March 24, 2019 § Leave a comment
I preached this at Heath Street Baptist Church on Sunday March 24. As it reflects on some social media posts earlier in the week I thought I’d share it.
There’s a reference to “rock stars” – Heath Street has a superb exhibition of rock and pop photos, and George Michael (a local) was in one of them.
Luke 13. 1 – 9
How on earth did we get here? Whose fault is it? Who should take responsibility? Who can we change things so it doesn’t happen again?
Yes, I was at the march yesterday in Westminster, and, yes, such questions were a feature of the conversations all around me. By and large they were cheerfully done, and there were some magnificently humorous banners. A favourite was held by a child. It said: “I can negotiate my bedtime better than Theresa May has negotiated Brexit.” Surrounded by rock stars as I am today I rather enjoyed “Wake UK up before EU go go”, which was geographically topical too. My favourite alluded to the millions who have signed the petition, and the question of digital manipulation: “Do we look like Bots?” What a state we are in. How did it come to this?
Signs of the times questions quickly move from “how” to “why”. What led to this? Was there anything which could have been done? How then are we going to get out of this mess? I do think the signs of these current times are deeply disturbing, and became profoundly worried when the Prime Minister pitted the people against Parliament on Wednesday. I could not see that the solution was to be found in some kind of rebellion against democratic and parliamentary processes, and I worried for the fabric of our nation. That rhetoric seems to have subsided, but the present emergency means we have to look to the underlying way in which we are society, as well as the short term answers to what will happen on and after March 29, which will take more than the Church of England’s rather lovely cup of tea to sort.
Signs of the times questions are asked just as readily in other situations too: of the rise in violent crime in this city and around the country; of the destruction by fire of a council run block of flats; the mass deaths inflicted by the negligence of crowd control at football grounds, unsolved acts of terror; shootings by soldiers on duty; the systematic abuse of children unprotected by institutions which should have kept them safe. All of these are subject, rightly, to public scrutiny at the moment. What happened? How did it come to pass? Who should be blamed? Why? And what can we do to ensure such things don’t happen again?
It’s not just the results of human actions which are so questioned. The “why” question is also asked of natural disasters or so called “acts of God” too. Are the people of Eastern Africa wondering why they were so devastated by Cyclone Idai? People continue to come to judgment and make all sorts of wild accusations, saying earthquakes or floods are the result of immorality and bad human behaviour – a Bishop I know said something like that about floods in Carlisle not long ago. The questions are age old. Jesus was once asked whether a man’s blindness from birth was the result of his own sin or the sin of his parents. A similar question is asked of the two situations which form the background of Luke 13: a mass killing of prisoners, and a collapsing building. “Who sinned?” “Who is to blame?”. The underlying assumption is that what happened to them was their own fault. And thank God it’s not us. That’s judgment and pride all in one go.
No, says Jesus. Twice. Not them. Not their sin. Well, not exactly. Luke 12 and Luke 13 are “signs of the times” chapters. Jesus has been talking about lifestyle and readiness, about a mounting crisis where friends and families will be pitted against each other, about how you can predict the weather by reading the meteorological signs and should do the same thing with the events of politics and the news. It is clearly all too tempting for people to read the signs and come to the wrong conclusions: that these things are the result of other people’s wrong doing, and that God takes direct action against those who act or think badly. Someone must be to blame. No, and no, is Jesus’s answer. It is not as simple as that.
This is all of us. At every time and in every place. Of course bad behaviour, exploitation, wrong actions will eventually lead to catastrophe, and of course some actions have their direct consequences. But you can’t say that people killed by a tyrant must have had it coming to them. You can’t say that people killed in a building collapse must have been put there by God because they especially deserved it. Sinfulness – what the writer Francis Spufford calls the Human Propensity to **** Things Up is – more subtle and pervasive and complex than that. This is everyone. It’s about the way institutions and societies and denominations and cultures work. It’s not about blaming someone or something else. It is about looking deep within.
