Sunday, 23 August 2015

Spiritual Armour

Life can give us a real battering.  We are under assault from all sides.  Pressures of family demands, particularly felt by parents who by this stage of the school holidays can be gnawing at the calendar for the school term to start again.  And felt by carers, who get tired and need respite from time to time.  Pressures of instant communication raising expectations of a swift response, which is not often the best response we could make, especially if greater reflection is needed.  Financial pressures, with interest rates having been so low for so long, finding savings are eroded after 7 or 8 years of this, or if wage increases have not kept pace with inflation there may be no savings at all.  Then there are competing political claims to the best course for a country to take, and we seem to have a paucity of real political vision at the moment.  Slogans are mistaken for political vision and proper analysis; political stones for bread.  Cathedral Square is a market place for faith, each group offering their view of certainty, which leave me cold.  Shallowness in politics and faith, pressures in the workplace and home, how do we hold our heads when all around us seem to be losing theirs?

When we are facing the batterings of life the writer of the Ephesians offered six pieces of armour (6:10-20).  This is spiritual clarity and a coping mechanism when the strains are there, how we can keep our spiritual head above water.

He starts with a belt.  Clothes need to allow freedom of movement.  Girding loins in the first century required the tunic to be pulled up between the legs and tucked into the belt.  Then you can run, jump and have freedom of movement that would otherwise not be possible.  The belt does more than protect from embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions, it allows agility of movement.  So the belt of truth puts us in a place where we can manoeuvre and make decisions that allow for movement and direction.  Falsehood takes us into dead ends and stops us functioning.  It can be difficult to assess truth claims but since 16th century we have had three classic tests in the Anglican tradition: scripture, tradition and reason courtesy of an Anglican clergyman, Richard Hooker. 

Scripture is the writings of inspired reflection on religious experience and how God has been sensed and understood.  It carries the distillation of generations where wisdom has been found to work and proved by experience – it works in life.  But that never comes without some kind of cultural packaging and the story of that over the centuries is the tradition in which we stand – it is the ‘how we got to where we are’, intellectually and the story of the journey.  But we also know a lot more, we have scientific discoveries and the wealth of a bank of knowledge that has been accumulated.  This is termed ‘reason’ and this vast bank of knowledge also needs to be brought in to play so that what we see as being true is grounded and adds up.  The Belt of Truth is understood through these three classic pillars that need to relate to one another: scripture, tradition and reason.  When competing claims come, this belt will help us manoeuvre through them and assess them.  It will protect us from the shallow and the delusory.

The breastplate of righteousness is a less obvious concept.  But when we have truth tucked in, we are put in the right place to assess what is just, what is sacred, what is the vision of purpose that we seek to live.  Righteousness is being in the right place from which to judge, from which to plan, from which to be.  It is the state of being in the truth, of living it and allowing it to shape who we are.  There are a lot of emotional as well as intellectual layers to that.

For shoes we have whatever makes us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  That is rather vague and open, but we don’t proclaim peace if we try to antagonize those around us; we don’t proclaim peace by seeking to dominate and bully.  My attention was drawn to a very interesting piece on the Guardian website this week by a psychotherapist, Nick Duffell, about what he called ‘boarding syndrome’, the effect of being at boarding school on the development of emotional intelligence.  The writer was arguing that our politicians who have come out of this stable have emotional handicaps which can limit their effectiveness as leaders in how they cope with competing views.  We all have our character flaws or aspects of our background that we struggle to overcome.  Nick Duffell went on to contrast the ‘boarding syndrome’ background with what he sees in Barak Obama.  Obama is seen to break down diplomatic barriers where others reinforce them.  Nick Duffell gave the example of Barak Obama meeting the Russian Prime Minister and allowing him to speak and tell his story.  The effect was that having been heard he was more open to enter into a conversation that led to a more peaceful solution.  We proclaim peace by being peace, and the power of listening before speaking never ceases to amaze me.  I find hearing and knowing peoples stories changes how I view them and therefore how any conversation goes.  It also changes how they see me because they it seems to matter to them that I know their story.  They feel understood or at least heard.  Peace is about more than the absence of war; it is a way of relating that is life giving and life enhancing.

For a shield we are given faith, so that we can deflect the flaming arrows of evil.  Faith is trust and having confidence that we can rely on God.  Having confidence in God is the root of hope because hope is not just wishful thinking, it is that God’s purposes will not be thwarted, whatever the short-term picture may look like.  We know that our life has its origin in God and its goal lies there too.  Death comes to us all and when it does we trust, we have confidence through Jesus Christ, that our life is held by God.  This is our hope, affirmed at every funeral and in the face of every tragedy.  Faith is a shield because it places the arrows and attacks in perspective and saves from our spirit, our morale, being destroyed.

