Mark – Gospel for Tiggers (and Poohs)

IMG_6851If you have exciting news, how easy do you find it to keep it to yourself? Are you someone who can keep your cool with total poker face, or do you look like you are about to explode if you don’t tell someone soon? I have no poker face at all. My colleagues can read my facial expressions like a book and know exactly what I am thinking – even across the choir stalls when we were able to sit there. And this past year Zoom has provided no shelter either.  

I think Mark, the author of the oldest Gospel, whom we remember today, I think he had no poker face too. His gospel doesn’t mess about with shepherds, hillsides, wisemen, donkeys or camels. There is no gentle intro with backstory or journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mark is straight in and he wants us to get what he is on about immediately. He begins, ‘The beginning of the good news…’. It’s like a friend bursting in with the headline straight away without any run in. Imagine Pooh Bear flat on his back with an excited Tigger sitting on top of him. So Mark is not so much lion, as Tigger.

For Mark the important part of the story starts with John the Baptist proclaiming baptism for repentance for forgiveness. People are flocking to him and the reader or listener, since it was written to be heard, is given no doubt there is an event afoot with which we should get on board. The warm up act has begun. This is so exciting, don’t miss out. #BigNews.

That Good News which makes spiritual Tiggers bounce, is that God’s love has been let loose in Jesus Christ and this makes a difference. The hymn I’ve chosen for the end of the service, ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’, reflects the expanding horizons of that love. Skimming through Mark’s gospel you notice there are a lot of healing stories. In an age when illness was seen as punishment or a sign of the absence of God’s favour, Jesus in Mark brings blessing and new life to those often excluded. That new life heals leppers and a paralytic; it heals the mind in attitudes and anxieties in calling Levi from his tax collecting and stilling the storm. It expands beyond the in-crowd with the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and many more. The crowning glory of this good news comes with his resurrection, overcoming the chief excluder, death itself. 

One of the biggest messages we have today is that there is a point and a purpose. Life is not futile, merely accidental and random; it springs from the heart and mind of God, is held by God and redeemed, kept by God. Pandemics rock us deeply and who is struck down by them can seem arbitrary and cruel. Purpose can be hard to see, especially through glasses misted up by facemasks. Mark asks us to look further, to broaden and widen our vision. He begins by announcing the Kingdom of God has come near. God is in charge – that’s what the kingdom means – and that invites a response in how we live in hope and love. The call to repent, is the call to reorientate how we live to be in line with this.

I have loved being around this building through the different seasons, big occasions and small, even on my own. What this fabulous building does, especially when filled with sublime music, is lift the spirit and expand the mind in awe and wonder, and that in turn inspires hope. A sense of the numinous, mystery and fascination is triggered – the early 20th century German theologian, Rudolf Otto’s famous phrase about religion as the ‘mysterium, tremendum et fascinans’. On that platform, we lay the story of Jesus healing, teaching, dying and rising, and if that story so grabs us that it becomes Good News to share, it releases the inner Tigger ready to bounce, trounce, flounce and pounce. It’s the wonderful thing about the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The test of this, the test of all churches, is how we speak of this love of God. How does it become infectious with that joy and exuberance of the good news that just won’t be kept inside? How does it work to transform the lives of everyone – those who are despairing or sad, desperate for food or shelter, needing to hear words of hope and songs of joy, looking for a place to cry and find they are held in a loving embrace? After a period when there has been despair, gloom, frustration and fear in this pandemic, this hope should find a ready market.

Mark is a Gospel for Tiggers, but also for the reflecters too. The story sits on the awe and wonder but bursts out with excitement and joy. We have such a wonderful story to share and it needs telling. You have one of the best tools here to tell it through and in. It’s a been a privilege to be part of this over the past few years and you will be in my prayers as your emerge out of this pandemic to embrace the challenge.

As I am having to learn to say:

a bendith Duw hollalluog, 

y Tad, y Mab, a’r Ysbryd Glân 

a fo yn eich plith ac a drigo gyda chwi yn wastad.

The blessing of God almighty, 

the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit 

be among you now and always. Amen.

Final sermon in Peterborough Cathedral, Eve of St Mark, Sunday 25th April 2021

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Looking for the sheep not of this fold

IMG_5861If you are brave and go up onto the top of the church tower – I say brave because it gets a bit dicey towards the top – there is quite a view of the surrounding area. You can see over the buildings and off towards the surrounding countryside. From up there you get a different perspective to on the ground. The horizon is expanded and hills have the advantage of that. The topography of Newport is very different and the Deanery is on top of a hill with views across the Bristol Channel.

Peterborough sits at that point where the Northamptonshire hills meet the fens. “Upon this rock” is more than a moto; the geology changes at this point. It has its own micro-climate as a result and also stunning blue skies, characteristic of the fens. It’s a different vista that opens up. So perspective and vision changes when we can see further, wider, broader. In our gospel this morning, Jesus encourages his disciples to have a bigger vision of who should be counted in to his movement (John 10:11-18). He has other sheep not of this fold to be added to it. They are to think bigger than just the concerns of their small political nation. Jesus has his sights on the salvation of the world, of humanity in total.

Connecting with that role is a challenge, but one of the spin-offs of the pandemic has been how we have seen far more people tune in to our online worship than used to turn up in-person onsite before. There is interest but the walls need to open up to enable access. One of my passions has been to open access, to expand horizons and take our city centre location seriously. We have opened for events around us, invited those events inside and tried to make the connections where we could. Partnerships have been built and nurtured.

