Sunday, 18 March 2018

Evensong, Fifth Sunday of Lent 2018

This week saw the death of the world’s most eminent cosmologist, Professor Stephen Hawking. Hawking’s early work set out to prove, by the discipline of Physics, that the universe had a beginning. His later work set out to prove, by the same means, that it did not. My own study of cosmology lies within the discipline of Theology—the Queen of Sciences—and, theologically-speaking, we can also pursue both ends. If the universe is the outward expression of God’s creativity, creativity being an inherent quality of an eternal God, then the universe has source but may indeed have no beginning.

In the beginning was a story. A creation-story. But Genesis opens not with creation out of nothing, but, rather, with the creation of order and harmony out of chaos. A liberation-story. An exodus of creation, if you will. Later in the unfolding story, we get glimpses behind the beginning, to an angelic rebellion against the Creator God, with cosmic consequences [see the archangel Michael defeating the dragon, depicted in our East Window].

Exodus, the second book of the Bible, begins in much the same way as the first. God’s creation, the family of Israel, have been enslaved by chaos, personified by the Pharaoh, acting on behalf of the gods of Egypt, spiritual beings in rebellion against YHWH’s purposes for the universe. In the same way that YHWH had thrown-down the rebellious gods and set free the observable universe, so will YHWH overthrow the gods of Egypt and set free the Hebrew people.

Statement of intent is given when Aaron throws down his staff—the symbol of divinely-given authority—and it turns into a snake. Except it doesn’t. According to the Hebrew text, it turns into a sea-dragon, understood across the Ancient Near East as a symbol of chaos. The translators only put ‘snake’ because they don’t believe in dragons, which is foolish (and, in case you are wondering, no, it isn’t the same word as the serpent in the Garden). In modern Hebrew, the word means ‘crocodile’—but this was no Nile crocodile, either. It was a dragon. If you ask me whether I believe in creatures that are universally known to human culture, I will tell you, yes; and if you ask me for proof, I will reply, more proof than universal evidence?

Pharaoh summons the priests of his gods to respond. Instead of turning the sea-dragon into something harmless (which, by the way, wouldn’t be back into a powerful staff) they summon forth several more. But Aaron’s sea-dragon swallows all of theirs. This is incredibly important. What is being said is this: that Egypt (symbolised by the sorcerers’ dragons) has swallowed-up Israel, but that Egypt in turn is about to be swallowed-up. Chaos has engulfed YHWH’s people, but is about to be engulfed by something greater. This will come to pass when the Egyptian army is swallowed-up by the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds).

Notice has been given; but Pharaoh does not heed the warning. What follows is a series of hyper-natural events: nature escalating out of control. A series of ecological disasters, that point to something greater: these are the consequences of Pharaoh violating YHWH’s will for harmonious order, for inter-dependent freedom; violating this by persisting in holding people captive as slaves. Pharaoh’s actions express cosmic rebellion, and have cosmic consequence, in which the natural world and human lives within it are all caught-up.

We—people; not only Christian people—still talk about ecological disasters in a similar way today. We need to be careful how we do so; but we also need to recognise that such events do indeed call us to repentance, to stewardship of the earth, to concern for the wellbeing of the most vulnerable.

Aaron takes his staff and strikes the Nile, and the water turns to blood, or something like it. It is a clear sign that this will not end well for those who resist YHWH’s intention to oppose chaos and set creation free. But again, the magicians of Egypt escalate the problem they face, turning any water Aaron had missed to blood. Death spreads and spreads, touching every living thing. But God will bring about an exodus.

Writing to the church in Rome, Paul also speaks of slavery and exodus. It is, after all, the founding-story of his people—indeed, they’d since been swallowed-up by the Babylonians, and, most recently, by the Romans. But Paul expands its horizons: sin and death have swallowed-up everyone who has ever lived; yet, now, they face being swallowed-up by the grace of God, expressed through Jesus Christ. Those who hope in Christ, both Jew and Gentile, have been caught-up in a new exodus. Specifically, the gods of the Roman world were about to be judged, and the (remnant) people of God rescued through that judgement (though God would judge his own people first).

These exoduses have this-world historical consequences, as well as cosmic implications. God judged the gods of Egypt and of Rome, bringing a people out of captivity to proclaim his praise, and to establish a pattern of creation that reflected the divine will. First, the people of Israel; then, the Church. The question is, where do we find ourselves today?

Are we in need of a new exodus in our time?

Is the Church held captive to other gods?

Are the nations being judged?

Can we be faithful to our founding stories?

And might we declare that sea-dragons will be swallowed?

