Sunday, 29 June 2014

Peace and Unity: Civic Sunday Service

The Mayor has given himself a challenging theme for his Mayoral year that of peace and unity. In our current national context where fears around religious fundamentalism, or fundamentalism of any kind are rightly feared, it is so important to articulate a hospitable and generous account of what it means for people of different faiths and none to work together for the common good. This is something that the new Mayor, Ramesh Srivastava has committed himself to, which is a truly noble task.

This year provides a great opportunity for the people of Rugby to be further united and to work for peace; we have come together today to witness to what it means to be people of difference who work for peace and unity.

Thich Nhat Hanh, an internationally known Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Monk, writes that:

'The practice of peace and reconciliation
is one of the most vital
and artistic of human actions.'

Jesus says in the Bible reading we have just heard:

'Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.'

and Dorothy Thompson, an American journalist writing and broadcasting in the 30’s and 40’s, famously known for interviewing Hitler comments, that:

'Peace is not the absence of conflict,
but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict-
alternatives to passive or aggressive responses,
alternatives to violence.'

In a multi-faith, no faith and multi-cultural society we need to find a common language which is enriched by many traditions and perspectives, but which can unite diverse peoples in common goals. Religions have always sought to encourage people to look beyond the basic materialism of our existence in talking of the soul and the spirit and inviting people to raise their expectations of what human well-being looks like. Humanists may eschew such language and yet they too yearn for human flourishing and well being. How might we as a nation with a strong Christian heritage creatively intertwine other faith and non faith perspectives in our language of the common good?

The language of values has been adopted in many areas of public life to attempt to do just that. The Christian values of faith, hope and love have been accompanied by the secular values of tolerance, equality and inclusivity. They are in many ways in creative tension with one another and the different perspectives challenge one another. How is tolerance challenged by the concept of love, for example, and how is the concept of faith challenged by the idea of inclusivity? Perhaps if we could have a real dialogue between the varying world views each one of us would be enriched and so too would our society. The Church of England for example is rightly challenged by the value of inclusivity as its exclusion of women and gays has been criticised. Christianity similarly often challenges politicians about their concern for justice for the poor. Together the world views can critique and refine the particular ideologies. For that to continue to happen we have to value practices of peace and unity, where dialogue is not about winning the argument, but exploring the implications together of different understandings and perspectives.

Some of the criticism being levelled lately at the nature of the dialogue in our parliaments is about a desire for a more virtuous debate. One in which ideas can be robustly debated for their merits and weaknesses. Such a dialogue may perhaps serve the common good better, but for it to work practices of communication across the political world and the media world would need to be reformed.  All of us sitting here no doubt know the limitations of reported communication. For society to move forward we all have to learn to listen better and condemn less. Unity requires a generosity of spirit, a willingness to accept the validity of another’s viewpoint or argument.

Another key element of this Mayoral Year is of course the Commemoration events for the start of WW1; we are particularly reminded in these of the need for people who practice the art of peace making as we remember the cost to human life when nations engage in war.  Peace making in a violent world is deeply costly. Speaking peace into conflict situations takes courage and it also means accepting our weakness and vulnerability. Power, strength and invincibility are the values opposing the practice of peace (yet ones which are propagated mercilessly by movies promoting violence and super power) -Peace making makes us vulnerable, for the peace makers are meek, gentle, persevering and courageous: ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’. Their power is the power of steadfastness and inner virtue.

I am excited by The Mayor’s ambitions for his year and deeply moved already by his ability to bring people of different faiths together. He has shown his commitment to peace and unity and I will be praying for him and his team as they seek to promote and influence the town and council this year through their hard work, dedication and most of all determined commitment to the values of peace and unity.

I commend The Mayor’s year and his intentions to you all and to the mercy and blessing of God. Amen

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Lifting our imaginations beyond what is seen and known

As Christians we all the time stand in the presence of the one who is glorified; we always have God as our background, as our strength. We look elsewhere for the ultimate means of knowledge, for the ultimate means of consolation. This marks us out in a secular world, for a secular mindset rejects the idea of there being something greater and better than us who teaches us who we really are and what our real end is. Everything is reduced to what humanity can see, understand, categorise.

