Sunday, 28 December 2014

Idea on a mission: Word connecting and inspiring

A number of people have been talking over the last few weeks about a football match a hundred years ago.  The location was the trenches of the First World War.  The match is supposed to have involved British and German troops who came out of their trenches as part of a Christmas Day cease-fire to kick a ball about.  It is a wonderful story of hope in the darkness of war, but unfortunately there is some dispute about whether it actually happened, or on what scale.  There is little evidence, just a few references in some letters home to England and nothing from the German side, and what there is is not as clear as it is often assumed to be. 

One historian has suggested that what is likely is that there was a desire to bury the dead whose bodies lay where they fell in no-man’s land and it did not seem right to leave them like that at Christmas.  So this desire to put it right gave courage and impetus to reach out to common humanity and risk being shot.  From that one or two started to meet in the middle, in no-man’s land, and exchanged some form of greeting.  A Christmas truce broke out with a ceasefire, though not everywhere and some were still killed.  It’s a bit like the scene in the film War Horse, where the opposing armies come together to free a horse trapped in the barbed wire and the common effort makes a connection not possible when firing from trenches across a wasteland.

The tragedy here is that the next day the hostilities started again and as we know lasted for another three years.  Jon Snow, the veteran journalist and broadcaster, said on Saturday that if there had been news cameras present at the time, he thinks the pictures would have led to such a public outcry that war would have been impossible afterwards.  Peace would have been given such a powerful portrayal that no one would have been able to ignore it or carry on as before.  I’m not so sure it’s that straightforward.

When people do meet, though. as people, find a common humanity through which to engage, differences start to reduce in size.  They don’t disappear, but it becomes harder to demonise when you know the other’s interests and have shared a meal or a pint or a joke; when you’ve seen the picture they carry with them of their special person or cat.  These kinds of meeting matter enormously but they don’t remove all differences entirely.  They don’t suddenly make oppression disappear, challenge systemic injustice or structural inequalities, whatever the causes of the conflict might be.  They don’t resolve competing visions or understandings which affect how we behave and act.  These things require the meeting to deepen and conversations to emerge, negotiations and discussions to be rooted in the reality, to become relational at a much deeper level.  For that we need words and understanding, we need listening and speaking through a common language and imagery, particularly if interpretation is also needed.  But becoming conscious of our common humanity makes these conversations more likely and eases their way.

There was an interesting discussion on In our Time on Radio 4 a few weeks ago.  An evolutionary biologist described language and communication as being about persuasion, and even manipulation.  The aim of communication is to try to get the other to do something we want or to behave in a certain way.  If it is to see something from a different point of view then the ultimate aim is to change behaviour in some way.  It is no mere passing of the time of day but serves a purpose for survival and flourishing.  Human beings are social beings, and words matter; they make a difference to social interaction.  If that interaction is affectionate, then the words are part of bonding and nurturing affection.  If the relationship is one where something is wanted from the other, then the words are an attempt, a way, of trying to entice that, to persuade or even force it out of them.

This is where the Christmas gospel, of ‘the Word becoming flesh’ (John 1:1-14), becomes profound and earthed at the same time.  The concept that we translate as ‘Word’ is a deeply philosophical one from Greek and Hebrew thought.  It is the very purpose and essence, the thoughts and understanding, the wisdom of the one who expresses it.  Words convey profound meaning.  The ‘Word’ at the beginning is the purpose and idea of God in creating.  So to talk of ‘the Word being among us’ is to say that all of this was present in the mystery of the Christ-child.  As ‘Word’ this is not just an idea, but an idea on a mission to persuade and affect behaviour, attitudes and allegiances.  The Word among us aims to change us and inspire us, just as the Word at the beginning of creation caused change by bringing all into being, by bringing the plan and purpose to fruition.

When enfleshed this Word as idea on a mission is humanized, the language of social beings is adopted.  The idea on a mission is present in a form we can relate to and to which we can respond.  Like the meeting in no-man’s land it makes hearing the message more likely because it comes with human warmth and empathy.  It calls, it shares, it empathises and it embraces.  Blessing comes through touch, the mystery of the touch of heaven on earth.  This is what John was conveying in his wonderful opening prologue to his gospel.  The Word, the idea and purpose of God is present in a form that we can relate to in the person of Jesus Christ.