When the shops opened again, the queue for Primark stretched out of Queensgate and snaked itself back and forth across St John’s Square several times before making its way down Exchange Street towards McDonalds. Last week, when we came out of the church after live-streaming, the queue was already at the church door. Talking with one or two in that queue, the price of the goods was the deciding factor, and some of that is the lure of cheap and disposable fashion, which is problematic; some of it reflects the financial means of a large number of people in this city.

Those shoppers showed far more patience for shopping than I have, but when you want something enough you will queue for it. We have work to do in helping people think that when they are thinking of bigger questions of the meaning of life that this might be the place for them to come. There was a Leader article in the Guardian last month (28th March 2021) that talked about our society being not just post-Christian society, where institutional religion no longer carries the weight it did, but also a post-Secular one, where the atheistic pronouncements are regarded as being suspect too. There is space in that for a conversation to happen, but it has to be about God, spirituality and faith inspiring life. It require some fresh thinking, way beyond the churchy language of so much I see and hear online.

That conversation can only happen when we come alongside the other. It needs a calm space, a safe space for it to happen. This is where events, the café, things which bring people through the doors make a conversation possible which won’t happen if attempted cold. The city centre chaplains have often found that when they engage in simple conversations, even asking if there is anything someone would like praying for, people open up and speak, and they did that on the streets. It’s about how do we open the conversation in a way that makes the other feel they matter and their concerns are not dismissed. People approach churches with all sorts of preconceived ideas that need to be dispelled. And that needs to be done gently.

When Jesus looks beyond and thinks of the other sheep not of this fold, he is issuing quite a challenge. The job to do this is not just for clergy, though they have an important role, probably more as mission enablers for others, it’s for all of us. And that only comes if we are confident in our faith – not necessarily with every dot or squiggle of it, but with the heart of it: the reality of God in our lives, inspiring and igniting a passion that burns within us. When you are looking for your next Vicar, I think you need someone who can be a mission enabler because there is a big task – way beyond one person’s scope, and I think you need to make sure you don’t bog them down with other stuff that they can’t breathe and get out from the sheepfold to look for those other sheep not of this fold.

Life has changed a lot in a decade. And the missionary challenge has changed again, but there is hope. Post-Christian does not mean atheist, because it comes with an openness. I have thought for quite a while that we have been battling against assumptions and past experiences which have hindered us. The advantage of several generations of no contact with the church is that there is a blank slate. There is passion for social justice, for compassion, for the environmental challenge and for deeper questions. If a church is seen to be a place where these are advanced and engaged with, it will earn the right to be heard. Where it is not, it won’t.

So I leave you at a moment of re-thinking. I know that some do not have much appetite for that – they are fed up, tired, frustrated and want life back to what it was. I understand that. But we are emerging from this pandemic into a changed landscape. The missionary challenge, though, is always the same: to reach the sheep not of this fold, to draw them to the true shepherd who knows them deeper than they know themselves. 

God bless you as you go forward in God’s future, aiming to be a beacon of faith, hope, and love in the heart of this city.

Sermon for final service, Peterborough Parish Church, 4th Sunday of Easter 25th April 2021

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Mark – A story to tell

IMG_6841When I was thinking about where to film this final recorded sermon before I move on to Newport, one place in the cathedral came to mind first. It was here, near to the Hedda Stone. This is a link with the earliest days of this religious house. It’s not completely clear what this is, though there are traditions, folk-lore and theories. Is it a grave marker? Is is part of a shine or something else? Were the holes for relics thus making the whole stone a sacred object?

What it does seem to be is a link with the monks who were massacred by the Viking invaders in the 9thcentury. And it is a reminder that this place has seen much over the centuries, including total annihilation. But it has come back. The faith that first sparked here, has not been extinguished for ever, though there was a time when the light went out, or we have no record of anyone keeping vigil here, which of course may not be the same thing.

That is both encouragement and warning. It is a warning that what we see and love can be destroyed. It can, it really can come to an end because it has. And just like that would be a seismic shock today, it was devastating in the past. While churches are built as symbols of the new Jerusalem, we know ‘here we have no abiding city’ (Hebrews 13:14). Everything is transitory, even structures that look indestructible and permanent.

The encouragement, though, is that this wonderful place is here; it rose from those ashes. It is glorious, striking beyond measure and lifts the heart with awe and wonder. So many people come through the Norman Archway and stop roughly level with our dining room window and we see them mouth ‘wow’. I spoke a little about that last year on Trinity Sunday when I spoke about Golden Hour, filmed at the West End at 6.00pm one evening in the mid-summer when the sun was fully in the west and hit the west front full on to make it shine golden with the shadows lined up perfectly with the arches.

But what of the faith? This building is just a heritage site without the faith that has animated it throughout its centuries and animates it today. Without the faith, this building is a facade and this a lump of stone. The life comes through the resurrected life of Christ for us, in us, working through us. And it is the faith that inspired the resettling, to rekindle the flame, the light of hope. It was built to be a sign and symbol of the faith.

Mark, whom we remember today, wrote a Gospel, a story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He wrote this, because he wanted the story to be told and retold. He wanted to make sure that it wasn’t forgotten or lost, but was able to animate and reanimate, to change lives. He created a structure of words to point us to God in Jesus Christ, to assist with passing on the story in each generation.

