Prophecy

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The absent centre

In Dublin I worked with surgeons who in retirement taught anatomy two days a week to medical students. They’d found a comfortable home in part of the trench that they had spent years digging for themselves. Here, I work with retired clergy who’ve found an agreeable church community with which they can develop a pastoral relationship, without the hassle of being the Vicar. They’ve found a comfortable home in part of the trench that they had spent years digging for themselves.

Now my retirement beckons: I have to go before my 70th birthday on 6 June 2020. Can I survive that long? I’ve been looking at an outline plan for 2019 liturgical events, civic events, meetings, administration. My heart sinks, especially since I have no administrator: it’s all up to me. I dread the prospect of the reigning monarch and/or her consort dying—not only because of the extra work entailed as Vicar of the civic church, but also because she just about holds together the nation in a way that nobody else does, and that I suspect her successors will not. But that’s another story.

I am incredibly tired—mentally, not physically. I look at the prospect of another Lent course, another Easter, another set of Harvests (ugh!), another set of Christingles (ugh, ugh!) with gloom. I feel as if I’m keeping the show on the road merely to give those whose hobby it is to attend church on a Sunday morning the illusion that things are more or less as they were when they were children, a few of whom resist with every ounce of their being anything that challenges that view. I am thus complicit in perpetuating a land of make-believe. I am complicit in keeping people infantilized. It doesn’t help that my vision of ministry is sneered at by the Lambeth politburo. I wonder how many of them were in multi-church ministry with no administrative help.

Church people have expectations of what a Vicar should be. I don’t meet them, thankfully. Church people are rarely open and honest with the Vicar: they tell him what they think he wants to hear—or should want to hear. Exchanges are therefore guarded and sometimes dishonest. I want to give them hugs and suggest that they relax. Sometimes I do, no doubt at the risk of being accused of inappropriate touching. I try to liberate them by being human and outrageous so as to give them permission to do likewise. It sometimes works.

Conversations with non-church people are something else altogether: open, honest, and often astonishingly revealing. They find it refreshing that the Vicar does not meet their expectations. It opens all sorts of doors. They say they like what they hear, for he is not institutionalized and doesn’t talk in Christian-speak jargon.

The volunteers that serve the YMCA night shelter at St Paul’s are by no means all church people. Many of them find it hard to articulate why they do it, but they restore my faith in humanity in a way that some church people with “a proud look and high stomach” do not. Such generosity seems to me to be Christianity in action. I don’t get that same feeling at the weekday masses attended by a handful of people.

I look forward with apprehension. I grieve the loss of plans, hope, prospects. It doesn’t matter that they may not have been well-formed, I’m aware that something is being lost, that things are slipping through my fingers. More than likely they were never actually in my fingers—but I thought they were. I thought I was beginning to get a grip on them, but when I look at my hands, I see they are evaporating. And it’s not principally a matter of deteriorating eyesight and hearing.

I could help occasionally with services at other churches. We’re staying in Burton, but many of its churches are not to my taste. They tend to be conservative theologically and undisciplined liturgically, whereas I’m for radical theology and traditional liturgy. For entirely understandable reasons, I’m not allowed to set foot in the churches I currently serve..

Music? My addiction to music developed in my teens as sublimation for erotic and sexual impulses driven by increasing circulating testosterone. Given the culture and family in which I grew up, that was pretty revolutionary. Music still brings me to heights and depths of emotion and I will enjoy it as long as my senses allow. I could play for services, but the number of clergy who want organists is rapidly decreasing as muzak replaces music. I am thankful for Rolleston Choral Society.

Writing? Who cares what I think? I’ve read again some of my recent blogs and have deleted them—exercises in self-indulgence and hubris. I suppose this is another.

Volunteering? Burton YMCA might be able to use me. I’m deeply concerned about the mental health of young men.

“Might be able to use me”: that phrase is a bit of a give-away. What does the real Stanley want? Is there such a thing?

Remembrance Sunday 2018

thiepval-memorial-missing-2Inevitably this year we look back on the First World War.

Thinking about it, even briefly, fills me with sadness: sadness at the events that led to it, sadness at the way it was conducted, and sadness at the loss of life—in round figures, 2 million from the British Empire, 4 million each from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, and approaching 5 million from Russia.