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Fourth Sunday of Lent 2018

Sweeping back-story: Polygamous Jacob—renamed Israel by God—has twelve sons and a daughter by four wives. Just imagine what Mothers’ Day would have been like in that household! Joseph—second-youngest son; daddy’s favourite; bit of an upstart—so angers his brothers that they throw him into a dry well and then sell him to human traffickers, who sell him on to a high-ranking Egyptian army-officer. Falsely accused of attempted rape, Joseph ends up in another tight spot, a celebrity prison for celebrity inmates. But his God-given ability to interpret dreams eventually gets him an audience with Pharaoh, and the job of heading-up Egypt’s disaster-relief organisation. As famine grips the wider region, Joseph is eventually reunited with his treacherous brothers, and—after letting them squirm awhile—is reconciled with his entire dysfunctional family. The whole of Egypt owes a debt of gratitude to Joseph—and is financially indebted to Pharaoh—and as a result, the family of Israel get to stay as refugee guests-of-honour—while the native-born Egyptians are, in effect, slaves to their ruler. So far, so Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But, for whatever reason, when things start to look up back home, the sons of Israel don’t go back.

Fast-forward: that Pharaoh is dead and buried under shifting sand. A new Pharaoh comes to the throne. He does not know the back-story. He is troubled by the Israelites. He believes that if opportunistic foreigners attack from outside, the opportunistic foreigners within their borders will side with those others, and All Would Be Lost. And so, he turns the tables, so that now it is the Israelites who are enslaved. Why did they allow it to happen? Perhaps, valuing their own history, they remembered that this was the move by which Egypt had provided for her citizens in the past. In any case, the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread. Pharaoh is forced to think again. This time he summons Shiprah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, and orders them to kill any Hebrew boys at birth. But midwives are A Force To Be Reckoned With. These feisty women defy Pharaoh. Essentially, they tell him that Egyptian women are Too Posh To Push; whereas not so the Hebrew women: for when they Call The Midwife, well, by the time the midwife gets there, the child is already born and nursing. Forced back once more, Pharaoh commands the Egyptian people to spy on their Hebrew neighbours, to note all pregnancies, and to throw any boys born into the Nile.

This is where we pick the story up. A woman brings forth a son; and sees that he is good. We are expected to recall God looking on his creative acts and declaring the result good. Next, she makes a waterproof basket to float on the waters; but in Hebrew the word for the basket is the same one as that used for the ark, in which God sealed Noah. Again, we are expected to make the connection. We are being invited to see the actions of this woman as recalling and representing God’s activity, as continuing God’s actions in the present.

It is interesting to observe that, in this account, no one is named. Pharaoh is a title: when we attempt to grasp on to what passes for earthly power, when we become the oppressor, we dehumanise ourselves as much as those we oppress. The boy’s father and mother and sister all go un-named. The fact that all three are named later in the story tells us that they are un-named not because they don’t matter, but deliberately, to make a point. Pharaoh’s daughter is not named; nor her attendants or her maid. Finally, when the child grew up, he is given an adoptive name by Pharaoh’s daughter: an ambiguous name that works in both Egyptian and Hebrew. But as for whatever name his birth-mother called him, that remains hidden.

This is a story about two contrasting constructions of what it looks like to be powerful and powerless. Pharaoh is all-powerful, according to one. Yet he is powerless to prevent his power from being undermined by a woman who obeys his edict and casts her son into the Nile—dripping wet with irony—and a daughter of his own household who defies his edict and draws the baby boy out of the Nile.

The Pharaohs are long gone. But, with the pyramids, their traditional construction of power remains. Indeed, it remains the dominant one. From this world-view, we might consider the women of our first reading to be subversive—and we might view such subversion as needed. Better, I think, to perceive them as modelling for us a wholly-other construction of power—a God-endorsed pattern in which power is exercised not through control but through conferring and reaffirming life; through recognising the Other (albeit that such recognition can only ever be partial, on the basis of revelation, or, what the Other chooses to share and what they conceal—which is to say, such recognition is necessarily relational); through choosing freedom, for ourselves and others.

Such power-of-the-powerless is transformative. It risks self; fosters ingenuity; births creativity; all-but-bursts-its-banks with trust; waits with active patience to see what will unfold; is moved by pity; improvises boldly. It is also costly, over-and-over-again. Imagine yourself in their position.

This same power-of-the-powerless is displayed in our Gospel reading. Here, again, women take the lead in an act of defiance in the face of injustice; an act of bearing witness to truth, before the soldiers and chief-priests, the representatives of Pharaoh-style power (which always appeals to divine appointment). Here, again, the power-of-the-powerless is costly: a mother watching her son die a slow and agonising death under conditions of torture; a woman who will—miraculously—be given back her son, only to have to give him up again. Here, again, the power-of-the-powerless is relational: not only in the moment of protest, but afterward, in the living with consequences. A man and a woman, needing one another, so as not to be alone. To keep one another company, to work side-by-side. The power of the powerless brings men and women together.

Earlier this week, we marked International Women’s Day (8th March). Today is both Mothers’ Day—a celebration of mothers, biological and otherwise—and Mothering Sunday—a day to return to our mother Church, the place where we were drawn from the waters of our baptism. In her short but insightful, and eminently readable, Women & Power: A Manifesto, Professor Mary Beard concludes:

‘You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession. What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually. It is power in that sense that many women feel they don’t have—and that they want.’ (Beard, 2017, pp. 86, 87)

The world is still in thrall to Pharaoh, and Caesar, and always will be. God consistently holds out an alternative way (often, watching evil implode in on itself); and though it is for men and women, again and again it is women who have shown the way. There is no irony in my publicly recognising that as a man. God—not the world, not political-correctness, nor indeed political corrective—calls us to exercise the very power Professor Beard speaks of. And though the Church falls short as much as anyone, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit. We have the mantle of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness (that is, having a teachable spirit), and patience. We have the tools of forgiveness, love, and peace; of thankfulness, and gratitude. And we have the most amazing treasury of stories to inspire us, and our daughters and sons, in the footsteps of Moses’ mother Jochebed and of Jesus’ mother Mary.