Twice Jesus says to the people “unless you repent you will perish as they did.” This is no analysis of the origin of sin, but it is a clear statement that whoever you are and however you are and wherever you are, all need to recognise fault and flaw and mess and brokenness and our part in the way the world messes up. How did we get to this state of affairs over Europe? It’s complicated. How did we get to a state where young people have to go out armed? It’s complicated. How did institutions such as mine enable a culture where appalling behaviour was not exposed and condemned? It’s complicated. The world is like that, and though individual situations can be analysed and better practices put in place, the need for repentance goes far deeper.
Where then is salvation to be found? Jesus, in talking about the impending crisis and the signs of the times seems to imply that the game is up and judgment will come quickly and on all. Well, not quite yet. There’s a profound little parable of hope, for those who have ears to hear. Take a fig tree which is not doing its stuff. The owner has had enough, but the gardener says “wait”. Let’s give it another season. We will offer it every chance. If fruit comes, well and good. If it doesn’t take the chance then you will have done everything you can, and down it can come. Where people have been too quick to rush to judgement about others, Jesus offers a vision of God who will stay the judgement, put down the loppers, not use the axe, yet. Everyone gets a chance.
This is grace, and love, and mercy. This is what is offered in Isaiah 55 to people who have been looking in the wrong place for satisfaction and life and hope. This is what is said to a whole nation whose wickedness has led to exile and judgment: God will have mercy. God will pardon extravagantly. Start thinking with God’s thoughts, and you will find mercy and love encompass judgment, that the life of God will absorb all human wrongdoing and the groaning of creation, and heal and renew it and offer it back to God in praise. God, in Christ, judges sin, puts it to death, and holds out new life and the Kingdom of heaven. Recognise your need for this, says Christ; recognise your call to turn round and live a new life, and there is mercy and love, and grace.
What is then to be done in the present times? I despaired on Wednesday. Wise voices told me to keep on doing the little things, to hold out the hand of grace and love to all, to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God is about holding together those who disagree and are at odds, because we are bound together by the love of Christ. In a time of turmoil we are asked to offer the “more excellent way”, to defuse hatred, to hold out the hand of fellowship, to ensure that the poor are not forgotten, nor the hope of the needy taken away. This is about all of us. All are offered the grace of God, the gentle care of a gardener who takes the long view. May we receive such forgiveness in Christ that we bear rich fruit. May we so challenge and love that others find that hope too. And may we offer the love of God to all.
In the words of the prayer offered to the nation by the Archbishops:
God of hope,
in these times of change,
unite our nation
and guide our leaders with your wisdom.
Give us courage to overcome our fears,
and help us to build a future
in which all may prosper and share;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
November 11, 2018 § Leave a comment
A sermon preached on Remembrance Sunday, 11 November 2018.
Tonight the BBC will broadcast a film by Peter Jackson, the Director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Stunning technology has allowed him to
bring archive footage from the Great War to brilliant life. Those who fought become as real as the people sitting next to us. They could be in the armed forces of today. It should not be easy viewing. We will not have the excuse of grainy black and white pictures to distance ourselves from the carnage. One hundred years will be as if they had never been, and this will be us.
The film is called They Shall Not Grow Old. The words come from a poem by Lawrence Binyon called For the Fallen. Published in 1914, the poem (written overlooking a Cornish beach) thinks of the dead across the sea. As Remembrance commemorations took hold after the war, Binyon’s stanza became their centrepiece. Of course, we have no personal memory of all this. But we are re-minded as we think of the events and the people of that and other conflicts, and in that sense we remember. Here are three of the seven verses.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
I have presided at many acts of remembrance where Binyon’s words have been central, and once I got the order wrong. The feedback from veterans of the Second World War was rapid and clear, and I’ve never done it again. They forgave me, and made me an Honorary Normandy Veteran, a deeply humbling privilege. Have you noticed that Peter Jackson has deliberately changed the order? He says ‘they shall not grow old’. Binyon wrote ‘they shall grow not old’. The English teacher in me has been reflecting on that. Is there a difference between ‘not grow’ and ‘grow not’? I think there is.
