That Polish Abbess again: but where does the Spirit come from?

A Sermon at Sidney Sussex College, that starts like another one you may have read recently but then takes a more subversive direction…

Deep in Poland, in an old-time convent, the Mother Abbess lay dying. The sisters gathered round her bed as she lay slumped back into the pillows, and asked whether there was anything she would like to have. “A little milk,” she wheezed, and slumped back into the pillows. Sister Prioress hurried off to the kitchen and poured the milk, but then noticed a bottle of brandy high up on a shelf gathering dust – left over from the Bishop’s last visit many years ago. It was now or never, and into the glass it went, a rather large glug from her inexperienced hand.
Back at the bedside, the Abbess sipped at the glass of milk. And the sipped again, and drained the glass, before slumping again in to the pillows, a little less heavily than before. After a discreet wait, the sisters asked again whether there was anything else they could bring her, or any last word for them. “Another glass of that milk,” came the reply. Once again the glass was prepared and fetched. Once again it was offered and drunk, only this time it was downed in one go. And once again Mother Abbess slumped back into her pillows, smiling happily.

After a while the sisters asked for a third time, was there anything they could fetch or any last word. With a strangely warm smile, their Mother raised herself one last time from the pillow, and pointed to the window behind them. “Whatever you do, don’t sell that cow.”

So – where does the spirit come from that gives you life? If this wasn’t a formal sermon I’d be intrigued and fascinated to get you talking about it, and I imagine the answers would be very diverse. Some of them would be to do with what is life-giving in an everyday sense – relationships, the arts, sport, nature, academic enquiry. Others will grapple with the inevitability of natural decay and seeking sources of life which can transcend it. And in today’s world all this will be both personal and diverse, and feel awkward about truth claims which are exclusive. I can perhaps tolerate and even be glad about your unexpected interest in the life-giving qualities of stamp collecting or the triathlon, and allow and even wonder about your experiences of meditation or commitment to Inuit religious rituals, as long as you do not also expect me to share them, or judge me inferior because I do not.

It is a tad awkward too, then, that the series of “I am” sayings by Jesus that you have been following in Sunday Evensongs this term make it clear that Jesus was not at all shy about answering my question in a very simple way. Life comes from him. He is the way, the truth and the life; the bread of life; the vine of which we are the branches. And his language about the fate of the branches who do not remain in him is gutsy to say the least.

In the days of Christendom such a claim was unremarkable, either accepted as an obvious given, or allowed to pass unchallenged. But in a globalised, often secularised world of many religions and of none it is not. How for instance do we calibrate it against those other exclusive claims to ultimate truth that can easily lead to inappropriate discrimination and denigration at best, and outright terror at worst?

By now you may be thinking that I am digging my own grave, but firstly, I think it is important to acknowledge the force of such a challenge as fairly as possible; and secondly, I think it is not just possible but proper to read tonight’s chapter from St John’s Gospel in a way which both subverts its surface reading and offers a powerful apologetic for why following in the way of Jesus is indeed the way of life.

Let me explain what I mean. Jesus speaks about himself as the source of life and love, and invites and commands us to follow him and do as he has done. That sounds like an act of domination. But then we read and remember that his iconic way of relating to us is to give his life for us in love, and that his command to us is to love and give ourselves for others in that same way.

It would be folly to think that human life and society will ever be devoid of the dynamics of power. Utopians dream of a level society, but it has never survived. No, the choice is not between a society marked by power and one that is not, but between one in which that power is for good and one that is not. So far so benevolent. The trouble is that famously all power corrupts, and we have a proper suspicion of others who have power over us which they claim is for our good. And so we are driven to a position that there will be and must be power in human society, but that the only power which can convince us that it is truly life-giving for us is a power that subverts itself totally and gives itself away, for our benefit, for us. We hear the talk but want to see the walk. And if and only if we meet someone who truly lives out a life for others not themselves, we are amazed.

Now perhaps you can see why I am so interested in Jesus, and in what a way of life that follows his could be like. We see a quiet subversion of the politics of power at every turn. The image of the Vine has three aspects, for instance, which can be labelled for memory purposes as roots, shoots and fruits, and which each demonstrate how life can lived another way up – perhaps the right way up in fact.