May we learn from them. And may we represent God as faithfully as they did.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Third Sunday of Lent 2018

Today, across Durham Diocese, the clergy have been asked to preach on the theme of vocation. I’ll come back to what ‘the clergy’ means; but first, what do we mean by ‘vocation’? Vocation refers to the call of God on someone’s life. It implies that we are neither the masters of our own destiny, nor slaves to fate. We might even learn to hear Jesus calling “follow me!” at many different times and in many different places over the course of our lives, but if we do, it is as commentary on our primary vocation, which we receive at our baptism. That vocation is to be a royal priesthood.

If you have been baptised, whether you were brought to baptism by your parents or came under your own volition, then, male or female, young or old, you have been ordained a priest by Jesus.

Peter puts it like this: ‘let yourselves be built into a spiritual house [household], to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…But you [in contrast to those who do not believe] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ (1 Peter 2:5, 9).

If you have been baptised, you are a member of a holy and royal priesthood. If you are preparing for baptism, that is what you are being prepared for. That is your primary vocation: to offer spiritual sacrifices to God on behalf of the world, and to proclaim God’s mighty acts to the world.

Other than Jesus’ own priesthood, that is the only priesthood [Greek: hierateuma] the New Testament letters to and for the Church speaks of. So why do we refer to certain people as priests, and not others? Well, that has to do with the story of the church and the story of language. The Church is the people of God: in Greek, the laos, from which we get the word ‘laity’. For a long time, whenever the local church gathered around the Lord’s table, they drew lots to determine which one of them would preside. The Greek word for casting lots is kleros, from which we get the word ‘clergy’ for the one chosen by the casting of lots. In time, the pattern of practice became simplified and codified, and ‘the clergy’ became those members of ‘the laity’ set apart by the Church for a specific role, to facilitate the whole church in their offering of spiritual sacrifices and proclaiming of God’s mighty acts. Although this hadn’t yet happened when the New Testament was written, the trajectory is already there, where we find servants [Greek: diakonos], elders [Greek: presbuteros, of the council of elders, and pertaining to being a representative] and overseers or guardians [Greek: episkopos]. In time, these roles formalised as those of deacons, elders, and bishops; and in even longer time, through what can happen to words as they pass through different languages and cultures, elders became known as priests.

The simplest way that I can describe it is to say that Jesus ordains every member of his household to a priestly role; and that the household, the Church, ordains certain members to a very particular expression of that priestly role. That might sound complicated at first; but our lives are lived in a dynamic relationship with history, and language, and culture, and in partnership with God.

Let’s turn to our readings, and ask how they might help us think about vocation?

Our first reading today is familiar to us as the Ten Commandments. But what might be less familiar is that, from first to last—from not comparing our God against other gods, to not envying our neighbour’s lot—they frame the vocation to be a priestly people. [i] Proclaim the mighty acts of Yahweh, who delivered his people from slavery to the gods of Egypt. [ii] Acknowledge his authority, over gods and humans. [iii] Represent the Lord your God faithfully in the world. [iv] Rest from your work, as those who are no longer slaves; take time to recognise creation as holy. [v] Honour the elderly, and your heritage. [vi] Do not be like Cain, who of envy murdered his brother. [vii] Do not hold fidelity in contempt. [viii] Do not steal. [ix] Do not bear false witness in court. [x] Do not covet the blessings your neighbour has received from God’s hand. For you were called out of darkness, and the deeds of darkness do not befit you. They are not acceptable sacrifices, nor are they true proclamation.

Our second reading reminds us that this vocation does not depend on our wisdom or study or eloquence, for God has chosen foolishness and weakness to demonstrate his wisdom and power, in Christ, crucified.

Our Gospel reading reminds us that it is Jesus who is foundational, his actions that are foundational; and that human action, however glorious, however well-intended*, is always provisional, must remain open to his challenge and his invitation. (The Jewish elders set themselves against Jesus, which should serve as a salutary warning to all those called by the Church to be an elder, or presbyter, or, priest.)

So, on this Vocations Sunday, the question is not, ‘Are you called to be a priest?’ but, ‘What kind of a priest are you called to be?’ Are you called by Jesus (yes!) or are you called by Jesus and by the Church (perhaps)?

As a priestly people, we proclaim the story which is both God’s and ours. When we gather, different people take turns reading from the Bible; and then one of us—acting under the authority of the bishop—offers some thoughts on what the story we have heard might mean for us today. And then, we go out into the world, carrying that story with us to our homes and workplaces and leisure activities and social media pages; reflecting on it; reflecting it; seeking to live-into it. We make connections between our lives, and the lives of our neighbours, and the story that speaks to us of all the hopes and dreams and joys and sorrows and longings and frustrations and failings and miracle of human life.

