Sunday, 29 March 2015

Silence: assured presence and apparent absence

From the cross, just before he died, Jesus cried out with a loud voice “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).  It is a quote from the beginning of Psalm 22, a Psalm which starts with desolation and abandonment, talks of mocking and being overwhelmed with distress, but moves on to become a song of hope and deliverance.  But it begins where Jesus is, in a very dark place.  Silence in the oldest parts of the Old Testament writings is not a good thing.  When God is silent, God is not felt to be active.  The grave is silent and that is the place of the dead.  There was silence before creation and it requires the spoken Word of God to bring order and creation, to bring life and hope into being.  In this tradition silence is the state of being abandoned or not yet being.

But that is not the only tradition.  Silence is also the place of rest when work is done.  The tradition moves from formless silence to restful silence on the Sabbath.  Creation has done its work and it is good.  Silence is the beholding, the adoring; the praise without words.  This is good silence which can exist secure and content.

Silence is seen as good and evil, as a place of ultimate hope and also apparent despair.  The Gospel exists to end a great silence, the silence of God in Christ unknown.  Christ comes to make known what has always been, but not seen, to end the silence of unknowing and spiritual blindness.  However, just before that dawns, before it breaks, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is struck dumb, made silent, by his doubting that his wife would bear a son, that God’s promise would be fulfilled.  His silence ends when he agrees that John will be called John and his mouth is opened (Luke 1:18-20, 59-64), when he shows his faith and his trust in God.  The silence here is a curse, a sanction and punishment for not trusting God, broken only by the sign of that trust renewed.

Silence is also the place of withdrawal.  Jesus is taken, driven into the wilderness after his baptism and there he is confronted by temptation and coming through this he is able to focus on his mission and purpose.  He finds direction through the struggle in the silence, through the conflict of confronting the spiritual battle with a very different vision of how he should be and rejecting the one presented by the tempter.  The silence can be ended.

At the end of the New Testament, the writer of the Book of Revelation has a series of seals being opened and various judgments emerge.  The seventh and final seal opens the scroll and there is silence in heaven for half an hour (Revelation 8:1).  It is a pause before the final judgment which opening the seal brings.  It is an awesome silence in which anticipation builds and we know something utterly decisive is about to follow.  Salvation has been set in motion.  It is a silence I think about when at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer I hold a silence before we move on to the Lord’s Prayer.  It is completed and mortals are silenced by the awe and wonder of what has taken place.  Silence is held because there is nothing more to be said, that can be said; it is a silence of presence revealed, which preceeds salvation opened for us, which the Eucharist  announces and marks.

In this light the Christian mystics and devotees have developed a tradition of silence that spans the centuries.  It is an embracing of the silence of temptation, of struggle, of inner conflict, of wondering whether there is a presence at all so that we may find it; a silence that knows the seal has been opened and can be at one with the glory and salvation revealed.  A poet, Janet Rimmer, has played with this duality of understanding of silence, of assured presence and apparent absense.
In Your presence there is an absence
silencing my greatest fear.
It is with You that I know the essence
of what is life, now that You’re near.

It is in the absence of Your presence
that I rekindle my desire;
and it is when I am without You
that I burn, an inextinguishable fire.

In Your presence there is an absence
of all that preys upon my mind;
for my heart’s desire’s before me,
and I leave all else behind.

It is in the absence of Your presence
that I have learned to be apart.
It is without You that I am with You;
for You are Joy within my heart.
 Northumbria Community p330

Silence is extremely important and this Lent I have felt its absence in the noise and busyness that has at times overwhelmed me.  There are two great silences this coming week and I want to make the most of them.  On Maundy Thursday, after we have celebrated the Eucahrist of the Last Supper, we keep watch with Christ as he prays in the garden.  ‘Can we watch with him just one hour?’  On Good Friday I have decided that we will keep this church open as a still place for the three hours between 12noon and 3.00pm.  If you want words and liturgy, they can be found in the Cathedral.  If you want busyness of life carrying on as normal, it will be outside.  In here we will be still.  We will embrace the darkness, the abandonment of the cross and find there the presence that brings salvation, that announces good news and affirms the confidence and trust in God’s redeeming love; of promise fulfilled.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Palm Sunday 29th March 2015

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Renewing giving

Today’s sermon is going to be rather different to usual.  Today we are launching a programme through which we can renew how much we give to the church – the collection.  We are inviting everyone to reflect, reassess and recommit to giving regularly a planned amount to support and sustain the mission of the church in this place and in this diocese.

Last week I spoke about preparation for this not starting with money or budgets but with the heart.  Jesus told his disciples that if they wanted to belong to him they had to take up their cross and follow him (Mark 8:31-38).  Self-giving, sacrificial-giving was set as the way to follow Christ.  Money is just one aspect of that, but it is one aspect of it, and a way that often shows where our heart is really focused.