The roots are our choice to be rooted in Christ, to seek that extra life-giving spirit in him. And in so doing we find that we are turned round from choosers and consumers to chosen ones and lovers, from servants to friends.

The shoots are the way in which find ourselves one branch among many, the way in which we realise that the “you” that we had so naturally read as singular in the English is actually plural in the Greek; that it is possible for a highly ramified and diverse tree of life to share one stock, to be not just friends but family together, bound in love.

The fruits are the way in which, having been so formed, we find that not only are we able to lay down our lives for our friends, but for our neighbours, and for our enemies too. Because it is precisely when we placed ourselves most in enmity to God that he laid his life down for us. That if you like is his DNA, and when we are abiding in him, it is our part of our DNA too.

In fact, our Christian understanding of the nature of God sees that same DNA in every aspect of his being. In the self-giving of God the Father, as his life by its nature overflows into the almost absurd abundance of the cosmos. In the self-giving of the Son, leaving Godhead itself behind and embracing even death on a cross. In the self-giving life of the Spirit, offering to all a democracy of giftedness and grace from which none are excluded but those who choose to be closed to it. The bottom line is: with God, the self-giving goes all the way through.

That is the sap in the Vine, the Life of Christ, a Way that is so life-giving to follow that it has been the Truth for countless millions of our sisters and brothers across time and space. That is the Spirit that it is good to drain to the dregs, the Spirit that gives us life. Amen.

Sermon at the Admission and Licensing of Ely LLMs 2015

Just when I thought I was back in Ely, I seem to have found myself surrounded by a sea of blue-scarved Ipswich supporters. It’s very confusing! In reality, it is of course a real joy to be back on this side of the border, and back amongst friends – so many faces I know, and so many names I still remember, though please do prompt me if I look even more vacant than usual.

Back too with a renewed brief to do most of the bishopping on behalf of Stephen and myself for lay ministers, and not least alongside our first LLM Warden of Readers, Steve Mashford, for this honourable company, who really ought to have their own Livery Guild by now.

Today we are admitting and licensing three new Readers – Ann, Andrew and Pat, whose vocation and ministry celebrate, and in the context of both a wonderful inheritance of long service by those who have gone before them, especially those who will receive their awards today, and also of significantly increased numbers of new people starting training now who we will be welcoming in the future. Whatever the future of the Church of England in these interesting times, licensed lay ministry is clearly going to be part of it round here.

What we do know about the future, even if its organisational and institutional shape is living through a time of change, is that its own vocation and ministry remains unchanged. The words that begin our Diocesan Vision statement may be newly crafted, but their sentiment is as it has always been: we pray to be generous and visible people of Jesus Christ. And LLMs, who give so generously of their time and talents for a very visible public ministry, are part of our response to that prayer.

When St Paul wrote to the young Christians in Rome, church looked very different from how it looks now, but the calling was the same, on it as a body and on its ministers and members as individuals. He calls them to a generous life of self-giving not self-getting, which he daringly calls a living sacrifice – or lively sacrifice as those of us who were brought up on the Prayer Book remember it and which captures the sense even more richly, because we know that to give is to receive, and that the more we are generous to others, the more we are a people fully alive ourselves. This, Paul sees, is the real heart of worship: not the hymns or even the words of the prayers, but the hearts opened and offered in service to God.

Our fallen nature means that this does not come naturally to us. The Fall of Volkswagen has been all over the news this last fortnight, as the fragility of even apparently admirable human operations is exposed. It is so very east to become conformed to the way of the world. So we need to work at our transformation, at being not conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds. And that of course is just what Ann and Andrew and Pat have been doing during the long years of their training. Not just picking up a few useful skills, but soaking themselves in the scriptures, in prayer, in the wisdom of those who have gone before us, the three-stranded rope of the Anglican tradition which becomes our ladder to heaven. If all has gone well their character will slowly and sometimes strikingly have been stamped afresh with the image of Christ, like a coin fresh minted, gaining new worth and usefulness, new currency. It is a personal transformation in fact from which no Christian in fact can stand apart. We need to come to Christ and be formed afresh by him, or there is no life in us.

