Sunday, 29 June 2014

Lest we forget: The month that led to WW1

There is a scene in the film ‘The History Boys’ by Alan Bennett where the students are visiting a war memorial.  Their teacher points to the very familiar words ‘Lest we forget’ and tells them that it should really say ‘Lest we remember’.  His point is that just focusing on the deaths and the number who died means we don’t face the real causes.  It means we don’t really learn any lessons.  Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie.  It was the beginning of a catastrophic sequence of events which led to four years of disastrous war in Europe, which we call World War 1.  There are lots of words about sacrifice and cost, but very little about learning the lessons.  I think this next month is the most important anniversary of the First World War because it is in this month that decisions were taken that made the difference between war and no war or how previous complex factors and tensions unraveled to catapult Europe to war.

There is a scene in the Harry Potter books when Harry is struggling with how alike Voldemort he is.  His wise headmaster, Dumbledore, tells him that it is not how alike they are but how they are different that matters and that difference lies in the choices that they make.  If it wasn’t for imperial and empire aspirations and fears, for political aims which were blinded to potential consequences, the First World War would not have happened.  If the Serbian’s had not had their eyes on annexing Bosnia then the assassins would not have laid in wait for their moment to take out the heir to the obstacle for their expansionism.  If it wasn’t for all the other complex European tensions and pressures, we might have been elsewhere.  And if it hadn’t been for the technological developments in weaponry which made industrialised killing possible, the war would have been on a smaller scale.  The shock was that Europe went quickly from war not being on anyone’s radar to become a reality within just over a month.  That makes this next month the real anniversary for the First World War, because it is the anniversary of the decisions that led to it.  There was a very interesting series on Radio 4 this week called ‘Month of Madness’ in which the historian Christopher Clark told the story of that month.

The element I find missing from recent commemorations, not least the D-Day anniversary earlier this month, is the notion of standing in solemn silence at the terrible, tragic cost of decisions and policy failure.  Failure because, as Archbishop Robert Runcie used to say, war is always a sign of failure, notably the failure to find another solution.  I put all of this into a prayer and used it in the cathedral when introducing Baroness Shirley Williams to give the Heritage Festival Lecture last Saturday on her mother Vera Brittain, who volunteered as a nurse on the front lines in 1915.  It was a bit of a road test.  I was surprised that afterwards a number of people came up to me, when you’d expect them to have forgotten it, to say how much they appreciated the sentiments conveyed in that prayer.

There are lots of tensions around at the moment, some with striking comparisons to 1914: expansionism and hardened hearts that will not stop or be restrained. How will we respond to this hour?  Will we look to take up arms to defeat?  One of the things I find disturbing about Armed Forces Day is it makes it look like might and awesome destruction is the only solution.  I was left uneasy by the chilling military hardware on display yesterday in the city centre here.  Will we look for another way to build and strengthen bridges across communities, cultures and faith differences?  Will we look for those of good will with whom we can work?   There are extremist voices on many sides and in all communities.  We need to find the ones who add light not just heat to debates and discussions.

Today we are celebrating our patronal festival.  This is the day that we remember the saint after whom this church is named: John the Baptist.  He is described as a voice crying out ‘prepare the way of the Lord’.  As a voice, he calls us to stop and check where we are going.  He calls on us to adjust the setting so that we are ready for the God of love and justice who comes among us in Jesus Christ.  He calls us to repentance, to be so sorry for what we are doing and where we are heading that we change course.  Repentance literally means to turn around and go in the opposite direction.  It is no mere lip service but a complete reorientation.  So often peace is taken to be just the ceasing of hostilities, but Christ’s peace is something much more radical and foundational about how we relate and mutually flourish together.  To pursue peace we likewise need a reorientation, to turn around from whatever courses are leading us towards disastrous conflict.  It does of course require all sides to take this seriously and if the First World War and other conflicts do anything they should remind us what happens when they don’t and it should sober us.

