Saturday, 14 November 2015

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Bond: licensed to kill and not to kill.

Bond is back!  The new film, Spectre, was released a couple of weeks ago and last week we went to sample the delights that are a new Bond film.  I’m enjoying the backstory that we are getting with the more recent films, going back as they have to the first books by Ian Fleming.  They are filling in things which mean the relationships with characters like Moneypenny and M have more depth to them, are much more rounded.  It would be interesting to see the earlier films remade in the light of these prequels, having seen what we’ve now seen.  In the latest, without giving away any spoilers, M has a conversation with one of his counterparts about whether we need people to do the dirty work of conflict or they could be replaced by drones.  M’s reply is that the ‘Double 0’ status is not just a license to kill; it is also a license not to kill.  The agent is required to make split second decisions and no drone can make that judgment call.  The implication is that there is a moral side to what the double 0s are sent to do.

We see in the film, as we’ve seen in other Bond films, James decide between pulling the trigger and not doing.  In the film ‘The Living Daylights’, Timothy Dalton’s Bond decides that the ‘cellist sniper has been set-up and disobeys his orders to take her out.  This gets him into trouble with a rather autocratic M in that film who expects him to just obey orders and not exercise judgment.  Bond is the moral one.  A human being is required precisely because judgment is needed.  War that only involves drones would lack all morality and quickly become an extension of some kind of video game played out on distant shores with no sense of consequences.  Bond is back and so are the moral judgments made in the field.

I have been reading a book by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford.  It has the surprising title ‘In defence of war’.  It is a reassessment of Just War theory, which has become popular, often repeated.  Nigel Biggar takes a fresh look at it and applies it to modern warfare and political aims.  He concludes that the key to the whole debate about whether war can be justified in certain circumstances lies with the first classic test, that of ‘Just Cause’.  It is only if there is a good reason for going to war in the first place that there can be any hope of the other tests being met.  Right cause means that there must be an injustice to be righted.  Only then can any assessment be made of whether there is a need for this action.  The injustice needs to be of an extreme and atrocious nature.  Deaths and persecution, horrific torture and oppression need to be present otherwise the extreme action which warfare brings has no justification.  Wanting to expand territory or get hold of someone else’s natural resources – oil for instance – is not a good enough ‘cause’ to go to war.  For war to have any hope of being justified it cannot be reduced to just ‘the pursuit of policy by other means’ in Carl von Clausewitz’s famous definition from the early nineteenth century.  That policy must itself be just.  Clausewitz’s phrase does point to the need for an aim, but it leaves far too much out.  The aim is itself under scrutiny.

From this righting of a significant wrong entry point springs the requirement for a legitimate authority to do the righting, for there to be legitimacy to the action.  In our democratic times that authority needs to be publicly accountable and it is right for the public to call them to account.  There is no room for ‘a love that asks no questions’.  The next test is that of the last resort.  Other options should have been exhausted and for those other options to be considered they need to be real ones, feasible.  This itself flows into the next which is that the actions should be proportionate to achieve the aim flowing from the cause.  That opens up a whole new moral dilemma.  War by definition brings at best the unpalatable and grotesque into the frame.  There is no way round it involving death and destruction, mutilation and scenes of an horrific nature.  It is not surprising that those exposed to it can suffer years, even a lifetime’s trauma, flashbacks and haunting dreams in the night.  For some there is never an end game which justifies this.  For many the use of weapons like Trident is never an option.  The means and the cause are fundamentally linked here.  The final two tests are that the plan should have a reasonable chance of success – not be foolhardy – and non-combatants should be protected.  Collateral damage is no excuse.

So I don’t know if you have ever thought of Bond films as being ones of moral choices exercised in the murky real politick of power and conflict, of justice and defence of justice.  He is far more than just a drone or killing machine.  He has to exercise judgment in the field.

There are hints of this in the first reading with the story of Jonah (3:1-5, 10).  In the story Jonah is sent to right a wrong, to warn of destruction coming unless the people of Nineveh change their ways from the great injustices and oppression they are living, described delicately as ‘great wickedness’.  Nineveh is today the Iraqi city of Mosel and that is a city overrun by ISIS and so we are brought to consider with the moral debate of our time how to respond to the evil and threat they present.  Should there be boots on the ground or bombs from the air?  What are the prospects of success and what would success look like?  What other options are there before us?  Who is the right authority to tackle this problem?  The just cause is set because atrocious acts are being committed; it is an evil to be confronted.  Protecting non-combatants is important to prevent giving propaganda to terrorist recruiters and liberators being seen as an occupying force, which former diplomat now MP Rory Stewart has identified as a major problem.

