Sermon: “Be wise. Let God’s love be your hope”

Sermon preached at Newcastle Cathedral on Sunday 4th August 2019.

Texts: Ecclesiastes 1.2,12-14 – Colossians 3.1-11 – Luke 12.13-21.

Today’s Gospel is not about people who failed to lay up treasure in heaven because they were rich. Today’s readings urge us to trust not in our own strength, but to know the love of God which is wisdom, to burn brightly with the love of God, to live that love in our lives, and to let God’s love be our hope, now and for ever.


 

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Once upon a time, I asked a foolish question. I asked a Franciscan brother to teach me how to pray. He smiled, and gave me a book. The book taught me many things about prayer. How to sit, how to stand, how to breathe, what to think… and I followed its instructions to the letter. Again and again… I sat, I stood, I breathed, I thought… I huffed and I puffed, and I blew myself heavenward… and the house of God was barely touched. I was left standing outside – hungry, tired and frustrated.

I huffed and I puffed… and I began to realise that maybe this wasn’t the way to get into the house of God. Sitting, standing, breathing, thinking. I went back to the brother, rather annoyed. He smiled and took the book back. And said, “Now, sit… and just listen.” I was not going to learn how to pray… by my own effort. That wretched book had taught me that. Sitting, standing, breathing, thinking… prayer wasn’t something I could work towards like that.

****

This morning’s Gospel is a dangerous one for Christians… because we read it and with not too much reflection the message seems relatively obvious.

A man who wants Jesus to help him get an inheritance. Fair enough. But Jesus tells him a parable. The rich man who has so many crops he tears down his barns to build bigger barns. He’s made it. His moneybags are literally bursting at the seams. Soul, he says to himself, relax, eat, drink, be merry!

But he doesn’t realise that even as he plans to enjoy his riches… his life is drawing to its close… and he hasn’t made the investment that really counts. So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.

 The meaning seems clear. Don’t spend your life working just for wealth, which others will enjoy when you die. Spend your life working for God. Lay up treasure in a heavenly storehouse. Earn your angelic platinum max card with the bank of heavenly righteousness.

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And the letter to the Colossians offers a very handy investors’ guide for those who set their minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 

How to earn your credit? Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed. Get rid of anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language. Do not lie! Do all this and you will get access to the first class lounge, for the best of the best… with the free drinks and the complimentary meals that are always slightly smaller than you’d have liked.

Work hard… do this… and you’re brilliant!!!! You’ve made it!!!

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But into this glossy brochure for the aspiring pharisee… pulling himself up to his feet as if he is about five pounds heavier than he actually is, making what an outside observer would have thought was a heroic effort to cross the room… lollops the Bible’s Eeyore.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

 Shut up, Ecclesiastes! We’ve almost got them to sign the dotted line. // Come this way, people of God. Be better than everyone else. Work hard for your place in heaven!

What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation. Even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

People of God… do you want to sign up and begin investing, to be the best and earn your place in heaven! Or do you want to hear what old Eeyore Ecclesiastes has to say?

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The teacher, gloomy old Eeyore, in Ecclesiastes wants his treasure house to be in the right place, and filled with good and lasting treasure. Almost as if he has read today’s Gospel, he doesn’t set out to make money or build an empire. He tries to store up something a bit more spiritual. I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. He seeks to know, to be the best travelled, the best read, the best argued… he seeks to understand all things on earth.
And when he understood them, he saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind. His learning has taught him this, that everything we do, even our learning and our understanding, will pass with us. Even the most learned brain, the strongest hands, will die. And then another will have to start learning, start building… all over again.

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But is his time wasted? Has his learning about humanity been for nothing? No. Even as he learned that his study was ultimately vanity, his own pride, his own desire to know everything… he learned something better.

He learned WISDOM.

*****

Now, Wisdom is a strange thing. It seems to be something we are meant to chase after. It’s a good thing to be wise. And yet the moment we think we’ve got it… is always the moment we are farthest from it. The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

And yet wisdom for Christians and Jews is a very particular thing. Wisdom is not a general air of always having the right thing to say. Wisdom isn’t about having big bushy eyebrows, a knowing smile and an air of mystery.

Wisdom is a very practical thing. A wise person is one who sees things as they really are. A wise person is one who has had the scales fall from their eyes. And that wisdom, that seeing things as they actually are… enables us to live as we really need to live.