That sadness soon turns to anger. I find it hard to see WW1 as anything other than gangs of arrogant, inbred, white men strutting around, boasting “mine’s bigger than yours”, and demanding the sacrifice of lives they consider expendable for the sake of their pernicious playground politics.

Let’s move on 100 years.

Can those images be applied to contemporary affairs? You bet they can—all of ‘em. We see pettiness, squabbles, lies, evasions, egocentricity, showing off, and a refusal to accept that actions have consequences.

Why do we humans behave like this?

We do so in part because we’re too attached to polarized thinking, right/wrong, either/or. This is rarely healthy. Even in science, where you would think ideas are either right or wrong, it doesn’t always apply, especially for things that are very small or very large. Rather than either/or, thinking both/and can be more helpful: inclusive rather than exclusive.

The problem with right/wrong thinking is that if we are certain we’re right, we feel no need to learn anything new. We stop being curious. We lose the sense of wonder. We stop being open to other viewpoints. We surround ourselves with attitudes, possessions, money. We become addicted to them. We retreat behind metaphorical electric gates that we think protect us, but that in truth constrain us. We become obsessed, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In the words of Psalm 17 we become “inclosed in our own fat, and our mouth speaketh proud things.”

We provoke fights to prove who’s top dog. We become fearful of people that are not “one of us”. Demagogues know that fear lasts longer than hope, and is more powerful, and that with fear on their side, they can get people to believe anything and do anything. We start to regard others as less human than we are, and so fair game to be bullied, abused, killed. We become as those for whom might is their god.

In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, there’s a story about Jesus talking to a man who wants to do the right thing. Jesus tells him to sell what he owns, and give the money to the poor—that is, don’t let possessions rule his life. But the man, despite his goodness, can’t let go of wealth, power, status—things that people fight to hang on to. Jesus challenges him to try to liberate him from attitudes that will destroy his personality and his ability to enjoy life to the full.

I ask you to contrast the closed-mindedness and fearfulness of so many adults with the open-mindedness, intellectual vitality and fearlessness of the young. I wonder how things might be different if there were more young decision-makers—people who have a vested interest in the future. I wonder why the church is run by yesterday’s men and women for a future they won’t be alive to see. I wonder why the country is run by yesterday’s men and women.

I’m one of the old men, of course, but these comments are based on experience. I have the honour of being Chaplain to Burton Air Training Corps. For 30 years I taught young adults in medical schools, and although I was born in 1950, I feel as if I‘m six. As always, I’m delighted to see young people here. Let’s applaud them and their commitment to the Services in all sorts of ways.

What’s the solution to the arrogance, fearfulness and closed-mindedness that so easily leads to war?

In the first reading we heard Prophet Micah telling his people that the Lord doesn’t need to be placated by gifts and sacrifices. All he asks is for each individual to work for justice, to be compassionate, and to be humble. Don’t get that word humble wrong. It doesn’t mean grovel. It doesn’t mean being “ever so ‘umble”: that’s merely inverted pride. It means to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. It means having your feet firmly planted on the ground—to be earthed (humus). It means remembering that we’re all in this together.

If we—each one of us—heeded this advice, the world would be a better place. If we all meant what we said and said only what we mean, if we were honest, if we were compassionate and recognized that not one of us is perfect, if we refused to lord it over others, then the world would be transformed. Yes, we need armour, as the second reading tells us. We need to protect ourselves. We need to be ready to fight—but fight for justice, fight to rid the world of oppression. Fighting for justice is love in action. The trouble is we see injustice and we do nothing, and that nurtures resentment, and resentment breeds extremism.

The answer to pernicious warfare does not lie with someone else. It’s not the responsibility of “them over there”. It’s the responsibility of every single one of us—you and me as well as them.

When we go to war—and the Second World War shows that there are times when we must—let’s be sure that mendacious and malignant swaggering plays no part. If those in power insist that they are right and everyone else is wrong—and recent history tells us that there are such people—then let’s strip them of office: after all, we still live in a democracy.

Our duty is to fight for justice, for without justice there will never be peace.

The Kim code

kim_il_sungNorth Korea has long fascinated me.

Michael Palin’s Channel 5 programmes (http://www.channel5.com/show/michael-palin-in-north-korea/) helped me to see how, in a country completely flattened by US forces just over half a century ago, people see Kim Il-sung as saviour.  The social morality of Confucianism helps me to understand how loyalty and filial piety contribute to the Kim family surviving in power. With US forces perceived as hostile only 100 miles away from Pyongyang, I understand the necessity to run a tight ship. Given the changes that are beginning to occur, I wonder how long it will be before Pyongyang is much like any other city in east Asia.