When we do come to Christ though, are conformed to him, then Paul teaches us that we start to see and understand, to discern what the will of God for us is, a will that is always good and for the good – and what other could we want. We start to share in the prayer of Jesus that God’s will might be done, and that prayer becomes our mandate and our marching order for our mission and ministry. Continue reading

Licensing of Caroline Wilson, to be priest-in-charge for Whittlesford and Pampisford

John 15.1-1

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

It’s great to be here with you, and on behalf of you and the whole diocese I want to give a very big welcome to Caroline and Colin and all the family. I’m sure, Caroline, that these two lovely villages will be a most welcoming community for you all and help you settle in really well.

My sense is that those communities are very special to you. Places with long and interesting histories as this building shows with all its quirks and turns: look around and imagine all the generations that have left their mark (and it’s perhaps as well that the Shelagh carving is on the outside as you do). Places where families have abided, to pick up a word from tonight’s reading, for centuries

Places where you want the families of today to flourish and bear fruit, to pick up another.

So it is natural that in describing the qualities you want in a new priest you major on relationships. Her ability to collaborate with others, with good pastoral skills across all ages; to collaborate too with our other Christian denominations, especially of course the URC; and with the whole community.

But as we know, and as this building also shows, each generation also brings change, and we face death as well as life, erosion as well as growth. The world is in a dangerous place at the moment, and the easy hope of never-ending improvement that I remember from my youth is a distant memory. So there is a real question here

How can we help things to flourish in our generation? And what is the role of the church in that?

Let me take you to a final very small but very important word in the reading. As.

Our Christian faith teaches us that God is love; and that love is his very nature; his DNA if you like. Jesus is held in God’s love, and shares God’s nature, so he loves us just as God loves us, and gives everything for us. And then he invites us to do the same. To so abide in him that we have his sap, his DNA flowing through us, and are able to love others too, in the same way as him. It’s a wonderful chain reaction, and it can change the world, one “as” at a time.

Gripped by God’s love you go home tonight and make it up with that family member that you’ve been grumpy with all week. They wake up feeling so much better about life, go to work, and the atmosphere their office or school changes too. A pupil or customer who could have been given a hard time is heard and cared for, and goes home and … And so the world changes, one “as” at a time.

It’s easy to feel scared about commitment and faith, to worry that it will become dogmatic, exclusive, dangerous. But if we try and live without roots, without commitment, without belonging, without close fellowship, we will never be able to help our communities flourish today. The answer to the all-too-evident problems all around us is not to abandon commitment, motivation, faith and values, but to choose a good faith, and good values, so that dangerous ones are not left to win the day.

Here in Whittlesford and Pampisford generations of people have found goodness like that here, in the church of Jesus Christ. And they have found it because despite the temptations of their human nature, another nature which is self-giving not self-getting in its very DNA has drawn them back time and again to a better way. And as they have deepened in their love for God, and let his nature become their second nature, so they have deepened too in their love for one another.

It is when we deepen our commitment to God through word,worship and prayer that Ghod’s church grows healthily, finding new disciples and leaders, and is able to engage fully and courageously with the needs of our communities, locally and globally, which for the URC members and visitors among you are words taken straight from our diocesan vision statement and the Ely2025 strategy launched last weekend in the cathedral.

So Caroline, help the good people here to go deep so that they can go wide; and don’t forget to do the same yourself.

As Christ has loved you, so you can find the strength in him to love another. Abide in his love.

Photos from the village websites.http://www.whittleweb.org.uk/local-services/church http://www.pampisford.org.uk/#/ with thannks.