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Proverbs tells us that The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It doesn’t mean that to be wise we need to be terrified! And to be terrified of God is not what Jesus or the Old Testament Law are getting at. In fact, quite the opposite.

But for the Old Testament, wisdom starts with knowing God, everyday and in everything… seeing God’s hand in all that is done under heaven. It isn’t airy fairy. It is gut wrenchingly practical. When you see God in everything, God loving his children in everything… then the world becomes a very different place to live in. For the wise person, their whole world has been shattered by one thing… the knowledge of the love of God, shining like sun dust as it breathes through all that is.

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And it changes us, this new way of seeing ourselves and the world. When St Paul gives the Colossians a new way of behaving, it isn’t for the sake of their being better people, or earning more heavenly reward points. Set you minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, he says, for you have died with Christ in your baptism, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. And one day, when Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him, shining in glory.

So treat each other well, grow in holiness, do not do what is evil to one another and yourself… because in the renewal God has worked in you, there are no longer differences among us… but Christ is all and in all!

If you knew how much you are loved, Paul says, and what God has done for you and is doing for you still… and for all those around you… your life would look very different. Your life would shine.

He writes to the church in Ephesus, and listen carefully for the new way we are to see the world as Christians, I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…’ (1.17)

Wisdom is something we know… when we know the love of what God has done for us in Jesus… we see it in the eyes of our heart… and we have a new hope… a hope built on love, and on the promise of our loving God.

*****

The man who asks Jesus for help to get his inheritance does not lack wisdom because he is too focussed on wealth. He lacks wisdom because he can’t see the love that God has for him, standing right in front of him in the person of Jesus.

The man who stores up his wealth in great barns does not lack wisdom just because he stores up wealth. But because he thinks that is what will make his soul happy, what will give his soul hope.

Neither of these people see the love that God has for them. Neither of them know the God who is love… and so neither of them has wisdom.

And so they are enslaved.

*****

They are enslaved to the things of this world. Not that the things of this world are bad or dirty or wrong… but the things of this world can never really give us hope.

Money, food, clothing… Consider the lily, or consider the birds, how they neither toil nor spin, and yet God feeds them. And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

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*****

No, worrying (enslaving worry) won’t get us anywhere. Loving will.

Knowing God’s love for us is the most wonderful thing that can happen to any of us.

It’s a wonderful treasure stored up for eternity, yes, but it’s a wonderful treasure for each of us to enjoy now as well.

*****

When I really fell in love for the first time, it was like being plugged into a deeper part of myself, a part I’d never really known I lacked.

And when I began to know God’s love for me and all that is… that was like being plugged into all of reality. Spine-tingling. Bright-burning. Life-changing reality.

For Christ is all-in-all. And we who believe are in Christ.

*****

I couldn’t be taught how to pray. I couldn’t work at the mechanics and get there by my own effort, by my own self-improvement. Prayer only became real for me… when I began to learn just a little taste of wisdom. When my eyes were opened, and my heart began to shine with the love of God.

We Christians are called to live differently, to look different, to seem different to those around us. Not because we fear an angry God who lays down rules for us. But because we have had a taste of the love of God. And that taste burns on our tongues and down deep within us.

This is the treasure stored up for us by God within our hearts.
This is the fire the Spirit of God lights up within us.
This is the love, the life God feeds his people.

*****

Shine, let your light shine before those you meet. Let that love burn brightly, and let it out as often as you can.

But remember, this treasure you have burning within you, you have in a fragile, clay jar. Don’t beat yourself up when you fail to burn brightly with that love.

Let God’s love for you be your hope, who sent his only Son, that all who believe in him may never die, but will have the light of life, to the end of ages, and for ever. Amen.

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Sermon: The Hospitality of Abraham, Mary and Martha, and God’s Gift of Grace

We can’t earn God’s love. And we don’t need to. God has already given it in his Son. Abraham, Martha and Mary encounter God, and love and an openness to grace is what enables them to discover new life.

Sermon preached at Newcastle Cathedral, Sunday 21st July 2019


 

Have you done enough to earn God’s love?

Do you think you’ve done enough to earn God’s love?

I hope a part of you – perhaps all of you – is scandalised to hear a Christian sermon start with that question. It is of course the worst perversion of the Christian faith… to suggest that we in any way need to EARN God’s love.

And yet, there’s a little part in each of us, that just sometimes says, I’m not good enough for God, I’m not worthy. He can’t possibly love me.