As a priestly people, we gather around the Lord’s table. And one sets out bread and wine; and another brings the bread forward, and yet another brings forward the wine. And then one—acting under the authority of the bishop—asks God to bless what we have brought with thankful hearts; and distributes the bread; and others carry the wine to the people. And then, we go out to the world, taking-up other ordinary things like a farmer’s seed and a fisherman’s net and a merchant’s pearl and a baker’s dough—or a nurse’s blood pressure cuff and a teacher’s white board pen—asking God to bless them, for the blessing of others. We go, lifting to God our families, our neighbours, our colleagues and customers in prayer; seeking, somehow, to be part of the answer.

This is what we are called to. This is our vocation. All of us. And it may be that today the Holy Spirit is stirring your heart to see what you do and how you do it—and, indeed, who you are—in a new light. If so, I’d love to speak with you, because my time is set aside to walk with you in that commonplace wonder.

But it is just possible that your spirit is stirring at the possibility that the Church may be calling your priestly vocation to be expressed through a specific role or office: as a Reader (an authorised preaching and teaching ministry), or to ordination by the Church, or to the Religious life as a monk or nun (a communal life set apart for prayer: whether for a season of a year, or for life). If so, I’d love to speak with you, too.

You’d be surprised how often I have such conversations here, at the Minster. With women and men; younger than me, and older than me, and of a similar age to me. Some of those conversations get put on hold, to be returned to at a later time; some reach the conclusion that being ordained by Jesus at their baptism is call enough in the world; some go on to further conversations with representatives of the wider Church. All of them are conversations that involve other people one way or another, because it is through one another that the Church tests the call.

At the present, we are looking to encourage these calls among those aged 18-30; but we are actively open to those who are older, even those already of retirement age; and actively open to calling women and men from a variety of backgrounds. Some will be stipendiary, like me; some, self-supporting, like Jacqui; some in chaplaincy, like Chris.

Perhaps, in the future, it should be you stood here, or somewhere like here; preaching, or presiding. Perhaps wherever it is you live out your royal and holy priesthood right now is not the most appropriate location, after all.

May God build up his household in this place. And as we respond, may we, the Church, identify those we will call to reader training, ordained ministry, and the religious life. Amen.

*The selling of animals for sacrifice in the temple was motivated by the need to address the problem of how to help people, who were no longer nomadic farmers, bring the necessary offering before God. However, the marketplace was set up in the outer-most court of the temple complex, the Court of the Gentiles, or, the only part of the temple that non-Jews were permitted to enter. This action therefore robbed the ‘god-fearing’ (those Gentiles who recognised Yahweh as the supreme god) of the provision made for them to take part in public worship, or, prayer.


These words, taken from the Commission and Sending Out in the Baptism service (Common Worship), give shape to the priesthood of all believers.

Those who are baptised are called to worship and serve God.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all people, loving your neighbour as yourself?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society, by prayer for the world and its leaders, by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?
With the help of God, I will.

May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, that you may be rooted and grounded in love and bring forth the fruit of the Spirit.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Evensong, First Sunday of Lent, 2018

I wonder whether you have ever been to the Poison Garden at Alnwick Gardens? It is billed as the most poisonous garden in the world. So long as you do exactly as you are told by the tour guide, you will be perfectly safe; but decide that the rules don’t apply to you, and you might make yourself violently sick, or even die.

The Lord God, we are told, planted a garden and took on the human as apprentice, to learn the care and use and misuse of plants. One of the trees in the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, had fruit that was poisonous to us. Of course, humans are not the only creatures the Lord God created and provides for, and there are plants whose fruit is poisonous to us but good for some other animal or bird. There are also plants whose flowers, or berries, or leaves, or bark are highly toxic, and yet whose bark, or leaves, or berries, or flowers, rightly prepared, have medicinal properties. It is almost impossible for us, who do not have to discover these things for ourselves, to imagine how frightening the world might be for our ancestors, were it not for divine protection and tutoring.

Note that evil is already present in the world, the result of some element of creation, here represented by the serpent, being in rebellion against the Lord God. The human gardeners will need knowledge of good and evil, will need to learn how to do good and avoid evil. And there is provision for this: but God would avoid them learning it by a Russian roulette trial-and-fatal-error. (Not that either Russia or roulette had yet been invented, you understand.) Note also that death is already a reality in the world. The humans would have experienced it. There is no “all animals were plant-eaters before the Fall of Man” nonsense here. But again, God would have the humans avoid a sudden and premature death, with all the fear that brings.

So, the Lord God provides a tree, among the trees, with purpose and parameters. But the parameters are broken, and the purpose remains at least partially unfulfilled—although the consequences are ameliorated.

