Wednesday, 29 October 2014

I believe in God

Every day at Evensong in the cathedral I utter the words 'I believe in God' and I don't have my fingers crossed behind my back.  There are all sorts of things that I might wobble over, but I just don't wobble over my belief in God.  I wonder at why things are as they are, especially when I have to face some of the darkest moments in human suffering.  I have my moments of profound faith in various tenets of the Christian faith and others when I find the metaphor expresses something imperceptible behind it.  But deep down I find it more incredible to believe that everything that exists is a mere accident than I do that it has a prime mover, source and ultimate destination.

That said when we start asking what that God, prime mover, is like then massive differences of opinion open up.  I don't for instance believe in an old man with a white beard sitting on a cloud.  I don't believe in a magician who gives me a parking space when I'm pressed for time and some how prioritises that over the child dying of Ebola.  Quite frankly I'd rather he concentrated on the child than my inconvenience, however important the engagement I'm late for.  I don't believe God is a puppeteer.

Do I believe this God is personal?  I believe there is a relationship that we have with the divine and that we see this uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ, a Jew who walked and taught in Palestine 2,000 years ago.  I believe that something profound happened for the disciples to talk of him having risen from the dead, what we call the Resurrection, and they were so profoundly affected by this that they would die for it.  I can't explain it and it isn't dependent on the tomb being empty, though without it the claim would have had a serious flaw on a superficial level.  David Jenkins, the radical and inspirational Bishop of Durham of the 1980s, described this as the resurrection being much more than a conjuring trick with bones.  Sadly the journalists at the time weren't listening and misunderstood him.  I believe this resurrection is a foretaste of what lies in store for us, that each of us is uniquely loved and treasured by the creator.  Salvation is the rescuing of us from the consequences of the world being temporal and transitory.  If I'm wrong I won't have eternity to worry about it!

I don't find my belief in God incompatible with Big Bang or any scientific theory and I haven't since I first started thinking about these things.  The Bible has to be understood in a much more subtle way than that.  It is metaphor, narrative and poetry.  It's truth is more profound than whether it happened as it says it did.  I certainly don't believe the world was made in 6 days and the earth isn't flat!  I don't believe in talking snakes.  I do find in these stories profound insight.

So when I hear that the Pope has declare that God is not a magician and he accepts Big Bang I don't know whether to say 'so what else did you expect' or be depressed that anyone thinks this is earth shattering news.  Also when I hear reports that 2% of Anglican Clergy don't believe in God, I ask myself, what kind of God don't they believe in?  The survey this statement is based on, in which I took part, always hinges on how people interpret the question or options offered as possible answers.  It then depends on what those writing up the story have in their minds or fantasy about what we believe when looking for a headline.

That said there are a lot of people spouting fundamentalist Christianity which would make this radical and so it is important to make it clear that they don't speak for us all, in fact they speak for very few.

If I didn't believe in God, a prime mover and goal, the one from whom we derive life and who cares for us even though at times that seems to be expressed in questionable ways, I could not do what I do.  But I do believe it and what is more I believe that in this belief lies the answer to the darkness and that darkness finds its meaning and explanation in God.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Jam and Jerusalem

Today I will welcome over 160 members of the Women's Institute to Peterborough Cathedral as part of a national baton 'relay' round the country.  This is part of their preparations for celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the WI in 1915.  The WI is often associated with Jam and Jerusalem, but I have confess I hadn't realised what the connection was before I looked it up.

They were founded to promote women's education and wellbeing during the First World War.  They are connected with the suffragette movement and Jerusalem was a rally hymn for that cause.  It's adoption links votes with education and with promotion of women's wellbeing.  The Jam connection is their encouragement of home food preparation at a time of challenge, when making the most of the fruits of the earth particularly mattered.

In a year when the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to two people for the promotion of children's education, not least for girls in countries where this is controversial and brings death threats, the work of the WI is worth celebrating and is a cause for reflection.