 Or more dangerous, that voice that says, Yes. I’ve made it. I’m an AMAZING Christian. Isn’t God proud of me.

Look at everything I’m doing, the way I live my life.
Look at how many times I go to church.
Look at how often I say my prayers.
Look at how much… I doooo for God.
Isn’t He lucky!

And today’s readings seek out those tendencies in each and every one of us. They square up to us and say… NOPE.

NOPE! You can’t earn God’s love, and you don’t need to earn God’s love. Because he has given you his love, already. He has given you Jesus.

Stop. Listen. Learn to love and to live.

*****

The story starts with the book of Genesis, as all good stories do. God has made a covenant with Abraham, the father of the Israelites, the father of all who follow God. Abraham and his son have been circumcised as a sign of that covenant. And Abraham gets on living a nomadic existence with his family, his livestock, his tent.

And one day, Abraham is sat in the door of his tent at the height of midday… and he sees three men standing near him. My Lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Strange. There are three of them. But Abraham for some reason addresses them as one, Lord.

Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Do you remember Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at the last supper? Do you remember Mary and John keeping watch under the tree on which Jesus died?

Let me bring you a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant. Well, you’re here at a Eucharist, the sacrament of bread and wine, so I don’t need to point out the importance of a little bread… to refresh us.

But my point is this. At first glance it looks like Abraham is showing hospitality to these three guests. Stop and think, and it might seem that Abraham is showing hospitality to God, the Trinity; Father, Son and Spirit.

But is that what’s really going on?

In the famous Icon of this scene, the hospitality of Abraham, you can see the three figures sat at the table, but you can’t see Abraham. The three figures are welcoming Abraham in, welcoming us in to sit at the table with them.

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When Abraham gives them the water, who really gives the water of life? When Abraham refreshes them by washing their feet, who really makes who clean? And when Abraham offers them bread, who really gives the bread of life?

I’ll give you a clue… it isn’t Abraham who is the giver of all gifts.

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This isn’t a story about being hospitable, about welcoming in strangers. And neither is the Gospel reading.

I have heard many sermons in my time which go like this. Mary and Martha are different. Mary listens to Jesus but Martha is distracted by the tasks of the world. Which are you. Do you pay attention to Jesus? Or are you distracted by the world?

And I think that’s ok, but it doesn’t really do the passage justice.

It doesn’t do Martha justice, either, if I’m honest.

First, she isn’t just distracted by the cares of the world. Luke says she is distracted by something very specific. She’s distracted by diakonia… ministry. It’s where we get the word deacon from today. Martha isn’t distracted by looking up the latest fashions. She’s distracted by something which is really important. Ministering to others.

But second, does Jesus actually criticise her because she is distracted by her work? Jesus says, Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. You have need of only one thing. Mary, who is sat here listening to me, has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

 

Martha, if you think about it, is doing exactly what Abraham was doing… offering the Lord some refreshment. But the difference is their attitude. Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Martha says. Tell her then to help me! Martha’s problem, the thing she has missed, is that what God really wants, what Jesus really wants from her and from us… is love.

The psalms put it rather well, and put these words in God’s mouth.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
Rather, offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving
and pay your vows to the Most High. (Psalm 50.12-15)

Martha thinks that Jesus really needs feeding with food, and she offers her service grudgingly. This isn’t love and honour, in the way that Abraham showed love and honour when God visited his tent. Martha is worried and distracted not by her work, but by her bitterness. And bitterness, feeling hard done by, is always a difficult place to be when you want to show love.

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Abraham served his Lord, and he served God in Love. Martha tried to serve God, but her attempt was thwarted by bitterness. And Mary… Mary doesn’t serve God at all. She just… sits there…. but she sits there… in openness and love.

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Has God ever visited your tent? How did you respond?

Lots of people tell stories of times they served an unexpected guest, and it felt like they had served an angel. One priest tells of a homeless boy he met. They shared a meal at Burger King. He nipped out to the loo, and when he came back the boy had disappeared. Had he ministered to an angel sent by God?

Maybe we haven’t all had experiences like that. But that doesn’t mean God hasn’t visited our tent.

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The first chapter of John’s Gospel describes the coming of God in Jesus like this. And the Word became flesh, and lived among us. Jesus, God the Word, taking on humanity and living among us. But the word John uses to describe living among us has a deeper meaning.