This tree of the knowledge of good and evil comes up, albeit unnamed, in our Gospel reading. Jesus declares, “I am casting out demons and performing cures.” In other words, he has knowledge of evil, and how to cast it out; and knowledge of good, explicitly how to cure the sick. Jesus has mastered what the first apprentice failed to do. Even so, it is a risky business: and he too will die, even if not today or tomorrow or the next day.

We are called to join him, in growing in our knowledge of good and evil under the direction of God’s instruction. To get our hands dirty, with Jesus—and at times under his protection. But are we willing?

This week, yet again, we have heard news of children who went to school and grew in their knowledge of good and evil, as classmates were gunned down and a football coach laid down his own life to protect the children in his care. Yet again, we see sly political leaders offer empty ‘thoughts and prayers’ while refusing to address the cause of death. From where we stand, the American obsessive love-affair with that tool of violence, the gun, is beyond understanding. The danger is that such reports obscure to us our own context, to the evil we are called to cast out and the cures we are called to perform. Jesus gave his followers power and authority to do the things that he had been doing. May God open our eyes to see, and our ears to listen.

First Sunday of Lent 2018

This sermon comes in two versions: the one that I will preach; and the extended one made available [in footnotes] for those who want to go deeper over Lent.

The common thread that holds together our readings this morning is the question, what does it mean to be the community of the baptised? For that is what we are: those who have been baptised into Christ, and those who are preparing to undergo such baptism. And today, and throughout the Season of Lent, we are invited to be formed as precisely that community, as we reflect on the experience of Jesus immediately following his baptism. Because the forty days he spent in the wilderness are the template for the practice of Lent. [a]

Firstly, the community of the baptised are those who are being trained to discover the whole world as sacred place. Sacred (or, connected to God) space is represented by the wilderness. The wilderness is not simply land that has not been turned to agricultural use or built on by urban planners; but the wild-and-free essential nature of place, its naked-and-unashamed self. The use of the land surrounding this Minster church has changed many times, streets of houses swept away in living memory. What remains constant is the possibility of encountering the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ out there—not just in here—because it is God’s steadfast love, and not global economics or regeneration funding cycles, that undergirds Sunderland. The community of the baptised are called to live as if this was true, as those who see Sunderland deeply, and so seeing, love this city deeply. That takes story-telling the past, present, and future; as in the enduring memorials and temporary exhibitions we host. It takes symbols of covenant commitment, and regular reminding one another. At times this building may feel more like an ark for the faithful few than a rainbow of hope; but, again and again, we are driven out by the Spirit to discover the world anew. [b]

Secondly, the community of the baptised are those who are being trained to discover every moment as sacred time. Sacred time is represented by the forty days—forty days, and sometimes forty years, being a recurring motif in the Bible. We have already noted the changes to Bishopwearmouth through time. Young boys who played ballgames in the street have become old men sitting on armchairs on the same spot but now surrounded by the shopping centre. They were baptised here; they return here for their funerals. These occasions are understood as holy moments: but what of all the time between? Time has become our collective obsession and enemy: fast food, faster transport, fastest broadband; “I’d come to church more often, but I never have the time.” There is no mercy in such unforgiving time; no grace in such demanding time. In contrast, Jesus declared, “the time is fulfilled”: that is, time finds its fulfilment in beholding the sacred—and this is what allows us to name the time: now. The funny thing is that it takes time—a deliberate slowing down—to see time as it really is (yes, God can stop us in our tracks in a split-second; but rarely seems to do so in the first few seconds). The community of the baptised are called to live as if this was true, as those who move together at walking pace, at praying pace, at the pace of the very young and the very old. The best advice I have ever been given by a member of any congregation I have served was this: “Slow down, young man!” [c]

Thirdly, the community of the baptised are those who are being trained to understand themselves—and, potentially, those around them—as wild beasts and angels. Following Jesus, we don’t come to know place and time as sacred on our own, but in community. Like Jesus, we will experience resistance, the temptation to confine our understanding of sacred place and time to the Minster on Sunday morning. But God’s vision is bigger than that! Now, if you’ve ever watched anything David Attenborough has narrated, you’ll know how precarious and miraculous life is for wild beasts. We accompany one another as wild beasts by encouraging one another in our dependency on God. And angels are messengers sent from God, in response to our need, to encourage and support. We join with St Michael & All Angels in participating in such interdependence. But this is not simply about looking after our own. Jesus was neither a beast nor an angel. We both give to and receive from ‘strangers’ beyond the congregation, as we participate in reimagining the world together. One example would be the redistribution of surplus food from local shops to those who experience the locality as rough sleepers. [d]

Fourthly, then, the community of the baptised are those who are being trained to extend this discovery to, and for, others. At the end of forty days in the wilderness, Jesus brings back with him to Galilee—to ‘everyday’ place and time—the possibility of a new awareness of sacred time and sacred place: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” It is good news to discover that every place and every time is sacred, or, connected to God; that a rainbow is more than the reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets; that there is an everlasting covenant between God and the earth. It is good news to step-into such a world, and to give shape to it, to make it concrete. But that proclamation flows out of our training (or, re-training). [e]

So, how might we live-into our identity as the community of the baptised this Lent? Let’s keep this really very simple. Each Sunday in Lent, after the second morning service, we will be sharing our soup, bread and fruit lunches. You are all invited to take part. And as we eat together, tell one another where you caught a glimpse of God’s presence in the past week.