The Vision that Isaiah* has of God, sums up in many ways the story of God that is told from the start of the Old Testament to the close of the New – God alone is worthy of honour and praise – a true encounter with God brings us to our knees in recognition of our own unworthiness – God forgives us and calls us and sends us to do his work. This Vision of God is a Trinitarian vision as God is seen to work in the ways that we understand God to work as Christians – The Mighty Creator and King worthy of honour; the one who draws us to Himself and forgives us, the Son, and the Spirit calling us and sending us, equipping us to be messengers and ministers of the Gospel.

A religious or spiritual encounter is that which is about seeing what is greater, seeing what alone can teach and guide us, empower and enable us to be better, do better and reach for better.

We do really live in an impoverished culture that glorifies fame and wealth, power and success; a world that refuses to see with its imagination and its heart that humans are called to so much more than that alone which we can dominate and exploit. It’s so sad to see human life reduced so much, because what we believe really does impact on human well-being and lived experience. So, those of us with a religious imagination have a great duty to encourage others to step beyond the reductionist mindsets that dominate the grand narratives of our day – to encourage people to enter into the glory of God’s presence – to open their eyes to the transcendent reality.

How, do we do that? By living lives that reflect the glory of the one we worship. If it really does matter who and what we believe in, then it really will impact on who we are as people. If God exists and knows what is best for our well-being then Christian communities must be places when human beings can flourish; where the weak and vulnerable are supported; where the sad are comforted, where the sick are healed and so on. We must be people who dare to live what we proclaim. If our faith makes no difference to the way we behave, to who we are as people, we of all people are to be pitied – for being given a vision of God that is so glorious, we fail to actually see, we fail to inhabit the glory which is our inheritance and our delight. How might faith make more of a difference for you?  How might you and I reveal something more of God’s glory today, tomorrow, next week? What specific things is God calling us to be and to do, to glorify and honour his name in the world?

As Trinitarian people we are lovingly created, humbly brought back to God and empowered to be the light and salt of the world. Let’s re-affirm our commitment to that vocation together, today.


Isaiah 6:1-8

A Vision of God in the Temple

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’ 

The pivots
 on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Making new beginnings in familiar places

At the Feast of Pentecost we remember the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. To help us enter into that story afresh, I wonder if you will imagine with me that you are visiting a house that hasn’t been lived in for some time which, however, you know it really well. Perhaps it’s a summer house that has been left empty all winter; you are travelling down to re-open this house for the summer. Imagine approaching this house, what do you see? Perhaps the grass is very overgrown at the front, too many shrubs that need cutting back. All the curtains are drawn. As you turn the key in the lock and push the door you are at first halted by the amount of mail that has piled up behind the door. As you start to move through the house opening curtains and doors, light starts to filter back into the house, so that you see the furniture and the dust. Your presence starts to bring light with warmth a human touch. You pat down sofas, move some things around. Start to open and sort through the mail, look at what needs washing and cleaning. 

After a while you sit down and have a good look around. You notice the wind blowing through the windows, bird song faintly in the distance. Light is shining everywhere.

The Spirit, the gift of which we celebrate today, moves in our lives in a way that animates and activates, bringing light so that things may be seen differently. Like moving into a house that is dark, uninhabited and unkempt, the Spirit opens up our closed places; she moves through animating and transforming. She brings order and discipline; she guides us and enables us, helping us to uncover lost treasures. She cleans and purifies, bringing new life and new hope. She encourages us to share, to move outwards, to open up – to invite others in.

The Spirit challenges us to make new beginnings in familiar places, not just moving the furniture around, but actually seeing differently, with eyes that have learnt a different perspective, a new way of looking. For the Apostles of Jesus it was learning to read the Jewish Scripture in a new way; something that was for them so familiar and traditional, but that was coming true before their eyes in dramatic and deeply transformative ways. It took such courage for them to say something different about God.  It was sending them out on missions that would bring conflict and challenge, suffering and death, but new life and hope across the world to all peoples regardless of race, gender or class.