The last few days have been touched by tragedy.  There was the murder, slaughter of children in Peshawar, leaving the world shocked and repulsed.  There was the tragic accident in Glasgow with the deaths of 6 people when a rubbish lorry went out of control.  And here, our cathedral community is in deep shock following the death of one of the young lay clerks yesterday morning in a cycling accident.  This follows closely on the deaths of a number of others which have touched the community.  These events sober the headiness of partying and take the shine off the celebrations, but they don’t cancel Christmas.  The Word among us comes precisely to these situations.  It brings a sense of purpose behind life and holding life in the thick of life.  Even in the darkest moments the birth of the Christ-child comes holding and keeping hold of our life.  When we lose our way or we are touched by evil or tragedy, we are called back by the word that speaks justice, freedom and life.  When we cry we find we are not alone because the eternal is alongside.

The Word becoming flesh makes a difference.  It is not remote and detached, but comes on a mission to connect and inspire, to hold and to keep hold of the life it gives.  By being present it is able to communicate its message in a way it could not if it remained remote and distant, like the meetings in no-man’s land 100 years ago.  As the origin of life it is also the goal and that is why the darkness cannot overcome it.  Christmas brings a triumphant shout which has the last word, as it had the first.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Christmas Midnight 24th December 2014

Sunday, 21 December 2014

God's confidence in creation

History has been made this week with the announcement of the first woman bishop in the Church of England.  The candidate is someone that has not been on any of the media shortlists and was not one of the bookies favourites but has been one of the eight women observers at the House of Bishops’ meetings.  She is an ordinary priest, Vicar of Hale in Manchester, though no doubt with some extra ordinary gifts, as so many have.  She is one of the batch of women who have been ordained in the natural order of things – she was among the first to be deaconed and priested according to the same timescale that her male colleagues have been through.  She was not ordained in any of the catch up ordinations.  She is, as I termed it at the diocesan celebration of 20 years of women priests in the Church of England, held here in June, part of the ‘new normality’.  All of this is an occasion for great rejoicing.  “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (Luke 1:46)  “This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:23)

Libby Lane will be consecrated in the New Year, on 26th January in York Minster.  She will need our prayers for what lies ahead, even without the added pressure of being the first woman to hold such an office.  There will be a media whirl around her and I pray that she will not have to bear this weight on her own for long, that there will be a flurry of similar appointments over the coming months – there are certainly plenty of vacancies and women with the gifts and skills required to match them.  I expect at least one of the diocesan bishop vacancies will be a woman in the coming months too.  It would be bizarre if that were not the case.  Clearly there is a determination for it to happen.

An ordinary woman changing history, bearing Christ to the world, bringing to birth God’s grace among us!  Well, where have we heard that before?  We have heard it in our gospel reading as the angel announced the startling news to Mary that she was to bear and give birth to the Christ, God among us and this would be possible because the Holy Spirit would make it happen (Luke 1:26-38).  God brings life to spring up where there was previously none.  He makes those who think new birth is no longer possible to conceive as in the case of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.  She is already expecting.  God has worked wonders already.  Just because it hasn’t happened before is no straight jacket for the Christian Church founded on this gospel.  Astounding things are part of the new normality which Christ brings in through being brought to birth by Mary.  The Christian faith has radical transformation, change and disruption written into its title deeds.

And the wonder is that this comes through an ordinary woman.  We know next to nothing of her background, though traditions have been built up over the centuries.  Sadly some of them serve to make her exceptional and something separate from the rest of us and to my mind these miss the startling point.  The idea that Mary’s conception was itself out of the ordinary, the belief held by some known as the ‘Immaculate Conception’, is to the my mind a distortion of what we are presented with in Mary.  She is ordinary.  She is just a young woman.  And the rest of us are just ordinary too.  But we also know that we can do remarkable things and be agents of change in the world.  So it should not surprise us that she can too.  We are all called to bring Christ to birth in our hearts and lives and to be midwives of his kingdom.  That is remarkable too.  Mary being chosen is exceptional, but also not.  It is God’s incredible, profligate love at work and it touches us too.

All of this is because God has confidence in his creation.  If he didn’t, he wouldn’t bother with it.  He made it, brought it all into being through the mysterious and wonderful processes that are creation and evolution, and this was not accidental but planned and thought through, if we can use that language.  Mary stands as an incredible symbol of that confidence.  God is not distant but literally among us and inside us bringing his purposes to fruition and completion.  The world is pregnant with the grace of God and so are we.  This is startling news.  We don’t need to be born through some out of the ordinary way for God to find us worthy of his attention and overshadowing.  We just have to say ‘let it be with me according to your word’.

