29 April 2020 Thought for the Day (Westcott House)

Acts 14: 5-18

5And when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to maltreat them and to stone them, 6the apostles learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country; 7and there they continued proclaiming the good news.

8 In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10said in a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And the man sprang up and began to walk. 11When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. 14When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15‘Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; 17yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.’18Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.

John 14: 21-26

21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ 22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ 23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.



The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
“To be or not to be (in church); that is the question”.  Or, at least, that seems to be the question for those of us prepared to swim in the waters of Anglican facebook and twitter.  Both sides have well-reasoned and well-rehearsed arguments.  The discussion has been mostly civil and respectful.  Yet at times the level of heat generated by arguments over buildings has felt somewhat unedifying when people are dying in their tens of thousands.


That tempers should become frayed and emotions run high is not unexpected.  In a matter of days and weeks the world we thought we knew was turned upside down.


I wonder if in times like these the Church can take solace from today’s passage from John, which speaks directly to a group of people faced with catastrophic change.  The impending loss of Jesus must have been the deepest disruption his followers had ever known.  So in his farewell speech, Jesus speaks as if from beyond the grave to offer reassurance.


Jesus speaks of a time when he will leave.  Yet the disciples will not be left alone but will have a new comforter, the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit will lead them, and us, into all truth – not a new or different truth, but a truth that acts as a retelling of everything Jesus had taught them.  


A proper relationship with the past, with tradition is not easy.  Neither is leaving space for the Spirit to lead us into all Truth.  That Truth which is not a new Truth but the same comforting, disturbing Truth that we are loved by God through no fault or favour of our own, and called in turn to love God back.  Leaving space for the Spirit to unfold this means we can neither cling to our traditions and past ways of being, nor sweep them away entirely.  


It is inevitable that past ways of being feel threatened by new experiences, particularly catastrophic ones.  Yet, assures Jesus, whatever happens, the way of being to which we are called remains rooted in God’s love for us revealed once for all in Christ, and made real in every age by the Spirit.  May we know this today, and slowly come to understand that the past we feel is threatened by this new experience is what has prepared us for this new experience [Fred Craddock].

16 February 2020 Sermon (St Paul’s Hills Road, Cambridge)

Genesis 1:26-31


26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’27 So God created humankind in his image,   in the image of God he created them;   male and female he created them.28God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 29God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. 31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.


Colossians 1:15-20


15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Sermon


May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (+). Amen.
I think those verses we heard from Genesis are some of my favourite in the whole Bible.


Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’So God created humankind in his image,in the image of God he created them.


It’s felt as if those verses have followed me round these last couple of years.
I did a placement the summer before last in a mens’ prison near Thetford Forest.  On the last day of my placement two things happened.  First, there was a strike of prison officers over pay and conditions. I looked at a news story about it on social media and looked at the comments below the story.  I wish I hadn’t – some of the comments about prisoners: “Lock them up and throw away the key.” “Scum.” “Prison’s too good for them: string them all up.”  The other thing that happened that day is that a prisoner killed himself in his cell.  I wonder if the social media commenters knew how close their cruelty had come to the horrors unfolding in that prison.


The bible verses that came to me at that time were those from Genesis.  God created humankind in God’s image.  Everyone.  Male and female.  Jews and gentiles.  Slave and free and prisoners.  Society didn’t love those prisoners: it sounded like it hated them.  But God created them in His image for no reason except Love.


That was two summers ago.  The summer just gone I spent a week on placement in a parish in West Everton in inner-city Liverpool.  The church’s main outreach activity is a large youth club, which has places for around 100 young people each day.  There’s not a lot for young people to do in West Everton and the surrounding area.  It’s a difficult place to grow up – poor housing, high unemployment, issues with drugs, gangs.  Where young people have been stabbed to death on the streets, giving young people a safe place to go in the evenings literally saves lives.


The church in Everton lives its life by that verse from Genesis: God created humankind in God’s image.  Everybody has dignity.  Everybody has worth.  Because God loves people, we love people.  On the wall of the youth club hangs an enormous spray-painted sign “People matter more than things.”  I can get on board with that too.


This brings me to St Paul’s Hills Road.  Here is another place I have found respect for the image of God in everyone.  In outreach to the homeless and vulnerable adults, listening, supporting, standing in solidarity.  In respect for others – people who are different, people we find difficult, possibly even people we don’t like.


Seeing others as made in the image of God affects how we think about them, and how we treat them. It also affects how we think about and treat ourselves.


And what about God?  We might think from these verses in Genesis that all we need to do to learn about God is to look at ourselves and other people.  That may be part of it.  But we are not God.  We are made in God’s image, but it’s not always a very clear image.  A rather murky reflection sometimes.


So where do we go to learn about God?  In Paul’s letter to the Colossians we hear that the definitive image of God is Jesus Christ.  But this goes beyond Genesis.  Jesus is not just another human created in the image of God.  Rather than a murky image, the fullness of God dwells in Jesus Christ.  Rather than being created in God’s image, Jesus did the creating: everything was created through Him and for Him.  


Because we hear in church about who Jesus was and is we can forget just how radical Paul’s message was.  There was nothing in Paul’s background or Jewish history that imagined God could walk the earth in human form.  Yes, there were prophecies that some sort of saviour would come to set the Jewish people free from captivity, the figure called the Messiah.  But the Messiah would not actually be God.  It’s not what anybody expects – looking at a human being and finding God looking back at you.  Some find this impossible, even in Jesus’ time.


In Mark 6 and Matthew 13 we read that Jesus returned to his home town and taught in the synagogue.  The people do not like what they see and hear.  “Where did he get all this teaching?” the people ask.  “Isn’t this the Son of the carpenter?  Isn’t this Mary’s boy?”  Even though Jesus stands right in front of them, they do not see him for who he is.  People thought they knew who and what Jesus was.  They thought they knew who and what God was.  They couldn’t put the two together.  


A human being as the image of God – that is a radical thing to say.  It demands a radical response in how we treat ourselves and treat other people.


The fullness of God dwelling in a human – even more radical.  Offensive.  Blasphemous.  Enough to make you want to string someone up as a common criminal.  So they killed the one who had the fullness of God.  The one who shows us what God is like.


This makes Paul’s message even more disturbing.  You can imagine some of those early hearers of the message:


“Isn’t this the Jesus we heard about?  The Jesus who died?  How can a dead Jesus be all these things you say he is?  Jesus dead, God dead, how does that make sense?”


It’s disturbing.  Just ask Jesus’ disciples.  


In Mark 8 and Matthew 16 Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is.  Some say John the Baptist.  Some say Elijah.  Some say one of the prophets.  He asks his disciples, who do you say I am?  The Messiah, says Peter.  Yes, says Jesus, and what that means is this: I must suffer, and be killed, and on the third day rise again.  “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” says Peter.  Jesus turns to Peter “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  You think you’ve got God worked out, think again.


