12 August 2016
limitless in possibility and infinite in promise,
You dare your people to stride toward unknown destinations
and to encounter unforeseen challenges;
help us to not shy from the seemingly absurd tasks that bring about renewal and healing,
so that your creative Presence be known in our lives, communities and world.
6 August 2016
The world has been spinning out of control for some time now. Slowly at first but with ever increasing momentum.
The unleashed hatred and unrestrained violence, the lies that are told without remorse, the truths that are dismissed, the randomness of political popularity and the pure selfishness of so many, all have their precedents in history.
Unless we learn from the past, and check the present course, it doesn’t bode well for the future. But all things are possible; so I do not lose hope in the inherent goodness of those who have the required understanding and vision to bring us through this chaotic uncertainty.
I don’t know what your reaction was when you heard the news that Fr. Jacques Hamel had been brutally killed. Two terrorists had entered his Normandy church as the much-loved priest conducted Mass, seized him and callously filmed his last moments
My own reaction was more muted than it might have been.
Shock, horror, anger even, should have come across me when I heard the news. Instead I felt empty and resigned, as if I had somehow been expecting it.
Perhaps my senses have been dulled by what has become seemingly a near daily occurrence of one atrocity after another.
It is, after all, only six weeks since the life of Jo Cox was brought to a tragic end. So much has happened since her death that it seems a lifetime ago:
Unprecedented political turmoil in our own country, a failed coup in Turkey, 84 killed in Nice as they celebrated Bastille Day, 9 murdered in Munich by a man who saw the fact that he shared Hitler’s birthday an honour, numerous bombings in Kabul claiming the lives of hundreds, in Baghdad a new type of bomb killed almost 300, the largest loss of life there in a single incident for over a decade, shootings across the United States, the list goes on and on. All in the space of six weeks.
It is understandable if some of us have become desensitized to atrocity.
Last week the Pope repeated his claim that the world is at war. To have said so in Poland is poignant. It was on Polish soil that a significant part of the greatest crime in human history was perpetrated by the Nazis and their accomplices.
The Pope’s claim that the world is at war could, I believe, have been better phrased. World war conjures up aerial combat in the skies above us, tank squadrons battling it out on vast landscapes and ships seeking to avoid detection by submarines.
No, this is not what we are facing today. Instead we are facing a wholly new form of conflict, drawn out, sporadic, erupting in unexpected places, conducted by those whose minds have been won over by warped and even evil ideologies.
A Global Conflict is underway, that is for sure, and we cannot avoid it.
The killing of Fr. Jacques is one more incident among many. The circumstances of his murder could impact upon us because we can so readily relate to it. Our churches have an open door policy at times of worship; all are indeed welcome, even those who would visit trouble upon us.
Fr. Jacques has now joined a growing list of martyrs, slain as they went about God’s will.
What happened in Saint Etienne du Rouvray last Tuesday has been happening throughout our world century after century and especially so in more recent years. To say so is to not diminish the tragedy, nor to excuse the perpetrators, perish the thought; but it is to recognize that what has been happening elsewhere for so long is now on our doorstep.
The clash of ideologies that has been waging for decades is now erupting on our own streets and in our own places of worship.
It is not a war between nations, it is not a war between East and West, nor is it a war between Christianity and Islam; it is far more complex than any of those scenarios, though there are many of course who would like to make it that simple.
Donald Trump being one such character. In this he shares more in common with Osama Bin Laden than he would ever admit: a simplistic world view, where the world is divided between the ‘goodies’ and the ‘baddies’, between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the longing for a world whose population is uniform in belief, where the alien, the ‘other’ is removed or even eradicated.
In this they share the same mind-set as Hitler.
But before we fall for the same mistake and begin demonising those with whom we disagree, we must pause and consider how we react to the different among us.
Because some of the terrorist attacks are carried out by those who claim to be inspired by Islam there is a temptation to view Muslims as a threat.
A Muslim acquaintance of mine was staffing an Islamic exhibition and she was welcoming people to the event. A non-Muslim man walked in and began casting glances on the floor near the tables. She asked if she could be of help. He said that he was looking where she kept the bombs. ‘Oh I am sorry,’ she responded, ‘if you don’t find any let me know and I’ll pop round the back and get you one.’
The killing of Jo Cox was not by someone inspired by the Koran, but by someone whom it is alleged to have been inspired by right wing, racist, white supremacists, someone who perhaps felt that the MP’s stand for refugees was enough for him to end her life.
Many MPs, especially women incidentally, are receiving death threats, one being Luciana Berger who happens to be Jewish. As a consequence she is often singled out for particularly vile abuse. To date, two men in separate incidents have been jailed because of their attacks on her.