North Korea has affected my theology too.

Consider some of the stories surrounding the births of the Kim leaders. Heavenly sounds; miraculous changes in flora and fauna; rainbows; stars. Sound familiar?

There is nothing new about such birth narratives. They have always been part of folk mythology. There was nothing new about the Gospel birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, and certainly nothing new about virgin births (there’s an interesting story to be told about the history of ideas in embryology, but it can wait).

Why are they written? Quite simply, to embiggen* the subject.

Biblical scholars have known for centuries that the scriptural birth narratives are fiction, fairy tales written for exactly this purpose. There is nothing even remotely new about this proposition. The stories in Matthew and Luke are stuffed with allusions to Hebrew prophecies and how the babe of Bethlehem is their fulfilment—again to ‘big up’ the child in the manger.

So what?

  • Jesus was a charismatic, integrated human. His effect on those around him was profound. His influence extended far beyond those who met him. He became the example, the prototype of abundant human living. His friends, impressed by him as by no-one else, wrote about him afterwards to ‘big him up’ so that his influence lives on long after his death. There is nothing new here.
  • Is he the Son of God? Kim Il-sung is a god. John 1 tells us that we all may become ‘children’ of God. Our destination in eastern Christian theology is that we come to share in the attributes of God.
  • Kim Il-sung, though dead, is risen. He is still head of state. He is worshipped.

Some other parallels

  • Every official pronouncement and scientific paper in the Soviet Union had to begin with a reference to the works of Lenin, and in North Korea today, official pronouncements must quote one or more of the Kims. In the church, when people are confronted by a knotty problem, medical ethics for example, they first work out what common sense tells them, then they scour the Bible to back it up with a suitable quotation.
  • Institutional churches are totalitarian states. When the Church of England’s Church Assembly was set up in 1919, taking away some of the power from Parliament, one MP said ‘The fact that the organisation proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury is precisely the same organisation as has been adopted by Lenin is attributable to the desire of both to secure the same end … The real principle at the root of Bolshevism is a desire to combine a democratic form with autocratic effects, and that is what has taken place in this Constitution.’ (see: That Was The Church That Was: Andrew Brown & Linda Woodhead). Recent events in the Catholic Church and the Church of England make it clear that nothing has changed.
  • As an aside, it is held in North Korea that the digestive systems of the Kim family were so well tuned that they never needed to excrete urine or faeces (a bit like ladies who don’t sweat, I suppose, but much better). We know nothing about Jesus’ excretory processes, so the Kims are one up there. Furthermore, Kim Jong-il was regarded by some as fashion guru. Jesus’ influence in that regard flowered briefly in the hippie 60s, but didn’t survive.

So …

For me, the value of Scripture is in allegory and poetry. Some of it is terrible tripe. I recall my ageing Methodist minister uncle telling me that increasingly he was a Wordsworthian who saw God in all things. Just as platelets are broken off bits of megakaryocytes, so everything in the cosmos is a bit of God. We all have particles in us from the big bang. We may well have within us, in the form of mitochondria, some of the earliest life forms. We are all bits of God. What is not God is nothing (I think that’s from Sergei Bulgakov). What is not God is no thing.

Logos can be translated as ‘the system underlying all things’ (read Heraclitus), so: the laws of the cosmos. In John 1 this gives us: In the beginning was the system underlying all things, and the system underlying all things was with God, and the system underlying all things was God.

I can cling to that, just about, and to the last line of one of the verses of This is the truth sent from above: ‘and if you want to know the way, be pleased to hear what he did say’ [and do].

* embiggen came into use, along with cromulent, after being used in ‘Lisa the Iconoclast’, the sixteenth episode of The Simpsons, seventh series (1995-6).

Divine sustenance from a child

DancingHomily for Proper 12, year 

2 Kings 4.42-44; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.1-21

I’m not bothered whether the feeding of the five thousand is historical or not. Its symbolic power is profound.