That story is one of regime change and so is worthy of the name gospel. That’s a word that means good news , but not just any ‘good news’. This is good news which changes the landscape. The one announced here changes our relationship with God, with one another; changes our outlook. It is life-changing. And while it is a story that tells us about this, the problem is not so much whether we know it, but whether we live and love it. So it’s a story that changes how we see the world, ourselves and our neighbours. This is the story that gives this building life and vibrancy.

This is a bit of a challenge for us. Whenever I post a picture on Twitter of the stunning building it goes viral – shared and liked multiple times. When I or one of my colleagues post something about faith, it doesn’t get anywhere near the same response. That may be a question for us to consider about communication styles, but whatever lies behind it, without the faith this building would be just a shell. The challenge is to make the stones point to the life-changing story, and not just themselves.

We have a story to tell, one that changes us and inspires us to seek to change the world for peace, justice and flourishing in Christ’s name. Mark is concerned with story, with the story that is to inspire our story, to shape it as it shapes our lives. The clue to how we capture this comes in how it is lived and how that shines through. Mark wrote his story because he wanted to make sure this life-changing news wasn’t forgotten, or at least had a call back when memory started to reinvent.

Here, in this apse chapel, this lump of rock is for me a reminder of the fragility of life, of the faith that lies at the heart and root of this very special sacred space. We have a story to tell, one that inspires today as it has through many centuries to change lives, to bring hope and to proclaim God’s love for us.

It is a faith that refuses to be extinguished and has been rekindled even after the darkest moments of turmoil. May the light continue to shine from and in this place, making it a beacon of faith, hope and love. The stones are not the real story, they point to it and in each generation there need to be people who will tell it, who will be changed by it to live it.

I have tried to do that in a small way over the past few years and now as I move on to Newport hand on that baton to others. God bless you all. For all that has been, thanks; and for all that will be, yes.

Sermon for Peterborough Cathedral online, Sunday 25th April 2021

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The ecology of God’s forgiveness: 4 Rs

IMG_6823If you do something wrong, or mess something up with consequences for others, how hard are you on yourself? Many of us are our own worst critics. And if someone else does something wrong, or messes something up with consequences for others, how hard are you on them? We live in times that encourage blame and fault finding. Lots of fingers wagging and shaming.

It is easy to get caught up in it. And yet, often this blame culture is a smokescreen for deflecting attention from ourselves, or even facing up to the darker recesses of our own psyches. That does not mean no one should take responsibility for their actions, or that sleaze and corruption are not real, but I sense more than a hint of deflection in so much blaming and shaming.

There are, of course, passages in the New Testament which go straight for the jugular and don’t hold back. Jesus called hypocritic leaders ‘white washed tombs’. John the Baptist called some of those who came to be baptised by him at the River Jordan a ‘brood of vipers’. And in the Old Testament the prophets were not at all scared to let rip when oppression, injustice, corruption and sleaze was running rife.

Our first reading this morning, though, sits at the gentler end of the spectrum (Acts 3:12-19). There is a strong call to repent – that’s a theme in both readings (Luke 24:36-48). But Peter makes the way out easier and less confrontational. They acted out of ignorance. It’s like Jesus from the cross saying ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’. He could have added, some of them know exactly what they are doing and don’t care, but he looked deeper at the moral and theological blind-spot. What they are doing is seismic and they don’t get it. That might actually be more damning.

The confession I’ve chosen for today includes a wonderful line about seeking forgiveness for sins committed in what we think, say and do; ‘through ignorance, weakness and our own deliberate fault’. Put more colloquially, we are either stupid, weak-willed or down right bad – and possibly all three. It’s a catch-all but it’s also a recognition that we aren’t always down right bad. Nonetheless we need to repent and seek the forgiving, restoring grace of God; to seek the new life of Easter redemption.

There is a way back. No one is consigned to the rubbish tip and certainly not without second, third, or even 70×7 chances. We live in a throw-away society, one that likes cheap fashion that can easily be disposed of when we get bored or it wears out. There is a danger we treat people the same. They too become ‘throw-away’; when they go wrong, they can be chucked out.

The Easter forgiveness, which brings new life even from death, brings an ecology of forgiveness. Just like we should think of the four Rs of ecology to protect the environment – reuse, repair, recycle and only then rubbish – we do something similar for ourselves and others: reuse, repair, recycle or repurpose before finally laying to rest.

The key to this ‘ecology of forgiveness’ is the repenting so that sins can be wiped out. We may have been stupid, weak-willed or down right bad, in what we think, say and do, but repentance and forgiveness is proclaimed to us.

And we are called to be witnesses of this. So, to live it in practice. Actually I think churches can be incredibly forgiving places, just as well. This means that grace is at work, because as I was encouraged by a wise friend the other day when looking forward to my new role, he said remember it is all about grace.

So to explore the 4 Rs a little, as applied to forgiveness. To be reused, all of us need the confession at the beginning of our worship. It’s the normal washing of the face to be able to embrace the new day. To be repaired is more challenging, not least if what needs mending is hard to face or deeply painful, but our injuries can be the cause of injury to others, so there is much wisdom here and we may need help.

Sometimes the effects mean we need to change role, outlook, be repurposed for God’s kingdom. And there will come a time for us all when we need to be laid to rest. But even the most notorious offender can be offered the repurposing, for there are ways all of us can serve safely – safely for ourselves and for others.