And that’s where the initial impetus might be taken away, we might have opened ourselves to receive some of the Spirit, seen things get better, but when things start to really get moving, maybe then we get a bit more reticent, start closing in. Perhaps the summer house neighbours have popped by and they’re not your sort, you don’t want to have a cup of tea with them. You like it in your own. They mention some problems in the village and you don’t want to hear, you don’t want to actually know about these people, you’re just here for a month of two….

But, the Spirit will not leave things as they are: she will uncover dirt, she will sweep away rubbish, and she will shine in the darkest corners. She will cause a commotion, she will bring change, and she will divide as well as bring peace. She will not leave us feeling cold, but will challenge, bringing rage as much as consent, confusion as much as order. The gentle breeze that at first entered the house with the fresh light might start getting stronger. Things might really start moving, we might be asked to take a risk, to make a sacrifice, to change the way we think, re-assess our judgments.

Will you receive her, will you say ‘yes’ to her transformative power, her energy and her will? Will you let her take you on a journey courageous and demanding but to eternity, fullness and glory - Or will you speedily pull the curtains, close the windows, tidy away and close in?

At Pentecost we are shown that God gives us His Spirit and has been giving His Spirit since he created the world. It is available for us, there for us to receive, ready to re-make us and enable us, all we need to do is say ‘yes’ and keep on saying ‘yes’.  Let us never stop encouraging one another in that. 

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Feet Dangling from the Heavens

My children love the story of the three little pigs, which is a great narrative about how to build a secure life, how to protect ourselves, how to prevent our selves from being victims. A similar parable is found in the Bible of course, the parable about building a house on sand or on rock.

‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’ Matthew 7:23-29

The Gospel reading for the Sunday after Ascension* gives us a very clear expression of how to build a house on rock, for we listen into a conversation between Jesus and His Father. Jesus’ prayer to the Father reveals the extent and nature of their intimacy, founded on unity of will and of being.   That unity is at the heart of Jesus’ courage and sacrifice. He trusts the Father and is at one with Him – he knows he must suffer and yet he puts his trust in Him and willingly gives up His life.

The three little pigs had to leave home, they had to grow up. Jesus also had to experience a moving away from the Father to accomplish his will. Jesus’ vocation is about division and separation in order that the work of reconciling the world might be completed. So, their unity is not that which excludes others, a unity of privacy and closure, it is a transparent unity, a welcoming unity, a unity that is a model for others, so that we might be included: ‘may they be one as we are one’.

Jesus’ adaptability, his willingness to move, to change, to become human, was essential to his vocation, to his challenge; his willingness most of all to give up the security of heaven in order to rescue the world. A journey of the most extraordinary risk, involving loss on a scale we can only imagine: ‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’. Yet, we realise that he hasn’t given up the essential security which is his relationship with His Father.

Human beings seek stability and security, yet to learn we must seek new environments, we must be willing to adapt, to change and to challenge ourselves. Moreover we must give up or sacrifice things in order that we live the life of love. For Jesus to come to earth, he was giving up his safety, yet he knew that Love was and is His Father’s identity. As Jesus contemplates his return to the Father his prayer is for us that we might be protected because we are ‘still in the world’. He prays that we might enjoy the relationship of unity that he enjoys with the Father.

Jesus shows us that true security can only be found in the depth of our relationship with the Father, with our God. It is that only, the small still centre, which will enable us to cope with, to move through the challenge of being subject to so much change, at times so much suffering, so much challenge. The Father could ask so much of Jesus, because He was His Son, they were totally united in will and in being. God will ask so much of us and we will achieve as much as our faith in God is strong: the rain comes down, the wolves come prowling, but we remain firm, steadfast in the faith.

Unity then with the Father is the way that unity is achieved between us as people. We need not concern ourselves with what others are doing or not doing, but we need to focus on building and strengthening our relationship with God. Jesus all the time that he was on earth, continued to keep that deep and abiding link with His Father, it is what enabled him to do all the things that he did.