To say that the fallen do not grow old is logical and factual. They are fixed forever at the cruelly youthful point of their death. They will not live to full age, continue their relationships, see their children grow, not their children and the generations to follow. They are as unmoving as their names on their memorials. In my previous two churches such names have been a profound feature: York Minster holds the names of 19,000 Second World War aircrew, and of hundreds of women who died in the Great War. Beverley Minster contains 16 sets of regimental colours and holds 8,000 names of those from East Yorkshire who died in the Great War. So many lives stopped, cruelly never to age as we do.
But I hear more than that when I say ‘they shall grow not old’. Remembrance is a living and developing observance. What we call to mind changes as the world changes, new facts emerge, new perspectives are offered, new interpretations and representations, like Peter Jackson’s film, are presented. We reassess. We reaffirm the instant response to work with all we have to prevent such carnage, and apply it afresh to new situations.
What does commemorating the ending of dreadful conflict in Europe say to a Europe considering how nation states might relate and commit themselves to each other? What does the presence of combatants from different countries, of different colours and faiths say to a nation struggling with matters of inclusion and integration? What does the forced movement of peoples in war say to those today who are refugees from violence, poverty and climate change?
In that sense the Fallen grow in our remembering, even as they remain at the age of their falling. Not old, their sacrifice grows and deepens and affects and challenges. They died for this world, as well as the world of a century ago. The church uses the word ‘remember’ in a similar way, Sunday by Sunday. The early unjust death of a young man not one hundred but two thousand years ago is ‘re-membered’ not as a fact of ancient history, but one which grows as it is brought to mind, and takes flesh in us. The power and presence of Jesus Christ, who died and was raised means that we grow, we look forward, we work towards a vision of the Kingdom of heaven where war will be no more, where our differences are enfolded and defused through the death of one man, the Son of God, for the whole world.
And as we remember the eternal sacrifice of Christ, the rest of Binyon’s words remind us that The Fallen do not remain in the past. Their memory grows.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
Today, a century from the end of the war to end all wars, in the light of Christ we commend all who have died in conflict, knowing that, as they are young in life, they are known in eternity. And we commit ourselves to work for a world where righteousness triumphs and all live in peace. The Fallen deserve no less.
They grow not old. We will remember them.
April 1, 2018 § Leave a comment
I’m about to preach this at Evensong.
When did the resurrection take place? The Gospels are clear that it happened, of course. So shattering, so overwhelming was the realisation that Jesus had been raised from death that the Gospel writers are honest in depicting the reaction of the followers of Jesus. They are afraid, amazed, stunned into silence, need proof after proof. Their stumbling into the profound reality that the world had completely changed is one of the things which gives the fact of the resurrection truth for me.
But if it’s true, it must be possible to say when, exactly when, it happened. And the Gospel writers don’t know that information. All we have is a time frame: from the beginning of the Sabbath (at sunset) until the morning after the next morning. Two nights, and two dawns. That’s a lot of time for it to take place. The women find a scene long vacated by Jesus, with only the heavenly clean up team remaining. The newly raised Christ is out and about, meeting Mary Magdalene in the garden, meeting demoralised disciples on the walk out of Jerusalem, greeting the disciples in their locked room.
It is perhaps only a small point, asking when it happened. Yet in the circumstances of a death every detail is vital. Time of death, place of rest, notice in the paper, time of funeral, place of burial, type of stone on the memorial, approved wording for the epitaph. And as this process is interrupted, gloriously, there is no precise detail. Questions are met with other questions: “why look for the living in the place of the dead?” The resurrection is not to be categorised, filed, detailed, historicised. It is to be met.
When was the resurrection for Mary Magdalene? When she heard the voice of the man she thought was the gardener. When was it for Thomas? When he saw the wounds. When was it for Peter and John? When they met Jesus again and again, having seen the empty tomb and not known what to make of it. When was it for Peter and the other apostles? When they were fishing, and ate breakfast on the beach. When was it for the Emmaus walkers? When the bread was broken, and all the words on the road made sense.
When was, when is, the resurrection for us? When we meet the risen Christ.
