Sunday, 26 January 2014

Holocaust Memorial Day

A prayer for Holocaust Memorial Day 2014 (27th January) inspired by visiting the Anne Frank exhibition in Peterborough Cathedral.

Hear the cry, Lord,
which echoes down the years
from atrocities and violence
perpetrated against your children.
To anguished hearts, bring your healing grace;
to the grief stricken, bring the hope of salvation;
to the lives lost, bring your redeeming embrace.
Open the eyes of those who would repeat
these horrors anew;
challenge them with your justice
and inspire compassion.
Take away all evil intent
and replace it with your peace and unity,
that the world may resound
with the song of your love.  Amen.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

How we deal with the bad stuff

This week has been a dark one for this city.  The conviction of a number of men and teenage boys for abuse of young girls has left many feeling sickened.  It comes on the back of over a year now of child abuse being on the front pages nationally, from Jimmy Savile, through high profile celebrity trials and convictions, to cases of trafficking and exploitation.  If anyone is tempted to try to blame any particular community for these we have so many cases in front of us which shout the lie to that.  As a children’s commissioner said this week, these cases are everywhere, in every community and no place can be complacent.  They bring a dark cloud and over time we all start to feel grubby.

For those who have suffered, they have been violated and that runs very deep indeed.  That some of these assaults took place in a children’s play park is a violation of childhood.  That touches us deeply too because childhood should be safe and a time to grow through play.  There is help and any group working with children and young people has procedures in place to minimize the risks.  The truth is, though, no one can ever remove all risk, but when potential perpetrators know people are on the look out, they tend to go elsewhere, where the pickings are easier.  A rule of thumb in safeguarding young people is that things should make sense and where behaviour is odd or something just doesn’t seem right then dig until you are satisfied, share your concern with someone you trust.  If you are not satisfied, keep digging until you either are or things come to light.  It’s a bit like when cash doesn’t reconcile by a few pence.  If that can’t be explained, then dig about because it can expose larger discrepancies.  I know this from reconciling my own bank account.  When my statement doesn’t agree with my record it usually means I’ve written something down wrong or added it up incorrectly, or an unexpected payment has gone out.  In one case it meant that someone had cloned my bankcard and that became dramatic as the sales assistant took a pair scissors and cut it up at the check out!

These cases of abuse are extreme and can breed a kind of paranoia about stranger danger.  The vast majority of people are actually trustworthy and safe.  One of the remarkable things despite all these cases is that people are generally good natured and kind.  The internet can be a dark place of any kind of depravity anyone cares to look for or even not look for.  But I find that if you have a problem making some piece of software work there will be a web page set up by someone with the answer and solution.  These are free and whenever I’ve tweeted a problem someone will reply with advice and encouragement.  I find that the internet is generally a place characterized by generosity and kindness.  So as with so many things balance and perspective are needed.  This is one of those weeks when we need to restore our grasp on this because it looks so dark and the scale can be overwhelming when presented without seeing all those others who can be trusted.

But sin is real for all of us and it lurks in our hearts.  It is the struggle between the good we desire and the evil we desire.  As Lady Gaga put it, 'Jesus is my virtue, but Judas is the demon I cling to'.  The inclinations of the heart are not always virtuous and we are fallen, fragile and vulnerable mortal creatures.  We are not perfect and sin is written through the human condition like a message through a stick of rock.  We have a need for salvation if there is to be any hope of eternity because how we are now is not ready for eternity.  We are a seething soup of desires and drives, which create and destroy.  That needs an answer and a solution and these do not lie within ourselves because while we can make incredible headway, we can’t ultimately change the condition that is both virtuous and vulnerable, godly and greedy, creative and destructive.

Into this struggle, walks Jesus in our gospel reading (John 1:29-42).  John the Baptist has been baptizing by the River Jordan.  He was doing this as a symbolic action to reinforce a spiritual preparation for God.  Those who came were responding to his message that God’s kingdom matters; the world belongs to God and we need to recalibrate our settings so that we aim to live as God would have us live.  But that recalibration is not, on its own, enough.  John points to Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.  This is not just a washing away of sins, the actions where we mess it up or the thoughts it would be better that we didn’t have.  This is the removal of the very flaw in the system in the first place.  This is the removal of mortality and the limited scope of where we live and therefore how we live.  Jesus is the answer to the problem of sin, of suffering and humans being mortal.

There is a way open for human beings to share in the life of God because God makes that way open.  It is God who made the world the way it is and so only God can expand its horizons beyond being locked into the limit of our flawed nature.  As things stand the natural order and condition of human life ends with death.  It goes no further.  The prospect of passing through a veil or slipping off into eternity doesn’t actually deal with the root problem.  It just keeps us as we are and as we are is not perfect or a condition to stay in forever.  The New Testament does not talk about just walking into another life with no interruption at death, it talks about a new creation, a new way of being, where sins are removed and we are changed.  God in Christ brings a new life where there would otherwise be death; his salvation disrupts the expected outcome.

The hope which this brings is that whatever the darkness we may encounter or perpetrate it is not eternal.  It doesn’t have the final word.  We know this instinctively which is why so many people find lighting candles as a sign of prayer helpful and encouraging.  Light shines in the darkness.  Healing is available for the injured and violated.  Forgiveness is offered for those who offend and with it a new start to live differently.  Places of violation are not tarnished forever but can be places of blessing and joy once again.