Jonah doesn’t want to go.  Who would?  He is sent to preach a message of repentance to a people showing no sign of being receptive to that message.  His story is a sign that all efforts have not yet been exhausted, even if this is the last chance.  Someone who can be trusted so that their alternative message can be heard and tried can have dramatic effects.  They can also be executed and murdered.  War comes when they are ignored, when voices that try to call back from the abyss are ignored.  Peace is always worth a chance.

The last resort test requires us to expand our imagination to envision a different response, a non-violent one.  Great and inspirational leaders like Martin Luther King and Gandhi displayed the rich bounty of fresh imagination in advocating  peaceful demonstrations and not rioting.  They demanded free speech and they shamed their oppressors.  They are remembered because they survived long enough to be heard and their deaths became defining, shaming moments, and in time catalysts of change.  As the moral balance was tipped oppression became unsustainable.  The last resort test can require the freeing of the imagination to see what we can’t see at the moment, to dare to dream, to be a Jonah sent on what at first might look like a stupid mission.  The last resort test is no easy option or quick justification for the impatient.

Last night’s Dr Who brought us the Doctor standing between two warring groups.  It was a thinly disguised portrayal of the problem presented by extremism and our responses.  In a moment of brilliance he pronounced:
“The only way people can live in peace is if they are prepared to forgive.”
No magic button, but a triumph of the imagination to break the impasse and endless cycle of violence begetting violence.  Don’t rush to last resort.

Remembrance Sunday is not a day to glorify war.  It is not a day for shallow regret either.  Real remembrance demands that we struggle with the difficult questions of threat, oppression, peace and justice, violence and restraint.  It requires us to imagine fresh opportunities that mean if war comes it really is the last resort, but has a serious end game for success to be to everyone’s benefit and good.  Bond is back: licensed to kill and not to kill too.

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

Sunday, 1 November 2015

All Saints Day: celebrating light and hope

From 'Gethsemane Garments'
It has been an interesting weekend with a jumble of stories being told.  It seems that Halloween, as a story of ghosts, ghouls, and all things ghastly has grown significantly over the last few years.  For some this is clearly being whipped up by retail which floods the shops with cobwebs and costumes and like sheep (to the slaughter perhaps) many fall in line.  There is something in that but it must also be tapping into something otherwise it wouldn’t catch the imagination.  A friend of mine thinks it is that lives are so safe and protected that a bit of scary fun reminds us we are alive.  A bit like the appeal of extreme sports and the desire to go to dangerous places.  There is also possibly a need to play with the mystery of death, from which we are so protected and separated by modern dying, that there is a need for the imagination to play with the meaning of life, especially for a society that has lost touch with a confident faith.  What does it mean to be ultimately powerless in a world that pretends it can control everything?  Halloween becomes an attempt to tame the untamable.

The story of Halloween could not be further away from the story we tell today, the real feast of this weekend, All Saints Day.  Today we celebrate the light of hope over despair, of faithfulness over denial and betrayal, of those who have followed in the way of Christ and lived lives that have been and are an inspiration.  Love conquers death.  Life is gift and in that gift we flourish and receive blessing.  The dead are not condemned to a shadow existence of half life and zombie gloom, but are welcomed by the source of love to a banquet of grace.

It may be that Halloween provides a safe expression for the deep fear that there is around.  Fear of terrorists out to get us, fear of those who would exploit us, the vampires who use power to oppress and coerce.  The world seems rather scary at the moment and we are told from time to time that there have been a large number of serious threats on the scale of 7/7 and 9/11 this year alone.  Our security services are having to be constantly vigilant.  It is not surprising that the corporate psyche needs to let off steam and it may be that Halloween is one of the ways that our society channels those tensions and anxieties.  It may also be a kick back against the constant pressure to be beautiful and the oppressive effect that has on self esteem.  So a bit of ghoulish make up is a relaxation from anxieties of image.  And I guess there is some fun in dressing up, of releasing the darker side of otherwise controlled emotions.  The appeal will be mixed and varied.  As someone who studies culture and social developments I find the metaphors are work here very interesting, not least because they are beneath the conscious surface.

We know we live in a world where bad things happen and evil brews in hearts that would attack and destroy.  Violence and hatred brew in all sorts of directions.  I was talking with a colleague this week about how hurt and pain can in turn lead to people hurting others and causing them injury.  Damage done leads to damage passed on.  We actually don’t need to look hard to find the really scary and dark.  It is in all of us.

Today’s focus on light and hope matters enormously, so much so that we have now made it into a mini season.  These days between now and Christ the King at the end of the month have a particular focus on God’s Kingdom, on the sanctity of life and holiness being worked out in the challenges we face.  Next week comes the challenge presented by Remembrance, the horror of war and the evils that lead to it.  Again this is not a place to stay, but to think about what builds and sustains peace, what is it that binds us together and strengthens the bonds of unity and concord. 