If all of us focused on our most important relationship with our God we may just find that our human relationships are transformed. When we learn to wait upon God, we see things differently. We begin to see the depth of the love that the Father has for me as an individual, despite all my failings, all my sins, that we look at our neighbour differently. Jesus looked at us on earth not as hopeless sinners but as humans with the potential to be glowing with love – he saw that and knows that the way to enable people to be transformed by love is not to condemn them, whatever they have done, but to love them, to lift them up to Heaven.

The story of the Incarnation, the indwelling of God on earth, the story of which is finished historically speaking in the Ascension, is the story of God stooping so low so that we might at the last rise with Him to Heaven, perform our own feet-dangling in the air miracle. That was the purpose of that journey, the journey from the centre of God to His other centre, his people, his creation.

*John 17:1-11      Jesus Prays for His Disciples
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Each of us is waiting for the dove

Each of us is waiting for the dove (Noah and the ark cf. Genesis 8:1-9) the sign of the dove bringing the good news that the water has abated, that the flood is over and that new life can return.

We are people, most of the time of the flood; people drowning and floundering in the world, fighting hard to remain faithful, but often being absorbed by the wrong things. 

Where in your life are you obsessing about the wrong things?

What does God want you to focus on?

Jesus comes into the midst of our flood, whatever it may be to reassure us with words of peace: Peace be with you.

The presence of God in our lives can lead us to fear, rather than to be full of joy. Why? Because we are secular people, concerned with the things of this world.

Fear and doubt mount an attack on our faith, our hope and our peace.

Where is comfort to be found? In the words of our Saviour:

'The Messiah had to suffer and to rise from the dead' (Luke 24: 46).

New life comes through death; new life cannot come without death.

And so in our own lives we experience the desire for new life in the midst of death –

Faith is motivated by desire and it is faith which leads us from desire to hope and finally to peace.

With Noah we keep looking, keep sending the dove out again, and it is because we desire things to be different that we have the energy and desire to send out the dove.

Keep sending out your dove; keep looking, because it is in the search that we receive the promises of God. It is because of our doubt and our fear that God comes alongside us and says, ‘yes’ it is true, see my wounds, see my side’ – I am fulfilling what I promised.

He will send to us, power from on high.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Women as Priests - Why the Big Deal??

Vocation as Participation

Women priests at Coventry Cathedral celebrating each year of ordinations since 1994. 

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42-end

The church of England has been celebrating and marking 20 years of women’s priestly ministry. Today I went to a service of celebration at Coventry Cathedral. When I was in the cathedral I thought again about why women’s priesthood was so important, and about what it meant about the nature of Christian discipleship. I think that the reading from Acts can help us with that. The freshness of that passage, the enthusiasm, idealism and simplicity with which the life of the early Christians is described is indicative. Their faith led them into a different way of living together, not just worshipping together, but the formation of a new society. They had everything in common and their worship was naturally a part of their every day activities, ‘breaking bread at home and eating their food with glad and generous hearts’. The simplicity of their transformed common lives, in which worship weaved into their social lives, suggests an approach which we do well to reflect on as we partake in our sophisticated worship 2,000 years later.

For it teaches us that Christian discipleship requires the transformation of our whole way of life and a sharing of that new way of life with others. And that means that there can be no real distinction between Christians, we are brothers and sisters together and Christian discipleship is fundamentally about the full participation of each member. And to participate means to participate fully. Of course each of us has different callings and gifts, but the early Christians show us how Christian community was intended to be -each one living out to the full their vocation, offering everything that they are and have to the creation of the new society. And that is why women’s participation in all levels and areas of the church’s life is so necessary; because anything less is to not live the way God intended us to live as his people.