Address at the Firefighters International Memorial Service, London 2015

Firefighters

Readings: Exodus 3.1-14 and Acts 2.1-11

The lengths your chaplains will go to to find a preacher who can wear fire engine red on their robes!… But what a privilege to be addressing you this afternoon, and remembering with you so many firefighters and their families who have given so much for others. Despite the amazing professionalism of the service, the element of risk remains; and we honour the dedication and sense of calling that our front-line crews in particular show – something that was very clear when I visited our local fire station recently (you can draw your own conclusions as to why I am housed next to all the emergency services), and learnt a lot about the life behind the big red appliances and flashing blue lights that is all most of us ordinary folk know. A big thank-you and a name-check to Darren and his team for making me so welcome.

So it’s good to be with you, and it’s rather special too to have the chance to join in the procession later, when I’ll be looking out for a bit of old-fashioned brasswork in memory of my great-grandad who lived just a couple of streets away from here in the 1870s and finished brass for a living. He’d have been as proud as me, I’m sure, to see you all in your finery – but bemused to see me in mine, since the family were Scots Presbyterians and no fans of bishops. Hey ho.

Happily we live in a more ecumenical age – but religion remains a potential source of conflict and violence, and extremist forms of it can cause us much anxiety. So for a family I met yesterday at the VJ celebrations, religion was a cause of war. But I want to suggest that good religion – and I don’t just mean my religion – is not part of the problem but part of the solution.

Compare faith with fire for a moment. Both are here to stay. Both can get out of hand. But both in their place are important and I would say vital for our human flourishing. Suppressing faith only encourages extremism, and the antidote to extremism is not no religion, but good religion and good education about religion – just as the dangers of fire are best met by a fire service of excellence and fire safety education throughout society, not by pretending it won’t touch us.

So I’ve rather cheekily chosen today’s Bible readings to point out that despite your day job, there is in spiritual terms a good sort of fire as well as a bad one, and our job is to fan its flames not put them out, to tend them, be warmed by them, and take that warmth to others. And whether we are firefighters or faith-workers, dignitaries or drivers, we all need that sort of fire in our heart, call it faith, call it spirituality, call it esprit de corps, and we need it to be good, whatever flag it flies under.

So what makes for a good fire in terms of faith? Today’s readings give us some hints from my own Christian tradition, and three stand out for me. Good faith fire needs the right sort of purpose, the right sort of people, and the right sort of power. Let’s take them one by one.

Purpose first. In today’s first reading God says he has heard the cry of his people. The emergency call has got through, and is being answered. More than that, it is being answered not as just another job to do, but with empathy and compassion. God sees the suffering, he sees the misery – just as so many of us saw the pictures of a drowned refugee child – and his heart was moved. And more than that still, this compassion, this desire to give of his own life for the life of others, is – to change to a different metaphor – not just the passing emotion of a moment, but absolutely encoded in his divine DNA. It’s the fire in his equations.

This is the God who chose not to sit alone but to call the riotous abundance of the cosmos into being. This is the God as Christians understand it who chose not to sit to one side but to come to the rescue in person and give up his own life for those he had made. This is the God who went on to pour out his own Spirit on them so that they could go out inspired to share in that mission themselves. This is the God who cannot stop giving, and who holds nothing back. And this is the sort of self-giving purpose that we need to share in as fire-fighters and faith-leaders.

That sort of purpose needs people, the talk needs the walk, if it isn’t to be just fine words and see no parsnips buttered. Last week the people of one of our churches were asked to put a banknote through the Rector’s door to help the refugees, and by the time he got home from church there was £1100 piled on his doormat. If we work together we can do more than we ever imagined we could. That’s what’s going on in the second reading, the story of Pentecost. The fire of the Spirit falls on them all. Its gifts are very democratically given, and from the beginning the assumption was that every follower of Jesus would try and live the Jesus way, share in Jesus’ Spirit, and be good news for others just as Jesus himself was. It’s about people on fire, and people on fire together in teams, making a strength of their diversity to share in the service of others.

As a sixth-former at one of our local schools read out in assembly last week, quoting the famous prayer of St Teresa of Avila: Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours; yours are the eyes with which he looks in compassion on this world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Whether you are red or white, black, green or blue (or purple for that matter), you’re part of the crew, it’s on your watch, and we’re in this together. God’s knows what gifts he has given us, and those are the ones he will use: one Spirit, but displayed in many forms. Heroes and heroines all, on fire for all this is good.