Those that would divide us are seeking to encourage us to hate.
They carry out atrocities in an attempt to get us to respond.
If we were to respond by treating a whole race, or religion or people with suspicion, fear and hostility our enemies will have achieved what they set out to achieve: division and a breakdown of society thus destroying all that makes us great.
They must not succeed. They will not succeed.
Why? Because we are resilient people.
Our faith makes us resilient.
Our faith tells us that all people, no matter what the colour of their skin or the creed they profess are the children of God, children made in God’s image.
We are brothers and sisters, one family under heaven.
The teaching of Jesus was interpreted over the centuries by a Church seeking to make it fit the context in which that Church was set.
Our religion has never stood still.
But there is a core to the teaching of Jesus that can never be changed; it is a message that has stood the test of time, it is one that has on occasion challenged the Church to think again, to be better than it had become.
And it is a message of love.
Despite being a letter written for the Early Church with all its complexity and contradictions 1 John hits the spot like few others:
‘Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God.’
That has been the foundational text for my faith since my first sermon as a twenty-one-year-old way back in May 1981.
‘Whoever loves is a child of God’ – no matter how they may name God, no matter how they may voice their prayers, no matter how they may express their identity, everyone who loves is a child of God. In the love they have for their partner, in the love they have for their new-born child, in the love they offer their neighbour, colleague or indeed the love they put into their work, their love ensures that they are unmistakably a child of God.
And whoever loves knows God; for God’s love is alive in their own. How else can we explain love? True love? The love that makes sacrifices? The love that persists in the most challenging of places and times? The love that says no matter how much you hate me I will love you in return, and go on loving you, come what may?
How else can we explain such sacrificial, persistent love?
We can’t, unless it is of another being than our own and that being is God alone.
The God who is uniquely revealed in the life of Jesus, but not solely revealed.
If incarnation means anything, God coming to earth and alive in human flesh, then it is this, that every single human being has the same potential, to live and die in oneness with God.
We will never know what was going through the mind of Fr. Jacques as he knelt that last time at the altar and realised he was about to be killed.
Nor should anyone presume to know or dare to guess.
But I sat and wondered what words I would hope to remember should such a time befall me. And I couldn’t help but think of these:
What language shall I borrow
to praise thee dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
Lord, make me thine for ever,
nor let me faithless prove;
O let me never, never
abuse such dying love.
Paul Gerhardt (1607 – 1676)
26 July 2016
God, who’s Spirit brooded over the waters of creation bringing order out of chaos,
descend upon those places
where fears rise, threatening to overwhelm all in their path,
and where the tide of hatred is turning into a flood;
so that waves of love may wash over all who feel
and without purpose.
Restore our respect for one another and our confidence in the future;
give us clear guidance and courage to live according to the wisdom of truths and grace,
the communities in which we are set
and indeed the whole human race into a just peace. Amen
Addiction is bad.
Addiction is bad for addicts and bad for those about them.
When we think of an addict we might think of a drug user or an alcoholic.
I believe we are all potential addicts.
Whatever our age, no matter where we are on our faith journey, however seemingly secure our lives appear to be it is possible for each of us to become, if we haven’t already been, an addict.
We may broaden our view by thinking that some of us are chocoholics and make light of this form of addiction.
Or that we can’t get through the day without a regular intake of coffee or tea.
When we can’t get through the day without eating, drinking or doing something lest it damage our sense of well-being then we are addicted.
And we begin to realise that the stereotypical image of an addict is inadequate.
Psychology Today offers us a helpful definition of addiction:
Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health. Users (addicts) may not be aware that their behaviour is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.
In the light of this definition I wonder how many of us can honestly say that we have never been addicted to something at some point in our lives.
The father of modern western philosophy, René Descartes is often quoted as saying ‘I think, therefore I am.’ It was for Descartes the concluding sentence to a lifetime’s quest for something that could not be contradicted.
We exist and we only know this to be so because we have the capacity to think.
The reason for our being is to think, and to think is to engage in a search for meaning, to identify purpose for our lives and even our world.
Descartes was writing almost 400 years ago.
If we were to ask today what our reason for being is my guess is that in our part of the world many would suggest ‘to engage in pleasure.’
They might rewrite Descartes, I enjoy, therefore I am.
For many, once self-indulgent pleasure is taken out of their existence then there seems little or no point to life.