It’s disturbing.  Just ask Paul.


Paul had spent a lifetime training as a Pharisee, the most enthusiastic student, an expert in the Hebrew Scriptures.  He thought he knew what God looked like, rolled up in those Scriptures.  But he ignored God’s loving purposes unfolded in the same Scriptures, and hunted down and killed the early followers of Jesus.


Paul, breathing threats and murder against the Church, blinded on the Damascus Road and called out of his former life by the risen Christ, “Why are you persecuting me?  I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting”.  
Paul would call Jesus the head of a body made up of those who believe in Him.  The believers that Paul was persecuting – you persecute them, you persecute Jesus.  You hurt a human made in the image of God, you hurt the one who has the fullness of God, Jesus Christ.  Who Christ is and who we are is intimately connected.  Christ is in us, and we are in Christ, as Paul and John put it.


However far Paul wandered from God’s loving purposes, God’s love was strong enough to call him back.  And if God could reach out to Paul, if God could reach out to someone who had made it his life’s work to destroy what Christ had begun, God can reach out to anybody.  He can draw the whole world to him in peace, and show the world what He is really like in Christ.
The Galilean crowds, the disciples, Paul – all were called to think again about who God is and what God looks like.  Some responded; some didn’t.  Those that did respond experienced a change of mind, or change of heart about God.  That change of heart about God brings with it a change in who we are.  Saul becomes Paul and becomes the most prolific writer in the New Testament.  The disciples grow from a terrified rag-bag group of followers to become a global church.  Employees and volunteers give their time ministering to men and women in prison that the world wishes didn’t exist.  Churches in Everton and on the Hills Road reach out in love to those who most need it, seeing Christ in them, and showing Christ to them.


We change our mind and heart about God, we change ourselves.  We are no longer defined by what we have done, where we were born, who we love, or what we contribute to society.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.  


These things do not define us anymore.  These things were never meant to define us in the first place.  All things were created in and through Christ, the true and fullest image of God.  Humanity was created in God’s image, following the example set in Christ.  Whoever we are, our reality is and always has been and always will be to become more and more like Jesus.  This is why we read the Bible to learn about Him.  This is why we meet in His name as a church.  This is why we receive the Lord’s body and blood in bread and wine at the Lord’s Table.  This is why we go out in the name of Christ to love and serve the world.


We are created in God’s image, following the example set in Christ.  This is not so much a statement as a call.  It is a difficult call to hear, and a harder one to live up to, but it calls to us nonetheless:


Can you not see that within yourself you carry the image of God?  Can you not see that the Spirit which brought about Christ’s birth, animated his life, and raised him from the dead – can you not see that this Spirit can fill you too, and make you do marvellous things?  


Come, says God, see that you are my child, see that you are loved and you are known.  Come, see that I love you and I knew you even before your mother’s womb, for you are fearfully and wonderfully made.  Come, says Christ, and follow me.


Amen

12 November 2019 Sermon (Westcott House, Cambridge)

Daniel 5.1-12

King Belshazzar made a great festival for a thousand of his lords, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand.

Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar commanded that they bring in the vessels of gold and silver that his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. So they brought in the vessels of gold and silver that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand. The king was watching the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king cried aloud to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the diviners; and the king said to the wise men of Babylon, ‘Whoever can read this writing and tell me its interpretation shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around his neck, and rank third in the kingdom.’ Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar became greatly terrified and his face turned pale, and his lords were perplexed.

The queen, when she heard the discussion of the king and his lords, came into the banqueting-hall. The queen said, ‘O king, live for ever! Do not let your thoughts terrify you or your face grow pale. There is a man in your kingdom who is endowed with a spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father he was found to have enlightenment, understanding, and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and diviners, because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will give the interpretation.’

Revelation 6

Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.

When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.

When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’

When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’

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May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (+). Amen.

I’m not usually the sort of person who pays attention to the signs of the times – the wars and rumours of wars Jesus tells us about in the gospels. The birthpangs. Some churches have made a living out of this – confidently predicting the end of the world on the basis of current events, signs of the times. Only they keep having to revise their estimate when the world does not stop turning on their timescale.

I’m not normally the sort of person who takes much notice of that sort of thing. But when I signed up to preach this evening… I signed up without checking the readings first. Only later that day did I look them up and see that it was the Writing on the Wall, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Perhaps someone was trying to tell me to pay attention to the signs of the times.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has such a common ring to it now – it sounds like the punchline of a joke: there was a TV advert for goodness knows what a while back where one half of a couple came into the living room with their hair in a mess and a terrified expression on their face. “I’ve just seen the four horsemen of the Apocalypse”, he said. “Don’t worry, love, it’s not the end of the world”, she replied.

The imagery feels so well worn, so hackneyed, so washed out, that we’re in danger of losing sight of what lies behind the image.

As we were reminded in our sermon for All Saints, the book of Daniel was written in a context of persecution – Jerusalem was occupied by a hostile empire in the second century BC. The context of the Book of Revelation is similar: young Christian churches fight amongst themselves and face external threat from the Roman Empire in the first century AD.

In times of conflict and persecution, when it feels like you’re going through hell, perhaps it’s not surprising that the images you draw on are violent, and at times demonic. But to state the obvious, we are not in those times. There is a great distance between us today, and those who wrote Revelation and originally heard it.

So, in our interpretation of a text like this we may fall prey to two temptations. We may think of the Four Horsemen as being signs of the END times – some sort of mythological depiction of troubles yet to come. Or we may think of the Four Horsemen as being signs of PAST times – illustrations of real-life persecution, which add a certain literary flavour to maximise the impact of the text.

Signs of the end times? Signs of past times? Or something else?

I looked and I saw a first rider. At first he looked like a friend, like a saviour, but he came to devour and to destroy. He looks like betrayal. He looks like the false hope of financial security, nationalist politics, isolationism, racial purity. To some he looks like religious brainwashing – the opium of the people – or religious abusers and those who institute cover-ups.

I looked and I saw a second rider. He talked of peace, but brought war. He talked of a peacemaker but brings a revolver. He talked of a peacekeeper but brings a missile. “In this sign conquer”. Conquer he did, and said that God was on his side, but all he brought was misery, death and empire, not the Kingdom of God.

I looked and I saw a third rider. The scales in his hand spoke of economic exchange – a fair day’s pay for a day’s work. But the scales were crooked. The wealth of empires, nations, universities built on slavery. The earth’s resources ravaged so that we can have the latest smart phone. Garment workers killed in unsafe factories so we can have new clothes on the cheap. A worsening climate disaster killing those who are poorest, those who are far away, out of sight, out of mind.

I looked and I saw a fourth rider. Death hand-in-hand with his three companions – eating up people as if they were bread. Death – so easy to turn into a statistic – to treat the dead as numbers not people.

Signs of the end times? Signs of past times? Or signs of the now times?