Our readings this morning invite us to explore the ecology of God’s forgiveness as we approach with the humility that repents, seeks to turn and rejoice again. We are to be reused, repaired where there is injury, repurposed for God’s service and finally laid to rest in hope and trust in God’s grace and mercy.

Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 18th April 2021

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Prince Philip: Spotlight on service from the sidelines

IMG_6719We are used to focussing our attention on the main characters in a film or play or story. They take centre stage and much of the plotlines revolve around them. A lot of media and popular culture is star-studded and platforms like Instagram and TikTok make stars out of us all, at least in our own social media account. There is even a whole industry of ‘influencers’, whose claim to fame is that they have become famous.

Most of us are not really in the central role. We occupy a place at best to the side and may be even well at the back where it’s not always easy to see or hear, let alone be seen or heard. That’s why I like the scene from the Monty Python film, ‘The Life of Brian’, in a parody on the Sermon on the Mount, someone at the back can’t quite make out what Jesus has said, mishearing ‘peace-makers’ for ‘cheese-makers’. Why would they be singled out to be called ‘Blessed’?

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh brings the support roles, the ones at the side or even two paces behind, into the spotlight. That was his lot in life, the moment he fell in love with the young Princess Elizabeth, who he knew would one day become queen. And when it happened, he knew their life would never be the same again and his face is said to have revealed the horror when he heard the news of the death of King George VI. The implications for them both were enormous.

But those at the sidelines are vital. In fact the lime-light dwellers don’t actually really do as much as we give them credit for and none of it is status for status’ sake. That is something that the narcissism of social media does not understand. In contrast our Queen is well known for understanding that a life of service brings roles to play and each are important. If the last year has taught us anything it should be to value ‘key workers’, those often on the sidelines, never up front. Without them we would have collapsed as a nation.

The Queen has spoken of what Prince Philip did for her, describing him as her rock and sure ground in the unbearable buffeting of public gaze and sycophancy that they endure. It’s hard for anyone not born into this to understand and those not born into this culture will struggle even more. By all accounts, it’s hard for those who are born into it.

Over this coming week we are in national mourning for one of those who occupied a side line more than most. It is the one who can be a sounding board and speak honestly in a way no one else can. It is one who can provide support that enables the principle actor to perform. Behind every great person there is someone close who enables them to function, enables them to serve. 

Something of this common purpose and bigger story was contained in our first reading (Acts 4:32-35). ‘Everything being held in common’ can sound like an archetypal commune and there are models of living which hold to this, not least monastic communities. But it is a model of social living too, where private and individual gain is surrendered or moderated because it is known that there is a bigger goal which works for all. Our society has become grossly unequal and out of balance between the richest and the poorest.

A large part of his public sense of duty and service , which the Duke held, came from his deep Christian faith. Like Thomas in our Gospel reading (John 20:19-end) Prince Philip had a questioning faith. Far from doubting, as it is often described, this is faith that wants to know and so asks the questions that must be asked.

All of us are in a bigger story, one which we serve, rather than which serves us. Christ occupies the throne in this story and all of us pay homage before his throne of grace. All of us have a part to play, with our exits and entrances, as William Shakespeare put it in his Seven Ages of Man speech.

The bigger story, the metanarrative to give it its philosophical name, touches the biggest challenges that we face. The vaccine, which is being rolled out and I received my second dose yesterday, is the product of scientists working together so that each can contribute their part. We wear masks to protect not just ourselves, but more to protect others. We endure lockdowns because it is the loving thing to do to protect and reduce transmission. 

Prince Philip was an advocate of environmental concerns. He wrote a book in 1989 with the then Dean of Windsor, Michael Mann – Survival or Extinction: A Christian attitude to the Environment – they wrote it long before it was trendy or popular. And he had the power of drawing people together so that conversations would happen and the right people be in the room together. He set up St George’s House in Windsor, a place for different disciplines to talk and feed one another. A place for character,  for resilience in public life to be nurtured. We underestimate the value of that bringing together role, but it is a way the lure of royalty can be used to make a difference, a service which effects change.

So this week we honour the supporting actor role, the one who sits at the side, but not passively so. This is a position that can still be used to effect change, to make a difference, not for its own goals or ego, but to bring the bigger picture to bear. Power is always something to be used in service of a higher goal. Most of us are not in the centre of attention, but nonetheless have a role to play to bring about the kingdom of God. ‘All things held in common’ is about more than a commune; it is itself an outlook onto the bigger scene, expressed in lives of service.

As we commemorate Prince Philip, we shine a spotlight on the sidelines and thereby the bigger story which holds all our stories and is the true goal of all our life’s service.

Sermon commemorating HRH the Duke of Edinburgh who died on 9th April 2021, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 11th April 2021.

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Easter – New life in us, for us, among us, transforming the world

IMG_6708The link between Easter and spring is quite a long one. It is so close that the two get amalgamated and Easter becomes just a celebration of the cycle of life, new life with familiar images. I spotted this Easter Tree recently and picked up a few of the possible decorations available next to it – well I assume they go together. Having used decorations during Advent for the Great Os, I thought I do something similar for Easter.

Chicks – The first is the obvious one. Chicks come from eggs, and since there are probably more chocolate eggs around than anything else at the moment, clearly this one has rather cornered the market. We can take the chick coming from the egg as being new life emerging from the tomb. On Easter morning we remember Jesus bursting out of the tomb, his resurrection.