And if you don’t think you have anything to bring to that conversation, you do. Even if you don’t have a story to share, you might have questions to ask—and being asked questions helps us tell our stories better. Listening to someone else, you might even get some pointers for yourself: it could be that you glimpse God while watching the waves crash on the beach at Roker; or in the face of the kindly assistant who served you in Boots the Chemists. And if you can’t answer the question, “where have you caught a glimpse of God’s presence in the past week? today, then over the coming week, why not take five minutes during the day, each day, wherever you might be, to sit and be still and silent, and see what happens?

So, may I invite you into a communal Lenten discipline, of grounding ourselves in place, and stilling ourselves in time, and sharing what happens with one another?


[a] Immediately following-on from his baptism, Jesus is driven into the wilderness for forty days by the Holy Spirit. In Lent, we, who have been baptised into Christ—or who are preparing to undergo such baptism—follow in his footsteps into both sacred place and sacred time. The prevailing culture seeks to conform us to the view that sacred place and sacred time are firmly bounded: no-one would object to your meeting God at Sunderland Minster between 9.45 and 11.00 a.m. on Sunday mornings. But the baptised are the community who, together, are being trained to discover and populate the whole world as sacred place and sacred time. That is the exhilarating invitation the Season of Lent holds out to us.

[b] In his book Parish: An Anglican theology of place, Andrew Rumsey writes about place formation. Firstly, he notes that, being grounded in God, place exists as a reality prior to our perception of it (Rumsey calls this, being). The Nicene Creed begins, ‘We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.’ [emphasis mine] Secondly, he notes that we come to know place through revelation, not by deduction or by human decision. The wilderness is not simply land that has not been turned to agricultural use or built on by urban planners; but the wild-and-free essential nature of place, its naked-and-unashamed self. Thirdly, we take up our part in the formation of place through cultural interpretation, through tradition, through making the local place ‘storified.’ And fourthly, Rumsey speaks of vocation, or the performance of place, the way in which place calls us to respond.

Now, I appreciate that that is all quite technical, so let me offer an example. Before ever anyone gathered here, there was a small hill overlooking the river, not far from where it emptied into the sea. By the time of the conversion of the settlement to Christianity, we think there was already a temple here to the pagan gods: it was already understood to be a sacred place, but, with a fuller revelation, it was renamed in honour of St Michael, who leads the faithful angel host in triumphing for God over the rebellious angels, powers and authorities. In addition, the dedication to St Michael & All Angels emphasises that this was considered a ‘thin place’ between heaven and earth, somewhere where the unseen is visible in the corner of the eye. Since around 930AD that revealed insight has been ‘storified’ in wood and stone and stained-glass, in spoken and sung liturgy, in the written and oral history of this place and the congregation. And a millennium on, this remains a place of prayer for the people of Sunderland, doors open, visited daily for that purpose. In fact, more people who are not members of the congregation come here through the week to pray than do the congregation. Nonetheless, there remain others who do not see, and so the being-revelation-tradition-vocation cycle is repeated many times over.

[c] The ‘maker of heaven and earth’ is, of course, the maker of time as much as of place. God created and shaped time, and it was good. Moreover, God is present to us in time: but we are unaware, until, as with place, we experience revelation. Jesus declared, ‘the time is fulfilled’: that is, time finds its fulfilment in beholding the sacred—and this is what allows us to name the time: now. The funny thing is that it takes time—a deliberate slowing down—to see time as it really is. In the footsteps of those who prepared the way before him, it is over a period of forty days that Jesus comes to experience time in this way. But more than his simply experiencing this at the time, it is in the person of Jesus that place and time are now (revealed to be) anchored in the sacred, or, connected to God. For us who still follow him today, it is through the annual discipline of Lent (tradition) that we learn to play our part in the forming of kairos time from chronos time: ‘sacred’ or ‘things-unseen’ time from ‘measurable and passing-away’ time. [In chronos time we are moving into death with every passing second, while in kairos time we are entering more fully into life.] And the fitting response, our (vocation, or) performance of time, is to repent and believe: to see time from a new perspective—as sacred—and to act differently in the light of this reality.

[d] Following on from [c], how might we act differently? As well as sacred place and sacred time, our Gospel reading speaks of the role of others within a fuzzy-edged and outward-looking baptismal community. In the face of resistance—represented by the satan, or counsel for the prosecution—we are called to be as the wild beasts and angels to one another. Unlike domesticated animals, wild beasts are totally dependent on God, living a precarious but miraculous existence; while angels are messengers sent from God to bring support. As members of the baptismal community, we are to help one another grow in our dependence on God and interdependence one with another. Again, this takes place in the context of forty days in the wilderness, in experiencing sacred place in sacred time: it is a participation in divine gift, in God-initiated covenant. This should free us from fear, and for generosity; and be expressed in ways that shape the world around us, such as the redistribution of surplus food, connecting what would be thrown away by local shops to those who experience the locality as rough sleepers.