If for one moment we imagine these four nightmare figures are anything other than deadly serious, then we need to take note of the signs of the times, the signs of the NOW times. The writing is on the wall for us.

How does the writing finish? How does the story end? Not with the four horsemen. It turns out they aren’t the end of the world after all.

The story ends the same way it started – with the same Word, the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, the Lion of Judah looking like a Lamb who had been slaughtered, the one whose death and resurrection declares that famine, war, pestilence and even death are not the last words.

So we live with that alpha and omega as our own beginning and end. We live by faith in the historical events of the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Christ. We live in hope of the end of time when those events will be fully realised for all people. With faith rooted in past times and our hope set in the end times we live in the now times by love – love for God, love for neighbour, love for enemies.

Love that calls us to fashion our lives on the slaughtered Lamb we follow, to whom with the Father and the Spirit be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever. Amen.

8 September 2019 Sermon (St Paul’s Hills Road, Cambridge)

Isaiah 43.14 – 44.5

Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
For your sake I will send to Babylon
and break down all the bars,
and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation.
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honour me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob;
but you have been weary of me, O Israel!
You have not brought me your sheep for burnt-offerings,
or honoured me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with offerings,
or wearied you with frankincense.
You have not bought me sweet cane with money,
or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins;
you have wearied me with your iniquities.

I, I am He
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.
Accuse me, let us go to trial;
set forth your case, so that you may be proved right.
Your first ancestor sinned,
and your interpreters transgressed against me.
Therefore I profaned the princes of the sanctuary,
I delivered Jacob to utter destruction,
and Israel to reviling.

But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!
Thus says the Lord who made you,
who formed you in the womb and will help you:
Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,
Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams.
This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s’,
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, ‘The Lord’s’,
and adopt the name of Israel.

John 5.30-47

‘I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgement is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.

‘If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that his testimony to me is true. You sent messengers to John, and he testified to the truth. Not that I accept such human testimony, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But I have a testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.

‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?’

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I’m really delighted to be here at St Paul’s this evening, and delighted that Michael has asked me to preach. I’m Alastair, an ordinand from Westcott House and I’ll be attached to St Paul’s until next summer.

I first moved to Cambridge 17 years ago when I was studying at Robinson College. I then worked as a lawyer in London for 11 years before multiple pangs of conscience told me I should be doing something slightly different. I had always had the idea of church ministry in the back of my mind, and I explored the idea of being a Church of England priest for several years before moving back to Cambridge two years ago to start training.

I didn’t move here on my own. I met my wife, Serena, at Robinson where we both sang in the chapel choir. We married nine and half years ago and now have two children, Sebastian who is 6 and Genevieve who is 3.

We recently got back from the Greenbelt festival, which we go to as a family every year. I’m sure many of you know it: it’s a wonderful arts and music festival held over the August bank holiday, with a strong focus on faith, social justice, and making the world better for everyone. It’s an inspiring place where you can reconnect with your faith and come away with loads of new ideas.

Jesus’s words in this evening’s reading “I can do nothing on my own” sound a little like my experience at this year’s Greenbelt. As my daughter is only 3, perhaps you can imagine. She needs to use the portaloo; I go with her. I need to use the portaloo; she insists on coming with me. I’m having a brief sit down after chasing around all morning; my daughter wants me to try my hand at knitting; I try my hand at knitting. “I can do nothing on my own.”

But Jesus in this passage from John is not talking about the difficulty of finding some peace and quiet. Jesus is responding to a criticism of his earlier behaviour.

Earlier in John chapter 5, Jesus has healed a paralysed man. The man had been ill for 38 years and lay by a pool which people believed contained healing waters. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche community imagines this pool like a Victorian Asylum – a collection of people who had been shunned or driven out of society, utterly helpless. The paralysed man says that nobody would help him into the water. He is alone. He can do nothing.

Then Jesus turns up, sees the man, talks to him, knows of his despair and loneliness and heals him. As Jean Vanier notes, it is striking that it is an asylum, a home for the lost, where Jesus turns up, not some royal or religious centre of power.

Instead of wonder, Jesus provokes a huge controversy amongst the religious leaders. Jesus healed the man, and the man picked up his bed on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. Things escalate and the leaders question Jesus about his authority for doing these things, his authority for breaking the Sabbath.

Jesus’s answer is summed up in one phrase: “I can do nothing on my own.”

Jesus does not heal the man on his own, by his own power. Jesus does these things because he has been sent to do them by the one he calls his Father. It is God’s will that Jesus goes to this place of forgotten people.

“I can do nothing on my own”

These words might resonate with our own experience of God. They remind me of those wonderful words from Psalm 139.

O Lord, where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in hell, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

“I can do nothing on my own”

At one level this is a reassurance that nowhere and nobody is beyond God. Wherever we are, God is with us: even amongst the lost and rejected of society. Perhaps especially amongst the lost and rejected of society. Simply by going there, Jesus challenges any society that hides away those it doesn’t want to see.

There is an another aspect too. John’s gospel has already described Jesus as the Son of God, the Lamb of God, the King of Israel. Jesus does things in John’s gospel that only God should do. At the very beginning of the Gospel, Jesus is described as the Word who was with God and who was God.

“I can do nothing on my own” identifies the actions of Jesus with the actions of the God of Israel. In this episode, when Jesus walks amongst the most forgotten in society, it is the action of a God who values every person, even those society has rejected.

The actions of Jesus are the actions of God. There is such a strong intimacy between Jesus and the one he calls Father that the writer of John’s gospel calls Jesus God.

But this intimacy Jesus has is not one we share. There are times when even those beautiful words from Psalm 139 can seem hollow. We may be going through a living hell and feel no presence of God at all. We may be having the time of our lives – ascending metaphorically into heaven – yet have no sense of the divine.

The psalms speak of this as well. From Psalm 88:

But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?

The awareness Jesus had of the closeness of His bond with His Father is simply not our everyday experience. And leaving religion aside, whether we are alone or in company, loneliness is something we all experience. Not just the loneliness of being on our own, but feeling a lack of meaningful connection even if we’re in a crowd. We try to forget ourselves, we hide ourselves away.

“I can do nothing on my own” in that context sounds more like a cry of despair or prayer for help.

How do we deal with this? With our doubts about God, ourselves and others? When we feel quite alone even in the company of others, the company of friends even. Days when God seems neither for us, nor against us, but just…”where are you?”

There was a day when Jesus felt that too. Not very obviously in John’s gospel but in Mark, yes. Being led to his death, one friend betraying him, the others deserting him, tortured and nailed to the cross, that cry of desolation from Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” “I can do nothing on my own”

Can we hold together a Jesus forsaken by God, and a Jesus who could do nothing on his own without God, a Jesus who WAS God? Even when it appears God has forsaken Jesus, is God still at work in Him?

Can we hold those thoughts together when we think about ourselves? Even when we feel that God is distant from us, when we feel God is nowhere, is God there for us? The paralysed man in John is in the pits of despair, festering away by that pool for years and years, yet finds himself face-to-face with God Incarnate.