The WI also provides a vehicle for friendship and mutual care.  My mother-in-law was a member in Kent and I know that she derived great support and friendship through it.  Their strapline used to be 'for home and country'.

The prayer below was written for this visit today and is my attempt to bring these values and concerns together with some of the today's challenges.

God of justice, truth and peace
in your Son Jesus Christ,
you call men and women to follow you
and grow in faith, hope and love.
We give thanks for the Women's Institute
in promoting women's education and wellbeing,
bringing members together in friendship and mutual care.
Keep us ever mindful of the bonds that unite
strengthening cohesion in this land and throughout the world.
As we recall struggles for equality in the past,
we pray for all who strive for equality and education today,
remembering with thanksgiving the award of the Nobel Peace Price
for promoting these aims.
May the vision of the new Jerusalem become a reality
and all share in the rich bounty of the fruits of the earth:
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Future of the Parish

There is a series of debates taking place in Oxford on the future of the parish system in the Church of England, organised by the Westminster Faith Debates network.  The working thesis behind this seems to be that the Church of England is struggling to sustain the traditional ministry of being present in every community, for every community.  Some churches are just collapsing and with a demographic that indicates those under 50 years old are dramatically less likely to associate with the Church of England than those over, the prognosis is not good.

Focussing on the parish system is to look at effect rather than cause.  The parish system is a modus operandi, but behind it there has to be vibrant churches which are sustainable and engaging.  In short the challenge is the same that it has always been.  Unless we are missionary and draw people into the worshipping and faith life of the church there will be no church to engage in the myriad of activities that it has up to this point fulfilled.

After the Archbishop of Canterbury was quoted as saying good vicars grow churches, I wrote in December about some of the elements necessary for churches to grow.  Behind these there needs to be a congregation who will be the sales force for the gospel.  That may sound a glib way to put it, but without boots on the ground - to mix metaphors - there will be no growth.  The best draw for the church is those who try to live its message.  They are the ones who will show that the life and teaching of Jesus is relevant to today, that the faith inspires, and that worship enlivens with hope.

It is my fundamental belief that the survival of the church matters enormously because it carries a message that is life transforming, affirming and hope-filled.  If I didn't believe this I would give up - the struggle is so hard at times that it would just not be worth it.  But it is worth it.  It is also my belief that if the Church of England does collapse, and I hope it won't, we would need to reinvent it.  And the challenge for us is to reimagine what it would look like if we did reinvent it so that we can make that a reality.  Because that is what will ensure its survival.  Its survival is not the crucial issue though.  The crucial issue is what it serves and stands for, the difference it makes.

There are many people who have got fed up with what they see in churches, particularly when what they see doesn't live up to what they expect.  They are broken communities like everywhere else is.  But they should be a place where this brokenness is acknowledged, where healing and justice are affirmed and where that is all held so that it becomes a place of honesty.  When it becomes dysfunctional it all goes horribly wrong.

I stand by my points on what make a church grow.  Sometimes I am more hopeful than at other times with this agenda.

If the church was a business it would set its branches targets and if they didn't measure up they would be shut down or relocated.  We are not a business.  We are communities of real people, rooted in real places.  We don't just show up for an event and then go away again.  We are embedded in those communities - that is what the parish system means.  That means head office can't just shut down 'failing' places.  But if there isn't a turn around in growth, then some places will cease to be viable for the large resources required and they will be forced to reimagine and reinvent if they are to sustain a continued presence.

Behind and sustaining all of this must be a profound faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Without that the church has no point beyond whatever music or cultural associations it brings.  Those are replicable if wanted.  But without the faith, the church is not the church.  That spiritual vibrancy is its future, its life-blood and its only source of hope.  There is not other reason for it to exist.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Jesus and the fashion police

Royal weddings understandably attract a massive amount of attention.   The wedding of William and Kate in 2011 drew audiences from across the world and I suspect most people would have jumped at the chance had they been invited to the service and reception afterwards.  Even the most lukewarm of royal observers perks up at a good royal spectacular and they show just how far we are from republicanism.  These were the hottest tickets in town and I can’t imagine many people responding that they had business engagements to go to instead, let alone mistreating the postman delivering the message and certainly not killing any of them.  This makes the scenario in our gospel reading (Matthew 22:1-14) all the more bizarre.  Who in their right mind would turn down this invitation and with such bad grace and violence?