Which is why I fear that ‘assisted dying’ is the tip of a very large iceberg and once legal permission is given to end a person’s life unnaturally then that which has been below the surface will rise and become more evident. Assisted dying has the potential to get out of hand and many who would not fit into the first category granted permission to ‘die with dignity’ will soon be pleading their case; they might argue ‘Life is no longer worth living because it is no fun anymore please end it.’
It is little or no consolation to suggest to those for whom life is a real struggle to make ends meet, or indeed to the rising generation that happens to be the first to not have the prospects of a better lifestyle than their parents, but it is nevertheless true, that we live in an age of entertainment.
From the beaming of live sporting events into homes or public spaces, to the streaming onto our tablets and phones the latest films, comedy programmes or documentaries, for those who can afford to do so of course, we clearly live in an age of entertainment.
Our forebears would be utterly amazed.
And speaking of phones, I confess that my Blackberry is my own addiction.
For Christmas Karen bought me a little book ‘101 Things to do instead of playing on your phone’.
I regret to say this but I have yet to do any of the 101 exercises.
Addicted? Too true I am.
There is the little story of the woman at the meal table saying that she is going to strap her partner’s phone to her forehead because then he would look up at her.
Addiction is bad.
It is also more widespread that we might imagine.
The first step towards a more holistic life is the recognition that our lives are broken.
Someone said we will never break out of prison until we realise we are locked up.
If we are to be truly free then we have to acknowledge that we cannot stay where we are.
Change has to come.
If addiction holds us back then overcoming it has to be our priority.
Our brains might tell us that we need x, y or z to be truly fulfilled: eg coffee to get us through the day, alcohol to help us relax in an evening, a particular habit that gives us a thrill and so on but it was the Beatles who highlighted our fundamental need when they made popular the phrase ‘All You Need is Love’.
Once this is recognised then the possibilities are endless
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done. Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game.
Nothing you can make that can’t be made. No one you can save that can’t be saved. Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.
Nothing you can know that isn’t known. Nothing you can see that isn’t shown. Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.
Lennon & McCartney
For those whose minds are addicted to a substance or an action it would seem that love is not all they need but their need is all consuming, their need is all they love, all they crave for, or something for which they may even lie, cheat or even steal for.
For Jesus, as a religious, faithful Jew, and therefore rooted in the Jewish tradition, it was daily bread that was sufficient. Nothing more.
‘Give us each day our daily bread.’
For Jesus, the daily provision of God, presence and potential, is fulfilling enough.
Unfortunately the original meaning in the Lord’s Prayer may be stunted by the English translation.
The term ‘daily bread’ may mean today’s needs or tomorrow’s needs, or both.
It could be then translated as ‘Give us sufficient for our basic needs today and tomorrow’.
Which is why both our traditional and modern forms of the Lord’s Prayer that we so often recite and as printed in our hymn books are so misleading.
‘Give us today our daily bread’, is inaccurate.
The NRSV which I quoted earlier more accurately translates Luke’s version as ‘Give us each day our daily bread’.
Knowledge of ongoing, future provision calms the fears far more than if we were to think of that provision as simply sufficient for today.
We come to appreciate that God will provide for us not just today but every day, for we know there to be an endless supply of God’s goodness, God’s grace.
Those who have dwelt in a valley of despair and struggled to a mountain top where they might breathe again and survey the journey they have undertaken are truly blessed with the knowledge that God is a providing, resourcing, faithful God.
We who have been there, when the night seemed too dark for light and we somehow managed to rise on a morning that had once seemed too far off know that there is no need to look elsewhere for our thrills; for God is both provider and promise.
That is not to say we should live in a thoroughly austere, puritanical world where there is no entertainment, no colour, no joy, no thrills.
But we should find in the things that thrill us the presence and provision of a loving, grace filled God.
If what we seek for our entertainment becomes an addiction that diminishes our health and well-being, undermines our covenantal relationships, or destroys the work we undertake then we have gone beyond that which God ever intended for us.
When those who first heard Jesus include the term ‘give us each day our daily bread’ they couldn’t help but recall that God had provided manna in the wilderness. This, of course, was bread not made by human hands but miraculously granted to the people in their time of great need. It was beyond their ability to even provide for themselves such was their situation but God could be trusted to resource and to save them.
As we look across our world today, at a time that is quite possibly the most traumatic in many people’s lives, we may not be too confident in the human response.
- More people on the move than at any time since the Second World War.
- A resurgent Russia threatening the borders of our European allies and even once again testing the limits of our air defences.
- Climate change rendering us impotent in the face of impending ecological catastrophe.
- Political leaders seemingly at a loss as to what to do.
- And so much more that unnerves even the steadiest of souls.
In all of this we are who we are, you and I.