Many of you will have heard numerous presentations on this over the years.  For some this will be new and we will be delighted if you take this opportunity to join in.  I also said last week that our church finances are based on a common purse.  That means that there is no subscription fee; we don’t charge membership fees.  We give generously in response to a generous God according to our means, and everyone is able to afford different amounts.  But together we produce a pot of money that enables what we do to happen.  It doesn’t happen without it.

We are not funded by the government and we live pretty hand to mouth.  We have some investments and trusts which we can draw on, but these do not cover anywhere near all the bills.

There is a pack for each person/household, personally addressed.  If there isn’t one for you it means we don’t have your contact details.  But don’t worry, we have spares and would like to make sure we are up-to-date and no one is missed out!

Inside the pack there are 5 things:
·      Letter from me introducing the renewal
·      Leaflet on giving, produced by the CofE nationally
·      Leaflet setting out the headlines of our finances
·      A response form
·      Envelope addressed to the PCC Treasurer for your reply so that it is confidential
The finance leaflet sets out the budget for this year.  It shows that it costs around £1,700 p/w to run the church.  This does not include any major restoration or repairs, those are funded by special appeals, specific grants and donations.  So this is just to do what we do.  The figure includes the amount we give to other charitable causes, but that comes from specific efforts so is included just to show that it happens.

Our income is around £1,500 p/w, so there is a gap of £234 p/w.  That is £12,000 for the year.  We need to plug that gap to break even.  How can we do that?

The good news is that we have the money.  The bad news is that it’s in your pockets – it’s nowhere else.

This sounds a lot of money, but £234 divided by 80 people is just £2.92; that is less than the price of a meal deal from Tesco.  If it is given under the Gift Aid scheme, where we are able to claim the tax back from the government that you have already paid on your income (the support we do get from the government) then for each £1 given we can get an extra 25p, at no extra cost to you.  That means the amount we need averages out at £2.34 extra each; that’s around the price of a pint in The Draper’s.  Some will be able to afford to increase their giving by much more when they look at this; some won’t.  That’s why we have a common purse and together we can fix this.

Where does your giving come in your list of priorities for your spending?  I think there are some basics we have to cover if we are living on the breadline, which need to come first: rent, gas, electricity, food; may be one or two others, the bare necessities of life.  But giving should be one of our top priorities, if not the top, and if we are not on the breadline it can come much nearer the top!  In that case it is what you work out first and then plan your life around that.  It shows that it really matters and that is the principle behind tithing, where a particular percentage is encouraged, in the Bible that is 10%.  Life is a bit different today but still the question and challenge stands.

No one is being left out of this renewal.  If you have a source of money, you are counted in.  I first joined a planned giving scheme at my local church when I was 16 and had a Saturday job.  That was in the early 1980s and I gave 50p p/w.  It was a long time ago!  When I started my first full-time job after I graduated in 1985, 30 years ago, I gave £5 p/w.  Scale that up for today; scale it up for inflation since then too.  I still work out my giving before I plan holidays, clothes, recreation costs.  I am not asking you to do anything that I don’t do and haven’t done for 36 years.  I’ve also pursued a vocation that pays a fraction of what I would be paid if I’d stayed in the financial world, where I worked before, or if the skills I am required to use were assessed against a secular commercial pay scale.  That has brought sacrifices, which have been tough at times, but I have still maintained giving.

So please take your pack and read it; pray about it and your money; make your honest and generous response and return it in the envelope to the box in the church.  On Easter Day all of the responses will be presented, unopened, and we will say a prayer of thanksgiving.

If you have any questions you can talk to me, though I don’t know how much you give and I chose not to know – it is not something I need to know when talking to you.  Our treasurer, Mark Royle’s phone number and email address are also on the response leaflet, so you can talk to him too.

You can give in two ways.  You can have a box of planned giving envelopes so that you have a physical reminder to put your money in each week, even if you are not coming to church that week.  Susan prefers to use that method.  Alternatively you can give by bank standing order, where the money goes out of your account at the beginning of the month as you receive it.  I prefer to use that method.  If you want envelopes please write that on the response form or let us know; it’s not there on the form so you will need to just add it, and fill in what applies and not what doesn’t.

Giving changes us.  It sets the tone for how we live.  Thinking about it and planning it is a spiritual exercise which is why we are doing this in Lent.  It asks about priorities.  It asks this of all of us and I don’t exclude myself from that.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 8th March 2015

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The virus of consumerism vs the cross

When people discover that I am vicar of St John’s, I am frequently asked about whether we find that the cathedral overshadows us.  The assumption is that with both occupying the same space, or at least being so close in the city centre, surely the cathedral will draw all the worshippers and St John’s will lose out.  There is no doubt that we are in close proximity and of course my role is shared between the parish and the cathedral, so I have an interest in both, a bit like any vicar with multiple parishes or churches, and we also have St Luke’s as part of our parish.  I answer this question in a number of ways, one talking about how they are different, and although coming from a similar church tradition – broadly liberal catholic in spiritual outlook – one is a cathedral which brings a particular identity and the other a parish church.  At the heart of this difference is that they are communities and serve communities.