This moves us into the helmet of salvation.  That comes through Jesus Christ.  He is the sign and reality that God does not abandon the life we have.  This is salvation from futility, from life just being a collection of days and each day meaning there is less left.  Salvation asserts that there is purpose behind, within and beyond life.  We are saved from pointlessness.

Our faith is never just a gazing into space and time; it has bite now.  The sword, the tool of cutting through so that purpose can be achieved is the Spirit.  And the Spirit is the word of God.  The supreme word of God is Jesus Christ, in John’s gospel, the Word made flesh among us.  So faith, trust, hope in God, living the truth in righteousness, leads to action in how we live it and bring it to effect.  It leads to what is just because by being in the right place, righteousness, we are able to determine that.

All of this is underpinned with prayer and sustained by prayer.  Prayer is the lifeblood of truth, faith and hope, of the courage we need and the source of our inspiration.

So the writer to the Ephesians uses the image of armour as a metaphor for spiritual resilience.  The belt of truth putting us in the right place so that we are able to proclaim the gospel of peace, to be that peace, protected by the shield of faith from the attacks of futility and trusting in the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ, who calls us to follow him in lives of justice and truth, peace and hope.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 23rd August 2015

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Praise and Thanksgiving

I don’t use the Book of Common Prayer Communion order of service very often. I have very mixed feelings about it.  I don’t like the order it puts things, you never quite get forgiven by it – it follows the words of absolution with a reminder of our sinfulness – and its language can be convoluted, though at other times it is pithy and direct.  There are elements I do like, though, and one of the texts which I particularly appreciate is the words to accompany the giving of the bread and wine, particularly the wine.  A version of this has been captured in the ‘Draw near with faith’ prayer.   In the Book of Common Prayer version it ends with a simple ‘And be thankful’. There is something direct and clear about that which cuts through: ‘be thankful’.

Thanksgiving, being thankful, matters enormously.  It changes us.  It changes the way we see the world and helps us remember that everything is gift and there is a gift in every situation.  I was listening to a woman talking on Radio 4 yesterday morning.  As a child during the Second World War she had been captured by the Japanese and taken to a prison camp.  The conditions she described made me think who needs horror films.  The floor was sticky and it slowly dawned on her that this was because of the dead bodies left around her.  The story she told was appalling.  It reminded me of reading Eric Lomax’s book ‘The Railway Man’ with his memories of being a prisoner of war building the Burma railway.  This woman then said that her mother insisted that, even in that horrific place, they give thanks before meals.  She just wanted to eat, so scarce was food, but her mother kept them focused on being thankful and raising their spirits with it.  That is thanksgiving, unconditional and just the heart's response to being alive and having sustenance to keep going.

Human beings have a much deeper quality to their life than other animals.  That deeper quality is the level of our consciousness.  We are not just the consequence of drives and desires, appetites and unrestrained demands.  We can think, imagine, make music and think in the abstract.  There are levels which this is shared with some other animals, which seem to be able to display cunning and calculation, can even be self-giving and put the needs of their young before their own.  But the level at which we can do this, with writing, poetry, music and philosophy gives us a level of awareness that is more developed than any other creature.  Despite what Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ may say about dolphins.  Thanksgiving is a way we connect and keep connected with this deeper sense of being, of being human, of being human created in the image and purpose of God.

I said last week that John doesn’t give us an account of the Last Supper in his gospel.  What he gives us instead is this long teaching in chapter 6 about Jesus as the bread of life, that eating his flesh and drinking his blood brings eternal life.  There are clear links with the Communion sharing of bread and wine and this passage, though it is not spelt out in those terms.  By not narrowing down the focus to one meal, to one way of communing in the highly ritualized format that we know, John opens up wider possibilities.  Can it be that every time we eat and drink we share in the great thanksgiving?  Well only if we are mindful of what we are doing, if each meal becomes a moment of thanksgiving and praise, of remembering that the food of life is connected to the source of life.  So it is that thanksgiving that changes the focus of the meal, not just some kind of magic food.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to gather together to worship and feed on word and sacrament.  Privatised, isolated faith is not good.  Which is not quite the same as saying there should be no choice, but it needs to be corporate and open to all, not narrowed down to just a club of the like minded.  However, being thankful in all circumstances and especially when life gives precious little obvious cause for it, becomes a moment when grace shines through and the situation is transformed even if in a small way.  This moment of grace becomes Eucharistic, thanksgiving, becomes a moment when we feed on Christ as if on his flesh and blood.