This church stands in the heart of this city’s public square.  We are part of the backdrop for so many events.  We have the opportunity to take our namesake’s calling seriously and be a beacon for a new, a different response; to proclaim Christ’s peace.  We are not just a piece of fine architecture – we could be that without being a church.  The calling is to call out to prepare the way of the Lord and his peace, to engage with all who pass by and who call in so that something of the good news of Jesus Christ connects with them. 

To do that we will use a variety of tools and I spoke about a few of them at the annual church meeting back in April under 5 ‘L’s: location, love, live, longing and learning.  Location is where we are and the opportunities it brings.  By opening the doors last weekend we took that seriously and there is no way we could have done anything other with so many people in the city centre for the Heritage Festival.  Love means that we are people who proclaim and display love.  We welcome, care and respect so that this becomes infectious.  This faith that inspires us is to be lived, to be put into practice so that good deeds flow.  We see this through our support for the food bank and in lives that make a difference in so many ways.  Longing is our desire for God’s justice and peace, to ask questions of policy makers and support them in the difficult challenges they face.  We long for this congregation to grow.  Learning is life-long, we never stop, and we need to know more about our faith if it is going to inspire.

So today we celebrate our patronal festival as we enter the awesome, shocking commemoration of the First World War which began 100 years ago.  Our vocation is to be a voice crying out to prepare the way of the Lord, to announce Christ’s peace among us, among the world, in the heart of this city.

Let us pray
As we stand in solemn silence
and recall the terrible cost of war and conflict
give us courage to take stock
of all that led to the hour;
the evil intent,
the opportunities to step aside
and embrace a different path not taken,
the confrontation and aggression
with violence in the heart
that would not stop.
May we learn to build true peace;
to nurture the channels and bonds that unite;
to respect and honour all people,
however different they may be.
Keep us ever mindful of the road that leads to death and destruction
lest we forget and travel it once more.
For the greater love that lays down its life
in your Son, the Prince of Peace,
won for us eternal hope
and a Kingdom built on true justice;
we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Presence of God in the breaking of the bread

One of the intriguing things about the New Testament is that when we want to find the presence of God we don’t find it located in places.  It locates it in a person, or persons in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, they show up, but move about and are not static.  And yet the history of Christianity seems to have been obsessed with buildings and special places.  It’s as if we are all Peters at the Transfiguration whose response to revelation is to get out tools to build something to capture it.  God has to be contained so that we know where to find him and so that we know where he is.  It would be far too concerning and troubling if God was allowed to show up where he willed and unexpected.  But that is precisely what the New Testament gives us.  Peter is silenced midsentence.  He is wrong.

Today we celebrate the presence of God in ordinary food and drink.  We refer to this meal as the most holy meal going, a celestial banquet, a feast for our souls.  But then we look at the menu and it’s bread for goodness sake, and flattened, unleavened bread in wafer form at that.  The wine carries a rich heritage of feasts, the Kingdom of God and bounty.  But the meat is not meat.  And what is more when Jesus institutes this banquet with a difference it is the action that seems to convey his presence not just the substance he uses.  It is in the breaking of bread that the disciples recognize him at the end of a dusty journey to Emmaus on the first Easter Day evening.  It is to meet together to pray and to break bread that the disciples are formed into the fledgling church in that time between Easter Day and Pentecost.  Doing it seems to matter.  ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ is far more than just have this magic food; it’s an activity of the will that is needed.  Jesus says ‘do this’ not ‘have it’.

And this is not a solitary activity.  Jesus said he would be present when two or three are gathered together.  Not one person on their own, though God does not abandon the lonely.  But the call is to gather and share in this meal.  We need other people to guide and shape our faith, to help us see what we would otherwise miss, to form a community with Christ at its heart, and in the Church of England priests need another person to be present for the Communion service to take place.  If no one shows up, no mass.  It can’t be done on our own and so one of the most important questions comes in the Sursum Corda, the responses at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God’ and we need to reply ‘It is right to give thanks and praise’.  That is your consent and therefore the giving of your authority as the gathered people for the president to proceed.  Translated it is ‘do you want to do this?’ We reply, ‘Yes we do’!  Keep silent and therefore withhold your consent and we don’t continue.