But there are days when we just can’t see it. There are days when perhaps we don’t know it about ourselves, but others can see it or we can see it in others.

On days when I doubt God, myself and pretty much everything else I take comfort from those around me – my wife, my son, my daughter who likes seeing me knit and who won’t let me go to the portaloo without coming in with me. I thank God for those who pray for me. I think of my dear, departed grandmother, in her final bed-bound months still praying for me and my family every day. I think by that point she knew she could do nothing on her own, could do nothing without those around her, could do nothing without God.

On difficult days I thank God for the church as well. The communities of people who keep praying and encouraging when their members and those in the wider community are finding things hard or impossible.

The church communities who gather round a pool in baptism and round a table in holy communion. Whether we’ve never come to that table before, or have been coming for 38 years or more, we all come in need of healing – saving from our spiritual blindness, our spiritual paralysis, our loneliness, our godforsakenness.

We can do nothing on our own, and so Jesus meets us. Somehow in the communion meal that we will share together – the meal Jesus left us – Jesus meets us. Jesus who could do nothing without the one he called Father meets us and invites us to eat and drink, to join the heavenly banquet won for us out of His death and rising to new life.

However we feel – ascending to heaven, or making our bed in hell – however we feel about ourselves or about God, the church still gathers at the table. In our blindness, our paralysis, our loneliness, our godforsakenness, we gather together as the Body of Christ and receive the Body of Christ.

Amen.

9 June 2019 Sermon (Robinson College, Cambridge)

Acts 2: 1-17

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.

——————————————————————————–

When I was an undergraduate here, there seemed to be an overarching narrative that reappeared again and again in sermons preached here. The narrative took the form of a myth that went something like this:

“During the planning of this college, our benefactor David Robinson came to the offices of the architects. He was shown various plans, elevations, maps and models.

‘Mmm,’ he said, ‘very good, but where’s the chapel?’

‘Oh,’ said one of the architects, ‘but Mr Robinson this is the 1970s, surely we’re beyond needing a chapel?’

‘No chapel; no college,’ came the steely reply.”

This account may be mythical, or perhaps only legendary, but it carries a foundational significance – this chapel is likely here because somebody took a stand against the prevailing views and trends of the times.

Today the church remembers its own foundational event: the day of Pentecost, which was described in our reading from Acts. Jesus had died, risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. His followers had been told to wait in Jerusalem for God’s next move. This next move is pictured in vivid terms: there was a rushing wind that filled the house; tongues of flame rested on each person; and then people began to speak in different languages.

The writer of Acts describes this as the followers of Jesus being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Later Christian theologians would explain this encounter with the Holy Spirit as an encounter with God – the Holy Spirit being more than just a power God can choose to exercise, but God himself acting.

Why should this particular encounter with God lead to speaking other languages? Speaking in many other languages is not necessarily positive if you consider our reading from Genesis” that mythical account of the origin of languages at the Tower of Babel.

If you look at the two books of the Bible attributed to Luke (the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles) up until the day of Pentecost Peter has barely spoken – one or two lines of dialogue here and there. Yet after receiving the Holy Spirit, Peter addresses the crowd in a speech lasting more than half a chapter.

So, the gift of speaking in other languages contains within it the gift of being able to speak at all. Yet it is even more than that. Peter’s speech is one which the crowd understands – both literally and figuratively. Literally, people from all over the world can understand the words he is using.

Figuratively, his words have an effect – they cut the crowd to the heart, they feel a sense of awe and 3000 of them believe the message. The encounter with God in the Holy Spirit means that even though myriad languages are spoken, Peter and the other disciples are understood – a complete reversal of Babel where those desiring to become like God are reduced to a non-sensical babble.

So the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts is presented as the gift of meaning; the gift of making sense to people.

If we say to someone “You’re really speaking my language,” we do not simply mean that they are speaking English! It means someone is speaking in a register that I understand, a register that gets through to me, a register that means something to me.

The extraordinary encounter with God in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost opens up the very possibility of talking about God, and of our talking about God making any sort of sense at all. For that reason, the events of Pentecost have rightly been described as the birth of the church.

That was all a rather lengthy First Act to Act Two, which is about Plato, and his dialogue Phaedrus.

So, why the Phaedrus? Well, like the account of Pentecost, the themes of speech and meaning run intertwined through this particular Platonic dialogue.

Although the dialogue is ostensibly about two conflicting accounts of the nature of love, it is really about philosophy. Love is almost synonymous in this Platonic dialogue with philosophy – the love of wisdom. So, when Socrates and his pupil Phaedrus talk about a lover and his beloved, the words have deep personal resonance – the love described is the love between Socrates and Phaedrus cemented in their mutual yearning after wisdom.

The philosophical quest for wisdom and truth is a joint effort of two minds, the minds of a teacher and a pupil, whose love for one another is rooted in a common love of things like truth, beauty and goodness.
A quest for meaning, a quest for truth is not something one can embark on alone – it is a communal endeavour of proposing, questioning, dissecting, generalising, clarifying, and refining. This has been given the rather grand name of “the dialectic”. But we might be equally justified in calling it “conversation”.

Plato’s dialogues are based around reconstructed conversations between Socrates and his various pupils. Those conversations take place in a mutual spirit of love and desire to find truth and wisdom. So conversation, when it is entered into openly and in the right spirit, is a place where truths can be uncovered, meaning can be found and minds can be changed.

Slightly embarrassingly I realise at this point that I’ve painted myself into a Simon Perry-shaped corner.

If the overarching narrative of the preaching here when I was an undergraduate was the myth of David Robinson, then the overarching narrative of many sermons I have heard here on attachment as an ordinand has been that changing your mind is not a simple thing to do.

Is what I’ve said about dialogue and conversation being a place where truth can emerge really incompatible with the difficulty of changing someone’s mind? If it is, then I’m sure Simon and I will thrash the point out over a glass of wine or two after the service!

But as a prelude to that, another quick look at both Plato and Pentecost.

In the Phaedrus, Plato acknowledges that the philosophical quest for truth is not easy. The conclusions of philosophical debate are written not in ink, he says, but in the souls of human beings – the quest for truth is an ongoing one and is just as complicated as we are to ourselves.

The Platonic dialogues are not simply conversation and rational argument either, they also contain a significant number of myths. So in Phaedrus we find mythical accounts of local deities, an allegorical description of the human soul, and an Egyptian myth about the origins of writing. These myths act as rhetorical devices interrupting the flow of the debate, opening up conversations, and sparking new lines of enquiry.

It is an enormous question whether the description of Pentecost in Acts is mythological or historical. The account is certainly anything but straightforward.

It stretches us to the point of disbelief when we hear about miraculous rushing winds and tongues of fire. But the point is that a sudden, violent interruption was needed in these people’s lives before they could begin to speak to people about God and Jesus Christ, and before they could begin to make sense, before they could begin to be the church in other words.