Jesus distributes victuals to the hungry. Victuals, fruits of creation, are gathered by the labour of human hands. Crossing the lake to the other, gentile, side tells us that the message is for all, not just respectable club members. It’s for the whole world, represented by the five thousand. God’s grace and goodness is signified by 5 in Biblical numerology. In all this, the allusion to the mass is clear enough: takes loaves, breaks them, distributes, consumes.

Here are several topics for a homily, but today I’m not dealing with any of them. I want to consider something you may think is a minor detail. All the gospel writers tell this story, but only John tells us that the victuals are provided by a paidarion, the Greek for child or young slave. Yes: the bread of life comes from the hands of a child. This is a remarkable detail, and one that hits me all the more forcefully every time I see children in action.

Here are some resonances it conjures up:

  • A little child shall lead them.
  • Allow the children to come to me.
  • If anyone hurts a child, it would be better for that person to be thrown into the water with a stone around his neck.
  • To enter the kingdom of heaven you must be as a child.
  • The old man carried the child, but the child governs the old man (Simeon).

What is it about children that is so important to salvation?

Straightforward. Trusting. Direct, unhampered by so-called politeness and good manners. Pushing at boundaries. Taking risks. Full of energy. Full of imagination.

The openness and open-mindedness of children reminds me of a favourite Hebrew image of salvation: enlightenment, freedom from ignorance. Buddhist too. Such freedom comes from living in the moment—being fully aware of what exactly is going on in and around us, with open eyes and minds: nonjudgmental mindfulness.

But this is a difficult thing for us adults to aspire to. The ‘freshness’ of the child within us has been obscured by the accretions of ‘adultness’ that gather around the core. Layers that come from pride, wilfulness, selfishness, thoughtlessness, self-deception, pretence, puffed-upness. We are “inclosed in our own fat”. We tell ourselves that some of these things are necessary to get on in life, to crawl up the greasy career pole, to please other people. I know—I’ve been there. All these things that prevent us from living the authentic life that is trying to get out. All these things mar the image of innocence within, and by innocence I mean simply a lack of noxiousness. Our hearts are hardened by life. Scarred. Solidified. Frozen in ice. All encasing that innocence, that child-likeness within.

To give a medical analogy, think what happens when we are wounded. The wound heals by scarring, and scar tissue is thick and ugly. So as we go through life with its hurts – others hurt us and we hurt ourselves, the accumulating scar tissue obscures the inner core. It clouds our view of the world; it prevents others from seeing what we are truly like. We end up like a Russian doll with so many layers covering the core.

The journey towards salvation requires us to let these layers fall away. I suggest, like the Fathers of the Church of the first three centuries (before Augustine) that the core within is divine, part of God implanted within us all. All we have to do is cooperate with it once we recognize it. To recognize it requires that we search for it.

This is not easy. A good place to start is by self-examination, by trying to see ourselves as others see us. You might try imagining yourself on a cloud looking down at you and noting what you see. One of the best ways to go about this task is to open your heart to someone you trust absolutely.

You might say that such self-examination is about letting the light shine into your soul. It may be that you are altogether better than I am, with only pure whiteness within—but looking around at you, I doubt that. In myself I’ve seen pride and selfishness masquerading as necessity or pragmatism. I’ve convinced myself that rearrangement of my prejudices is radical thought. And I don’t think I’m alone: listen to the first letter of John: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

Later in the liturgy we meet the Lord. He is love, so why be afraid? Maybe we are not so much afraid as ashamed. If God is love, and love is God, we don’t need to be ashamed. Are we afraid that by letting someone into our lives we are in some way diminished? Not so, said Pope Benedict XVI at his inauguration: ‘Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return.’

Let the warmth in. Warmth hatches chicks. We need hatching of our hearts. Or, melting. Strangely warmed, as John Wesley said. Warm the shell of grumpy self-obsession, and we see the world again through child-like eyes. If the eye is healthy, the whole body is full of light.

Hatching of the heart is not going to happen until we pause, rest, and are still – in order to let it happen. The challenge is to confront our demons inside in the hope that the light of Christ will bleach them, to help us to approach the image of God within. Now we get to the message of the reading from Ephesians: Christ does indeed dwell in our hearts. We may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

Consider this:

I think we have lost the ability to balance. Our equilibrium is off. I can’t remember the last time I witnessed somebody making a good balanced unbiased decision. I think the phrase “godly, righteous and sober life” is the thing, sober is the way forward, well–considered, well thought out, and poised. This doesn’t even come close to saying what it was supposed to, but when you get started it’s hard to stay on point which I think was about listening. Inner peace – it is in the listening that I heal. The problem is that the noise inside my head is deafening.