But how can we overcome that old human nature that makes us more of a one-bar radiator than a blazing fire for good? That takes us to the power. I started to think about this sermon over the bank holiday weekend. That was a human-nature diversionary tactic to try and stave off some work in the garden that I should have been doing. But it didn’t work, and I soon found myself pressure-washing the patio, sorting out the solar lights, and mending the veg beds, as one does.

God is good though, and the work in the garden started to sort out my head on what I needed to say now. Like when the pressure-washer was working just fine and then turned into a trickle – until I remembered to open the in-line valve and let the water through. Doh! Or how I had to work out that the reason that the solar lights were pretty … rubbish, was that they needed a day or two in the sun to get recharged, like it says on the packet. I really am very slow. Or how our eldest son gave me an ear-wigging for bashing in big nails to mend the veg beds not doing the job properly with screws; which was actually because my old power-driver had pathetic batteries and was even weaker than I was, which takes some doing. One new Makita Li-ion driver later, and the screws went in like a dream.

By then I was getting the point, and perhaps you are too. A great purpose and great people are all very well, but without some great power, not much will get done. Pentecost was all about a bit of God himself, some of his Spirit, plugging into ours so we could get out there and do the job. If we avoid the issue and try to get by on a wing and prayer spiritually, we soon find that we don’t have wings and haven’t said our prayers and are heading for a crash. The people we admire, the ones we’ll be remembering today, are the ones who were ready for the challenge when it came, and were able to set self aside and give life to others at the cost of their own self-comfort and perhaps their own life itself.

So I learned one more thing from the guys and girls at Ely Fire Station: the training never stops. Or when the crisis comes they might not just be fire up and prepared to operate that equipment or take that risk safely and see the day through. It’s no different with our spirit and no different with our faith. So let’s make a bit of a resolve to start some training now. As so often little and often is best. Doing small daily acts of kindness in word and deed until they became the habit of our lives; talking to God in prayer perhaps in the morning when the line is clear, against the day when it is full of noise; teaming up with others to transform our communities wherever we happen to live, and making sure no-one gets left out.

People empowered to see a good purpose through. Let’s light a good fire today that will be a fitting tribute to those we remember, and a force for good deep in our inner selves that will see our service excel.

A new Rector for the 4Parishes

 2015-09-07 19.18.052015-09-07 19.12.55

I was over at Warboys last night for the Institution of Garry Dawson-Jones as Rector of the 4Parishes of Bury, Warboys, Wistow and Broughton. I’ve enjoyed many visits there in the past and it was good to join them again on this happy occasion. Our prayers are with them and Garry and his family (Dawn, Joel and Mikey) for a wonderfully vibrant future together. Garry chose a passage from Romans 12 as our reading, and here is what I had to say about it.

Romans 12 1-16, 21

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Well, I have to say that it’s very good indeed to be back in the 4 parishes. I’ve been missing all the good times I’ve had with you in them – on the beach with the seniors, on the stage with the youngsters, celebrating the Jubilee, writing a history of one of your churches, going into school… and now I’m here to welcome Garry with you into his new ministry here, which is real privilege – and I’m sure it’s going to be great for you and great for him too, even if I do wonder what you’ll be asking me to get up to next.

The more important question though is what is God asking us to get up to next. Obviously the focus on an occasion like this is on the person starting out in their ministry and all the other people involved. But step back for a moment and it’s blindingly obvious that even when the new Rector is a spirit—filled servant, sure of God’s call, sensitive to your diversity, full of prayer and vision and all the other things you said in your profile and that I’m sure Garry fulfils in spades – actually, this is the church of Jesus Christ not Garry Dawson-Jones, or David Thomson, or Hugh McCurdy, or anyone else you care to name. And if we are to be the visible and generous people of Jesus Christ, it is with his life that we must be alive, and in the immortal words of a former prime minister, There Is No Alternative.