But chicks can make it sound like the resurrection is just ordinary, normal and expected. The broadcaster and chair of the Humanist Society, Alice Roberts, put out a rather provocative tweet on Good Friday, ‘remember the dead do not come back to life’. I find that comment, as I often do with militant atheists, very disappointing. They always take everything about religion so literally. Where is the nuance, the metaphor, the deeper reflection? The disciples didn’t expect Jesus to come back to life and that is not what we affirm at Easter. It is something very different, a disruption of what we expect, transformed and transforming. It is out of the ordinary. So the chick has to be taken with a bit of caution here.

Wombs and tombs, eggs as the gateway to new life, these have quite a resonance. In the faith of Easter, death becomes the midwife of new life and we are born anew into a living hope by the resurrection of the dead, as 1 Peter (1:3) so wonderfully expresses it.

So the first decoration to hang on the tree is a chick – symbol of being born to new life and death as the midwife of that new birth.

Rabbit and Carrot – The second is also well known. The Easter bunny somehow has got associated with delivering eggs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rabbit deliver eggs, so this does seem just a bit trippy. This rabbit has an enormous carrot. Bunnies are a sign of spring fruitfulness, as creation bursts forth. There is youthful fun and laughter in rabbits merrily hopping along the verge along a country lane or across a field.

Perhaps with the rabbit we can think of the ways new life spreads to transform the world. As our bishop has expressed this in his bulletin this weekend, the risen life is to be in us, through us, among us, and to transform the world.

The second decoration is this bunny with his carrot – symbol of new life spreading out to transform the world.

Lamb – The third is the most obviously biblical. The lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus as a lamb sacrificed for us with the banner of victory is a symbol of rich allusion. It stems from the Passover Lamb, the meal before the Israelite people fled from Egyptian slavery to find freedom and their land of promise. John’s Gospel has Jesus die on the cross at the same time as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed in the Temple to stress this point.

The Lamb stands for the saving gift of Christ, whose death and resurrection being a once and for all victory that requires no repeating. The sacrificial lambs were part of a system that was constantly repeated because God was not assuaged. But Christ brings that to an end and shows that the way to God is through God, the lamb imagery is that God loves us and makes sure the door is open for us.

So the third decoration is the lamb – symbol of hope because the door to everlasting life is open for us because God holds it open for us. Sacrifices are useless because God’s gift is all we need, given in and through Jesus Christ rising from the dead.

Beehive – The fourth image is perhaps a bit cryptic. A beehive does not have the most obvious Easter connection, through you might enjoy the honey. There was a report in the Guardian on Friday about how, while pesticides are now safer for people and used in smaller quantities, they have become more toxic to bees. That is seriously bad news because bees pollinate three-quarters of all crops. So if we have no bees, we starve.

It’s easy to look at Easter and think new life to come, in the eternal, is actually where our focus should be. It’s a short step from there to decide that what happens now is not so important. But from the earliest days, the Christian faith has taken the eternal, the kingdom to come, and applied it to how we live now. God gave us life and created life and our task is to live it in accordance with his will and the values of eternity. So care for the planet and the environment is a valid concern, it is a natural consequence of celebrating Easter joy, hope and new life.

So the fourth symbol is this beehive, with a bee – symbol of how we live the hope and values of the eternal life to come, now. We are to live in harmony with the Creator’s will and that means not poisoning the bees, among so many other things.

A tree of life, a tree of hope, a tree of celebration this Easter Day, helping us remember with joy and thanksgiving Christ’s new life to come and to be anticipated in how we live now. New life in us, through us, among us, spreading out to transform the world.

Sermon for Easter Day, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 4th April 2021

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Good Friday – Jesus’ #MeToo Moment

IMG_4832One of the less visited hidden areas of this cathedral is the gaol. Like all medieval abbeys, which were also the local Lords of the Manor, in our case the Soke of Peterborough, Peterborough Abbey had a gaol. It’s just on the righthand side as you come through the archway from Cathedral Square. There is even an old cell door in there. Fittingly it now houses our security team – not in the cell but in that area.

Justice is an important concept in the Bible. It occurs throughout and the people are condemned solidly in the Old Testament by the prophets for their failures and oppression, for corrupt weights and measures, and selling justice to the highest bidder. Injustice is incompatible with righteousness, being true to the calling to be God’s people. Holy lives are just lives. Communities of faith, built on faith, place justice at the top of the to-do list. It is how governments are judged. If they don’t uphold justice above all else, they fail and are roundly condemned for it.

The most chilling six words in Mark’s account of Jesus being judged by Pilate in that reading are: “So wishing to satisfy the crowd” (Mark 15:15). With those words justice is denied and Jesus is handed over to be crucified. Instead of assessing the evidence, which he seems to want to do, Pilate when no evidence is forthcoming, hears the baying crowd and gives in. We have laws to ensure that a fair trial takes place. And Magna Carta, which may well have had a first draft written in this abbey, or at least some of the preliminary notes and thoughts roughed out, is concerned to ensure that the accused are tried by their peers, by juries. The aim is to ensure fairness and impartiality. Justice matters and the peace of the realm, of any realm, is built on it

At the moment, the Knights Chamber is being used by one of the Nightingale Courts, the overspill courts. It feels appropriate at every level. Justice is being facilitated and supported.

Whenever there is a temptation to play to the gallery to effectively ‘sell’ justice for political popularity, great damage is done – to the accused and to the common life. A healthy community needs a healthy judicial system which needs to be independent from interference. That goes for sentencing too. And there are quite a few examples of people around the world being held without fair trials and so many regimes where justice is denied, as a means of silencing opposition or scrutiny. Myanmar is in turmoil as we see injustice upon injustice meted out.