What all of this means is that the presence of God in the sacrament of Communion is not something prepackaged and waiting for us on the shelf.  It has to be brought to life through the action of gathering, breaking, pouring and sharing.  The point of places of pilgrimage is that the journey to get there, note an activity again, is a spiritual journey that puts us in the place to be able to recognize what is actually available to us at the bus stop, in a friend’s front room and whenever together we gather to pray.

So we celebrate today with thanksgiving the institution by Christ of taking bread and wine and making them into a sacrament of his presence.  But it is the taking, the thanking, the breaking, the sharing that makes this sacrament.  God’s presence is never static and will not be contained by boxes, however special and however many lights we place outside them.  Reserved sacrament is always distributed with prayers which themselves recall the love of God in Christ and join that person receiving it with the act in this service.  We treat the bread and wine with respect, reverence it, but Christ’s command was to the action, to ‘do this’, the focus not just on the holy food.  It is in the ‘do this’, the breaking of the bread that God’s presence is found and made known to us.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Corpus Christi, Thursday 19th June 2014

Trinity: spiritual and social together

World Cup fever is upon us and there have already been a few shocks in the opening games with the current champions, Spain, losing 5-1 to the Netherlands on Friday.  In the Cathedral sweepstake I have drawn England and so am not spending much time thinking about which charity to donate the winnings to.  The games are taking place in Brazil, a country of stark inequalities and the home of Liberation Theology, a view that the social and the spiritual go together born under significant deprivation and oppressive governments in Latin America.  This was hated by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict, but in the way history can bring plot twists his successor Pope Francis seems to be well and truly in that mold.  And he is showing just how dangerous a gospel of justice, which seeks to overturn the oppressing inequalities, is for the rich and powerful, for those who are comfortable.  He has instigated changes which ask what money is for, what power is for and what life is for.

On Thursday I picked up a football at the checkout at Morrison’s.  It has the flag of St George on it.  And the flag of St George is being flown with pride all over the country, as other national flags will be around the world.  The flag is a statement of identity.  Also on Thursday every house in England received a free copy of The Sun newspaper.  This has proved controversial, a number of people suggesting we return it to sender and it was taken as a sleight on the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough.  The headline on the front picture was ‘This is our England’.  I’m not sure if it was a World Cup rally or a response to Michael Gove’s call for British values to be promoted in schools.  That call resonates and there can be an instinctive nod, surely cohesive community requires common values, but when you try to work out exactly what our identity is, it’s not quite so clear.  There are ideas of Britishness promoted by racist and extremist groups which I don’t recognize, so I look forward to a good debate on this.  There is a potential for a battle for the soul of the nation here and an opportunity to inspire and challenge.

Among the values suggested have been democracy, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance, not a uniquely British list.  They sound good until we ask what they really mean.  For instance, what does individual liberty mean?  There is a political divide around the notion of big government and little government – large amounts of state control and the state backing off to leave the market to decide.  At the extremes lots of state control can stifle, but the government withdrawing too much leaves the rich to be comfortable and the poor to suffer with little means to express any liberty.  Liberty for one does not necessarily mean liberty for all.  So I’m not convinced individual liberty is a value I want to expound without qualification.  If it means free speech that is fine until it becomes offensive and incites hatred.  How free can free really be?  This week I heard someone, I can’t remember who now, remind us about the Millennium Resolution, put out by the Christian Churches and others just before the Millennium, and he suggested we look at that when wanting to decide what kind of identity we want.  Here’s a reminder of what it said:

Let there be
respect for the earth
peace for its people
love in our lives
delight in the good
forgiveness for past wrongs
and from now on a new start.

Identity should bind together and set the tone, but this should not be at the expense of anyone else, diminish their worth or be a cause of oppression.