[e] To return to Rumsey, the proclamation of good news is our vocation (the ‘performance of place’—perceived locality calls for practical response) in response to being (‘All that is, seen an unseen’—the reality of locality prior to human perception), revelation (the subjective apprehension of place—local reality ‘meets’ human perception), and tradition (the cultural interpretation of place—locale is ‘storified’).

It is quite easy to see this building as a sacred place, but what about the place beyond our boundary wall? Can we see the city of Sunderland—its roads and shops and tower-blocks and docks and beaches; its regeneration—as sacred place? What existing or newly-needed traditions will help this formation? How might ‘sacred’ pilgrim trails connect with ‘secular’ heritage pilgrim trails, for example?

It is quite easy to see Sunday morning as sacred time, but what about Monday morning, or Thursday afternoon? How might we encourage one another to meet God where we spend most of the week? Again, what existing or newly-needed traditions will help this formation? Prayer during the day? Eating meals with others?

And how might this be held out as good news?

It may be that the enduring nature of the Minster (albeit that it was rebuilt in the 1930s) makes it a more accessible sacred place than much of what surrounds, and that this makes it a focal-point and a gift in that regard. The fact that people come here throughout the day, throughout the week, may also indicate that there is a general perception of any time being sacred time, at least within the circle of culturally-recognised sacred space. It may be that, alongside expanding our openness to the sacred, we should make even more than we do of curating the sacred experiences of the people of Sunderland within our building; and strengthening connections between this space and that place beyond our wall. The immediate surrounding area is currently being regenerated, under the banner ‘the Minster Quarter’: what distinctive appreciation of space, and time spent in those spaces, might we bring? While our church congregations might feel in the cultural wilderness, I have a growing sense that our church buildings (at least, the ancient ones) are the wilderness our society craves.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Ash Wednesday 2018

This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. The reminder of our mortality gate-crashes the celebration of romantic love. A-week-and-a-half ago, I helped two friends of mine renew their marriage vows, in the presence of all their family and friends. I’ve been involved in services of thanksgiving for marriage before, most often to mark the milestone of a Golden wedding anniversary, and once when an older couple wanted to reaffirm their commitment to one another at the point where, simply through age, he was moving into a room in a nursing home while she remained in the family home. But this was unlike any vow renewal I have ever been involved in. On their tenth wedding anniversary, my friends renewed their vows in the context of living with cancer.

The marriage vows are a remarkably honest summary of life, as experienced by all of us—whether married, or never-married, divorced or widowed—with two people committing to face this life together: ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.’ Life and death are a package deal. As my friends sat side-by-side in front of me, there was no hiding from what Jesus describes as life in all its fullness—not simply the parts we like the look of. And I think that is what made it the most holy of moments, and the greatest privilege of my ordained ministry so far.

Our first reading this evening comes from the book of Joel. It is a book originally written for an agricultural community that frequently experienced locust swarms, sometimes devastating swarms that turned the sky black and devoured that year’s entire harvest in hours. They might go several years between such total devastation, but it was a common enough experience for them to need to find a way to address it. And by address it, I don’t mean find a way to prevent it from happening. That was beyond their control; as, if we are honest, and for all our scientific advances, much of our experience of life is also out of our control. Indeed, being in control of our lives is an illusion. By addressing the issue, I mean facing up to it, and finding a way of living life to the full in the face of not being in control, in loss as much as in bounty.

Joel points the people back to God. God is the one who holds our lives, our circumstances, in his hands. This God does not protect us from every circumstance; but in some mysterious way, God is present to us and at work for us in all circumstances. Even in the utter disorientation of a locust swarm, Joel points the people to what is solid, what is beneath their feet: that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; a God who relents from punishing. That is, Joel brings us back to God’s character: one whose fundamental disposition towards us is faithful, steadfast love. A love expressed through compassion (mercy) and generosity (grace). A love that will confront whatever is ultimately harmful to self and neighbour, not in the heat of the moment but after due consideration and setting clear limits to its punitive sanction.

Those are the terms in which God revealed the nature of his goodness to Moses (Exodus 34:6-7), and they are the consistent testimony of the many and varied witnesses whose words are recorded in the Old Testament. But Joel goes even further: if we, as a community, help one another to press into the presence of this God in our midst in the experience of disaster, we might even find that God leaves a blessing for us—a grain offering and a drink offering. Note, we might find this: it is not a matter of finding the magic words with which we might control God. Nonetheless, it is in keeping with this God that he may turn even disaster into the opportunity to bless. Now, the grain-offering and the drink-offering were part of the daily practice of morning and evening prayer for the Israelites since the time of the exodus (Exodus 29:38-46). They were part of the daily reminder that the God who had rescued them from disaster in the past still dwelt among them, still meet with them, as a community. The people were to bring these things. But Joel suggests that in the context of devastation by locust—that is, when the people cannot uphold their part—God himself might provide what they are unable to bring.