He says this, and let your mind’s eye create a picture: And the Word became flesh, and pitched a tent among us. In Jesus, God has pitched a tent among us. God has come to our home, and made His home here too, with us and alongside us. The letter to the Colossians puts it beautifully. In Jesus, walking on earth among us, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. God pitched His tent among us, and it pleased Him. 

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So what should we do? Should we make like Abraham and Martha to scramble to serve our God who lives among us?

No. Remember Abraham. It wasn’t Abraham who was really being hospitable. It was God, God giving Abraham the bread of life and the water of life and the washing of salvation.

If you think the Christian faith is about doing enough to earn God’s love… then you’ve completely missed the point.

We don’t serve God. God serves us.
We don’t need to feed God. God feeds us.
We don’t need to provide for God. God provides for us.
We don’t need to protect God. God heals and holds us in our brokenness.
We don’t need to sacrifice to God. God has already sacrificed himself for us.

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At this and every eucharist, God invites us to God’s own table. And we approach it and pull up our chairs to the feast. With Abraham and Nicholas, and Mary and all the saints who have ever been. And each other, the saints who are.

God offers us the bread of life here. Will you be like Mary, open and loving?

And if you don’t feel you can, will you hope, will you ask… to be like Mary… Lord, make me open and loving.

In us is so much that wants to earn our place, or be proud at what we have achieved… or which is bitter, and guilty… and hurt and angry and tired. And that makes us often very bad at loving.

But God says… nevertheless…
Come… sit down… and taste.
With me you will find all things.
With me… you will learn love.
With me… you will discover… life.

By Faith, Not Works: a sermon for Newcastle Pride

Sermon – Eucharist for Pride Festival
20th July 2019
2 Corinthians 3.4-end; John 8.1-11
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I bring you great tidings. Hark! The church is in crisis! There’s no way forward. We’re at each other’s throats! Gone are the wonderful days of old. Chaos reigns. People of God, despair!!!!

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Now, that’s probably over egging it. But I bet all of us, especially queer folk like me, have felt like this in the church from time to time.

The overriding narrative in the Church of England, and in other denominations too… is that queer people, those of us who don’t easily fit society’s gender and sexual expectations… spell at the best confusion, and at the worst darkness.

Chaos reigns! People of God, despair!

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Well, I for one refuse to accept that narrative. Coming to faith as an openly gay person, my sexual identity, my desires and relationships, were not a cause of confusion, and they certainly weren’t a cause of chaos.

Each one of us has a different journey of faith to navigate… but fundamentally the discovery of the gift of faith is the same for each of us….

A child of God finding, realising and nesting in the home that was prepared for us from the beginning by our Lord.

Narratives that see queer folk as a problem aren’t good and true for us. And they aren’t good and true for the church.

What narratives might free us? What narratives might offer us hope? What is the narrative in which I am one for whom Christ died and rose again, and not just a problem to be solved.

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I have known many churches that say they believe the Gospel message is offered for all. They confess proudly that the Good News is for the transformation of all people, that there is no corner of the created world which Christ cannot redeem and make holy.

Well, queer people put that confession to the test.

Do you really think God gives eternal life to all who have faith in Jesus, as a gift, without a price, as grace? Or do you believe we have to earn it?

Sometimes, it feels like queer people have to do an awful lot to earn our place in the church, to earn the assurance that others can get much easier.

Sometimes, it feels like we have to prove our faith, not to God who already sees it, but to our fellow Christians… who seem to do their best to make us feel inferior.

Sometimes, we may let it get to us, and wonder if we really do have to leap through hoops, to earn God’s love. To pretend to be something we are not… because Jesus’ grace, Jesus’ love, isn’t strong enough to make me holy.

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To this, St Paul says, no.

The Old Testament Law was a start. It tried to teach God’s people how to love God and it tried to teach them that God loved them, even when they betrayed that love. But Jesus has fulfilled the Law. God’s children are freed from its demands, its judgment, its condemnation… even its death.

The Law is good for teaching us how to love our God and how to love one another. But it cannot condemn us.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

All of us who have been baptised and confess Jesus as our Lord, live in the Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, when we look on Jesus in word, prayer or sacrament, see the glory of the Lord. And it transforms us.

God does not change who we are. God loves who we are. And died for who we are.

But God sets us alight in holiness, and frees us to live lives of deeper love, more fervent faithfulness.

****

I wonder how many times you’ve heard the story of Jesus and the woman caught committing adultery.

She is guilty, plain for all to see, and the Law says she should be stoned to death.