We are where we are, with sufficient resources we have at our own disposal, to live the life God intended for us.
It is a life not without challenge, that’s true; but nor is it a life without joy.
It is a life that can both thrill us and help change the world in which we are set.
For if it is a life lived in the full knowledge of God’s presence and provision, it is one that is both exciting and worthwhile.
On the face of it Christianity and Socialism have a lot in common. One former General Secretary of the Labour Party, Morgan Philips, put the case clearly when he said that the Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism. Each of these worthy causes, a commitment to social justice, an equitable distribution of wealth and a recognition of the value of both the individual to the corporate could be as attributable to the Christian Church as to the socialist movement. Where we may part company is on how these things might be achieved and what the source of our inspiration is.
For the Church, of course, it is the Divine will that acts as a catalyst for change. We believe that God has called the people to undertake a programme of self-sacrifice. We are called to establish a community that has at its core mutual respect. We seek to express a love that is difficult to articulate in words but evident in deed. The community we endeavour to build is all inclusive, one that is hospitable even to the stranger with whom the rest may profoundly disagree.
For the Church, realising that community is by way of a pragmatic path. And the journey is necessarily a very long one indeed.
Where Socialism has so often failed is that it has proffered a programme of change via a quick revolution fed on disenchantment rather than realistic hope. It has been better at diagnosing the ill in society without formulating an achievable prognosis.
Today, in these island nations and indeed across much of Europe, we are experiencing a political climate that bears much resemblance to that of Germany prior to the seizure of power by the NSDP (National Socialists). It was a time of scepticism in the democratic process, a belief that the political elite was out of touch, that the pride of the nation was at stake as others elsewhere in Europe had dictated the terms, that the austerity measures were unfair, that the future was economically bleak, that there was an existential threat from the East and that a minority group was responsible for the fear.
It is not difficult to see the similarities between now and then. Like all secular political movements based on an unachievable goals, the one that came to the fore in 1930’s Germany eventually ended in catastrophe.
For a number of reasons the Church found itself incapable of challenging the populist views sweeping across central Europe in the 1930’s as despair was replaced with false hope. Even many of its leaders, the Methodist Church leadership included, held out that Hitler was ‘divinely appointed’; no wonder that vast numbers of the people lost their moral compass.
We cannot make the same mistake again.
The German Church had spent centuries accepting that the people should be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13.1). That view was a costly error when the greatest crime in human history was about to be orchestrated.
Today there is much despondency about the situation in which we find ourselves. It would appear that those who claimed a bright new dawn have backtracked on their promises. The reality is slowly sinking in.
Today hate crime is increasing at a rate we have never before known. Our neighbours amongst whom we have lived for much, if not all of our lives, are victims of racial abuse on the streets and in the shops. Those whom we have elected to serve us receive vile threats of rape and killing on social media. A very large number of our fellow citizens have somehow felt permitted to openly express misogynistic, xenophobic and homophobic views in places when once they only spoke of them in the confidence of trusted companions.
Today it is not just those on the far right that have diminished our nation with their rhetoric but those from the hard left have played their part too through the whipping up of hostility towards anyone with whom they disagree. Extremists share much in common even when they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Neither can provide the programme necessary to move us forward in a positive manner.
The Church, along with all others who share our values, has to be clear in its condemnation of the racism that formed a very real part of the recent referendum campaign. The Church has to voice its fundamental belief that all people, irrespective of their creed, are children of God. The Church has to offer an unequivocal reminder of our past: isolationism does not work and the break-up of long-established unions are fraught with unforeseen dangers.
The Church must also stand up to those who are deepening division within society by fuelling despair and fostering unfounded mistrust of others.
While some might prefer fantasy, we proclaim eternal truths. Unpopular though such truths may be, they are the truths that have stood the test of every chaotic age. When the dust has settled after battle there has always been a sense of ‘if only we had listened and learnt from previous times…’ Now is the time to listen and learn before the permission to hate gathers an unstoppable momentum.
26 June 2016
My taxi driver on Friday afternoon admitted that ‘we can’t throw out all the foreigners that are already here, but at least we can stop any more coming in.’ Asked what he thought would be achieved by this he replied that ‘I want my country back, I want my town back; look at it, Lincoln used to be a great little town (sic) until all these foreigners started arriving; now I can’t even get an appointment at the doctors.’
I suspect he may have already toned it down a bit as I’d earlier told him I had voted Remain; I can’t be sure if the fact I was wearing a clerical shirt made any difference, probably not.