But there is a desire to keep God at a distance – God is so much safer that way.  If we could find a microscope surely we could find God in the shadows or tucked away in some distant corner of the universe.  But this is not what the God of Christ brought to birth through Mary reveals about himself.  We will not find him like that because he is not separate in that way.  The world is alive because of God and without God would not be.  It is not separate from but exists within.  So God breaking in, or breaking out, however you want to see this, is not actually that unusual.  And when we have got our heads round the observation that there is sentient, conscious and intelligent life at all, then God’s presence concentrating or popping up is not that fanciful after all.

Some of what we talk about when thinking of Mary is heavily laden with metaphor as are all our religious musings.  Some of those metaphors work better than others for me.  I find myself bristling when the metaphor being used serves to distance us from God, rather than affirm God’s confidence in his creation as it should do.  So when the choir sings anthems from a past age to Mary as ‘Queen of Heaven’, wonderful pieces from the choral heritage that they are, at best I find them unhelpful – sometimes audibly so, as my colleagues will testify!  Everything we say about Mary is actually about God’s grace among us and for us in Christ.  She is one of us, not separate from us, and so if we affirm her to be in a state of grace it is because that is the hope we have been given in Christ, the one she bore, for ourselves.  It is metaphor as are the crowns of glory that await God’s saints, the holy ones, those who are brought into the inheritance of Christ as sons and daughters of God.  But it comes through Christ, through God’s redeeming confidence in his creation.  That message gets confused and lost at times, and when I feel that is happening, that is when I bristle!  As a son of the Reformation and unashamedly so, I want to restore a balance I think has been lost, which is what the Reformation was about – recalibrating the balance.

Some of what we say about Mary carries misogynistic overtones.  We refer to her sexual status.  On one level this points to the wonder of God’s activity, bringing life and his grace to fruition, whether that is as a metaphor or literal, but it is set in the context of a world that made women ritually unclean and required purification after childbirth.  This now seems strange at best to our ears.  So we need to watch out that what we say doesn’t slip into assumptions which are now seen as sexist and misogynistic.  Mary is an unattainable ideal as a virgin and a mother.  This can form a wedge where we want to affirm her unity with us.  Mary can be made into a stick a patriarchal church uses to beat women and in turn that ends up beating men too because of what is lost of our self-understanding under God through this distortion.

So any celebration of Mary always comes with a health warning.  What we say about her should enrich and enhance our understanding of God in Christ, and our place in his love and purpose.  She is not the fourth member of the Trinity, which is mathematically not possible, and we should be careful not to imply she is.  If we do we damage the radical message and revelation which God brings about through her.  God has confidence in his creation and loves it so much that he bothers with it.  Special as she is in the story of our salvation it is in her ordinariness that we find our hope.  God calls us all to bring Christ to birth in our hearts and lives and to be midwives of his Kingdom.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 21st December 2014

Sunday, 14 December 2014

A voice: John the Baptist and the big story

There is a film, made in 1998, starring Jane Horrocks, about a very shy girl with an exceptional talent.  Little Voice, as she is known, turns out to have a breath-taking singing voice.  She hides in her room with her records, her escape from reality and grief, and sings along to the music of Edith Piaf, Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey.  A talent scout overhears her and puts her on the stage.  She becomes a sensation.  But she begins to feel used and the plaything of others.  As the lives of her mother and the talent scout unravel she returns to the shadows, preferring the song to the fame, and finds liberation through a relationship that develops with a Buttons-like character, Billy.

The voice is a powerful tool.  It can sound strong; it can sound hesitant.  It can inspire, it can frighten, it can sooth, it can stir up.  We can display confidence or mumble shyness.  And in role, as a singer or performer, we may find an outlet that otherwise is locked up and frightened of making itself known, as with ‘Little Voice’.  The performer can be quite fragile and nervous.  The same can be the case with actors and anyone whose role involves performing, finding the role gives confidence they wouldn’t have without it.  Even clergy can share this, and doing this is not a million miles away from theatre and performing.  That is why Sundays, which are very heavy days ‘on stage’, in ‘performance mode’, can be so exhausting.

John the Baptist describes himself as ‘the voice’ in our gospel reading: ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness’ (John 1:23).  He is the one who sounds, but the message comes from someone else.  It is not his character that matters.  He is not a personality to be adored and he certainly is not looking for people to be drawn to him, or at least not stay focused on him.  Again he prefers the song to the fame.  He wants to point people beyond.  The one who comes is far greater than he is.  And so he is not interested in being made a star.  His identity and his self-understanding do not rest on the adulation of the crowd, or the glory that comes with fame, fickle and transitory as it is.  For him being just ‘a voice’ is enough.  He is the sounding piece for something else.