We also hold during this period the memory of those we have known who have died.  All Souls, the actual day is tomorrow, is not just about those we have known and loved, but all who have died.  Some memories will be precious and treasured.  Some will be damaged and there will be wounds we still carry.  We need a place to lay those so that they don’t haunt us and oppress us so that we become injury to others.  All of this is held in affirming the redemption which comes through Christ.  We are changed from glory into glory, and all these thoughts are held in the embrace of God’s kingdom: between the bookends of All Saints Day and the feast of Christ the King at the end of the month.  We will have an opportunity to hold the memory of those who have died at the special service on 15th November at 4.00pm, to which we have also invited all who have been involved in a funeral we have taken this year.

Our readings reflect this All Saints hope.  Isaiah (25:6-9) gives us a vision of a banquet, celebrating the destruction of all that oppresses us.  It used the image of the shroud that is wrapped round the dead being destroyed so that tears are wiped away.  The second reading from the end of the book of Revelation (21:1-6a) brings the great hope of a new city, death is destroyed, it has no hold on us, and all things are made new.  This is not the image of zombie risings!  It is completed by the one who is the beginning and the end, the source and goal of existence.

The gospel reading (John 11:32-44) was the touching story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.  He is no ghost and is not in any kind of half-life.  His sister Martha seems to picture something from the ghoulish and ghastly, he’s been dead four days so his putrid flesh is stinking.  The life on offer from Jesus is not bound by this life, it is the life that comes from grace, the gift of God and so when flesh corrupts, it is liberated through blessing.  There are multiple layers to this metaphor of the raising of Lazarus.  There is the hope of life being treasured beyond the grave to which this points.  There is the liberation that comes from celebrating life rather than death, of being set free from whatever would hold us in death, pain, destruction and all that oppresses.  Just as Lazarus was released unbound from his grave clothes so we are released from the grip that death can have on our thinking or behaving.  It can become characteristic of our outlook.  Rather we are to embrace life and hope, future promise rather than decay.

The call to us who celebrate All Saints, the kingdom of God in our midst in holy lives that bring light and peace, is to be people who bless others through this.  Sometimes we all need help with what should be straightforward, like just being nice to people, it’s amazing how hard that can be at times.  A start is to ask how I can be blessing in this situation, whatever it is.  And some are harder than others; some have greater struggles to overcome to connect with the blessing rather than the pain. But celebrating All Saints is to look for those who can remind us of this, be they from the past or those we know today.  There are people who lighten up a room when they walk in.  There are also those who depress it too.  I would rather be the former than the latter.  If I am being the latter, I need to reconnect with holiness, with light and hope, to hold onto the vision or picture in my mind of someone who displays this grace.  Our city centre chaplains have the strap line to their project which simply says ‘Be the light’.  Or as Gandhi put it, ‘Be the change you want to see’.  It is amazing how such actions can change the world and change a situation or group’s tone.

Today we celebrate the light and hope of the saints, their example and their inspiration.  May they set before us a vision of blessing, grace and peace that we grow to be more like them and shaped as followers of Jesus Christ.  Ours is not a story that locks us in zombie risings and death, but is liberated by life, light and redeemed life in Jesus Christ.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 1st November 2015

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Luke: story is why we have churches

Window in north aisle
This week a report was published on how we care for ourchurch buildings.  The Church of England is responsible for nearly 16,000 buildings covering every community in the country.  Of these 78% are listed grade I or II, the remaining 22% are not.  Around 57% of our buildings are in rural areas, though only 17% of the population lives there; 31% are in suburban areas catering for 58% of the total population. Urban areas only account for 12% of the church buildings covering 25% of the population.  It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that we have a mismatch between where people are and where the church buildings are.  Given the number of listed buildings there is a burden many communities are struggling with.  The report offered all sorts of suggestions which will no doubt be studied and assessed.

Church buildings have a number of purposes.  Their primary one is to provide a place for the congregation that gathers to meet to pray, worship and retell the story of Jesus Christ.  That is something to hold on to and be clear about.  Without that all we have is a shell, which may carry a long story of a locality’s history and hold many associations deeply held, but is just an elaborate shed.  Having a role in various churches, which vary from a world-ranking cathedral, a grade 1 listed parish church and a simple brick built mission hall, I can clearly see great potential for them and am very fond of them.  What matters here, though, is not the grandeur of the place, but what takes place inside it.  We are not an ecclesiastical version of the National Trust.  For me the most important question is how does gathering here, or there, help us to worship, reimagine the story of Jesus Christ and share that story in what we say and do?  How does it provide a place of hospitality so that those who visit or call in, for whatever purpose, are touched by grace and the loving embrace of God?  If it doesn’t help with these things, then it is an expensive distraction and fosters delusion.