It's just surprising perhaps that for nearly 2000 years full equal participation wasn't self-evident to the church – it was too radical and kept being pushed away. Yet, paradox recurs again and again in the Christian story; at one level it is a truth so simple and so natural, and at another so radical and life transforming. The Gospel transforms us by showing us a way to live that gives us complete freedom and liberation but at the same time this is terrifying: to live with such freedom and outside the cultural norms of the day is radical. What is so disappointing is that too often in our current culture Christians are not seen to be radical, rather it is the secular culture that is radical, bringing freedom. The church has been playing catch up with women’s equality, for example. We need to rediscover the paradox at the heart of our Gospel which calls us to live simply, in tune with ourselves, and yet also radically, out of this world.

See pictures of the service at Coventry Cathedral here:

Saturday, 19 April 2014

His countenance is one of Peace: the Father and the Son

Then Jesus cried aloud: 
'Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.
And whoever sees me sees him who sent me'.

This reading presents to us the inter-dependence of the Father and the Son. Glory as I reflected in my last post, is what God does for us in love and here Jesus tells us what he does for us is on behalf of the Father: they work together, not alone. Jesus is a reflection of the Father, if we see Him we see the Father. Devotion to Jesus – looking upon Him through icons, through reading Scripture, in worship, in sharing in the Eucharist draws us into relationship with the Father, because through Jesus we see the Father. Sacraments exist because Jesus tells us that if we look on Him we see the Father ––sacraments always refer to Christ – to his action in the world, and they enable us to enter fully into the relationship that exists between the Father and the Son.

I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, 
for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.

It is remarkable that Jesus says that he comes not to judge the world. We have reflected this week on the meaning of betrayal but Jesus never makes betrayal the main narrative. The main narrative, the God-story is love in Christ; our actions, our sin, are not the main story. This is important because we might be tempted to be drawn into the story of sin, especially if we have been wounded or hurt. People who experience terrible abuse or trauma, will be tempted to remain in that narrative, to let that define them and ultimately I’m afraid it may destroy them. Indeed people who have been hurt very little also might enjoy styling themselves as victims so that they can feel justified in themselves in attacking and blaming others. Or, we might be tempted to remain in the narrative of what we’ve done to others. We might be unable to turn to the Cross in repentance, or unable to believe that we are forgiven. 

But, the good news is that the story we are called to listen to this week, is Christ’s story: he says – ‘I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness’. Christ comes for us – on behalf of the Father. He comes to us not as judge but as redeemer. This is the resurrection hope and it is truly remarkable, truly glorious. Keeping our faces turned towards Christ and what he has done for us should draw us away from everything that might otherwise lead us to despair.

The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak.

Jesus de-personalises judgment here – he does not come to accuse, but his Words have life and truth in them. He speaks what the Father has given Him, and he speaks in love. The words will stand on their own in the last day, but we can be sure that Jesus is not the accuser - he cannot stand in a position of hatred or accusation towards anyone, as his countenance is one of peace. It is in this sense that we are able to call him friend. In a similar way, we know that we shouldn’t judge others, and we know how hard that is, but we should speak the words that Christ has given us from the Father, and if we are immersed in those words, if they feed us and renew us I’m sure we’ll find that neither can we accuse others. We are called to forgive them in love; the love that Christ has shown us from the Father.

The Father gives of Himself; relationship with God means a sharing in his glory, as we’ve seen and a sharing in His mission to the world. A little further on in John’s Gospel, Jesus says: 

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father’ (14:12) 

God incorporates us and shares with us in his healing and reconciling ministry. What a vocation we are all invited to participate in! Jesus doesn’t point back to himself, but to the Father and what the Father will do in us. His actions are not the end but the beginning, the beginning of the new creation – the new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. This is a life-giving, nurturing, empowering God. We may be tempted to look back to Christ as though if only we could reach into history and touch him then we will finally understand everything. But as Jesus leaves the world he looks forward, he looks to our future which we share with him and the Father. What a gift we are given! What a life that he leaves for us to live! It is wonderful! It is glorious! We are looking always to the future, our future in Christ, declaring what he has done and rejoicing in it.

John 12:44-50

Then Jesus cried aloud: ‘Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. 47I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. 48The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, 49for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. 50And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’