This idea of just being ‘a voice’ stands in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament.  Prophets did not speak on their own behalf.  They saw themselves as just being the delivery boy.  The message came from elsewhere.  They were taken over by the one who inspired the message that came through their voice.  And so rather like Little Voice in the film, as she sang she became someone else and the music flowed through her, rather than from her, the prophets saw themselves as the conduit of the voice of God.

So when the talent scouts come after John and want to know who he is, he just calls himself ‘a voice’; just a voice.  He is no one really, because the one who matters is yet to come, but is here already, among you and you do not known him.  John does not think he is worthy even to untie his sandal straps.

We live in times which are celebrity obsessed.  Marshall McLuhan’s 1960s phrase of ‘The Medium is the Message’, has become prescient.  The packaging has taken over from the contents and we often seem to be served style over content.  Glitz and high action are no substitute for plot and substance.  So image becomes everything in a PR dominated world.  The forms of transmission are of course how we hear any message.  John the Baptist knew this and he dressed like Elijah is described in the Old Testament, dressed in camel hair with a leather belt and eating locusts and wild honey.  So that when he walks on stage those who knew their Old Testament would automatically put him in that narrative.  Elijah was expected to come again and so when he walks on that’s a box ticked in the warm-up for Jesus to take the stage.  The prophets had also engaged in all sorts of symbolic actions.  One walked around carrying a yoke to make the point that the people were going to be enslaved.  They knew how to create an event to catch the attention and spark the imagination.  But they were always clear that they were not the message; there was a message coming through them which was the real point.  We live in an age that has lost touch with an overarching story and message and so is just left with the packaging.

This is where I find the comedian Russell Brand to be an interesting character.  He can be erratic and unpolished in his presentation – that’s part of what makes him interesting.  But in his book Revolution he talks about the need for an overarching story to hold us in our quest for meaning and purpose.  We are lost at the moment as a society because we don’t have this shared narrative.  Philosophers refer to this as the metanarrative – the big story in which we find meaning and a place to fit our own story.  Russell Brand believes in God, he has a strong social conscience, and he gives expression to a malaise many are feeling, and that’s where I find him interesting.  The solution is not personalities with nothing of any substance behind them, but a voice, a message which calls out that there is purpose and a point.

The message that John the Baptist brought was that the Kingdom of God is close at hand.  This is full of Old Testament packaging too, but stands for God’s rule over creation.  And creation means that there is a Creator, one from whom we come and to whom we go.  The one who is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega (A-Z) of time and eternity.  This is what the church is called to proclaim.  We are not here to proclaim ourselves.  The focus for us is always to be God in Christ, who reaches out and draws us into his embrace.  And that might be popular; it might not.  We always have to find ways, the voice, that communicates, as opposed to ones that don’t.  It may be that words are not the ‘voice’ to use and actions, like the foodbank and providing listening ears or a space for people to just be is what is needed.  The acts of blessing from birth to death communicate this message and our sacramental and pastoral ministry are ways our voice finds expression in this.  But it is never to be for the glory of the church.  That is anathema to what we are for, and that is particularly poignant for a church named after John the Baptist.

We are not to be the focus because we won’t live up to the scrutiny.  Not everyone will find us attractive and we will fall short of any ideal image.  In fact a major danger with personality focus is that the person becomes a blank canvass on which to project all sorts of fantasies and these get in the way of the message itself.  They aren’t real and they aren’t resilient to how life really is.  All of us are a work in progress.  Some are inspirational, but even they have their dark side, their pains and places where damage has left them wounded and marred.  So any adulation needs to be deflected to the one who inspires and calls, whose grace enables any goodness and blessing that we become vehicles of.

So with John the Baptist we are called to be ‘a voice’; nothing more but also nothing less.  A voice has a message to convey which points beyond itself to the one who really counts, in our case God in Christ Jesus.  We do that through words, through actions, through what we stand for.  We do it by proclaiming the missing big story in which our lives find meaning and purpose, in which they are held.  God our creator is also our goal and our lives are held in his love and purposes, seen supremely in Jesus Christ.  John the Baptist described himself as ‘a voice’ and so are we to be.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 14th December 2014

Sunday, 30 November 2014

I will build my church

Last week (24th - 27th November) the clergy and a number of licenced lay ministers from the Diocese of Peterborough decamped from the midlands and borderland-east to take up residence in Swanwick, Derbyshire for a three-yearly residential conference.  The title was "I will build my church", taken from Matthew 16:18.  The focus was therefore on mission and growing the church.  For the conference I wrote the following prayer, which was used throughout.