Today is Trinity Sunday.  This is the day that we celebrate the identity of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  These are the three ways that we see God revealed in Scripture and in religious experience.  God who is distant, the ultimate, source and goal, beyond and transcendent.  This is God the mystery, who inspires awe and wonder.  The one who is far bigger than anything we can see or imagine and therefore puts us firmly in our place as creature and not creator. We refer to this as Father, but that includes what it means to be mother too. Then there is God alongside us, sharing the life we live, bringing that life into being so that there is anything rather than nothing.  God who has a purpose and expresses it in creation and makes the life we have a sacrament of who he is.  God who bridges any gap between creator and creatures and draws us into his eternal love, who saves us.  We see this in Jesus.  And there is God who gets inside us, who actively makes things happen.  Inspires, works the magic and sparkle of the music of creation.  Not just science and the building blocks but makes these dynamic and creative, energized and a cause for delight.  The Spirit directs and breathes life wherever it moves.

These three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are shorthand words for the deep mystery of God: distant, alongside and within; creating, redeeming and sustaining.  There is a dance between them and they are interdependent.  So when independence is held up as a totem around which we should gather, a warning bell sounds from our doctrine of God.  Independence is not actually what we are aiming at.  We are made to exist together by a God who carries true community within itself.  Independence can actually mean isolation and not the freedom we really want.  Interdependence can counter the imposing of one view on everyone, which we are seeing in such destructive ways in Iraq and Syria, among other places.  The history of the development of thought shows a great reliance on other cultures to open new insights, to remind us of things we have forgotten.  Amidst great diversity there is much that is shared and a reliance on others for far more than we are often aware of.

Community and common purpose are at the heart of our doctrine of God.  So any vision of identity should remind us that I only find out who I am when we find out who we are.  We are persons in community and in that we reflect the image of God who made us, so it should not surprise us that we bear the stamp of God’s identity.   Britain as a nation, or collection of nations, has learnt the importance of interdependence the hard way.  We have had religious wars and class struggle.  We have found they do not bring life in abundance but death, hatred, division and oppression.  There are features of what was called the Arab Spring, but now looks much more like winter, which remind me of 17th century civil war and puritan struggle.

Amidst the many anniversaries around at the moment, next year, a year today, is the anniversary of Magna Carta, signed in 1215.  It is time for a new one to be clear on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship for 21st century.  The role of the state to promote freedom but so that everyone has the means to enjoy it, not just the modern version of the Barons.

Today we are confronted with symbols and statements of our identity.  The nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit sets the tone of interdependence in community.  Independence is a delusion.  We can have different levels of decision-making, but no one is an island entire unto themselves, in John Donne’s famous phrase.  The World Cup in Brazil, the home of Liberation Theology, focuses the spiritual and social needing to sit together and any identity we want to celebrate must do that too.  We find that in the very way we understand the identity of God as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th June 2014

Sunday, 8 June 2014

3D Pentecost: Distilling, Disturbing, Directing

It’s exam time, so here’s a comprehension test.  You’ve heard the readings this morning, you’ve got them printed out so you can look back, when was the Holy Spirit given to the disciples?  Surely that’s easy, it’s today because today is Pentecost and that’s 50 days after Easter.  That’s a quick A* if ever there was one.  Ah, but all is not so simple.  Yes, the Book of Acts, our first reading, does indeed give that timeline (Acts 2:1-11), but the gospel from John, does not.  In John the Holy Spirit is given in the evening on that first Easter Day (John 20:19-23).  The two stories do not seem to tie up.  And John is awkward like that, he doesn’t put everything in the same order, he doesn’t even get the names of the disciples the same, but then he’s not fussed about there being 12.  That said, the Acts reading doesn’t say it was the first time the Holy Spirit came on them, it’s just we’ve tended to assume that.  The Holy Spirit has already inspired their choice of Matthias to replace Judas.  Beware editorial headings in bibles.  So Pentecost is a day that is not as straightforward as we might like it to be and that is because it is a day that disturbs and so it should.

I want to offer this morning three ways that we see the Holy Spirit and they come from our readings.  The first I’ve just hinted at, disturbing.  The second is that it directs and the third is that it distills.  But I will begin with distilling.