I can’t comment on the taxi driver’s experience but last time I visited my GP’s surgery the waiting room wasn’t full of ‘foreigners’, but there were a lot of born and bred Britons of my age and above, especially above.
The failure to get a disenchanted electorate to believe the facts when they were presented to them is just one of the reasons for this sorry mess we find ourselves in. Many simply preferred to have their prejudices endorsed by myth rather than challenged by truth, because, as we all know, truth is so often hard to stomach.
Make no mistake about it, the reluctance to welcome the stranger into our midst, the refusal to embrace the different, the hostility directed at those who actually contribute to the wealth of our island nations and the abject fear of progress toward a more inclusive interconnected world didn’t suddenly emerge during the referendum campaign, it’s been a long time coming.
‘I’m not a racist but…..’ has always been the opening to the most racist of comments. ‘I’m not antisemitic but…..’, ‘I’m not homophobic but…..’, ‘I’m not against Europe but…..’ and so it went on. Our inability to own our prejudice, which is actually part of our evolved nature as Homo Sapien, has been a problem; but what is now emerging is a confidently expressed prejudice, unrestricted by the moral boundaries of a society that frowned and sought to act upon it. The flood gates have opened. I suspect the preamble will no longer be so commonly heard. Throughout the country people are having comments frequently directed at them that if not entirely absent before then at least rare. This is what happens when the eloquent racist is given a platform from which he can spout his unadulterated bile. Sharp suits, snappy soundbites, the illusion of power are still powerful tools in the influencing of people, it was ever thus. Our instinct is to rally round the one who seems to express our fears and who will protect us from the assault, real or imagined.
But, and this is where it gets messier still, 52% voted for Brexit, 48% didn’t. In a clear ballot, yes or no, in or out, that is a mightily slim majority. I can think of no organisation that would press on with radical change when the margin is so slight. In the Church we can’t even rescind a minute from a previous meeting without there being two-thirds of those present and voting that agree to do so. No one would press on with removing the pews or changing the hymn books when the congregation is split down the middle, or at least they ought not; if they were to then they should expect a lot of trouble down the line.
Now before anyone starts jumping up and down saying that these are sour grapes, I have to say that such a claim would be grossly inaccurate. The Leave campaigners had already said that if the vote had gone the other way and they were just 4% short of a majority they would have re-grouped and fought another day.
The truth is that to press on with delivering all that the Brexiteers have promised won’t unite the country but divide it further still. We recognised this when the Scottish referendum highlighted how many wanted change, so change was promised and made. The disenchanted were listened to, and rightly so. Yes we should honour the result of the EU referendum outcome, it was an open and transparent vote after all, but honouring that outcome isn’t the same as giving everything that was promised to the 52%, it is as much about respecting the very strong feelings of the 48%.
It is clear that the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland is as divided today as we have been for a very long time, maybe more than a century. The warnings made over a number of years that the growing inequalities within our society coupled with the austerity measures would eventually tip the balance has come into stark, divisive reality.
As someone who has spent a lot of my life reflecting on how, less than a century ago, one of the most cultured nations in history could fall for fascism and allow the greatest crime in human history to be perpetrated to take place in the lands they controlled I wonder about the similarities between Germany in 1930 and England, yes I do mean England, today. A period of economic uncertainty, a loss of confidence, a longing for a past which seemed so much more glorious, a growing hostility to the different, a mistrust in the democratic process, a populist party that played on these factors whilst rubbishing both the system and the apparent political elite; add to these the longing for a charismatic, strong leader.
The Church was found wonting as the Nazis rose to power; more often than not it either coalesced with the mood of the day or cowered in the face of its greatest challenge, few stood tall.
At this moment in our history I believe we have to hold fast to the truths that have stood the test of time and challenge the false promises that were made to garner support; we have to offer a clear alternative to the nurturing of the fear that is ripping our communities apart; and we have to put the case that selfish isolationism will make other nations, not just our own, vulnerable.
I don’t blame my taxi driver for views that I find difficult to hear, he is after all far from alone, but I do acknowledge the burden we must all bear in having helped create what is a regressive and profoundly disturbing situation. In addition we must now take up the responsibility that is ours and ours alone in challenging this slide into the destabilisation of society before even more is lost.
18 June 2016
We killed Jo.
Much of the media must take some responsibility for the assassination of a Member of Parliament. They have drip fed suspicion, mistrust, and disrespect for anyone called and elected by us through the finest democratic process in the world. And now, as they so often do, some have tried to shift the focus on to the mental fitness of the alleged assassin, even to the point of claiming that he had been let down by the services appointed to help such people.