The clue to this strange parable comes at the end.  It is not that the fashion police single out the poor man who didn’t have the right clothes on.  It’s more remarkable that any of those last minute invitees were properly dressed at all.  No, this story is not really about a wedding and it’s certainly not about the dress code.  The way in to this story is to look at passages like the Epistle, which was so helpfully set alongside it by our lectionary.  This gave us a list of virtues: ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’ (Philippians 4:8).  These are the wedding clothes for the guests to the banquet.  These are attributes and qualities that we are to have with us all the time.  So if the invite comes we are ready because that is how we are living already.  We don’t need to go and get changed and won’t need excuses as to why we can’t come because we don’t want to be shown up, exposed for who we really are.  The grumpy guests revealed their hand by how they responded.

The Kingdom of God is like being ready when the moment of judgment comes.  And ‘judgment’ is one of those words we don’t like hearing or using.  Everyone is welcome and invited; we see that from how the invitations go out and broaden beyond those we’d expect to be invited.  Not just friends, not just those who we usually find attending great state occasions.  This is itself an interesting challenge to the usual assumptions about who is ‘good enough’ and ‘worthy’ and who is not.  That was an important message for when the gospel was written.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is not just for 1st century Jews but for everyone and we find the first disciples having their horizons broadened as they journeyed with Jesus.  Tax Collectors become disciples alongside zealots and fishermen.  Roman officials have their request for healings granted.  Lepers are embraced and the blind and lame healed.  He feeds 5,000 by one seashore before crossing over to another community, of outsiders, and feeds 4,000 more.  But it is the leftovers that are telling – far more is provided for the outsiders than the insiders because the baskets used to collect the pieces are bigger.  Time and again the horizons are expanded.  Matthew begins his gospel with travelling foreigners worshipping and adoring as they left their strange gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  The world comes to worship and Christ came for the world.

But this is only half the story.  The other half is that being invited calls us to account.  We have to make a decision and it challenges us with where we are when the invite comes.  No one knows when it will come.  It comes like a thief in the night, we are told, unexpected and without warning.  How it finds us is how we are.  There are consequences to what we do, the moral decisions we make and the character we develop.  The consequences reveal the clothes of our character that we carry with us all the time.  So when we enter the banquet we do so as we are and that is judgment day for all of us.

So the challenge of this seemingly strange story about a wedding and the fashion police is to take the call of God seriously; to shape our characters in light of that call: its justice, truth and all that is worthy of praise.  Do we measure up?  No of course we don’t.  Salvation always comes through God’s grace which completes what is lacking, but there are consequences.  If there weren’t what would be the point?  The call from this parable is to live as you would like to be found when someone demands that you give an account of how you are.

There are things we struggle with.  Some have been badly treated in the past and carry those scars.  They are part of the character.  Some are weighed down by what they see as unforgiveable guilt.  That is where the cross comes in.  It is the place we lay the things we can’t deal with but we do it with a deep desire that the taint will be taken away, and in that faith and approach it is.  We can face this judgment precisely when we realize that we have nothing in mitigation to say except I am trying.  It is when we use the words of the centurion that ‘I am not worthy to have you under my roof, but only say the word from a distance and all will be well’ (Matthew 8:8).  The centurion was near to the kingdom of God because he knew he needed God’s grace to heal and to redeem.  And strangely it is when we know our need that we find we have the right clothes to enter the banquet.  That is all God asks of us because in the words of the Psalmist, ‘a lowly and contrite heart he will not despise’ (Psalm 51:17).

We come before the throne of God’s grace and trust in his mercy.  The Kingdom of God is like those who were invited and while they may have been greatly surprised were ready to accept with honour, humility and great thanksgiving.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th October 2014