But Jesus and the woman… talk.

Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” Jesus has shamed the scribes and the pharisees into leaving her alone. But Jesus is not finished.

She said, ‘No one, sir.’ Now, that word, translated as Sir, is important for christians. She says, “No one, kyrie.” She says, “No one, Lord.”

She confesses Jesus as Lord in the same words that we use. Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy. Ho Kyrios mou, kai ho Theos mou. The words St Thomas used when he put his hands in Jesus’ side. My Lord and my God.

She calls Jesus her Lord, this woman caught in one of the worst offences against the law, and he responds… Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

****

She has called Jesus her Lord, and she is forgiven. She is freed from the condemnation that hung over her. Her faith… not her works… have set her free.

Her faith has set her free, to a new life, of loving better, loving more truly. Her faith has set her free, to learn without fear how God is calling her to be more faithful still.

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I think that queer people call the church to remember the battles of the past. The battles to recognise that we are saved through our faith, not by our works. Our faith sets us right, not any attempts we might make to earn God’s love.

If you have faith, the Spirit lives within you. Take the Law seriously – explore how it speaks to you about God’s faithfulness, and about what it means to be faithful in love to God. But do not fear.

If you confess Jesus as Lord, be at peace. Be assured of your place in Jesus’ heart. Grow in holiness because you can. Not because you must.

If you confess Jesus as Lord and seek to follow him as a disciple, love boldly, your God, yourself, your neighbour.

Remember the confidence that Jesus has won for you. And live in that confident, peaceful and joyous hope, all your days. Amen.

‘The word alone is the gesture… to refer us to infinity.’ Is there room for non-verbal art in discipleship, according to Karl Rahner?

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Paper given at the conference, “Catholicism, Literature and the Arts II” at St Chad’s and Ushaw College, Durham, organised by the Centre for Catholic Studies. 9th July 2019.

Abstract
In his essay “Priest and Poet’, the preface to a collection of poems by his fellow Jesuit Jorge Blajot, Karl Rahner explored the nature of words as thought incarnate. Words which express the mystery of all things, which he calls ‘primordial words’, make reality present to us (Rahner rather excitingly calls them the ‘sacrament’ of reality). From this Rahner concludes that it is primarily in words, rather than in other art forms, that reality (and particularly divine truths) can be communicated to us, implying that other art forms must be spoken if they are to reach their full “sacramental” potential. By understanding the task of the poet in relation to the task of the priest in speaking the words of anamnesis in the eucharist, Rahner over-sacramentalises words, understanding them too christologically in a way that leaves his concept of art unable to embrace non-verbal art forms and collaborative forms of communication and which casts doubt on the ability of the non-verbal to participate meaningfully in the life of the Gospel.

Pdf of the paper available here:
The Word Alone is the Gesture CathLitArts Conference 20190624.

Lent: violence, compassion, lies, hatred and death

Compassion is not just about feeling for those who are easy to pity. Compassion means opening our hearts to love even the fearful, the hating and the violent.


 

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I always find Lent a struggle. I always say I’m going to give up a load of things and end up indulging in them more than before. And I say I’m going to take up good things which, if it means putting in a regular effort, usually fall at the second (if not the first) hurdle.

This year, I began Lent by reading Sr Ilia Delio’s The Humility of God: a franciscan perspective. It is a short book, and although I’m not a fan of some of the theology Sr Ilia works through, her writing on the compassion of God and our need to be compassionate with ourselves and others is breathtaking. In my flat there hangs a poster of a painting of the crucifixion. I guess the idea is that I look at it and try to be compassionate with Christ, to see his passion. But what is Christ looking out on from the cross? The world’s passion, the world’s turmoil and broken-heartedness. To be compassionate with Christ is to inhabit the compassion of Christ for the world and for each of us.

I prayed for this sort of compassion. You should never do this. Asking things from God, especially virtues, never runs the riverbed you’d have expected. God tends to answer our earnest prayers in ways we don’t expect, often overwhelming.

Violence

It is my great joy and privilege, as a priest at Newcastle Cathedral, to spend a lot of time with the folk who live (either by day or full time) on the streets in the city centre. The highlight of my time at the cathedral thus far was joining with the cathedral ministry team and some of the street-homeless who generously volunteered to pick up the candle-wax in the cathedral left over from midnight mass on Christmas night. And then mushroom omelettes in the morning in the cathedral kitchen. I have grown to love very dearly some of the men and women with whom we share this city, and the cathedral would not be nearly so holy without them.