Many politicians are also culpable, by employing rhetoric that only a very few years ago would have been seen for what it is, divisive, racist and bordering on fascist. There has always been a very fine line between patriotism and nationalism and in recent weeks that line has been crossed on a number of occasions. For a senior politician to raise the spectre of terrorist links to his opponent, or another to imply that a failure to vote a certain way will understandably lead to violence, or to describe people who have been forced from their homes, taken great risks in lengthy journeys to find a safe haven for their family as swarms of migrants threatening our jobs, health service and goodness knows what is irresponsible in the extreme.
There was more than one finger on the trigger when Jo lay on the ground outside her office in West Yorkshire on Thursday.
Whenever we branded the stranger in our midst as a threat, whenever we increased the tension in the debate on Brexit, whenever we fanned the flames of hatred, we killed Jo.
A nation that wants to go it alone in a world of increasing connectivity is a nation that has lost sight of the reality. A nation that fails to heed the lessons of its own history, let alone the history of other nations, is a nation heading for disaster. A nation that rewards the strong while dismissing the weak, claims that there is no such thing as society and expects every individual to walk a tightrope without a safety net is a nation that has abandoned the young, the elderly, the weak and the infirm. It is a nation that has killed Jo.
Thankfully that is not the whole story. Jo gave her life to and for the things many of us long for, a nation that is tolerant of the other, inclusive and appreciative of difference, hospitable to the stranger, a refuge for the distressed and displaced. It’s a nation that is worth fighting for and even dying for. Others did so in the past and now it is our turn to do likewise in the present. The challenges are different but our response has to be of the same moral fibre: to stand tall in a crowd, to speak clearly amongst the hostile voices and to be strong in the presence of those who would drag us all into the abyss.
It was once said that ‘all it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing’; I want to add that all it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to make the wrong choices. Today, and in the coming days we have choices to make. We can only make the right ones by taking into account a number of factors. Is my choice selfish or does it embrace the common good? Is my choice short-sighted or does it take into account the rising generation and those not yet born? Is my choice based on fear or hope, hate or love? Is my choice informed by history?
The murder of Jo Cox by someone who appears to have been influenced by far right propaganda is a wakeup call. But all those who have promoted a hateful agenda by pouring it into the discourse without a thought for the consequences must also bear the weight of her tragic death.
We have gathered today to stand at the foot of the cross.
We have journeyed through Lent to this moment.
From the wilderness to the city.
From exultation to crucifixion.
From raised hopes to the numbness of despair.
We’re at the cross.
Today, from our respective churches, we have journeyed through this city, from east and west, south and north, from all four corners, to a point of reflection, a place where we may be united, for, despite our differing traditions and our hesitating friendships, we stand on common ground.
We bring with us the stories of our communities.
The people we encounter in the course of our discipleship.
The lives that are troubled and torn.
The anxieties and fears of living in today’s world.
We’re at the cross.
We’re at the cross whenever we stand with one who suffers.
Whenever we listen to a victim of violence, abuse, harassment or bullying.
Whenever we sit with those whose benefits are cut to the point where they can hardly afford to survive let alone live.
Whenever we feel moved to tears by the tragedies of another’s life, the injustices and inequalities we inflict upon one another.
When we stand with one who suffers, whoever they are and whatever their circumstances we’re at the cross.
We’re at the cross today when people take up arms against each other.
When extremists use religion as an excuse for their vile rhetoric and despicable actions.
When we ourselves use selected scripture to justify our own views and prejudice.
When we fall into the trap set for us by those that would divide us and cause us to hate.
When peace breaks down and hostilities break out we’re at the cross.
We’re at the cross when a choice is put before us:
To follow the path of Christ’s sacrificial love
or continue with a life that is all about me, me, me.
When all sorts of possibilities tempt us to abandon the tried and tested values that have held our society in check.
When the moral compass appears to be broken and the darkness obscures our path.
When we have choices to consider and decisions to make we’re at the cross.
But what we know is this
That those who stood at the cross of Jesus and watched the last ounce of energy and life drain from his earthly body were the first to discover two days later that very same body was gone from the tomb and risen.
So we who stand at the cross,
whether it be with those who suffer,
whether it be in the major issues of our day
or whether it be the dilemmas we face and the decisions we must make
when we stand at the cross we can have confidence in our faith
we can be confident in the testimony of others and our own experience of life
we can even dare to believe, dare to believe, that those who are crucified by life’s injustice and violence have the potential to be utterly transformed by God’s grace.
For the cross of Jesus Christ proves once and for all that it is not strong enough to destroy him nor indeed all that he, you and I stand for.