That happens again and again for me, and often by surprise. To offer a few times: in the winter night shelter, as a new community ate together Saturday by Saturday. In a Lent Group, as profound things were shared between people who did not know each other well before. As I washed the feet of pupils from our school on Maundy Thursday. In the Intensive Therapy Unit later as a family of different faiths heard that their loved one had no signs of life and we gathered to commend her to the God she loved. As my feet were washed an hour later by my Bishop. As glorious music and words were offered on the evening of Good Friday. As I remembered the grief and hope of those who have lost their tiny ones and who have shared that grief and hope with me.
The cry of the church is a cry of faith, of hope, of worship, often from the depths as well as from the heights. At some point Jesus was raised. He is raised whenever we encounter his risen life. This Easter time, may you know that Christ is Risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.
March 17, 2018 § 1 Comment
I was privileged to be Chaplain to the annual conference of Diocesan Children’s Advisers at High Leigh this week. The topic was “Blessed…?” – reflecting on the finding and bringing of blessing is situations of trauma and brokenness, and in times of joy and peace for children. As an example, 1 in 30 children of school age has lost a parent or sibling. Blessed are those who mourn?
The 48 hours were profound and challenging, as well as hopeful and affirming. I wrote what I wanted to say at the final Eucharist at the last possible moment. It’s raw and not researched. Here it is.
John 10. 11 – 16. The Good Shepherd.
In the last two days we have inhabited the hardest places, for ourselves, with others, and for the children we serve.
We have struggled to find and to bring blessing. We have wondered about fairness and rightness and justice; and wrestled with the theology of an invitation to find blessing in the depths where God is undoubtedly present, but which God has at least allowed and might also have formed.
We have wondered then what is “Good” about our Shepherd, even as we have acknowledged the grief of that Shepherd, and the utter identification of that Shepherd in everything we have encountered.
In these days I have turned back to some foundational doctrines of Scripture and the Church Fathers:
- There was never a time when God was not
- There is no place where God is not.
- There is nothing which God cannot redeem.
In these times of brokenness and trauma we long to be people of peace, healing, friendship and acceptance. We long to be people who can agonise with others without explaining; people who can make connections without restricting, people who can hold others with the wounded hands of Christ; people who can rage at God and rage with God and rage for God.
We long to be people who inhabit the mystery of God and share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings…
…and who, with humility and with faith, proclaim the death of Christ until he comes, and all is enfolded in eternity. Amen.
March 13, 2018 § Leave a comment
God of all,
In the blessing of children you revealed your kingdom.
Teach us to welcome, not to despise;
to be humble, not to oppress.
By your Spirit
make us a blessing, not a stumbling block,
that your children may find life in all its fulness
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
March 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make His face to shine upon you
And be gracious unto you
The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you
And give you peace, and give you peace
Numbers 6. 24 – 26
Music by John Rutter
March 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
From Exodus 4, 5 and 6
The Lord said to Aaron, ‘Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.’ So he went; and he met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him, and all the signs with which he had charged him. Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites.
Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people. The people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped.
Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” ’
But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.’ Then they said, ‘The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.’
But the king of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labours!’ Pharaoh continued, ‘Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!’
That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, ‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, “Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.” Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labour at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.’
So the taskmasters and the supervisors of the people went out and said to the people, ‘Thus says Pharaoh, “I will not give you straw. Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.” ’
So the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw. The taskmasters were urgent, saying, ‘Complete your work, the same daily assignment as when you were given straw.’ And the supervisors of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and were asked, ‘Why did you not finish the required quantity of bricks yesterday and today, as you did before?’
Then the Israelite supervisors came to Pharaoh and cried, ‘Why do you treat your servants like this? No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, “Make bricks!” Look how your servants are beaten! You are unjust to your own people.’
He said, ‘You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, “Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.” Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.’ The Israelite supervisors saw that they were in trouble when they were told, ‘You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.’ As they left Pharaoh, they came upon Moses and Aaron who were waiting to meet them. They said to them, ‘The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odour with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.’
Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.’