The letter to the Ephesians was written at a time of persecution and great hardship.  There are hints of it in the reading we heard (Ephesians 5:15-20).  The days are described as ‘evil’.  Rather than trying to anaesthetize the pain with alcohol and being drunk, or some other mood altering substance, the writer encourages his readers to look deeper into chinks of sunlight that manage to penetrate the darkness.  Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are a way of being reminded of God’s unfailing goodness.  The lives of the persecuted are not forgotten and abandoned.

On Friday our church calendar remembered the Franciscan friar, Maximilian Kolbe.  He was imprisoned by the Germans during the Second World War.  A prisoner escaped and so as a warning the guards lined up ten men to be shot.  One pleaded for his life, that he had a family and begged to be spared.  Maximilian took his place.  From his prison cell he sang songs of praise and thanksgiving and drove his guards round the bend with fury that they couldn’t break his spirit.  He died transformed with this grace.

The broadcaster Gerald Priestland wrote a book in 1983, based on a radio series, called ‘The case against God’.  It was an exploration of suffering and pain.  How can we believe in a God of love and care and justice when there is so much suffering in the world?  And when we look and see just how awful human beings can be towards one another, not only 70 years ago in wartime, but today with ISIS, trafficking of human misery, abuse and all forms of oppression and violence.  In his book, Gerald Priestland told a story of a group of Jews who put God on trial in their concentration camp.  The case was overwhelming.  God was guilty of the worst crime, that of permission, creating a world where all these things were possible, indeed inevitable.  The possibility means there must be actuality and that permission gives us a darkness in God that we do not understand; a darkness of our perception but also how it feels.  At the end of the trial, a Rabbi stood up and said let us not forget that it is time for our evening prayers.  And they ended that day, as they did every day, with prayers.  The service at St Martin-in-the-fields yesterday for the 70th anniversary of VJ Day ended with the hymn ‘The day thou gavest Lord is ended’.  The commentator introduced it by saying this was the hymn sung at the end of each day in the prison camps, used as a rallying cry.

Songs of praise in a death cell, songs of praise in a prison camp, the best response to the problem of suffering and pain, is not clever words and arguments, which quite frankly don’t cut it when the pain is raw, but praise and thanksgiving.  We find in it and through it that we are affected and changed, lifted and transformed.   Lament, anger and sorrow, all have a place and must be held.  They are held on the cross.  But so must praise and thanksgiving because it reminds us that we are not just brute beasts that have no understanding, but are created from gift and there is grace and gift in our lives whatever it brings.  Not just in the dark moments, but especially in the dark moments, and especially when we find we don’t feel like it.  It is then, as with the famous poem footprints, that we find there is only one set of footprints on the sand and we are being carried.

So the bread of life comes to us today through praise and thanksgiving.  It is in that praise and thanksgiving that bread is turned into the gift of life.  We share in the Communion of Christ’s body and blood, in bread and wine, but it comes to us through praise and thanksgiving because that is what the word Eucharist means.  ‘Take this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and be thankful.’

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 16th August 2015

Friday, 14 August 2015

Up close with the neighbours - Knights Chamber

I had the opportunity to climb up the scaffolding around the Knights Chamber this afternoon and got up close and personal with the statues and other features I usually only see from the ground.

The view wasn't bad from up there too.

Meanwhile, serious work is taking place inside The Knights Chamber and The new Education and Visitors Centre.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

A Cloud of Glory and A Cloud of Shame

This week we have remembered two clouds: a cloud of glory and a cloud of shame.  The cloud of glory came on Thursday when the church calendar remembered the Transfiguration.  This is the story in the gospels when Jesus takes a few close companions up the mountain and while he is praying he is transfigured, they see beyond the outer appearance to the inner glory of God within.  It is couched in all sorts of imagery which is reminiscent of Moses’ encounters with God on his mountainside: face and clothes shining, and there is a cloud from which God speaks (Luke 9:28-36).  We were given a cloud of glory, a symbol of mystery, awe and wonder.  In this moment of transfiguration on the mountainside, we are invited to enter into the cloud of mystery with the disciples and see something of the fullness of God’s glory revealed in Jesus Christ. 