Pour our your Holy Spirit, Lord,
upon your church
that it may grow in faith, hope and love.
Inspire it in service,
ignite it to action,
instil it with holiness
that all people may be drawn into your embrace
and rejoice as citizens of your Kingdom;
through Jesus Christ,
the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Amen.

It proved to capture the theme better than I could have realised when I wrote it back in January.

What follows are my highlights and reflections on what we were given by the main speakers.

Confidence and Trust in the builder

Bishop Donald's opening address reflected on the title phrase.  When we look at that phrase about the church being built upon the rock of Peter, the emphasis tends to be placed on Peter, not least when set to music.  But he preferred to look at who is building, on the 'I' of 'I will build'.  It is Christ and therefore he called for a renewed confidence that the church has a divine commission.  He asserted that it is impossible for the church to die because it is Jesus who brings it into being and sustains it.  Its existence is the fulfilment of his purpose and that will not be thwarted.  Clearly specific forms of it can die and do over the centuries, but the existence of a church is the clear intension of God in Christ.  It is through it that Jesus intends to bless the world, the gospel be preached, even in the darkest places which will not prevail against it.

Growth always involves change and so growing more like Jesus will require the church in its current form to change, as it has in each generation.  It changes as it reconnects with the 'I' of 'I will build my church'.

On 'the gates of hell', referred to in the key passage, he described these as being wherever people are trapped in fear, abuse, addition, poverty, treatable ill-health; wherever the love of Jesus is not known. There is nowhere out of reach and which cannot be transformed.  They therefore will not prevail against the church that is built by him.  Ones not built by him deserve to crumble.

Deep roots and irrigation systems

On the second day the key address was given by Robert Atwell, the new Bishop of Exeter.  He drew his title from Thomas Traherne, 'Oak trees flourishing in winter'.  In his garden he has a Lucombe oak tree which is semi-evergreen.  It sustains this by a vast root system which penetrate very deeply into the ground. This enables nutrients to be drawn even when the surface may be dry or inhospitable for a season.  His encouragement was to be deeply rooted in prayer.  This is the distinctive contribution which the church offers.  If we do not talk about God, we have no purpose beyond any other group.

He described prayer as being like digging channels in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water so that when the water comes we are ready for that grace to irrigate the heart.  This goes against the instant, consumer culture because it has to be worked at over time.  But that's what disciples, followers of Jesus, do.  And there is no other point to the church.

In a workshop before hand he spoke about the need for contemplative leaders, drawing on the Rule of St Benedict.  Bishop Robert is a former Benedictine monk.  One of the other pitfalls for modern life is its frenetic nature, over activism.  Burnt out, exhausted Christians are not a good advert for the Kingdom of God.  Contemplation is the wellspring of Christian mission.

Get real and face the challenge

The third main talk was from the National Adviser for Mission and Evangelism for the Church of England, Rachel Jordan.  Seatbelts were needed because her high octane presentation was a whirlwind of passion to get real about the challenge we face.  The statistics have been presented by many others of declining numbers, and particularly among young people who are by and large just not attracted to what they find, if they look.  Church leaders need a clear vision of where they are (the reality of the situation) and of where they are trying to get to.  She based her presentation around the story in the Old Testament of Gideon.  She declared that we have forgotten who God is and need to encounter God afresh.  She quoted Pope Francis' recent encyclical on evangelisation, "A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love will convince nobody".  In contrast passion convinces and draws.

Gideon had to deal with idols and one of those she identified was the church having become a bit of a club.  Changing the culture of a church often causes a rumpus and we can expect conflict.  Continuing with her biblical model, people wanted to kill Gideon.  Mission demands conflict.  She also retold the parable of 'the lost sheep' as 'the lost flock'.  The 99 have wandered off and we are left with the 1, not the other way round.  Where her talk was less convincing for me was that it was low on solutions having spent a lot of time identifying the statistical decline.  Solutions of course come from analysing a particular setting and knowing where that place needs to travel to.  It was a talk that begged an awful lot more questions.

Key messages

For me the key messages I will take away are in the subheadings above: a renewed confidence in the one who builds the church and who calls it into being (the 'I' of "I will build"), the call to develop deep roots through prayer and remember that we have a gospel to proclaim, to be contemplative, and the challenge to get real and face the challenge - when it brings conflict not to be surprised (though like Gideon part of me would like to hide in a hole in the ground).  To aid those we were given three outstanding Bible Studies on the Gospel of Mark by Paul Foster from Edinburgh University.  Passion rekindled and confidence renewed.