If we take the timeline in Acts, the gift of the Holy Spirit comes at the end of a long period of head scratching, fifty days.  The resurrection and what it means is not obvious to the disciples.  It’s not obvious in John either.  The disciples need to work out this crazy experience.  They meet to pray, to tell the stories of what Jesus had done, and to break bread.  This is a process of distillation as it all gets mulled over and sinks in and this process is itself a major way that we open ourselves to allow the Holy Spirit to work in and on us.  Distillation is a process of the Holy Spirit.

Then on the day of the agricultural festival when the first wheat of the crop is offered, what we used to celebrate later in the year at Lammastide, what they called Pentecost, they are hit with the full force of the Holy Spirit.  And this explodes with a newfound linguistic fluency.  They don’t speak in a spiritual language.  This is not heavenly tongues.  They speak in an array of ordinary languages, a veritable collection of Google translate breaks out and is catalogued in every lesson reader’s worst nightmare with that list of places and peoples.  People hear them in their first language.  Not in a holy, special language, but God in the normal.  This prefigures the breaking of dietary laws later on.  The gospel is for all people and all cultures.  That is still radical today because we have tended to make it Western and middle class, even middle aged and older.  The gift of the Holy Spirit is a reminder that we must not restrict the gospel to one culture or set of assumptions.  It refuses to be bound by whatever boxes we create for it and will break free.  This is every control freak’s worst nightmare.

So the distillation of what it means quickly moves into disturbing us when it has sunk in and done its work.  We are creatures of habit and like to know what to expect.  But when that happens we can very quickly start to become blind to the bits which the cosy status quo has filtered out.  The Magnificat, the song of Mary, which we sing in beautiful polyphony every day here, is still one of the most radical pieces of poetry in the Bible.  The humble are exalted, the rich are thrown out and put to the back to the queue, and a young girl is allowed to sing the song.  Social conventions disturbed and turned on their head.

That disturbing is part of the wind that blows through history and through the church.  Change and advancement is often brought through conflict and challenge.  Without it we don’t move.  Things which today seem self evident, like the ending of slavery, were hard won.  Well, I say self evident, but the Queen’s Speech this week included provisions against modern forms of slavery and exploitation.  And there is an active slave market in Africa, which we have seen with the 200 school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.  The battles of equality have to be renewed for each generation and fans of hip-hop, rap and pop music will know that there are attitudes which are as sexist as any previous generation has been.  So we still need disturbing and the Spirit still has work to do.  The church is no exception in any of this.  Power always needs confronting with justice and the view from the side aisles, which are often the much richer places to view from.  The angles are more interesting and we see things very differently.

Distilled and disturbed, we look for direction.  And it is John who gives it to us.  The point of receiving the Holy Spirit is to be sent.  As the Father has sent the Son, so the Son sends the disciples, and that is us, dear reader.  The Son was sent to proclaim the good news of God’s grace and a new start.  We are sent with the same message to reconcile and unite.  It is in John that the Son comes that we may have life in abundance, to love and be loved, to serve, to be set free and to join in a banquet of grace and truth.  The purpose of God comes among us and calls us to follow him.

It has become popular to refer to Pentecost as the church’s birthday.  I’m not so convinced by this, because the disciples were clearly shaping and gathering themselves before hand – they were distilling so that they were ready to be disturbed.  The church was born with the resurrection at Easter and it was Spirit-fuelled too.  But on the Day of Pentecost, to jump back to Acts, the disciples find courage; they are directed.  Shattered, frightened men and women found the strength and boldness they needed to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ risen and glorified, even to risk and face death for this otherwise crazy faith.  The Spirit gives direction to faith, to being living witnesses; it gives us a mission which is derived from the purpose of God.

Distilled, disturbed and directed, the Holy Spirit which we celebrate today is the lifeblood of everything we do and aim to be.

Come wind and fire,
breathe in us;
kindle a flame to ignite us to action
that we may be filled
with your life and love
and direct us in your service. Amen.

Pentecost sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 8th June 2014