The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world brings hope and new life.  We need this because there are things we can’t deal with on our own and the power and hold of evil, of the pain and shame, are profound ones.  We need the healing grace of God in Christ.  In him we find the space to be heralds of his new creation and to find that the evil and pain do not have the final word.  Christ takes away the sin of the world and that is the source of our hope and much rejoicing.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 19th January 2014

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Baptism, The Devil and 'Special Agents'

Baptism has been in the news in recent months.  First we had the baptism of Prince George back in October.  On the day, BBC Radio Cambridgeshire turned up here at the Cathedral and I drew the short straw to stand by our ancient font and record a piece on baptism.  Having conducted something approaching a 1,000 baptisms I thought it would be an easy task.  However, my well-honed theology was to no avail.  What really caught their interest was my off-the-cuff comments about how to hold a baby.  I was taught by a midwife in the hospital after our first son was born and as she was explaining how to wash a baby’s hair she turned to me and said ‘I suppose this is how you baptize babies’.  I thought, ‘it is now’.  Though when it comes to David in a short moment, we won’t be employing quite the same grip, at 10 years old he’s a bit big for that.

The second place where baptism has been in the news is over some revisions being made to the words we use at baptism.  Ever since the latest text came out in 1998 many of us have found it to be out of touch with where most people are when they come for baptism themselves or bring their children for it.  There is too much unexplained reference to the devil and the language is just not earthed and doesn’t connect.  So revision is needed.

The news reports, though, about dumping the devil set me off thinking about the nature of evil and how it can concentrate and become focused in a place or a community so that it can take on a life of its own and we can find ourselves caught up in this.  It’s easy to see where ideas that personify evil as a person come from.  There are, though, other ways of saying this, which don’t imply horned creatures dressed in red with a spikey tail pitchforking the damned into the eternal flames, which is not very helpful and does tend to spoil the Christening party somewhat.

Baptism is a sign of how God deals with the reality of evil.  He does this in the person of Jesus Christ, sharing our humanity and our struggle, taking the human condition, even to the point of death, and breathes new life into it.  He also calls us to join in with him, to become his followers, his special agents in the world witnessing to love, hope and peace.  So, on this Sunday when we remember the baptism of Jesus we are drawn to look afresh at what lies at its root.

Baptism has its origins in washing, in the removal of dirt and making ourselves clean.  It lies in the freshening up after the heat of the day and getting ready so that we are acceptable for a special occasion.  We scrub up.  John the Baptist was building on a tradition that used this as a way of getting people ready for God’s kingdom, specifically a place where God was the ruler and not the Romans.  So people went to the Jordan, a place rich with significance as the place where the people of Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land.  As they lined up for this ritual washing, they signed up for the rule of God in their lives, in the life of their community and nation, they signed up to be special agents of his kingdom.   As they entered the flowing water, and either went beneath the waves or had the water poured over them a connection was made with how vulnerable life can be, how fragile we are.  Water can also overwhelm us, at its worst we can drown in it, and we’ve seen just how powerful it can be in the waves battering the coast and in the unstoppable floods.  Sadly yesterday the body of young man was found off the south coast.  Fragile and vulnerable, water in baptism reminds us that life is a special gift.  So God’s rule is founded in an eternal hope that the world belongs to God and so we try to shape our lives and the common life in accordance with the moral tone and purpose which flows from our faith.

Our Gospel reading took us to the River Jordan (Matthew3:13-end).  Along comes Jesus to sign up for this too.  This causes confusion for John because it is him that he is getting everyone ready for.  So this is the wrong way round and doesn’t make sense to him.  It wouldn’t make sense to us if Jesus arrived through the great West Doors and asked to be baptized.  In presenting himself at the Jordan, Jesus identifies fully with who we are and where we are.  He takes the baptism and gives it a new significance.  It is no longer something that needs to be repeated, as with ritual washing, but becomes an entry point into his kingdom.  Once the waters of life have touched us we are incorporated into his family, his household of faith, and become his children through grace, through his gift.  We become his special agents.

To show this three symbols will be used.  These children will be marked with the sign of the cross, using special oil blessed for this purpose by our bishop.  They will be anointed, blessed.  People are anointed for special jobs; it’s an ancient practice.  The special job which these children have, and which all of us who have been baptized share with them, is to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  There are not just 12 disciples, but there were many more and since there have been billions.  In a moment, there will be three more called David, Isabel and Esme.

Then there is the water, the way we sign up for this.  We are washed, brought through the vulnerable submission and incorporated into the life of Christ’s church.  The consequences of sin are repaced by the freshness of salvation.  Finally we will give them candles, and the words used talk about shining as lights in the world to the glory of God.  This takes us back to that debate about the devil and evil.  Following Christ means challenging evil wherever we find it, it means making a difference so that we bring light into situations, not darkness, we aim to be people who are grace and blessing to the world: challenge evil, make a difference and be grace and blessing.

Today we make 3 new disciples of Jesus Christ; people who are blessed and who will themselves be blessing.  They are to be signs of hope in a fragile and vulnerable world, lights to counter darkness wherever it is found, however we choose to talk about evil.  They are to be special agents of God’s kingdom as all of us who have been baptized are called to be.  The challenge for the rest of us here is help them do that, to set the example for them to follow.  That is why God draws us together as his church to help one another in this journey.  Baptism is a sign of God’s confidence in us to do this and be this in the power of his Spirit.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 12th January 2014