done. It looks at what we do in the round, 3-60 vision. That can take careful balancing, but through it, all should be respected, protected, enabled to flourish safe from harm.

Sermon for Safeguarding Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 6th November 2022

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Bible Sunday: Being light in dark and despairing times

IMG_1698My goodness this has been a turbulent few weeks. The Westminster Parliament, or more to the point the government, has been in meltdown and the third Prime Minister this year is about to be appointed. The cost of living crisis is biting even harder, as even more families are coming forward for help at foodbanks, there was a significant increase in the number of those taking shopping bags of basics through St Woolos School this week, 9/10 households were reported to have delayed putting the heating on this year, and many are anxious about how they will cope. There is more than a background of unease and tension. Anger and despair is flooding in on us from all corners and it takes its toll on the emotional temperature within us and around us. I want to think a little this morning about how we respond to this and how we can be people of hope and light in dark and despairing times. 

With the storms battering, our calling as a people of God in this place, in words from our readings, is with Luke to bring good news (Luke 4:16-24), with Isaiah the cry for justice and salvation (Isaiah 45:22-25), and with the Epistle to advocate living in harmony (Romans 15:1-6). We are to breathe peace into a troubled landscape. How do we do that when we too may well be feeling all those anxieties and strains?

We bring all of this with us this morning as we gather to pray, to break bread and celebrate the sacrament in bread and wine; to hear and receive the Word of God in the Bible. And these three represent the sure ground of God’s love to help us be people of praise and thanksgiving, hope and joy, in the midst of major crises. This is not to ignore the struggles and fears, but to ‘Be still and know that God is God’ (Psalm 46:10). Those are words that come from a Psalm which talks of the nations being in uproar. It is to be a still place when the battle rages around and offer a sure place, to point to a place, where all whose footing is unsure can find solidity.

Today is Bible Sunday. This week at daily prayers we have had readings which have plunged themselves into the storms and crises of political turmoil, shipwreck and leadership disputes. It’s interesting how the Bible can hit the mark. In these they have affirmed God’s presence, constancy, and hope which transcends all the trials and tribulations. On Thursday morning, during the Psalm, we read that in the sight of God, ‘a thousand years are but as yesterday, which passes like a watch in the night’ (Psalm 90:4). From the perspective of eternity, the transitory is fleeting and there is a bigger scale in which to assess it. That bigger scale builds confidence and provides the solid ground to hold on to; it lifts us above the turmoil, countering a malaise and prevailing culture that everything is futile and purposeless with a sense of the purpose that comes from confidence and faith in God. It is that confidence and deep trust that sets the tone to face the storms and be light to dispel the darkness.

Again, on Thursday, in the Acts of the Apostles, we read of Paul breaking bread amidst a great storm, after having given thanks (Acts 27:35f). Where do we hear those words – breaking bread and giving thanks? Paul used the Eucharist, the meal in which we share at the heart of this service, as the sign of hope in the storm. All of those who were with him were encouraged. Why would breaking bread, the Eucharist, be a sign of hope? Because it stems directly from the act of Jesus, the night before his death, in the storm of betrayal and plotting, where he gave a banquet of God’s Kingdom to shine precisely when trouble is at hand. Our confidence and faith is rooted in the saving, life-giving act of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Nothing beats that.

Passages like these bob up all the time. Through immersing ourselves in the stories and narratives of the Bible we keep this hope tuned for us. And we had more of them this morning. Isaiah (45:22) tells his hearers to ‘turn to the Lord and be saved, for God is God’, echoing the ‘Be still and know’ passage from Psalm 90. Only in the Lord, is righteousness and true strength found (v24). In case we are stumbling and feeling shaky in our steps, the Psalm encouraged us to keep our steps steady, to never let iniquity have the upper hand, have dominion over us. (Psalm 119:133). How the strains and powers that darken life can have the upper hand if we let them. Trust in God and drive away those dementors.

The Gospel reading gave us the triumph of hope (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus gives his Nazareth manifesto of anointing, good news, release, recovery and freedom. And here the gear shifts. This is not just passive hope, but active encouragement to bring about change if and where we can; to strive for it. In this mess that our national life has entered, prayers for the government, for people in it at this time, are also to be prayers for change and for those who have it in their means to step up to bring it about. They are being called to remember that the priority is for those who need to hear good news, who long for release to be set free from whatever holds them from flourishing, to look beyond their own interests and even party interest to the good of all, and that by definition has a bias to the poor.