Three days ago extremists again attacked people as they went about their lawful business.
Three days ago innocent lives were again taken and deep scars, physical and emotional, were inflicted on those who became part of a war not of their choosing.
Three days ago we were again reminded that hatred has a habit of breaking out when we least expected it and in an increasingly frequent manner.
We now know that these appalling atrocities are not going to go away any time soon.
We now know that this is a new form of global conflict where the battle is waged not by tank battalions on the ground or fighter squadrons in the air but through social media as hearts and minds are tempted one way or another.
We now know that if we sit back and do nothing we cannot beat the enemy on our streets, in our tube stations, airport departure lounges and cafes and theatres.
We cannot overcome evil by doing nothing.
That was a lesson our forebears learnt seven decades ago.
Today, like those who went before us, we have to act in the face of the emerging threat to our long cherished values and hard won freedoms.
But we will not, we will not meet violence with violence.
We will meet violence with the only weapon that can overcome it: the sheer, brutal, all persuasive force of unconditional love.
We will build stronger and better relations with those whom the terrorists want us to hate.
That is how we overcome.
That is how the cross stands testimony over the centuries to victory over evil.
And yet, and yet, over those very same centuries worshippers would leave their churches after the Good Friday services and attack the Jews, homes, businesses and synagogues.
Today, when many would have us believe that we are again threatened by a faith different to our own, I am going to walk to the Grandstand on Carholme Road to greet the Muslim community as they conclude their Friday prayers.
And members of the Jewish community will join me.
Those who wish to walk with us are welcome to do so.
I know many will have other services to attend, that’s okay.
But it is important that we act now to stem the rush to hatred.
If the cross means anything then it is that Christ died not for a particular sect but for all people everywhere.
If we truly believe this then we have nothing to fear from those who have been nurtured in faith different to our own.
We have nothing to fear, nothing to lose but everything to gain.
The terrorists seek to make us afraid. They seek to divide us. They seek to destroy the relationships that are vital for a healthy society.
We will not let them win.
They cannot win.
For the sake of the future
For those sake of those not yet born
For the sake of our world
We will not let them win.
We will love one another.
If that seems to not be enough then we will love some more,
and even more,
and keep on loving until we beat those that hate with a depth of love that can never be overcome.
Twenty years this spring I attended a concert. It was one that excited me greatly. The folk in the church responded in a number of ways. Some thought I’d finally lost the plot; some that I was suffering an early mid-life crisis; while others just laughed it off, ‘ah,’ they said ‘it’s just Bruce!’
The concert was at Maine Road, the then stadium of Manchester City. The band? Oasis.
It’s understandable that there should have been such a mixed reaction from the members of my congregation in South Manchester. The band were infamously foul-mouthed. The lead singer Liam Gallagher swaggered about the place as if he owned it. And the music and lyrics were just a little bit, well….just a little bit….
Or there might have been another way of looking at it; there were reasons why Oasis were the biggest thing in the type of rock music that became known as Britpop.
I was District Education & Youth Secretary for the Manchester & Stockport District at the time. It was my job to understand where the teenagers and young adults were coming from. And I have to say that Oasis captured the mood of their time, and spoke to a need when few others could. There would of course be the great rivalry between Oasis and Blur, the north versus the south then the rivalry between Oasis and the Spice girls, laddish rock versus girl power.
Some of the lyrics were a form of spirituality missed by most.
Noel would react to the dark, nihilistic mood of grunge music that honoured the suicide of Kurt Cobain as if it were something of an achievement and something to attain. Noel’s response was a song that celebrated life, seeing things differently and the possibility of eternity.
‘I think you’re the same as me, we’ll see things they’ll never see’ and it’s you and I are that will live forever. These things we see are the things of eternity.
In the sacrament some might think of us eating a dried cube of white bread and sipping a thimble of grape juice but we will conclude that we have been given a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all creation.
The point is, not everything is as it seems. And some will see things differently.
The things that are seen by most are temporary but the things that are unseen by the world, but are felt and seen and known by the blessed last forever.
- What actually happened on that mountain the day Jesus went up with Peter, James and John?
- What would others have seen?
- Would they have interpreted the event in a different way to the way in which it is recorded?
- How would they have responded to the claims made by the three disciples?
It all depends I think on how they came to the event.
Open and receptive and the experience would be very different to that of the one with a cold heart and closed mind.
The disciples had become familiar with the antics of their teacher.
Strange things had already happened. He had recently stunned the congregation at the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth which was just down in the valley below. On the other side lay Lake Galilee where thousands had just been fed. Across the other side of the lake a schizophrenic had been made one and whole to the detriment of the local pig farmer.