My elder son wrote that in an email from Texas. He died a few years after.

Listening to the quiet, letting the heart be warmed and hatched in the light, is a daily discipline. Listening in silence is prayer. There are other ways of hatching too: coming to church is hatching with others—battery hatching. Journal writing, gardening, walking, acts of compassion, social protest are others.

Whatever ways you choose, attend to your heart. Listen to others. Be quiet and listen to yourself. Read The Snow Queen. Again and again—it’s full of pertinent resonances, wholeness restored when Gerda’s tears of love melt Kay’s heart of ice. Through child-like love we attain eternity.

O my Saviour, lifted from the earth for me, draw me, in thy mercy, nearer unto thee. Speed these lagging footsteps, melt this heart of ice as I scan the marvels of thy sacrifice. Lift my earth-bound longings; fix them, Lord, above; draw me with the magnet of thy mighty love. Lord, thine arms are stretching ever far and wide, to enfold thy children to thy loving side. And I come, O Jesus: dare I turn away? No, thy love hath conquered, and I come today, bringing all my burdens, sorrow, sin, and care; at thy feet I lay them, and I leave them there. William Walsham How, 1823-1897.

What will you become?

6a00d83454b21e69e20168e9543645970c-800wiHomily for Nativity of John Baptist

In the “proper” Church Kalendar (BCP), there are only three births celebrated: Jesus, Mary and John Baptist. John is important. You can tell this because his mother was well past childbearing age.

It’s a well-known literary device in myths that heroes are born to such women or to virgins. Think Greek myths. In Scripture, when the Lord had a special task for someone, there was something unusual about the birth. There’s Sarah, there’s Samuel’s mother, there’s Samson’s mother. In the New Testament we have, today, Elizabeth, and of course Mary. The device is still alive and well: read North Korean propaganda about Kim Jong-Il’s birth.

John Baptist is the bridge from Old to New. He’s the last of the straight talkin’, John Wayne, shootin’ from the hip Old Testament Prophets, and the first of the New. And his straight talkin’, shootin’ from the hip message is REPENT—that is, reassess your priorities.

Repent—not to please God the finger-wagging headmaster so that you can get more celestial Nectar points for a club class seat in the afterlife. No!

Repent—to free yourself from lumber that weighs down the ship of life, and prevents you from living. Lumber like pride, prejudice, expectations, envy.

Repent—to be free from self, free from me, me, me, free from the lust for power, from the certainty that you are right and everyone else is wrong, and to tell them so, constantly. Free from self-righteousness.

Repent—so that you can live abundantly, not constrained by ego, but flying free. Hot air balloons ascending, to use an analogy that I like.

We see the need for this every day of our lives—and don’t imagine that I’m any better at this than you are. We see self-righteousness. We see commitment to control. We see commitment to cause hurt and division. Division arises when people who want to retain power exclude others by gossip, or anonymous messages, or Facebook, or whatever. This kind of division has been part of human experience since time immemorial: the hissing serpent of the Garden of Eden with its forked, divided tongue.

These are some of the things that John Baptist calls us to repent of—to acknowledge that we have strayed and that we can revise our course by working for togetherness, community and cooperation.

When we divide person from person, or exclude others, we become the devil. Consider the word diabolic: anabolic means building up, catabolic means breaking down, and diabolic means dividing, splintering. The Kingdom of God is about anabolism. It’s as far removed from diabolical gossip as it is possible to get. It’s about being undivided, integrated, It’s about being anabolic agents without the side effects.

What do we really need? We need food sufficient for the day, we need shelter, somewhere to sleep, and some form of activity that gives a sense of accomplishment. And since it is not good for us to be alone, companionship. That’s all. But we are brainwashed by capitalism and the diabolical advertising industry to let ourselves be trapped by payments, mortgages, fashion, preposterous gadgetry, and storing money in the bank. This is idiocy. As the years pass, our hopes and dreams are corroded by caution and fear. And then we die, having never truly lived.