I am also a PhD student in Durham, and on Monday had had a truly frustrating day of “trying to work”. The clock inched round until I finally left my desk. Why is work sometimes just so hard on the heart? I was profoundly sad as I sat on the station waiting in the cold for a train home, and on the train I thought of all the ways I could make myself a little happier. I toyed with the idea of inviting some friends over for dinner, and decided against it. Too much effort.

I have a short walk from Newcastle’s central station to the Metro, up Grainger Street about five minutes to Monument. And every day I pass people who are street-homeless, some I know and some I avoid, hating myself for doing so. But this night as I passed a boy who looked about seventeen, a group of men started talking to him in an overly-friendly manner. I stopped and stood nearby, just waiting to see what might happen. And despite my hopes, their friendliness quickly turned sour. “Look at him, he’s just a f***ing junkie,” the biggest of them shouts, inches from the boy’s face. “You want some money?” he asks, offering a note. As the boy reaches to take it, the man whips it back, and clenches it in a raised fist. “You’ll get this instead, you scummy b***ard.”

I step over, and say hello to the boy, asking how he is. His eyes rise to mine, and the men step back for a moment. He moves his sleeping bag, and the light of a Nokia phone is just visible. “Look, he’s loaded! He’s got a phone, the b***ard! He’s taking the f***ing piss! I’m having your sleeping bag, you f***ing s**t!” The boy leaps up, and gathers his possessions as the men rip away his sleeping bag. He ducks several punches and they move down the street.

Sleeping bags are hard to come by. The folk who are part of the cathedral community lament when this comfort and protection is taken from them. It is one of the things that can really break a person’s spirits. I think they are a safe enough distance away, and move to pick up the sleeping back, and stash it near where the boy was sitting. I still think this was the right thing to do, but it was not safe. The men rounded on me, and when I asked them what they were doing, one of them held me back, shoving my chest, as another laughed and the third continued trying to beat the boy. “Look at him, he’s crying, the little s**t.” And to me,”Don’t you f***ing dare, you b***ard. That ****’s got it coming, the scum. I bet you’d like to f***ing help him, thieving ****.” In the end, it was their turning on me that lost them their prey. The boy managed to make a dash for it, with his sleeping bag, and they were distracted enough by this to let me go for long enough for me to escape as well. “Why don’t you help someone who f***ing needs it, you prick!” I hear them shout. Throughout the whole interaction, my dog collar had been clearly visible.

Compassion, Lies, Hatred and Death

What I did was in some senses rather stupid. Far safer to stand and watch, as about twenty people did. But there was something so unholy about what was being done, and to a young person who really did look like a child. I don’t care what people say about the culpability of many of the folk in our city centres, when a person is in a situation in which they are willing to sit in the cold, being spat at and vulnerable to attack, they are utterly deserving of compassion. Here was one being crucified for sins that were not his own. Here was one a Christian should see as Christ, and as Christ sees them. Standing in solidarity, hanging on to the foot of that boy’s cross was easy.

But what about the three men? Their hatred of this boy was irrational. They didn’t know him, they didn’t really care to find out who he was or the truth of his situation. The boy for them was a symbol, a symbol which evoked this formidable response. Why? When I looked into the eyes of the man who pushed me and held me, I saw a fire burning, a hatred blazing that distorted and hid his humanity behind a veil of something terrible. What was it?

One of the hardest things about being a Christian is learning really to accept the sovereign abundance of God. I don’t mean accepting the idea of it, but really accepting in your heart and in every moment of your life that God is the one who in every second of creation, in every place in creation, is willing for all of us fullness of life. In every moment of existence, God’s arms are opened wide, fashioning a space for us to flourish. In times good and bad, God is providing for us in ways we often cannot comprehend. This faith, this perspective, this way of life is one which opens our hearts to welcome, to share, to give and to love.

But alas from the cradle we are sold a different narrative. There is not enough in this world for everyone; there could never be enough in this world for me; there is not enough for me to feel safe and so I must hoard what I have and defend it against those who would take it from me; there is always someone coming, I don’t know where from, to seize this treasure of safety I have built and I must always watch out. This narrative – of scarcity rather than abundance, of fear rather than generosity, of walls rather than welcome, of me over you – is the most powerful antidote to the Christian faith and to human flourishing. It takes the human heart of flesh and replaces it with a heart of stone (Ezekiel 36), cold, hard and impregnable. It takes away our holy ability to give and receive love and replaces it instead with hatred.