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Nigel di Castiglione: new Rector for the Papworth Team

I had the privilege of officiating at the Institution of Nigel di Castiglione as Team Rector in the large Papworth Team Ministry yesterday evening at Elsworth Church. With 13 churches represented, not to mention those from his previous major parish of St John’s Harborne, we had an excellent congregation. Mrs Judy Pearson (DL) presented Nigel on behalf of the Crown and read out the warrant to prove it! We look forward to Nigel’s ministry among and trust that he and Annie will be very happy in Cambridgeshire.

Matthew 9:35-10:8 (NRSV)

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

It’s so good to be back in harness in the Diocese of Ely, and to be with you here today to welcome and launch Nigel into his new ministry among you. Your team profile made it very clear that you weren’t looking for a solo player, but someone who would encourage and enable ministries right across the board, so in a sense this must also be a launch for all of you, and that as you probably know is exactly how I think church ought to be: Total Team if I can call it that, recognising, rejoicing in and recruiting the God-given gifts of every member of the body of Christ. And with 13 parishes to go at – that’s a body that leaves even an octopus looking a bit legless.

I was starting to think about this sermon over the bank holiday weekend while I was pressure-washing our patio. Patio is too twee a word for it: there are 800 paving slabs, and for some reason I forget now I didn’t get round to cleaning them either last year or the year before. So it was a long, slow job as I let the water do the work – there’s a good motto there for the ministry and mission of the baptised, Spirit-filled people of God – and spray off three years’ worth of accumulated muck and microbia. I was keeping half an ear open in fact for a visit from the Slime and Mould Protection Society to take me to task for causing sudden and catastrophic climate change that was wiping out their families. My prepared defence was that since the spray was spreading them far and near I was in fact helping them to divide and grow… and there’s another moral there too.

Growth is a natural feature of life, and the sort of church growth – because that of course is what I am leading up to – that I support is also natural and organic, not forced or forcing of others, which all to easily leads to religion that is part of the problem not part of the solution. If DNA and its replication is the great driver of organic growth as we know it, it must always be the divine DNA of Christ, self-giving, not our all-too-human DNA of self-getting, that controls us – what C S Lewis called the Good Infection, the very opposite of a virus that destroys its host to seek its own future growth.

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Jes Salt starts his ministry at Buckden and the Offords

Great Tower and St.Mary's church - geograph.org.uk - 731862.jpg

I’m busy with licensings for clergy taking up new ministries in the Diocese this September. They’re a great bunch and we’re blessed to have such strong applicants. The Revd Jes Salt and his wife come to us from Ingatestone. He will be Priest-in-Charge of the Parish of Buckden and the Offords and also Diocesan Co-ordinator for Social Justice concerns. We all hope that Jes and Jane are very happy indeed among us. Jes chose Matthew 28.16-20 as his reading at the Licensing last night. Here it is with what I had to say about it.

Matthew 28:16-20 NIV

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age .”

It’s good to be back! And it’s a special delight to be here again at Buckden and the Offords, and to be welcoming Jes and Jane into your company and ours. Jes and Jane, we’re blessed to have you with us, and not just here but helping us across the diocese to show our compassion and care for those whom our society can so easily fail, in the wider community and in our own congregations too of course.

The passage we’ve just heard read from the very end of St Matthew’s Gospel is Jes’s choice, and it’s an excellent one. It’s one of the Mountain Moments, like the Sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration, that mark the high points in Matthew’s Gospel, and as Jes pointed out to me it’s about endings and beginnings, which are often very important in a story, and are to the point today as together you turn the page and start a new chapter of your own story together.

It was both an ending and a beginning for the first disciples too, saying goodbye to Jesus as an earthly companion and teacher, but now hearing him say to them that ultimate power and authority in both heaven and earth is his; that they have a new purpose to lead people everywhere to him; and that they have a firm promise that he will be with them always, until the end of the age. Power, purpose and promise: it’s heady stuff, and it is little wonder that even some of the first disciples hesitated – a better translation perhaps than doubted here, but in either case reminding us that when we too hesitate or doubt our reaction is understandable – but that such unsurenesses are part of the story of faith not its antithesis, and that the company of Christ is a broad church because it has a broad purpose, the salvation of the whole world.