What do we need to do to prepare the way? Do we give in to diabolic division, or do we work for anabolic integration?  Here are some suggestions

  • accept yourself in your glorious humanity: go easy on yourself.
  • accept others in their glorious humanity; go easy on others.
  • forgive yourself; don’t harbour resentments.
  • forgive others; you’ll eat yourself up if you don’t.
  • welcome each other; don’t exclude.
  • care for each other; don’t gossip.
  • bless each other, especially those you find difficult, and those that find you utterly impossible.

In my homily two weeks ago I asked: “Who am I? Who are you? Is there anything underneath all the onion skins, or the layers of the Matryushka doll? Are you, as I so often feel, like a Polo mint with nothing in the middle?”

Today’s Gospel asks a different question: ‘What, then, will this child become?’

What will you become?

The ship in which we sail the voyage of life, like any ship, doesn’t do well overloaded with lumber. It sinks. It does best when carrying only the essentials. If you set out on a venture, first of all preparing something to fall back on in case you fail, you can be sure that you’ll fail. If you risk all and have nothing to fall back on, you’ve no choice but to KBO.

To be truly challenging, the voyage of life must rest on a firm foundation of risk.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune, said Shakespeare. The Vicar, stealing from Mrs Emmeline Lucas, says, There comes a tide in the affairs of men, which, if you don’t nip it in the bud, leads on to boredom. The purpose of life is not to be bored, boring and cautious. Sin is life unlived. The purpose of life is to lie on your deathbed and say, ‘Ye Gods, that was some ride’.

That’s life abundant. That’s eternal life.

Corpus Christi homily 2018

247f11754cd5847ddbc149fb2acdc2beAt this stage of my life, I find it disturbing to have to preach on Corpus Christi because I can no longer sign up to an orthodox interpretation of the doctrine.

The trouble is that my view of Christianity is changing. As I get older—68 next Wednesday—my view of the world develops. The death of my elder son not yet three years ago causes me to look at many of its teachings in a sceptical, even cynical, light. I am only just beginning to be able to articulate the results of this continuing process.

Added to this, I was not brought up with any kind of sacramental understanding—unless singing hymns in rural Methodist chapels is a sacrament (which it is). The mystery came in my teenage years through what one might call beauty in its widest sense, specifically music and the arts, and since then I have come to the view that there is an infinite number of sacraments, not just two or seven.

To prepare a sermon for Corpus Christi therefore has caused real emotional turmoil, since I vowed when I was ordained that I would never say anything from the pulpit that wasn’t true for me. The Hebrews knew a thing or two when they sited the emotions in the bowels. Mine have been in an uproar.

So what can I say? First, some questions.

What did Jesus think he was doing at the last supper? What was in his mind when he said “this is my body” and “this is my blood”? Did he mean it literally, transubstantiation? Did he mean it metaphorically? Jesus was well capable of speaking metaphorically—we heard in the gospel last Sunday how Jesus was narky with Nicodemus for taking “you must be born again” literally.

You may have been brought up to believe what preachers told you. I certainly was. But pretty soon I came to realise that some of them were stupider than me, so I began to think for myself. I encourage you to do likewise. Unlock your imaginations—imagination is resurrection—and think.

Jesus and his disciples are together for the Passover meal. Jesus says “friends, you know how the powers that be have been after me for a good while now. I’m for the high jump. This is probably the last time we’ll be together, so can I ask that when you share food and drink in the days to come, you remember me and what we’ve done together, so that you can continue the work we started.”

That’s the link that strikes me: the meal is linked to the tasks ahead. In sharing the food and drink Jesus is passing them something. He is passing them responsibility for the message he’s taught them and the lifestyle he’s shown them. He’s asking them, and giving them authority, to pass it on to others. He is letting his disciples see that what he did, they can do. He is telling them by word and symbol that they can become what he has been. And so it is for us.

For me, Holy Communion is not about personal spiritual refreshment—I come wearing my spiritual cosmetics, I receive, I feel better, I go home more holy (whatever that means). That would be Holy Communion as a kind-of sucky-rug, a soother. It’s selfish, it’s all about me, me, me. It’s sanctimonious.

For me, Holy Communion is far from soothing. It’s the real I, the naked I, the I full of anger and frustration and perplexity. But I set aside this I. I receive, and therefore I have a duty to pass on what has been given to me. This is a great responsibility.

In the Eucharistic prayer we hear the Jesus story in a nutshell. At the moment of consecration the entire Divine history is forced, like sand through the narrow hole of an egg timer, into the world by means of you and me who receive. We become Jesus in action: his body, his hands, his feet, his eyes, his ears, his voice.