That word community is very easy to band around but if we take it seriously it challenges what I think is a virus in our western outlook.  The House of Bishops' pastoral letter, which has been in the press and is well worth looking at, shines a spotlight on how being consumers is infecting our sense of community.  The letter really needs to be read alongside the much longer book ‘On Rock or Sand’, a collection of essays edited by the Archbishop of York looking at the moral foundation for shaping our nation and therefore how we will approach the forthcoming election.  I have written a summary of the House of Bishops’ letter together with some questions I think it raises.  Consumers consume.  They are not connected with the processes of production.  Their scope and vision does not take into account how things get to the point they buy and consume them.  This is a form of alienation, consumerism has become the opiate of the people, and it separates us from what it means to be human, because persons are persons in community.  We do not stand on our own and selfish, individualistic approaches are fundamentally unsustainable; they destroy the fabric of society.  A challenge the bishops have laid before the political parties is that they are targeting particular demographic groups and so are turning politics into a form a consuming.  Its scope ceases to be about the common good and rather panders to a ‘what’s in it for me’ mentality.

Consumerism has infected every aspect of our lives.  It has even got into churches.  Some of the biggest churches are actually very consumerist in their approach.  They are not rooted in their communities and their locations.  People can turn up, consume religion and go away again.  The premises could be in a city centre, on an industrial estate outside it, in a village or floating on the river.  Location becomes just venue and there is very little connection with community and the wider impact on the people who live and work around it.  You will know me well enough now to know that this is the complete opposite of how I approach the role of a church.  If we are not about community, those who gather and those who live and work around us, we have missed the point of churches being churches.  We could stay at home and put on a CD or find something to read and listen to on the internet.

Community is not always easy.  It involves people being people and they fall out.  They bump up against one another and annoy each other.  We have to work things out, particularly where there is disagreement.  We have to take account of one another.  That involves people supporting each other in need, comforting the sorrowful and helping each other as we struggle with faith, with life, with whatever is happening to and around us.  It is blessing and it is challenge.  But it is real and it requires another word which is also foundational for me and that is participation.  That requires us to give as much, if not more, than we receive, because we bring our lives and our selves as our offering to what makes this community flourish and function.  That can be costly, very costly.

If we want to know just how costly this can be our gospel reading is unnerving (Mark 8:31-38).  Jesus told his disciples that if they wanted to be counted in his number they had to take up their cross and follow him.  Well, the cross was an instrument of violent, torturous death.  It has become for us the supreme symbol of self-giving love, sacrificial love and that is about as far away from being consumers as you can get.

We are about to invite you to review and renew your giving to support the work of this community.  We operate on a common purse model.  Without donations this church does not function and there are holes in the finances that need plugging.  More will come in the form of a personal letter to everyone, hopefully next week – and if you stay away we’ll post it!  There are very different ways that this can be presented – we can talk about costs and that you won’t get if you or someone else doesn’t pay.  That has a reality check about it and it is transparent – the costs have to be met.  But there is a much more fundamental point behind our giving.  We belong to a community in which we participate.  That community is built on a God who gives himself to us and for us sacrificially.  The cross is not just the way Jesus gets to Easter Day.  It is who he is and how he is.  He gives completely and utterly for us.  He asks us to think in turn what we will give to God in thanks and response to that gift.  Clearly we can never repay it, and are not asked to because it is gift, beyond our means.  However, we are called to join in with the self-giving, participation that makes community function and vibrant.  We are called to join in with the life and work of God’s Kingdom of which this church is an expression.  We gather not to consume but to be a community worshipping God and serving those around us.

Not all of us are called to literally die for our faith, though we are becoming aware that in some parts of the world Christians are being killed by extremists.  It is like stepping back into a medieval past.  The outward looking, self-giving, participation which lies behind it, at it’s core, is called of all of us.  And so the real preparation for any giving renewal is not money and budgets, but the heart.  That heart starts with the cross of Christ, which we are all called to take up in order to follow him.  The mindset of the consumer is a virus which has infected every aspect of our lives.  It is destabilizing our society, our politics and it corrupts our religion too.  It will take conscious effort to counter this, because it comes at us from all angles.  The counter is today’s gospel reading and the gospel should be what shapes us.  If you want to be a follower of Christ then living his self-giving love, which we see in the cross, is the only way for us.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 1st March 2015