An architect’s plans of a college without a chapel made no sense to at least one person in the 1970s. At least according to the myth. Whether that account is mythical or not, it does give us an insight into the vision of one man, and what made sense to him. A vision that in the space a college provides for conversation and debate about anything and everything, there should still be a space for conversation about God.

Whatever your own vision is, it will likely never come to anything unless you speak up about it, and try to make sense in your speaking.

You may not feel that you need the Holy Spirit to enable you to do that, but you certainly need to speak and to go on talking and debating about what is truly important to you. And be prepared to have your mind changed. On that, I think, both Plato and Pentecost can agree.

3 March 2019 Sermon (Robinson College, Cambridge)

Sermon

1 Kings 19:9-14

Matthew 6:5-8

Last September I spent a week on placement with a prison chaplaincy team. For anyone who has never visited a prison, they are very strange places indeed. One of the strangest things for me was giving up my mobile phone each day, phones being contraband in prison. I expected to feel lost, but the experience was liberating. I could focus on others in conversation without electronic interruption or distraction. Idle moments could really be idle moments, without the fear of missing out endemic to social media. I could greet each thing in front of me with attention.

Someone who writes brilliantly about attention is the American poet Mary Oliver, who died only a few weeks ago. This is her short poem “The Summer Day”.

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

The poem turns what seems like a straightforward ode to nature to a meditation on prayer. Prayer in The Summer Day is paying attention, being idle, strolling through the fields.

Not quite what we imagine. Prayer is one of those things beset with different conceptions and misconceptions, as we heard in the reading from Matthew’s gospel.

When you pray, don’t pray outside, so that you’re seen by others.

Go into your room, and shut the door and pray as if in secret.

So, what’s going on here? At a surface level, this is telling people not to pray for the wrong reason. At this level, Jesus tells his followers not to pray in public seeking public approval for their piety. Rather, go into a room and shut the door. Prayer is something between you and God, and it’s nobody else’s business.

As well as at this surface, practical level, this might also have something to tell us at a psychological level. The outward trappings of prayer are not important, it’s about what is going on inside. This is certainly how these verses were interpreted in Christian antiquity.

So for Saint Augustine, the room in this passage stands for the human heart. The door to the room is the bodily senses, so shutting the door in prayer becomes a shutting out of the world to focus on God. Rather different from prayer in the Summer Day, which was paying attention, being idle, strolling through the fields.

Similarly to Saint Augustine, Saint John Chrysostom interprets the room as the heart, but the door of the room is not the senses, but the mouth. “Shut the door” means “shut your mouth”. So Chrysostom says we should pray “not with loudness of tone, but silent heart”.

So, is prayer about outward attentiveness to the world, or inner stillness? Is it about naming the wonder we find in the natural world, or resting with God in silent contemplation? Or might these all be related?

There is something about being silent or alone that can sharpen the attention. That can take us to quite a disconcerting place: there is a reason we talk about awkward silences in conversations. Alone and in silence, we have to decide whether we really like being in our own company. Who we are when we are alone and silent might be quite different from the persona we put on every time we open the door and go out. Are we happy about that?

Silence can also be profoundly damaging. Prisoners kept in conditions of sensory deprivation frequently experience hallucinations and delirium. Going into a cell and having a door shut on you is a rather different prospect from retreating from the world into a room in the comfort of your own home.

There is also something profoundly problematic with the silence that comes from being silenced. Injustices continue to be perpetuated in the world, often because the victims are given no voice: they have been silenced. Silence is the sound of a cover-up, the sound of denial.

Silence can take us to disconcerting places, it can be damaging, it can be oppressive and abusive, but it can also be creative.

Rowan Williams in his recent book “The Edge of Words” writes compellingly about this. Considering the question “Can silence speak?” he draws attention to the pregnant silence at the end of a musical or dramatic performance. That silence says something – although we might struggle to say what. It says something about what has gone before, and something about what follows. It is a silence framed by the performance and the audience’s response. It is a highly specific silence, a silence that speaks of the audience’s rapt attention to that specific performance, in that place at that time. It is a silence that leads from something and to something: it keeps things going, in other words.

Anyone familiar with Mendelssohn’s Oratorio will know the story about Elijah from our first reading. Elijah is alone and at the end of his tether. He throws himself before God in prayer. The response is extraordinary: a great wind, an earthquake, a fire, and then a faint sound, sometimes translated as “the sound of sheer silence”. That silence may just be Elijah’s terrified response to the wind, earthquake and fire – it is a silence that leads from something. Ot may also be Elijah’s deepest prayer – he has finally been forced to stop in silent awareness of what is going on around him. At that point he also becomes aware of God’s presence – it is a silence that leads to something.

Williams’s treatment of silence has something to tell us about prayer – that in prayer silence and attentiveness are not opposed, but sides of the same coin. The idea that specific silences punctuate and frame events and utterances in the world means we cannot use silence to ignore the world. Rather, silence obliges ever deeper and deeper attention to the world.

This is so even where people have been oppressively silenced. Their very silence cries out for others to question why, and take up their cause and help them speak.

A place of silence and stillness, and what that might lead to, brings us to the centre of what Christians have to say about Jesus Christ. At that centre we find not an utterance but a body. The body of Jesus, that would lie in the still silence of death. A body silenced by oppressors. A silence that asks what led to the silencing, and what comes after. Christians have a fairly specific response to the latter question: silencing is not final, Christ has broken the chains of death for himself, and also for us.

We are released into wild and precious life. What is it we plan to do with it?

Intercessions

Almighty God, found in silence…

Teach us a renewed appreciation of the world around us. Help us to see its beauty, and to suppress our desire to dominate and control it. Give us grace to know you in our idleness as well as our activity.

[10]

Almighty God, found in silence…

Teach us how to pray. Help us to follow the example of your Son Jesus Christ who dedicated his life to you in prayer. Give us confidence that time spent in prayer is not time wasted.

[10]

Almighty God, found in silence…

Teach us the value of all human life. Help us to see goodness in all we encounter, however different they are from us. Give us wisdom to know how to respond well to those we find difficult.

[10]

Almighty God, found in silence…

Teach us to have insight into situations of oppression where people are silenced. Help us to give others a voice when they cannot be heard. Give us courage not to give in to cultures of silence, cover-up and denial.

[10]

Almighty God, found in silence…

Teach us that to speak is not enough. Help us to see what to do with our lives. Give us your Spirit so that we do may be offered to your praise and glory.

[10]

Almighty Father,

whose Son was revealed in majesty

before he suffered death upon the cross:

give us grace to perceive his glory,

that we may be strengthened to suffer with him

and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.