This is the theology of the incarnation. The Wesley hymn we shall sing in a few minutes is a hymn of the incarnation that talks of exactly this in the most marvellous ways:

  • Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made Man;
  • He deigns in flesh to appear, widest extremes to join; to bring our vileness near, and make us all divine (vile to Charles Wesley meant ‘of little worth’, not what it means to us);
  • And we the life of God shall know;
  • His love shall then be fully showed, and man shall all be lost in God.

As we become lost in God, as we approach the Divine, we recognise our responsibility to pass on to others the power of the bread and wine we have received.

In more words of Charles Wesley: “made like him, like him we rise”.

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with Justin Welby. I said how much I appreciated knowing a certain gentlemen, and he (JW) said how much he did too. He added “he’s a truly godly man”. I said “knickers to that, more importantly he’s human with a good sense of humour”. Justin looked me straight in the eyes and said “it’s the same thing”. And so it is. To be fully human is to be godly. To be fully human is to approach the Divine. That is what Jesus is saying by sharing bread and wine with the twelve—he’s letting them know that they can and should do what he himself has done.

At the Easter vigil mass at Horninglow I said that if you celebrate Easter and then return to a life in which you moan, you belittle others, you spread malicious gossip, you are two-faced, and you stifle initiative, then you are not living the Easter story of new life. You are a hypocrite. My message today is pretty much the same. If you receive Holy Communion and go from church to be negative and malicious, you are a hypocrite.

If you are serious about Holy Communion, you will leave every Mass in order to do all in your power to increase the amount of delight in the world. You will follow in the footsteps of someone who comforted the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable. That is no easy task.

Corpus Christi is a festival of the incarnation, and today it coincides with another such festival—the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth at which fetal John dances in Elizabeth’s uterus at the presence of fetal Jesus in Mary’s.

Corpus Christi is about enabling the whole world to dance to the music of love.

Burton Night Shelter

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The welcome

Homily for the Service of Celebration of the 2017-2018 Burton night shelter at St Pauls

Isaiah 58 (extracts). Luke 6: 20-28

Two experiences have significantly influenced my views on the relationship between church and society. The first, more than a decade ago, was being a mentor for young offenders—young lads on last warning before being sent to what used to be called borstal. The second is the night shelter here at St Paul’s.

These experiences change me. They alter my views and values. They show me how if I condemn others I condemn myself. They lead me to be angry at the way in which society ignores or demonizes those who fall on hard times.

I’ve seen similar discrimination all my life. I witnessed it in a farming village in the 1950s. I experienced it at Cambridge coming from a northern state school. I see it in the way elite sportsmen are treated. Imagine two groups of people causing mayhem in the town centre at midnight. One is a rugby club on the piss. The other’s a group of hoodies. Do you think the two groups will be treated similarly by the justice system? In the news last week we heard from Belfast how impossible it is, despite evidence, to convict rugby players with a promising playing career in front of them, and doubtless expensive lawyers behind them.

My experiences make me question how society is organized, and the way we are forced into a competitive struggle. Our security is not to be found in dividing us from one another, but in community—to know that when difficult times come, we have a community willing to support us. It’s in looking out for one another that we find security—not in retreating behind electric gates into hermetically sealed groups of the like-minded. It’s in the mess of life, sleeves rolled up.

Young offenders and shelter guests are prophets. They reveal our values. They make us uncomfortable. They demolish our cosy assumptions. They show us what really matters in defiance of all that society admires and rewards.

Prophets aren’t nice. They aren’t popular. They don’t fit in. They aren’t sensitive to our feelings. They aren’t agreeable. They aren’t reasonable. They aren’t diplomatic—which is just a form of lying. They don’t negotiate. They don’t care if we’re offended—indeed we should be. In both readings this evening we hear prophets telling it like it is.

We humans have an enormous capacity for self-deception. We ignore the consequences of our decisions. Prophets help us to recognize that we simply must face them—we must confront the naked truth—in order to rid ourselves of self-obsession. We need to be saved from ourselves, and prophets help to demolish our selves—our pride, our arrogance, our greed, our egomania.

In this, the fifth wealthiest nation on earth, it’s time for us to be impatient.