The challenge of such an invitation, and the need for us to rely on God not ourselves in order to respond to it, perhaps explain a very interesting but easily overlooked feature of the story. It is happening in Galilee, and it is happening in Galilee because Jesus, meeting them in Jerusalem after the resurrection, told his disciples to go ahead of him to Galilee, and wait for him there. So – why?

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It’s a Wrap …

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… or so Paul (Hollywood not Saint) says in his recipe book. Somehow I think my rolling-out skills still need to be perfected, though the mix/knead/prove/bake was fine, and wound round Mrs T’s chicken and salsa filling the flatbreads formerly known as wraps certainly filled the spot.

Kneading like pressure washing takes the time it does, and I like the rhythm – I don’t get bored easily, but find that tasks like these set all sorts of ideas running in my mind. So watch out for the sermon illustrations – this time yeast is a biblical cert, and maybe the mis-shapes and (tasty) burnt bits will be in there too.

Christmas Sermon 2012 – the full text

#ChristmasStartsWithChrist

Titus 2.11-14

The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Mmm. A reading about ungodliness and wordly passions – and I’m preaching about it in a gaol. However…, St Paul is writing his letter not to a bunch of bandits but to a bishop, Titus. So, touché: it’s about me too. It’s about all of us. We’re all in the same boat.

What’s the boat, and what’s it got to do with Christmas, you and me?

Let’s start with that word passion. There are good passions, of course; for justice, peace and a decent deal all round. And quirky passions that are just fine but perhaps not in quite the same league, like stamp-collecting and football. But then there are darker passions, the sort that take us over, and stop us relating properly to other people – when love becomes lust, assertion becomes aggression, or enjoying your grub turns into greed. All of us, sadly, know the road all too well.

When passion goes wrong it leaves us powerless, passive in fact in its pincers. And it can be very hard indeed to know how to pull out of it. Get a grip, we’re told, work harder, do better: but I’d be surprised if anyone here has managed to sort themselves out like that all the time. It is, I reckon, a fact of human life that we mess up; and some of the time there is no way out of the mess, if all we have is what we bring to the party.

If that was the end of the story it really would be the end of the story: no new start, no hope, no future. But the end of the story it is not.

Let’s go back to that word passion. An odd thing about it is that for the first two or three hundred years that it was used in English, it had nothing to do with desire and emotion at all, bad or good. It was used instead for the Passion, the story of the suffering and death of Jesus – and by extension for the sufferings of martyred saints as well. Then other sorts of suffering like ingrowing toenails got added in, and then emotions that get the better of us – and then the rest.

So here’s a thought. When we’re up against it, messed up and with nowhere to go, we get turned in ourselves. That’s part of what happens. Even if the door was wide open we’d probably miss it. We’re passive and pathetic – but all the while another Passion is going on, the real one, the one that put ours into perspective.

And actually, because of that Passion, the Passion of Jesus, the great Putting Right of all the mess we’ve made – the door is open. Not I’m afraid the door to this nick; but one that matters even more, the door to heaven, the door to life mark two. The whole point of Christmas is that someone on the other side does care, and cares enough to get his hands dirty, to get on our side of the door, and start the story of the Great Escape.

I was thinking of leaving things there – you know, look to Jesus, come to the cribside, and find the future. And all of that really is true. I really do just want you to come to Christ, and take it from there.

But in all fairness to you, that does underplay a bit just how hard that looking and coming can be. I joined a gym a while ago. You probably know how they work, but I was as much a novice there as a convert is in a cathedral. How do I register? What are those towels for? Do people really use those showers? Is that an exercise machine or an instrument of torture?

And all of that was after the hard bit, which was deciding to join in the first place. And the really hard bit was still to come, which was keeping on going after the adrenalin wore off.

And I’m afraid there are some hard bits about finding God’s great future too. Yes it is pure Amazing Grace; there for us whether we deserve it or not. Yes, all the real work has already been done for us by Christ himself on the Cross.