Amen

18 October 2018 Sermon (Robinson College, Cambridge)

Psalm 139:1-14
Matthew 19:30-20:16

“The last will be first, and the first last”

It sounds good. Deceptively simple. A slogan before its time. I’ve used it like that. When my children are squabbling over who gets to do something first – “Well, the last will be first, and the first last” “Uh? What do you mean, Daddy?”.

“The last will be first, and the first last”

Those little slogans surround a story Jesus tells about workers in a vineyard. A cozy little agricultural metaphor. The narrative stage a single day. Hours ticking by with comforting regularity as the landowner calls more and more into the vineyard. All busying themselves with the vines, the weeding, the pruning, clearing the stones.

Then he pays them. The same pay for everyone – those who worked all day and those called in an hour before sunset. Is this fair? Is this generosity? The grumbling workers, all sunburn and sweat, challenge their master. Is this envy? Is this justice?

“The last will be first, and the first last”

Few things seem more natural in life than to compare ourselves with our fellow human-beings. What sort of qualifications we have, what sort of job we have, how much we earn, what we look like. Who’s first in the race? Who’s last? Who’s deserving? Who’s not?

Comparing ourselves with others is inevitable. But what happens when we compare ourselves with others and we don’t like what we see? That person earns more money than me. That person works less hard and has more free time than me. That person is more successful than me. They’re first in the race, and I’m last.

“The last will be first, and the first last”

In that moment, perhaps we really do wish that were true. Everything turned upside down so that we stood in the other person’s shoes – we had their job, we earned their salary, we looked like them.

I’m sure we all know that feeling of discontentment or resentment when we look at the achievements or possessions of another, and desire to have them for ourselves, or at least to deprive the other person of them.

That feeling we call envy.

“The last will be first, and the first last”, but let *me* be the judge of that.

“Let *me* be first, and the others last”

We succumb to envy so frequently it feels as natural as comparing ourselves with others in the first place.

Maybe we revel in it.

Or maybe we run from it. Out of self-defence we do what we can to avoid comparing ourselves with others. We don’t discuss our salaries with our friends – I never did. We try to make ourselves look as similar to one another as possible – whatever fashion and advertising dictates. We busy ourselves “keeping up with the Joneses”

Protect yourself. Save face.

Our story today could have ended in just that way…

“When evening fell, the owner of the vineyard said to the overseer, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with those who came first and ending with the last.”

The men who had come first took their full days’ wages and went home tired but happy.

Those who had started work an hour before sunset came forward, and were paid the full day’s wage. As they took it, they marvelled at their employer: “We latecomers did only one hour’s work, yet you have treated us on a level with those who sweated the whole day long in the blazing sun!”

The owner turned to one of them and said, “My friend, I am free to do what I like with my own money. I am generous so that none of you might be jealous.” ”

If only this had happened, nobody would have been provoked to question why someone should receive the same pay for less work, nobody would have been provoked to envy.

But “The last will be first, and the first last”

This blows the lid off all our self-defence mechanisms. It is only the knowledge that everyone has the same amount of pay that leads to envy.

This is something that has fascinated thinkers for yours.

Aristotle talks about envy as pain at the sight of good fortune in others. He also finds envy amongst the ambitious, and amongst those who already have much but are worried others are trying to take it.

Emmanuel Kant talks about envy arising from a refusal to see the intrinsic worth of our own well-being. Rather, we compare our own well-being with that of others, and we don’t like to see our own well-being overshadowed by another’s.

Envy in others reveals our good luck. Envy in ourselves reveals our own ambition and entitlement. Above all, envy reveals our refusal to consider our own intrinsic self worth.

We have to decide whether these are things we are happy delving into, or things we’d rather sweep under the carpet.

Good luck – each one of us is here, yes through hard work, but also through an enormous amount of luck; luck that could quite easily have been against us rather than for us. None of us would be here without at least a little ambition – but it’s hard not to be paranoid when you’re surrounded by other ambitious people.
I wouldn’t accuse anyone here of entitlement. But what do we expect to come out of our time studying in a place like Cambridge? Surely we expect *something* to come of it?
And which one of us really wants to go digging around in their own self-worth?

The kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus said. It doesn’t feel like a very comfortable place, being confronted with deep truths about who we are and what we’re really like. It feels pretty exposed, our self-defence mechanisms torn away and uprooted.

Nobody – least of all Jesus – ever said we would be comfortable, or find it easy. But he did say he would be with us: we wouldn’t face things alone.

Underlying any Christian view of human self-worth are usually two foundations: that humans have been created in God’s image; and that humanity has not finally been abandoned by God. God’s image in humanity cannot be eradicated, and this is something all humans share in common.

Whether you hold that Christian view or not, I’m sure you’ll still recognise there’s something intrinsic to all humans that gives them value, gives them worth. At that intrinsic level, it doesn’t matter what job you do, how much you earn, or how many hours you’ve been labouring in the vineyard.

“The last will be first, and the first last”

In a recent long read in The Guardian – not exactly a bastion of Christian fundamentalism – exactly this issue was explored. The piece was about Michael Young, a British sociologist involved in setting up the Welfare State in the post-War Labour government.

In 1958 he wrote a dystopian satire set in 2033 called “The Rise of Meritocracy”. In this dystopian world, the ruling class was determined by the formula “IQ + effort = merit”. The book depicts a gradual stratification of society into the worthy and unworthy. The worthy know that success is a just reward for their own efforts. The unworthy know that they have failed every chance they were given.

The formula “IQ + effort = merit” was inherently flawed, inherently dystopian. As those who were cleverer and worked harder got richer, they used their money to gain unfair advantages for their children. Merit was no longer determined by IQ and effort alone, but by money.

Good luck, ambition, entitlement. No wonder the unworthy might envy the worthy in such a society.

In Young’s book, a resistance movement forms and writes a manifesto calling for a society that both possessed and acted upon plural values, including kindliness, courage and sensitivity, so all had a chance to develop their own special capacities for leading a rich life.

We might wonder whether Young’s dystopia has actually come to pass. How does our society measure the value of its citizens?

One way is in terms of efficiency – how well people can get jobs done, what those jobs are worth to society, and how we should allocate resources to make this happen. It sounds brutal, but is it really all that different from how our society operates? “The last will be first, and the first last” sounds intrinsically unfair in that sort of society.

Another way is to consider people in terms of their intrinsic worth, whether you approach that from a Christian, a humanist or whatever viewpoint. “The last will be first, and the first last” from that viewpoint is to say that there is no first, and there is no last.

There is just human worth.

And surely for that, we’re all worth our daily wage.
Amen.

16 September 2018 Sermon for Proper 19, (St Nicholas, Great Wilbraham & St Vigor, Fulbourn)

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

May I speak in the name of the (+) Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It was my great fortune, or possibly misfortune, to discover one day on the Internet a sermon by the great American preacher and theologian Fred Craddock. That sermon, on the passage from Mark’s gospel we heard today, shook my beliefs and in particular my view of the church and the church’s mission. One line struck me in particular:

“It is faulty thinking that says the death of Jesus is the life of the world, and the death of the church is the end of the world.”