Will the institutional churches help? They are so obsessed with obscure points of theology that I doubt it. I used to be interested in the theological why and wherefore and how, but my experiences as a clerk in holy orders serving my people, together with events in my own life over the last decade, make me impatient with all this.

What I’m concerned about now is not why or wherefore or how, but so-what? If my faith is a matter of acknowledging Jesus as my lovely friend and personal saviour while I continue being aggressive, greedy, selfish, and vain, then it is pointless, and I am all that Jesus condemns.

The institutional church does have an answer, but it’s not in services or masses or devotions or fine words. It’s in action—social and political.

There’s a story about churches working with the homeless in Manhattan. Methodists pick them out of the gutter, Baptists wash them, Pentecostals feed them, Presbyterians educate them, Anglicans introduce them to society, and then Methodists pick them out of the gutter again. Let’s hope that the experience in St Paul’s has more fruitful results.

I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me. Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

From Paul Laffey, CEO Burton YMCA

YMCA Burton and Burton Churches are grateful to everyone for their support for the Winter Night Shelter. We are particularly grateful to the congregation of St Paul’s Church and the PCC of the Parish of St Aidan and St Paul for allowing the use of the Church Hall as a shelter. Our appreciation is also extended to Consolidated Charity of Burton Upon Trent, Burton Transformation Trust, Burton Churches and the many individuals who have provided finances to make this project happen. We also appreciate Kerry Foods, Bretby Rotary Club and many local people for providing food for the customers that slept at the Shelter.

We couldn’t of course make any of this happen without the amazing 130 volunteers and the 8 staff from the YMCA. Our thanks to them all. We have seen much joy with our Outreach team bringing people in off the streets, and managing to accommodate and give them a new hope. It was particularly encouraging to know that when the cold weather at its worst plummeted to -7 degrees, people were able to come off the streets into the warmth, have a hot meal, and a bed for the night—at no charge.

The Night Shelter has required a significant financial and legal commitment from the YMCA and we are very grateful to Trustees and Senior Staff for making this happen. We give thanks to God for lives transformed.

Qs and As (answers provided by YMCA)

  • How many guests have come? In December there were 40 different individuals using the night shelter, and in January 46.
  • Why do they come? Relationship breakdown and bereavements are common, as is loss of benefits, unemployment, debt issues, people trafficking.
  • How many are ladies? About 15%. Some have fled domestic abuse and are brought by the police with just the night clothes they are wearing.
  • How many volunteers? Around 130. The minimum number needed every night is 6, and we are open 7 nights a week for 17 weeks.
  • Have you received all the funding you need to keep the shelter open till the end of March? We have received no funding at all for any staffing costs. We have taken this step in faith that our needs—around 30k—will be met.

Easter ramble

aasdsa.jpgI reckon that the theory of atonement that appeals to someone is dependent upon upbringing and personality. If you’ve been brought up feeling the need of rules and regulations and a strong father, you might have one view on how the atonement could work. If you’ve been brought up rigidly and with frequent beatings, then you’d have quite a different view.

Church history matters too: substitutionary atonement is a recent western thing—it doesn’t much feature in the Orthodox churches. And I can’t help but feel that those Orthodox traditions and beliefs are more likely to be in tune with the early church, partly because of locality and culture, and partly because they’ve had few if any difficulties of translating from ancient Greek.

How do I see things on 31 March 2018 (I’m not dating this for Easter Day lest my two readers think it’s an April fool).

I see JC as the example for us all – the type. We are all resurrected – that is, free to ascend – when as a result of a Gethsemane moment we let go of selfishness and ego. This is not just a once-in-a-lifetime event. We have Gethsemane moments many times a day as we are confronted by the paradoxes of our humanity and the difficulties of life on the planet. It is not easy being human.

For me, Easter resurrection has nothing to do with life after death. That was something introduced by the church as a means of controlling hoi polloi–behave now and you’ll get a club-class seat in the hereafter. Absolute pish. Death in the Passion story is about meanness of living, not about absence of heartbeat.

I’m sure that the resurrection is the thing that most makes modern people laugh at us—how can we believe such sky-pixie tripe? And it’s very difficult to get across to schoolchildren, especially so soon after Christmas. The symbolic message of resurrection–ascension is much more important than any literal interpretation, and it is incontrovertible.

I suppose there’ll be letters to the bishop from “disgusted of Burton”. Good luck with that.

Happy Easter.

Read my Easter message here.