But history has given us a darker cloud on 6th August too.  Thursday was also the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  A few days later, 70 years ago today, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.  It is estimated that 129,000 people died in those raids and many, many more suffered life-changing injuries, the consequences still seen today.  When I mentioned this in various places and services on Thursday and Friday I was struck by the response.  It wasn't a particularly representative sample but there was an audible revulsion and sense of horror that these bombs had been used.  The awesome destructive power triggered a sense that they must never be used again.  I found this interesting given there had been debates back at the General Election about Trident.  This group, at least, have a strong feeling that these weapons are evil and it is unthinkable to think of using them, let alone to do so, knowing what we now know.  I’ve heard military strategists refer to Trident as yesterday’s solution to yesterday’s problems.  But the technology cannot be uninvented, so we have had to live in an age with a weapon no sane person would dream of using.  And an insane one wouldn’t be deterred by knowing others have it.

Speaking in a radio broadcast 70 years ago today, the US President, Harry S Truman said:
“I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb ... It is an awful responsibility which has come to us ... We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”
That is a heady mix of facing the stark reality of what they have done while thinking God thinks this is OK.  I don’t think there are purposes that can be linked to God that justify the use of such weapons.  They are dreamed up from evil intent and fail the test of just war theory: they are not proportionate and noncombatants are not protected.

So we have today two clouds, one of glory and one of shame.  How do we allow the former to remove the latter?  Our readings gave us some clues that are worth heeding.

Firstly, our gospel reading has been working through, over these last few weeks, the long passage in John’s gospel where Jesus feeds 5,000 people with very meagre provisions and then teaches about himself as the true bread, the bread of life.  And we heard the third section today (John 6:35, 41-51); there will more over the next two weeks.  It has Eucharistic overtones to it; John does not give the Last Supper in his gospel.  This is as close as he gets to expounding a theology of Communion.  John doesn’t give us the Transfiguration either, but this teaching is close to it.  Referring to Jesus as the bread of life, he requires us to look more deeply into who he is, into who he brings to be among us.  John is after all the gospel that begins with a long prologue expounding that ‘in the beginning was the Word’ and that Word came among us ‘full of grace and truth’.  The bread of life is Christ among us, inspiring, nourishing with his grace, with his love, with his transforming presence.  To understand what that means to counter clouds of shame, the glory revealed gives a new commandment to love, brings forgiveness and reconciliation, comes to save not condemn.  This is a radical new way; radical because it takes us back to the fundamental principles revealed in the Bible, often overlooked or forgotten, but they are there.

The new commandment to love, the radical way of love and peace, challenges us to look around and see beyond outer appearances to the inner glory within each person, to see the gift and blessing that we are to one another and are to be to one another, and the world.  If we serve Christ in those we meet, as an unknown guest, then we see his glory in them too and that should change how we behave, because they too are beloved children of God, heirs of grace and the reason for his coming; meeting them is to stand on holy ground.  Christ came to draw us into the heart of God, that we may become divine, to quote an ancient writer.  There is within each of us the seed of glory.  Our life is special coming as it does from the desire of God’s will and purpose.  That should affect us.  The divine devotion at the Transfiguration changes how we see one another as well.

The reading from Ephesians (4:25-5:2) gave a list of virtues to replace vices.  Falsehood replaced by truth, making no room for evil intent when angry, honesty to replace theft, using our words to build up rather than breed hatred, putting away bitterness and wrangling and being kind to one another instead.  Beneath all of this, holding it up, is the appeal to be imitators of God, living in love as Christ has loved us and gave himself for us.  The way of self-giving, gracious love is to triumph over hatred and death.  The cloud of glory is to triumph over the cloud of shame.

When there are threats, whether that is violence or hostile words and bullying, a fight or flight response is triggered within us.  Self preservation wants to find safety and that might mean running for cover or making a stand where we either survive or are overcome.  There are plenty of passages in the Bible where protecting and entering the struggle to overcome oppression is taken for granted.  This is why we have a theory of Just War; a desire to limit when violence begets violence.  But even if a violent response is assumed or required, it is not a place to stop.  And it is not to be the first response either.  There is a better way and when we seek to be a follower of the Way of Jesus we learn that love overcomes hatred and the tools used for weapons are turned into implements to feed, to bring life rather than death.  Love triggers a very different response.

When Jesus says that he is the bread of life feeding on him, following him, being filled with the grace that was within him and displayed on the mountainside at the Transfiguration, changes how we are to behave if we are to honour the glory within.  The cloud of glory is to dominate and drive away the cloud of shame.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th August 2015