These men were terrified, of the scarcity which they experienced in their lives and the scarcity they feared was coming for them in the future. And this fear led them to hate, to hate a symbolic person who was taking from them, who was consuming what would give them a better life and better security, who was somehow tricking them and laughing at them. The lie of scarcity, the fear of lack, leads to powerful hatred, and it is almost always directed at those who are actually even more vulnerable, even more lacking, even more afraid of scarcity. These three men were so afraid, and so filled with symbolic hate, that they were not able to see the boy in a sleeping bag: they only saw the enemy, the trickster they feared.

The lie, then fear and hate, distorted their sight and their reason even as it ate their hearts.

What could they do but lash out? Hatred begotten of lies has no resolution but violence. It cannot be reasoned with, it cannot be sated, for it does not dwell in reality. Hatred begotten of lies is a child of unreality, of inhumanity. It can only destroy reality, can only deface humanity. When confronted with life, even life crying on the street, it can only proceed by waging destruction and death.

Lent of Compassion

I wish I had been bold enough to say, “What can I do for you?” when the man shouted after me, “Why don’t you help someone who f***ing needs it?” But I was too busy getting away. To see the world as Christ sees it is to see it from the cross. In the crucifixion scene in my flat, the people around the cross are absorbed in the horror of Jesus’ suffering. But Jesus has been looking out from the cross to the world.

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To see the world as it truly is is not to buy into lies. Of scarcity or anything else. But rather to see God providing, God caring for and God loving all, even when what we see at first glance seems utterly unlovable, lacking and uncherished. “Eat and drink in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving,” the eucharistic liturgy tells us. And if Christ died for me, he died that these impossible ones might know fullness of life too.

I do not know how to abolish the violence, the hatred and fear that dehumanise our streets, our homes and our hearts. But for my part, I must grow ever deeper in compassion. Compassion as the antidote for the lies of scarcity; compassion to force apart of the walls which crowd us in on every side and make our world small and dark; compassion which makes space for human flourishing in the true reality which is God’s loving abundance.

“Pray daily that your heart may be enlarged, and your understanding of the scriptures deepened,” Bishop Christine charged me at my ordination as priest. Lord, this Lent and for all my life, may it be so.

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Preaching the Resurrection of the Dead on Remembrance Sunday

Resurrection of the Soldiers - Stanley Spencer

I always find Remembrance Sunday a difficult one to preach. It often gets passed around clergy teams like a hot potato. We find it difficult to honour individual bravery and sacrifice, whilst also trying to serve current servicemen and women who have lost colleagues and friends, all while maintaining a message which is distinctively Christian. How do you preach the Gospel in the shadow of the Empire? How do you hold the collective grief and trauma of the nation and world caused by war, all whilst acknowledging that I am not one of the ones called to defend the weak when things get tough?

Many preachers are faced with this challenge, staring them in the face… and blink.

But the readings this year don’t leave you much choice. PREACH THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD, they cry. So that I will. One day, when Christ comes, the graves of Flanders will open just as my own, and we will all rise to meet our Lord together.

Do you claim his promise for yourself, and life in confidence and hope?

You can read the sermon here: 11th November 2018 Remembrance Sunday Newcastle Cathedral Sermon (and for interest last year’s Remembrance Sunday sermon is here: 12th November 2017 Remembrance Sunday).

(The image is Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection of the Soldiers)

Ginsberg does the Beatitudes

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A brilliant and talented friend of mine writes fairy-tales on the beatitudes. I am not so brilliant. But fortunately, I can crib from other people’s genius when it comes to preaching.

The Gospel this Sunday evening is the beatitudes from Matthew 5. Blessed be the poor in spirit… etc. I was tempted to riff on Simon and Garfunkel’s Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on. But Allen Ginsberg just goes so much deeper in his poem Kaddish, written over a long period after the early death of his mother after long mental illness:

In the madhouse Blessed is he! In the house of Death Blessed is he!

As a Franciscan I seek to live a blessing of St Francis: Let us bless the Lord God, living and true. Let us always give Him praise, glory, honour, blessing and every good. Blessing God and knowing all things blessed is bloody hard. Only by God’s grace do we have any chance of living it out.

Download the sermon here: 02-09-18 Evensong Beatitudes