The death of Jesus is brought about by an act of injustice and power abdicating its responsibilities. In Matthew’s Gospel (27:24), Pilate even washes his hands to show he is not to blame, which is nonsense because, whatever he thinks, it’s his judgement call.  I find a poignant echo in the priest washing his or her hands before presiding at the Eucharist. It always has a bite for me as someone with leadership responsibilities. How do I exercise the responsibilities I have and use the power I have?  How do I exercise judgement?

At times I have had to sit in judgement in employment appeals – as a school governor or employer. Ensuring justice is done matters. People’s livelihoods and futures rest on it. Sometimes the needs of others have to be taken into account too. There is no washing away of the responsibility and knowing it’s my call. And many of us have these moments, from dealing with squabbling children shouting “it was his fault” to more serious judgement calls. Pilate can be an uncomfortable character in the passion narrative.

There is a twist in the power dynamic of Jesus appearing before Pilate. The gospels are at pains to make it clear that Jesus is no mere victim. He is not merely ‘done to’, but exercises agency in permitting it to happen, in embracing the passion. It is this willing act of self-sacrifice that turns an act of outrage and injustice, abuse of power and abdication of power, into one of redemption. The resurrection is not just a rescuing of a situation that went wrong, but the outworking and fulfilment of this moment of agency, accepting what is to come. In so doing, Jesus plunges into the depths of the darkness of human suffering and of violence. He delves into a place we all know well and comes among us fully.

In his appearance before the court of Pilate, Jesus turns the tables. He is neither victim nor is he passively ‘done to’, though he does embrace ‘victimhood’. That does not let Pilate off the hook with a mere hand-wash. Pilate has responsibility and he bows to the crowd, sending an innocent man to his death. Pilate, actually, doesn’t really care that much about Jesus. And that ‘not caring’ is his inditement as it is everyone’s who doesn’t care enough. Whenever it is expedient to let someone die or suffer, we pick the wrong side be it violence, racial abuse or denial of it being real, sexual exploitation or abuse or something else. And so it is precisely to Pilate, to us, that redemption comes calling.

In the gospel Jesus identifies with the victims and so the # MeToo has quite an ally. The Duchess of Cambridge laying flowers in Clapham Common for Sarah Everard spoke powerfully into that story, a story she could relate to sharing the experience of every woman. Jesus embracing ‘victimhood’, enters all our stories and it is played out here before Pilate and the baying crowd. He enters those stories to bring his redeeming love to bear because in an ancient phrase, the unassumed is the unredeemed. Jesus’ redeeming work takes in the whole scope of human endeavour, pain and abusing. Over this next few hours, there is no dark place that is left untouched by Christ’s saving work on the cross to which he is about to be sent.

For men, for white people, all of us have an uncomfortable challenge as Jesus stands before Pilate. Will we wash our hands claiming it is not our fault or responsibility? Or will we look to see where we do have agency, unacknowledged attitudes at work or decisions to make? Will we give in to the crowd, peer pressure? Or will we call it out when we see it, choose to be different? Will we, in effect, send Jesus to his cross?

Address for Good Friday, Peterborough Cathedral, 2nd April 2021

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Maundy Thursday – Bread & Wine, Water & A Towel: Foundations of Christian Living

IMG_7183Our readings this evening are full of drama (1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35). Maundy Thursday starts with a party but very quickly things turn sour and Jesus takes his last steps to the cross as he is betrayed and arrested. Before we get there, Jesus does two remarkable things at the meal which we know as the Last Supper.

One, he institutes what very quickly was adopted as Holy Communion. He also took a towel, a bowl of water and set loving service as the standard of leadership and authority. That was also picked up very quickly and was one of the characteristics that set Christians apart from the Roman culture.

Over this past year we have been largely starved of Communion. While Susan and I could have shared in this each week online, I remember talking with a former Dean of Canterbury, who had a holiday house in France. I asked him what he did on Sundays – I suppose, I said, he could just do his own thing. No, he said, that would not be correct because Communion is not private but corporate. It is an act we do together, when we gather together. So because you couldn’t share in it, we didn’t’ either.

The only exception was that there were occasions we gave you the image of seeing it, though knowing we couldn’t share it with you. This followed the online survey many of you completed last year saying you wanted to see it occasionally. So, for special days – Easter last year, Pentecost, the Patronal Festival, round to most recently at the beginning of Lent – we did. Some at home, some in the church.

We have broken bread, but also abstained because it is corporate to be shared in, not private and not just a spectator sport.  Strangely the highest views online have been when the service was a Eucharist and incense just boosted the ratings. It will be interesting to see what that those viewing figures and trends reveal. Appreciation of seeing signs of the familiar? A longing for something that looked like normal life was going on somewhere? May be a spiritual hunger for sacramental feeding? I am only beginning to reflect on this.

But I would like to think that somewhere, deep inside this is a connection with how Paul began that section from 1 Corinthians (11:23-26). “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread…” and he goes on to give the four-fold actions of the Eucharist: taking, giving thanks, breaking and sharing – we are to do these in remembrance of him.

The deep connection is, I think, that we know within ourselves, our Christian identity has been so shaped, that Communion is not a bolt on extra, just some kind of service from a menu of other options. It can be treated like that, regarded as something niche, which on one level it is.