So much to think about. Is the death of the church a possibility? What would that even look like?

Looking at the news recently, things don’t look all that rosy. Less than two weeks ago we heard in the papers that the Church of England is facing a generational catastrophe. Only 2% of young adults identify with it, and 70% of under-24s say they have no religion.

Could we be seeing the beginning of the end? Whether it is that or not, we seem to be firmly set on playing the numbers game in the church. Every new central initiative now seems to be about boosting numbers: “going for growth”, “reform and renewal”, “raising the spiritual temperature”.

This all feels some way from the words spoken by Jesus in today’s gospel reading “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If we are involved in a quest to save the Church of England from collapse have we taken Jesus’ message seriously? “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

The 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “a church which fights for its self-preservation, as though it were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world”. In other words, a church which fights for its self-preservation can’t preach the gospel.

And at times, it really does seem that the way the Church of England approaches its mission aims as self-preservation above everything else. If we do enough stuff, if we put on interesting activities, if we get enough people in, we’ll be OK. The church will be OK. The church will survive. We want to save our church so much, but could that desire be sucking the life out of it?

We will never be the ones that give the church life: only Christ can do that. Our work, our mission, in the church involves being sent by One who is faithful, and remaining faithful to Him. In Matthew’s gospel, think of the Great Commission where Jesus sends out the disciples, saying “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”. Or in John’s gospel where Jesus after he has been raised says “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

We are sent by Jesus, because he was sent by God the Father. We are missionary people, we are a mission-shaped church, only because God is a missionary God. The only mission possible for the church is the mission that God has already begun by sending His Son.

If we are to continue in this, then our mission must be Christlike, it must be Jesus-shaped. No aspect of Christ’s mission can be ignored, so the mission of the church will necessarily draw in Christ’s Incarnation; His Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension; the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; and then Christ’s second coming when his mission will be completed.

In today’s gospel, Jesus talks about being killed, and on the third day rising again. The crucifixion and resurrection are both in view. But it is the horror and shame of crucifixion that really looms over us here – deny yourself and take up your cross.

Who in the church wants to hear that? Peter certainly didn’t sound very keen.

When Peter recognises that Jesus is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, Jesus first tells Peter to keep his mouth shut, then tells him that he must be rejected, suffer and die. Oh, and Peter can tell as many people as he wants about that. Then, when Peter acts all concerned, Jesus calls him Satan! It only gets worse: not only must Jesus die, but his followers must give their lives as well.

Of course, Peter panics. He runs from the idea of a dead Jesus, just as he denies Jesus three times and flees before Jesus is led to his death.

Peter here takes the role the church has filled ever since: running from the idea that self-sacrifice and self-denial are needed to partake in God’s mission. Denying that there is a cross for the church to take up and bear.

“It is faulty thinking that says the death of Jesus is the life of the world, and the death of the church is the end of the world.”

I think of that line from that sermon every time I hear of a new initiative.

Or if you prefer the words of Jesus to those of Fred Craddock:

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Does “going for growth” sound more like a survival exercise, or losing our life for the sake of Christ and for the gospel?

Focussing on the cross does not mean we have forgotten the resurrection, but one cannot happen without the other. There would be no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. We do not know what resurrection may look like for the church in the 21st century, but as long as our survival instinct denies the need for the cross we may never know.

What might a church bearing its cross actually look like? It was former Archbishop William Temple that said, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” So, in one sense it would look like a church for others, not for ourselves. Who does the church use its time, its people and its money for? Itself, or for others?

Are we in the business of saving our lives, or giving our lives? What does that mean, give your life? I turn again to Fred Craddock:

“What does that mean, give your life?
I think it means being able to empty your pockets for someone else’s children.
I think it means to treat as mother and father those who are not really your mother and father.
I think it means to claim as brother and sister people to whom you’re not kin.
I think it means to reach out and touch untouchable people as far as our society is concerned.
I think it means to sit at table with people who live far outside the tight social circle of some of your friends, and break bread together.
It means to continue to give money to others, even when the paint is peeling in the sanctuary.
I think it means that…”

I think so too.
Amen.

9 September 2018 Sermon (St Vigor, Fulbourn)

How should we pray?

I heard a sermon recently, where the preacher said “Prayer is easy”. I thought, “Well, it isn’t for me…”

One of the few people I’ve known who made prayer look easy was my grandmother Rosemary. She had a long list of people she prayed for every day. She spoke as if God was an old friend – they were happy in each others’ company. I was on her prayer list. That comforted me.

I hope one day I might have that same relationship with God my grandmother had. I don’t know exactly how I get there, but I think prayer might have something to do with it.

Why do we pray at all?

Jesus says “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Why is there any need to pray at all if the Father already knows what we need? God knows what we need, but do we know what we need ourselves? Prayer may be a part of working out what we really need. [We are not in the business of trying to change God’s mind when we pray. It’s not about changing God; it’s about changing us.]

When should we pray?

Jesus says “whenever we pray”, meaning regularly. [Jewish communal prayers of Jesus’ time would have been three times a day, like our pattern of morning, evening and night prayer.] Prayer is a habit that keeps us secure and grounded.

As well as prayer together, Jesus speaks about time alone. Throughout his life, he took himself away to deserted places to pray.

What should we pray?

It can be so difficult to think of what to say. The more I’ve learnt about prayer the less I try to make up on the spot. So many wonderful prayers have already been written. [Some people find the slower pace of writing down their prayers helpful.] Or prayer may just be resting in silence with God.

We can pray using the prayer Jesus himself taught us. Maybe saying it silently or aloud, or using it to direct our prayers. Praying it slowly line by line. Allowing each line to speak to us in some way.

Our Father in heaven
What does it mean for God to be our Father? Who else is God’s child? What does that mean for how we treat them?

Hallowed be your name
Offering God our worship. Joining Mary in the Magnificat: My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my Spirit has rejoiced in God my saviour.

Your kingdom come
Where are the signs of God’s way of doing things, the Kingdom of God, in our world today?

Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. As St Paul says, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Give us this day our daily bread
We thank God for feeding us with the Body and Blood of His Son Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. But why are we fed, when there are people who do not have enough to eat?

And forgive us our debts
None of us are innocent of wrongdoing. We come to God asking for forgiveness, and we receive it. As the 1st letter of John says, if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

as we also have forgiven our debtors
Christ on the cross forgave those who crucified Him. Can we do the same?

And do not bring us to the time of trial
Jesus prayed that the cup of his torment be taken from Him. It was not. Where was God in Jesus’ suffering? Where is God in the suffering of people today?

but rescue us from the evil one
The world is full of evil. Evil causes pain and suffering but with God all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner [of] thing shall be well.

That saying of Mother Julian of Norwich “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner [of] thing shall be well” was one of my grandmother’s favourite prayers.

How then should we pray?