It should not pass us by that tonight we gather around a grain-offering and a drink-offering, the bread and the wine set on this table in our midst, against the backdrop of various personal and communal disasters. Of secondary cancer moving through our body, or dementia stripping away our memories, or having to seek asylum in a foreign and often unwelcoming land, or the prospect of the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the wake of Brexit.

Writing to a different community in a different time, Paul says the same thing: be reconciled to God. Now is the time! He goes on to list some of the ways in which he and his companions have been able to testify to God’s grace, mercy, and steadfast love in the most awful of circumstances. For insisting on this truth, they have been treated as imposters. For owning life in all its fulness, for being honest about its trials and yet hopeful even in them, they are shunned by those who do not want to face reality. But in loss, they have found bounty; in grief, they have found joy—neither one cancelling the other out, but union with God being experienced in every season.

And finally, in our Gospel reading, we are invited to find ourselves standing alone before Jesus, our accusers having fallen back. Our accusers, of course, often include our own inner voices of condemnation, our own projection of the voices of those we are connected to. But the face of this gracious and merciful God of steadfast love, whose justified anger at our sin against our neighbour and our neighbours’ sin against us moves at a slow pace, is revealed in a man crouching down to write in the dust, words the dust will not record, will not hold against us—before straightening up to ask, who is left to condemn you? ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ And that is just what we, animated dust, the walking dead, need. When the world crashes down around us, we may yet know provision, liberation, empowering.

So tonight, we come to receive the imposition of ashes, the visible reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And to receive bread and wine, the visible expression—a reminder, yes, but more than just a reminder; these elements are efficacious—of the gift of God’s presence in our midst.

And today we enter once again into the season of Lent, perhaps for the first time, perhaps for the last. Forty days to assemble-together: the old and the young; those who have been in this place many times, and those for whom it is unprecedented and frightening. That together we might go deeper into mystery, more fully into life. To that end, I do not commend a programme of activity to you this Lent, but invite you to come together in this place, as often as practicable, to sit in prayerful silence, and so to enter-into the goodness of God...

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Second Sunday before Lent, 2018

“…then I was beside him, like a master worker [another reading is ‘like a little child’: isn’t that interesting?]; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” [that’s the voice of Lady Wisdom, Proverbs 8:30, 31]

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things…” [that’s Paul and Timothy, speaking of ‘our Lord Jesus Christ,’ Colossians 1:19]

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” [and that’s John, speaking of Jesus, John 1:14]

Delight. Rejoicing. Pleasure. Reconciliation. Glory. Grace. Truth. Our readings today fizz to bursting with these good things.

The Church year is rooted in ‘seasonal’ time and ‘ordinary’ time. The goal of seasonal time—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter—is to form us, as a community, into the likeness of Christ, according to the story handed-down to us in scripture. The goal of ordinary time—the short window between Epiphany and Lent, and the much longer portion that sprawls across our summer and autumn—is to train us to encounter God in our everyday lives.

Today, we are in ordinary time; and our three readings are all concerned with creation. Our first, from Proverbs, retells the story of God creating the world from the point-of-view of wisdom, which is personified. Wisdom, we discover, is expressed in delight and joy flowing back and forth.

Our second, from Colossians, is an outpouring of praise for Jesus, but the context is another creation-retelling or recalling: this time repeatedly describing the gospel—or, good news—as bearing fruit and growing in the whole world; describing what has happened in the lives of the saints as the separating-out of light from darkness; and describing Jesus as the means by which God exercises life-giving, ordered rule over the rebellious forces of chaos.

Thirdly, our gospel reading, that introduction—or, Prologue—to the Gospel According to John, recalls and reframes Genesis chapter 1—with it’s repeated ‘And God said’—with a fresh focus on the creative Word itself, still creating light, and life, and a new humanity.
Earlier this week, we had an un-seasonally warm afternoon, and I went for a walk I Backhouse Park. I think it is my favourite park in Sunderland, and this time of year, with the snowdrops and crocuses bursting out, is my favourite time to walk there. The park was full of dog-walkers and birdsong; couples, both young and old, hand in hand; grandparents with their grandchildren; a father with two young daughters.

In Proverbs, Wisdom and Folly are personified as female characters, women with agency to build-up or to destroy. And when Lady Wisdom is recalling her own beginnings, it is as a little child, a young girl out for a walk in the park with her father, delighting in discovering a world bursting-forth with life, delighting in one another.

Sometimes we awake, as from a hibernation, to the realisation that we have forgotten all that. Left it far behind, long ago. Like Susan Pevensie, for those of you who are familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia. We have outgrown that childish innocence—and lost much; though, like the 21-year old Susan, we need not be lost forever.

Sometimes we have much to learn from the very young, and the very old—those who have found their way back to childhood. And sometimes God comes to us, in the mystery and wonder of the world that has sung of its creator through all human history, and says, “Why wait? This is the day I come to you. Will you receive me?”

So, when you go out from this place, go expectantly. May you know delight and joy in your encounters, whatever you come across, and whoever crosses your path; may you know more day-by-day of the depth of the Father’s pleasure; and may your eyes be opened to see traces of glory, grace and truth, the footprints of Jesus in the world.

And all the people said, Amen.