The Eucharist, Holy Communion, is foundational to who we are because we are people who do the same: we are called, taken by Christ; we give thanks and are delighted over; we break, have to give sacrificially of ourselves in service of Christ as he did; and we share and are sent to share. It can be costly, often is, but it is the way of our crucified and risen redeemer. Communion, is foundational and identity shaping for Christian living.

And likewise, acts of loving service are not add-ons either. They are given in the same way as bread and wine. If we are to be his disciples, to be his people, then love is what we do. No one can do all the loving that is required or needed, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything. And the mystery is that when we join together the sum total is greater than the parts. God takes our gift and multiplies it.

Over the next three days we enter into the deepest mystery of the Christian life. This is where we find our identity shaped, formed and renewed. Today in bread and wine, and with water and a towel. Tomorrow we enter the darkness of Christ’s death and sacrificial living. On Sunday we celebrate the joy and hope of Christ risen from the dead.

‘Take this bread’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘eat and share in life with me,

with thanksgiving bless and honour

all the gifts to set you free.’

May this cup of hope revive you

on your journey through this world

filled with grace to follow justly;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

‘With this towel’, said Christ the Saviour,

‘I will wipe my people’s feet

washed in streams that flow from passion,

met at altar and in street.’

May the love that leads to service,

reaching out to all in need,

be a sign of Christ’s embracing;

singing praise to Christ our Lord.

Hymn ‘Christ the Saviour’ Ian Black.

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Peterborough Parish Church, 1st April 2021

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Palm Sunday – More donkey, less war horse

IMG_6684This is the second year in a row that we have not been able to gather together for Palm Sunday. Usually we would read the long Passion narrative, the account in one of the gospels of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Instead we have concentrated today on the waving of palms and singing of hosannas. If you don’t follow any of the story over the next few days, you will jump from this to Easter morning. It will be a strange, filleted story – without its guts and innards.

On Thursday we will mark Maundy Thursday, the inauguration of Communion at the Last Supper, the washing of feet – without being able to wash any feet this year – and end with watching with Jesus in the garden for a short time online. You can of course ‘watch longer’ at home if you wish to sit quietly after the streaming ends.

On Friday, Good Friday, we would usually host those from other churches in the city as they come for hot cross buns in the church after the walk of witness. That is unable to happen this year, so we will join with the cathedral online for the hours of reflection from 12noon – the hours of the cross. Here, in a year of pain and suffering, we will be able to place at Christ’s feet all that we are and all that we have, all that we have been through and the suffering of the world.  We can place it there for his healing and redeeming love to work its saving grace for us all.

Without the depth of this story, Easter Sunday will feel hollow. Without it the juxtaposition of crowds singing in adulation turning to call for his death will be lost on us. Oh, how fickle the crowd seems to be – and if we are looking for a parallel, look at how the media can turn on a penny from praise to vitriol in a short step. That said, the shouts may well have been part of a festival remembering liberation from slavery in Egypt and the irony picked up by later reflecting back.

But pilgrims walked, as did Jesus in the rest of the gospels. It’s only here that a donkey is mentioned – so a visual aid for today is Carrots, my donkey puppet. This is not the sign of humility it is usually taken to be. A military king would ride on a horse for battle, but at other times, this is the 4×4 of choice. So it has kingly allusions. Jesus is making a point, or the gospel writers are in placing this triumphal entry at this point in their story. The shouts of Hosanna, which means ‘Save now’, is a shout for liberation from Roman occupation, but the gospel writers use this to announce the cross and resurrection.

We have a king, riding on a donkey, declining the military focus and aspirations, looking more to enter Jerusalem to save through his death and resurrection. So the donkey, while it may not be the humble beast, is a peaceful one. Where are the moments in our lives where the model of the donkey would ‘save’ much more effectively and fruitfully than the warrior’s horse?

When conflicts, big struggles come it’s easy to reach for the biggest weapons we can find – be they words or wooden. Christ on a donkey challenges us with peaceful saving, even if it requires great self-sacrifice in the process.

We’ve seen examples of this recently. Peaceful protests which have turned violent; policing, usually measured and restrained, has not always responded well. For those of us who are not completely pacifist, believing there are moments when force, even lethal force, is needed, Jesus on a donkey at the minimum calls for restraint and for such force always to be a last resort, to be proportionate, not the first response we reach for.

At its more challenging, it questions whether such force should ever be used. It may be my own fears that make that hard to swallow. You could argue, though, that death was defeated by a force stronger than it, the force of life and love, which redeem rather than destroy.

When wanting to respond to migrants coming to our shores, we can reach for a policy to create a ‘hostile environment’ or look more deeply into the complexities. Louise Hulland, from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, one of our Lent speaker’s this year, identifies in her book “Stolen Lives” how creating a ‘hostile environment‘ makes it much harder to help vulnerable, exploited and traumatised people; how they find their problems increase and continue, are even exacerbated.

Jesus on the donkey is a challenge to the realpolitik of our times, and actually all times. It is not easy to digest or trust. But when we show restraint, seek the words of peace – not appeasement, but true peace – we heal and build. Jesus didn’t hold back, though. This humble donkey ride is followed by cleansing the temple and he seems to go headlong into the conflict.

But it is not an armed struggle. He tells Peter to put his sword away in the garden. That was the moment they could have fought, but he doesn’t. He is armed only with unconditional, redeeming love. And our last Lent speaker, Steven Pettican from Garden House, spoke about that transforming lives and bringing hope. That’s the king we worship, on a donkey. On this unusual Palm Sunday, we can ask when and where we need more donkey and less war horse.