So this morning we come here to pray, to break bread and to hear the story of faith, hope and love retold from the pages of the Bible. Through these we are enabled to tell a different story, one of joy and thanksgiving, the bigger picture that holds the passing news items. As we place and renew our trust and confidence in God, in the purposes of God, that in God there is a point, so we are enabled to be people of light and hope. May that be the song we sing today, that enables us to bring light in these dark and despairing times.

Sermon for Bible Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 23rd October 2022

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Healing of lepers – Outsiders made insiders

IMG_1208How often do you feel that you are an outsider; someone who doesn’t quite fit or, at its more acute end, someone whom others push away? Is this something that you do feel at times or have a memory of? It can be lonely and unpleasant, even if the reason for being excluded is for a stand you have had to take or because something that you know needs to happen is not welcomed and social exclusion is a power game some play. It is easy to feel an outsider who doesn’t fit, even in a crowd or in a group.

Our first reading (2 Kings 5:1-15) and the Gospel (Luke 17:11-19) this morning gave us people suffering from leprosy. Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, was once thought to be highly contagious, but is now known to be hard to spread, especially with certain precautions. It is treatable with antibiotics, though in the first century was not so easily treated. The fear of the disease meant that those who had it were pushed to the edges. Naaman, in our first reading was a high-ranking military officer, but still he had the disease and wanted relief. The lepers in the Gospel would have been excluded from much of society, expected to live outside large gatherings and pushed away.

Jesus healing the lepers does more than treat a medical condition. He takes outsiders and makes them insiders. They are brought through his healing love from the outside to the inside. The wonderful works, the healings, in the stories of Jesus, are not just to be taken at face value, they are always signs of something deeper. As he cures them, he brings them back into the fold and so they become a symbol of the grace of God at work in and through him. They become a sign for the rest of us. Jesus takes all of us, who would otherwise be outsiders, and makes us insiders. It is John Newton’s phrase in his hymn Amazing Grace, ‘I once was lost, but now am found’. All of us have been lost, outside, and through the grace of God have entered into the fold.

It goes more deeply. This is what Christ does for humanity and creation. The scale keeps expanding. Christ, the Word of God made flesh among us, is the one who bridges the gulf between an eternal creator and transitory mortal life. He does this because this is what God does. There is really no gap, because it has been shown to be filled by the only one who can, and that is the very heart and mind of God in Christ Jesus – whom John’s Gospel calls ‘The Word’. So, when  we say at the end of the readings ‘For the word of the Lord: Thanks be to God’, we are saying so much more than thanks for the reading. We thank God for wisdom, for bridging the gap, for bringing creation into being from outside to inside the heart and love of God.

Making outsiders into insiders is the ministry of reconciliation. It is how penitents find release from their sins and are not condemned forever. It is how those at enmity can find a way to build peace and avoid mutually assured destruction – something that is needed with the war over Ukraine. It happens when there is conflict in communities. Outsiders have to become insiders, a new relationship has to emerge, one characterised by love and not hate, by hope and not fear, by inclusion and not exclusion, by making space and giving voice rather than closing off and silencing. Each of these could be a sermon in itself.

Today is also Homelessness Sunday. This is literally something that comes to our doors here and through the winter night shelter outsiders have been made insiders. I know from projects elsewhere that has changed lives. This hasn’t been able to run for a several years and we are working in partnership with others to see if it can start again. There is a new management at Edengate, which has improved the ways it operates and work is progressing. There is no council funding this year for it, unlike in past years, so funding has to be found. But we are stepping out in faith that it will be.

What we aim to do with projects like this, is not just patch up the cracks, though when someone has nothing, that is needed. But through the warmth of human love and contact, through the kindness of a bed for the night, through a hot meal shared, those who have become outsiders in so many ways, are helped to become insiders again. And these people have not been born homeless, they have become it, so ‘curing’ means they cease to be. And we know there is no magic wand; it takes the time it takes.

The stories of Naaman and the gospel lepers both end with thanks. Naaman wants to give a gift in return for his healing. One of the ten lepers returns to say thank you and in a further twist, this leper is revealed to have been even more of an outsider to the hearers of the story, for he is a Samaritan – a group regarded as being outsiders and not insiders. Thanks and praise is a sign that the welcoming in has been adopted and a change has taken place, or begun to take place. Thanks and praise change us all on the inside, on the inside of our hearts.

Whether you feel an outsider – sometimes, often or rarely – we are all as children of God welcomed inside into the heavenly courts and loving embrace of Christ’s love for the world. ‘I once was lost, but now am found’. The healing of lepers is a sign that God’s love changes us now and eternally.

Sermon for Trinity 17, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 9th October 2022

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