But there’s no avoiding it: we do have to decide to join up, to want to do it enough to just do it. And everyone’s watching and it’s all very weird. And then we have to keep on going, even when the excitement has worn off, and that means not just turning up but turning a new leaf, really being ready to get into shape.

But goodness me, it’s worth it – and, forget the l’Oreal, so are you!

A chap called St Peter put it far better than me in another Bible letter, so let me finish with his appeal from long ago – but in words that are right up to date:

We have been given terrific promises to pass on to you—your tickets to participation in the life of God after you turned your back on a world corrupted by lust.

So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books.

So, friends, confirm God’s invitation to you, his choice of you. Don’t put it off; do it now. Do this, and you’ll have your life on a firm footing, the streets paved and the way wide open into the eternal kingdom of our Master and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen!

Pondering Passion: an invitation to help write a Christmas Sermon!

I’m working on my Christmas Sermon  #ChristmasStartsWithChrist, and wondered if you’d like to help. (You’ll see me in the Cathedral today en famille this morning and giving the blessing at the 6pm Carol Service – but no preaching required! so time to look ahead.)

I’m at Littlehey Prison, and was presented with Titus 2.11-14 as one of the set readings:

The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Mmm. Ungodliness and wordly passions – in a gaol. With a fair few present whose offences probably included a fair bit of the same. I could easily have dropped it and was tempted to, but that’s usually a warning sign, so I decided not to duck it – but am now wondering what the best way in for us us is.

One thing that needs to be said straight away is that Paul in this epistle was writing not to prisoners but a Bishop! (At least, Titus is probably as near a bishop as we get in the New Testament.) So no finger-pointing: in the old preacher’s explanation, when we point a finger at someone four others are usually pointing back at ourselves…

Given my background in English, I then started to think about the word passion itself. There’s only one place to go at times like these and that’s the massive Oxford English Dictionary, which doesn’t just tell you what a word means but where it came from and what it has meant century by century, with the quotes to prove it. Here’s my potted version for passion:

passion, n.

Comes into English in Anglo-Saxon times from Latin Passio meaning specifically the narrative of Jesus’ suffering and death; also used for a commemoration of the Passion and the time of such a commemoration.

In the Norman period it was then used for the events in Jesus’ life themselves. In the 13th century the use was extended to cover similar events in the life of a martyr, and the narratives of them, and then to other sufferings and ailments.

At the same time (13th cent) it came to be used for strong, controlling emotions. By the time of Spenser (1590) this could also include strong affection and love or amorous desire, and a little later enthusiasms in general.

The underlying sense of passivity emerges in more specialized uses in philosophy, science and grammar.

So then I’m starting to have some thoughts:

  • Remember that one of my mottos in preaching is to “make much of Jesus” – don’t end up saying all sorts of clever and even relevant stuff and forget to take it all back to the Reason for the Season.
  • And theologically, that’s the direction we’ll probably need to be looking – God’s Passion for Us – to make sense of our own passions and how we handle them.
  • More specifically, in Jesus we see Passion at the very opposite end of the spectrum from anything selfish. That’s probably going to be important.
  • The baby in the manger evokes our emotions – St Francis memorably invented the “live” nativity to engage with them; but the passion of Jesus the grown man is a more mature, deeply felt but engaging the whole mind as well.
  • Ah yes – that’s very different from the way in which passion has almost become a trump card today – the Romantic inheritance, with a good dose of post-modern individualism. Do we ever speak nowadays of someone having a passion in a bad sense? We’re more likely to use it as an excuse or justification: crime passionelle.
  • So are we (that root sense of passivity) just biologically at the mercy of our emotions? Is it legitimate to talk about rising above them?
  • And how Pelagian is that, if we don’t then go back to the grace of God which has dawned on mankind, our need not to float our own boat but rise with Christ?
  • Now I’m starting to get somewhere that works for me – but it’s all sounding a bit hifalutin for Christmas Day in the morning…
  • So it’s time to keep the Scriptures open and my mind awake, but start to pray for the people there and watch out for what the Spirit blows my way in the meantime.

Love to hear from you as work on your sermon too or have thoughts about mine…