It could be said that the disciples might have been ready for anything.
They were not disappointed. They had a most extraordinary vision. Only they could relay it to others which is why we know the source of the account must surely have come from one of them.
The uninitiated, the unreceptive, might have missed it altogether.
To them it might have just been a trick of the light, the sun bursting through the notoriously changeable cloud.
Of course, for the de-constructivist, it might have just been the moment the penny dropped for the three that became known as the inner circle.
Who can say?
What we can say is that not everything is as it first seems. Sometimes an event, even a common experience, can be interpreted in different ways.
My Jewish friends tell me that if you put two Jews in a room there will always be three opinions.
Take for example the two men who were in dispute with one another. They decide to visit the rabbi for him to decide who was right and who was wrong.
The first makes his case. The rabbi responds ‘you are right.’
The second makes his case and the rabbi responds ‘you are right’.
The wife of the rabbi is listening in and tells the rabbi ‘they can’t both be right.’ The rabbi responds ‘you too are right.’
In the Christian Church we have been taught that there is only one way. This has led to the denial of mystery and ambivalence. We cannot cope with the fact that there may be two or even three ways of interpreting something.
Christian fundamentalism is a fairly recent phenomena.
When we have lived with ambiguity, which is for much of the history of the Christian Church, we have been at our best, at our most effective.
When certainties are preached and expected dangers ensue, discrimination and persecution follow.
When we claim that scripture is clear and unambiguous, when the law takes precedent over grace, we have missed out on a basic truth.
Some years ago I recall reading a poem found by a nurse as she cleared the cabinet of an elderly person who had died. It began ‘What do you see?’ and relays all the joys of a past life, a life that the poet believes the nursing staff cannot see for they can only see an old lady dribbling her food and with glazed over eyes. Then of course a response is penned from the nurse’s perspective. A wholly different view is presented.
There is a wonderful text within Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. It is the verse ‘but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory.’
Of course in a few weeks’ time, not on a mountain in daylight but in a garden at night, a garden shaded by olive trees and the shadow of the Temple, they would not stay awake. They would be prompted, despite all the warnings, time and again, to keep watch and they could not.
But for now, they are awake. They are awake to fresh possibilities.
They would interpret the event in their own way. It would be an experience to be recounted again and again, that day on the mountain when the light shone, a voice was heard and there was no room for doubt. Jesus is Lord. He is the fulfillment of Law and Prophecy.
Others might have seen it differently. Many still see things differently. They are not open and receptive. They are not awake to the possibility of seeing something new. Scripture is merely print on a page, experience merely a fleeting moment that is illusion and meaningless.
And now back to 1996.
I began by recalling my visit to Main Road, Manchester for the Oasis concert in April of that year.
A few months later it was announced that Oasis would be the headline act at a concert at Knebworth. It would surpass the numbers that attended the Led Zeppelin concert more than two decades before.
It was, of course, sometime before internet ticket sales. If you wanted a ticket you either spent the day on the phone or queued. Knowing that the queues in Manchester would be enormous rendering a ticket nigh on impossible to acquire I set off very early on the morning the tickets were to go on sale and travelled down the M6 to Wolverhampton.
I arrived at about 6.25 am with a little over two-and-a-half hours to go before the box office opened.
Even then the queue was huge. There were probably 250 in front of us.
After a while I got talking to some of the lads around me. Inevitably these lads in their early 20’s wondered why a guy in his late 30’s was keen on getting his hands on Oasis concert tickets. Then it got round to what I did for a living. They had great difficulty believing it. But eventually they came round to the fact that a minister of religion was standing in a queue for hours on end in an attempt to get hold of tickets for Knebworth.
At one point one of the lads went off for some snacks. He came back with a Mars bar and a can of coke for me.
The time passed and eventually the doors opened. We must have been another hour or two before we finally got near the door. As we did a big burly doorman came out and worked his way along the line asking how many tickets each person wanted. Just after he passed us he announced that there were no tickets available beyond that point. There must have been another 250 behind us whose wait had been in vain.
My new acquaintances went in before me and bought their tickets. AS I turned having purchased mine I saw them standing by the exit door. ‘Where are you parked mate?’ one asked. ‘In the multi-storey’ I replied. ‘We’ll come with you’ another promised. And they did. They accompanied me back to the car and only left me when I pulled away. They were intent on ensuring that I wasn’t going to be mugged for my tickets by those in the disappointed and agitated crowd.
To many that was a kindly gesture.
But try telling me that a Mars bar and a can of coke isn’t a sacrament.