Today we are celebrating St Luke, after whom one of the gospels is named and so is one of the churches in this parish.  You can see his image around the church, in the windows and around the pulpit.  Luke was a physician, described by Paul as the beloved physician.  There are passages in Acts when he is present and this is shown by the style suddenly changing from the third person to that of an eye witness; the ‘we’ passages, where he says ‘we did this’ or ‘we went to this place’.  A bit of biblical detective work led to Luke being identified as the author of Acts and given the similarities with Luke’s gospel, he was identified as the author of that one too.  There are writings from early centuries that name him as the author.  Apart from that, we don’t know much more about him.

What we do have is his gospel and this comes from the pen of a storyteller.  Luke tells stories and uses them to excite our imaginations and expand our horizons.  Like a modern biographer, he knows that he needs to give some back story, so he creates an elaborate introduction telling the story of John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth, and the bizarre journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth to satisfy a weird Roman poll tax.  It’s an unlikely story but it carries so many layers.  We cannot know how much he made up to reflect Old Testament stories, using metaphor to tell his central story, and how much happened like that.  But the metaphor is powerful and insightful.  We are given homeless travellers refused hospitality but shown mercy by an innkeeper.  The first to recognize Jesus are not the powerful and wise, but humble shepherds in a field.  Luke gives us Candlemas and that wonderful tale of two elderly people waxing lyrical about this child, how he will be the light for all people.  When we want to know who our neighbour is Luke tells a story about that Good Samaritan that not only expands our charity to embrace anyone in need, it also challenges us with who the most caring is, the hero of the piece being a despised Samaritan.

In a pictorial age, Luke is the gospel that is probably the easiest to access.  It provides the subjects for many of the illustrations in [our] windows: Pentecost in the vestry, The Annunciation and Mary visiting Elizabeth by the font, Angels on the hillside announcing to shepherds and the lost child in the temple in the Lady Chapel.  The Easter scene in the East window in the Lady Chapel reflects the version in Luke.  Our windows are not exclusively based on Luke, but Luke tells stories that expand in the mind and we see them around us.

In my radical moments I wonder what the church would be like if we didn’t have our 16,000 buildings, 78% of them listed.  If we came to that day, we would be left with the stories that inspire faith.  Like all good stories, those in Luke enable us to place ourselves in the story itself and imagine what it means to follow Jesus today.  But what is that story?

The story that Luke tells is that God has a purpose in creating and that the coming of Jesus Christ is the fullest revealing of that purpose.  God has been at work before him and in him.  He sets this story in the Roman world and rather than the rich and powerful, he moves the focus to a poor outpost of the empire, known for breeding troublemakers.  It is a story of wonderful deeds, powerful teaching and there is intrigue with plots and betrayal.  Reading it for the first time it is not clear how this will end.  Guiding the teaching and the deeds is the unshakable faith that this is God’s world, we are his and life only has meaning when lived to his praise and glory; nothing else is to have priority for us.   The plot to kill Jesus leads to his execution by crucifixion, a shameful humiliation, surely a sign of rejection and defeat.  But the twist in the tale is the resurrection and this becomes its validation.  Luke gives us the journey to Emmaus, where how this had to be is explained and Jesus is recognized in the breaking of the bread.  The journey of faith is an accompanied journey and it is gathered round the table together that Jesus shows himself to us and his presence is made known.

The story continues in Acts where Luke tells of how this good news story spread.  Boundaries were expanded from being a faith for Jews to one for all people.  Missionary journeys showed how it captured imaginations around the world and a movement began.  Martyrdoms, self-giving, opposition and the struggle to convert hearts are set forth.  But through it all Luke carries a deep hope and faith that this gospel is from God and of God.  It will therefore prevail, whatever difficulties come, even persecution and death.  Because it is founded on such a strong foundation we do not need to rely on stone buildings for fortification.  This faith sets hearts ablaze and that is what changes the world.  It is the reason these church buildings were put in place and so it alone is the reason they continue – without it they have no purpose.

Celebrating Luke reminds us that the only way for our church buildings to continue, indeed to have a reason to continue, is for them to be houses of storytelling.  It is only by telling and retelling the story of God in Jesus Christ and igniting imaginations with this life changing good news that there is any hope for ancient stones and more recent ones.  His gospel sets out for us the life changing good news of Jesus Christ which is the purpose behind everything we aim to do.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 18th October 2015