Sermon for Palm Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 28th March 2021

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Counting Stuff – the Cross subverts what we think matters

IMG_6634Today is Census Day. Today everyone is required to complete the National Census (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that is – Scotland has deferred its census until next year). This has taken place every 10 years since 1801 and provides a snapshot of the population. It aims to inform public policy and identify trends. This time we are encouraged to fill it out online, though paper versions are available for those who either don’t have online access or prefer to get a pen out. 

This time there are questions about national identity, ethnicity and voluntary ones on religion and sexual orientation. Question 17 intriguingly declares “This question is intentionally blank”, making me wonder what got cut, and the under 16s are invited to jump from question 25 to number 51 which says “there are no more questions” – they get to leave early. There is an option for people to fill in a private census form which will override what anyone else says about them in their household. That enables discrete honesty, if it is needed.

Counting things comes up quite a few times in the Bible. There are the famous ones, as at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, when Mary and Joseph make an improbably long and awkward journey while Mary is heavily pregnant; this is most probably a device in the story so that Jesus can be born in Bethlehem and therefore claim the right identity. It can seem a bit of a pointless plot-line since being David’s son is achieved through Joseph but the story is at pains to point out this is by adoption not natural means. It sets up the cans on the wall so they can be knocked down as the story progresses. Time and again, Jesus subverts expectations, he doesn’t do box ticking in lots of ways, so the gospels subvert this approach subtly right at the beginning. The value of counting stuff very much depends on why you think it matters and as we see time and time again, Jesus has other ideas, points out that we are counting the wrong stuff.

There is an old adage that not everything that can be counted matters and not everything that matters can be counted. It’s a counter to management spreadsheets and targets identifying success or failure solely on defined measurables, useful as these things can be to plan and focus. Quiet conversations don’t necessarily have direct outcomes, but over time they build up to something really important. Much of a priest’s most valuable work is useless for census returns and statistical purposes.

Jesus subverts expectations and easy measurables in our gospel reading this morning (John 12:20-33). Philip met some Greeks visiting for a festival. They said ‘we want to see Jesus’. So he told his mate, Andrew – one of our Patrons here – and together they went to tell Jesus. His reply is rather surprising. He doesn’t say ‘Oh good, more converts for the annual return’. He doesn’t even welcome them in with trumpets and great acclaim, as we might expect. Instead, he goes off on a thread about grains of wheat falling, dying and thereby bearing much fruit. It’s a bit like when he tells his followers elsewhere that if they really want to follow him they have to deny themselves and take up their cross. That doesn’t look so good on the promo leaflets, though you can’t accuse him of mis-selling. You can hear Peter in the background, another of our Patrons, criticising his marketing strategy: “surely not you, Master!”. It’s as if Jesus is trying to put them off, or at least, warn them that this is no easy ride.

And yet, and yet, dying to live, being drawn to the cross is where our faith begins. It is here that we find the bite of life connects with the hope held before us. This is not a shallow marketing ploy, or instant access. This is life being valued much more fully and raw lives given meaning. This is where laws are written on hearts, not checklists, as in our first reading (Jeremiah 31:31-34). They will know God because they have seen, they have stared into the eyes of the one on the cross and found there that love stares back at them, knowing them more fully than they have ever been known before.

Censuses are valuable as long as the questions asked are the right ones and you know what you intend to do with the information. So if you are looking for a Messiah, Jesus fails to meet the expected mark. He’s not actually born of the House of David; he’s adopted into it. He’s not a military leader who will drive out the Romans; he’s nailed to a cross by them and dies. He doesn’t look to restore the fortunes of the political nation; he promotes a Kingdom with a much deeper allegiance. He doesn’t tell people to follow complicated rules; he picks up the theme of Jeremiah where the heart is the true test.

I have theory that we connect with this at a profoundly deep level. There is a point deep within us, which knows when the gospel being proclaimed rings true and when it is just box ticking. Most can’t recite the books of the bible in the right order, neither can I; I don’t have that kind of pub quiz memory. I don’t know my times tables either, but I can work them out – I know how to play with maths, and likewise I know how to play with the building blocks of the good news of Christ even if I have to look up where to find the books of Ruth, Esther and Habakkuk, and I can never remember which comes first – Philippians, Colossians or Ephesians. 

What seems to count is Christ in our hearts, inspiring us to live his way, to know that in his passion, his death and resurrection is our hope because that is real life and not idealised, fantasy life. That can speak into Covid which has been with us for a year now, it can hold the grieving parents of a young woman abducted and murdered on a south London street, and it can hold all of the #MeToo connections. It can hold us when we fall short because that is why Christ came, to restore us by grace – the title of a series of Lent Talks I organised through St John’s this year and it was good to see a number of friends from the cathedral join in online. 

Christ call us to proclaim his love through our lives in what we think, say and do. Censuses only measure what they ask about. Christ goes deeper into the heart of our living and our dying that he may bring us too into his rising. In so doing, he subverts expectations in so many ways, because they are looking for the wrong things, and thereby he surpasses them too. Our living, our dying, our rising are all held in the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. God is with us, even, especially in the darkness and most painful moments, holding and redeeming.

And so, in the words of an old prayer:

“We adore you O Christ and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

Sermon for Lent 5, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 21st March 2021

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