Even as my grandmother got older and frailer she didn’t stop praying for everyone on her list. As she went from a chair to a bed, the list went with her.

As her voice began to fail others prayed for and with her. In the days before she died, I sat by her bed and said Evensong. She lay and listened, and prayed.

Her daughter, my mother, was with her when she died. My mother is not someone comfortable with making up prayers on the spot. But she felt called to pray out loud for her mother. What could she pray?

Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
For ever and ever.
Amen

22 July 2018 Sermon for Feast of Mary Magdalane (St John, Little Wilbraham & St Vigor, Fulbourn)

May I speak in the name of the (+) Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

It’s good to be reminded of why we are here: the death and resurrection of Christ, the wellspring of our Christian faith. As St Paul says, if Christ is not raised all our preaching is in vain.

But our particular reason for hearing this resurrection gospel today is that it is the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the risen Christ in John’s gospel; the first link in the great chain of witnesses which make up the Church.

It’s an interesting thought-experiment to imagine ourselves in Mary’s position. What would we have done? How would we have reacted? Would we have known it was him?

Interesting, but not all that helpful. We are not Mary. It is not AD30. We are not in that garden in Jerusalem. We cannot know how we would have reacted.

We do not really know what Mary was thinking going to the garden that Sunday morning. We really do not know why she was going.

What was Mary expecting to see? Perhaps just where his body had been laid. To sit a while and look. To make some small act of personal devotion for the one who had been taken away. To mourn.

What she sees and finds is the last thing she was expecting. Her world had been shattered by the cross. Now it is shattered again by the empty tomb.

Face-to-face with the empty tomb, Mary sheds tears of desperation that she cannot find even the dead body of the one she seeks.

Unlike our first reading from the Song of Solomon, Mary is not searching for a lover, but for a dead body. We need to take care not to enter “Da Vinci Code” territory by suggesting any sort of romantic love between Jesus and Mary. But we can still draw from that image in the Song of Solomon. Mary loved Jesus enough to go searching for him under quite dangerous circumstances – Temple guards or Roman soldiers could have been lying in wait for any more troublemakers.

But we must not confuse all love with romantic love, however strong Mary’s love was for the Lord. In the beautiful old hymn we sing “Jesu, lover of my soul; Let me to thy bosom fly,” recognising the love between Jesus and those who follow him.

We can also recognise the same desperate search as in the Song of Solomon. We get a sense that Mary really would have gone about the whole city of Jerusalem to find where Jesus lay.

But unlike the Song of Solomon, Mary does not find Jesus. Mary is at the tomb, and Jesus seeks her out. And at first she doesn’t recognise him.

Perhaps it was the tears clouding her eyes. Perhaps she was so expecting to find Jesus in the tomb she could not see him in the flesh. Expecting to see one thing, she doesn’t trust what her eyes are telling her.

Not recognising Jesus is a constant theme in John’s gospel, or at least not recognising Jesus for who he truly is. Thinking he is only a man from Nazareth, thinking he is possessed by demons; now this same lack of recognition happens at a physical level – “This must be the gardener,” says Mary.

His voice breaks the spell. And only then does she see. In John 10, Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. He says that the sheep of his flock hear his voice, he calls them by name, and they follow him. Could John be deliberately referring back to that? Are Jesus’ earlier words now fulfilled in the encounter with Mary? It would be very like John: his Gospel is full of these backwards and forwards references, and today’s passage is no exception.

For a start, it may be no coincidence that Jesus first greets Mary as “woman,”the same way he addresses his mother at the Wedding at Cana. At Cana, the miracle of turning water into wine is called the first of his signs – those things Jesus did which point beyond themselves to tell us who Jesus really is. As Mary the mother of Jesus witnessed that first sign, Mary Magdalene is the witness of Jesus’ last and greatest sign: overcoming death and rising to new life.

So, no coincidence that women are the witnesses of the first and last signs Jesus gives.

It is also surely no coincidence that it is a woman who first tells others that Jesus has risen from the dead. In John 4 the Samaritan woman at the well was the first person to go and spread the Good News about Jesus, bringing her whole town to him.

Mary Magdalene tells only the disciples, but she and they set in motion a chain of similar tellings that would lead in time to the founding of churches, the writing of the Christian scriptures, and in due time the faithfulness of a village in building this church, and you coming here this morning.

These common themes and parallels – women as witnesses of the first and last signs, women as first messengers of the Good News – are just one way John crafts his Gospel into a work of literature. We are so used to thinking of the Gospels as works of history that we forget that they are works of art too.

It is like John has crafted a giant piece of tapestry where each bright thread of colour is interwoven into multiple areas. Every part is connected with every other part, and the jumble of threads and ideas come together in a beautiful image.

And the meeting of Mary and Jesus in the garden really is one of those lasting images from the New Testament – it has inspired countless works of visual art. Yet perhaps surprisingly, John is the only one of the Gospel writers to describe this specific encounter. It may not occur to us to ask, but why did he include this particular resurrection appearance?

Well, you might say, because it happened. Mary saw the Lord, then told the disciples.

OK, but why this particular story in preference to others? The end of John 20 tells us that Jesus did many other things after his resurrection, but they are not written in this Gospel. Why include this particular story?

One suggestion is that by the time John’s Gospel was written in around AD90 women were being sidelined in the church. Jesus had radically included women in his mission, but they were now being pushed out from positions and roles they once held. And John’s Gospel provides a corrective with frequent reminders of just how important the female followers of Jesus were.

His mother, witnessing the first of his signs at the Wedding of Cana.
The Samaritan Woman sharing the Good News with her town.
Jesus’ mother and the other women, including Mary Magdalene, faithful at the cross.
And then Mary in the garden, the first to see him risen, and taking this news to others: Mary the apostle to all the apostles.

A well-deserved title.

But what Mary does is no more than what we are all called to do. All of us who have been called by name and baptised into the Holy Name of God are called to share in Mary’s work, to imitate her. As we grow in faith we are challenged to seek out Jesus, our Lord, and be found by him in our encounters with other people, when we read the Bible, in prayer, and in bread and wine in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Living as a baptised Christian is to join in with Mary’s mission – to pass on what we have seen and heard. To pass it on, not just with our words but in how we live our lives. What Mary Magdalene did is the reason we are here. And now we are here we are called to do the same.

When we do this, we become the next link in a vast chain going all the way back to Mary. The group of people joined together in this chain is what we might call the Church. At its best, it has gone on and on when people like you and me are inspired by the vision and knowledge of our Lord to bind themselves into that great pattern begun by Mary.

It’s not been perfect, it’s a pretty tangled mess if we’re honest. But if we could only step back from our human point of view and look at that tangled mess from God’s perspective, look at it as part of what St Paul calls the new creation of the resurrection then we might see something more than a tangled mess. We might see all those tangles, all that mess, come together like a great tapestry which looks a little bit like the body of Christ.
Amen