Tymawr Convent – Holy Week Addresses 2021

Much of this material formed my talk to the Prayer Book Society this Lent and the material on Psalm 119 has appeared in several places on blogs previously.

From the convent website

Society of the Sacred Cross, Tymawr

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

Towards the mercy-seat: the psalms in Christian life

Two years ago my mother died.

It was wonderful to be able to be around her bed as she breathed her last breath.

I am even more conscious of that privilege now that most people are not able to have their loved with them as they die. This is very real for you and also for my family, news of my dad dying coming on Palm Sunday afternoon.

As my mother died my brother and sister and I prayed the Rosary together and it was very beautiful to see her lips move with the prayers, so familiar to her, even though she  could not make any sound.

Last words are rightly important. Jesus’s final words, the famous ‘seven last words’ are rightly treasured and meditated on by Christians. the fact that he chose words from the psalms My God, my God why have you forsaken me. is not insignificant.

Jesus in his dying breath gifts us the book of psalms as the very foundation of Christian prayer. 

The apostolic church when it met together prayed with ‘hymns and psalms’. 

Christians at all times and in all places have prayed the psalms, sanctifying time with the daily round of psalmody.

Psalms are, of course, the bread and butter of all Christian prayer but especially of the monastic life which is, after all. just an intensification, a living out of the Christian, the baptised life.

In my three talks this week I am going to reflect on the psalms. Today on praying Jesus in the psalms, tomorrow on the place of mercy in the psalms and on Wednesday a close reading of one psalm, psalm 28, from which, in the Coverdale, Book of Common Prayer version we get this lovely phrase: “towards the mercy seat” which is the overall title for my talks.

I love the psalms. I hope that i communicate something to you of how rich, delightful and lasting the psalms are for prayer; how much they delight me every single day with their complexity and density. I have been praying the psalms seriously for over 40 years and I never tire of them; I endlessly find new things in them; they constantly speak in me and for me in new ways. Most of all, I find Jesus in them. Over and over again I hear him speaking; over and over again they speak of Jesus.

Of course, that might seem odd. The psalms were written some many centuries before Jesus.  

Finding Jesus in the psalms , praying Jesus in the psalms is essential to our Christian praying of the psalms. these are not simply ancient texts hallowed by use over the centuries. they are living prayers which give us the words to pray; which pray in Jesus, of Jesus and to Jesus.

The psalms are not simple. If they were they would become dull very quickly. We need to work at them. they are serious stuff. I always have a commentary by my  prayer stall. John Eaton on the psalms is excellent. But if I could recommend one thing to read on the psalms it is Rowan Williams book ‘On Augustine’ and only one Chapter in that book, the second chapter on Augustin’;e reading of the psalms. I have sent M. Katherine a series of extracts from that chapter which pick up the key themes.

Here are two of the most significant things that Rowan has to say about Augustine’s reading of the psalms:

“Singing the Psalms … becomes a means of learning what it is to inhabit the Body of Christ and to be caught up in Christ’s prayer. Just as Christ makes his own our lament, our penitence and our fear by adopting the human condition in all its tragic fullness as the material of his Body, so we are inevitably identified with what he says to his Father as God (e.g. en.Ps. 30 (ii) 3–4; 74.4; 142.3). Our relation to Christ is manifested as multi-layered: ‘He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our Head, he is prayed to by us as our God’ (en.Ps. 85.1). The meaning of our salvation is that we are included in his life, given the right to speak with his divine voice, reassured that what our human voices say out of darkness and suffering has been owned by him as his voice, so that it may in some way be opened to the life of God for healing or forgiveness.”

Listen to that key sentence again:

‘He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our Head, he is prayed to by us as our God.’

When we pray as Christians we pray as Christ. We are the body of Christ, every baptised person prays in persona Christi.

And Rowan goes on: 

“The church’s worship … is not accidental or marginal to the church’s very being. Obviously Augustine has much to say about the Eucharist as the prime locus for discovering ourselves as the Body; nevertheless, the singing of the Psalms becomes the most immediate routine means of identifying with the voice of Christ.”

Listen to that final sentence again:

“the singing of the Psalms becomes the most immediate routine means of identifying with the voice of Christ.”

Our praying of the psalms is the most immediate routine means. Our daily bread.

So, let’s look at one psalm together now. If you have your Office book or a Bible in front of you turn to the book of psalms and find Psalm 119.

Until a reform of the liturgy in 1910 Psalm 119 was prayed in its entirety every day at the Little Hours of the Office: prime, terce, Sext and None. by all who used the Roman Breviary. Many Anglican religious communities did this and continued to do so in to the 1960s and beyond. In the Rule of St Benedict this was the pattern on Sundays but on other days the psalms of Ascent were used.

Psalm 119 is the longest psalm with 176 verses. It is an alphabet acrostic with every verse of each section beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. 

Evert verse except one (122) also contains a synonym for the Torah, the law.

But we should not think of the ;aw as a set of regulations. Torah is a much richer word than that. If you have ever seen Jews dancing with the Torah scrolls in the synagogue or reaching out to touch and kiss the scrolls you will know the passionate devotion and love felt for Torah.

And this is key to a Christian praying of the psalms.

Jesus said I am the way the truth and the life John 14:16.

In Psalm 119 Torah is described as the Way: nine times; the truth 7 times and as life 12 times.

When Jesus says this he is saying that he is the living Torah; Torah made flesh if you like.

And this is how we can pray this psalm. Richard Meux Benson reviver of the religious life in the Church of England and former student of Christ Church where I am writing from now suggests that a form of devotion we could use is pray this psalm replacing the synonyms for Torah with the holy Name of Jesus.

Here is an example secion:

153 Under affliction see me and rescue me,

for I have not forgotten Jesus. 

154 Uphold my cause, and deliver me; 

true to Jesus, grant me life. 

155 Unknown your mercy to the sinner 

who do not study Jesus. 

156 Unnumbered, Lord, are your blessings; 

according to Jesus grant me life.

157 Under all the assaults of my oppressors, 

I keep true to Jesus. 

158 Unhappy I looked at the faithless 

because they did not keep Jesus.

159 Up, Lord, and witness the love I bear Jesus; 

in your kindness preserve my life.

160 Unchanging truth is your Word’s fountain-head, 

Jesus is just.

One of my favourite short commentaries on Psalm 119 is by Jonathan Graham who was a monk at Mirfield.

In this quotation he captures something profoundly special for me about the praying of this psalm.

“Psalm 119 is a love song.

Not a passionate love song; certainly not.

It is not the song of love at first sight,

nor of the bitter sweet of emotion and desire.

It is the song of happy married life.

That is not to say that it is, literally, the song of a poet happily wedded; but it breathes all the way through

   the charmed monotony of a life vowed to another;

it repeats with endless variety and sweet restraint

the simple inexpressible truth that can never grow weary or stale

– I love thee. Thou, thee, thine;

every verse of the poem, except the three which introduce it,

contains thou, thee or thine.

And a very large number of them echo: I, me, mine.

Well might its author find the sum total of his song in the high priestly prayer of Jesus:

All mine are thine and thine are mine.”

May the praying of the psalms teach us this charmed monotony of a life vowed to Jesus in the vows of baptism, in the vows of religious life.

Talk 2

hesed

As we know well, the psalms contain the whole of human experience: lament and praise; passion and longing; victory and defeat; depression and ecstasy. An even, as we say in yesterday’s talk, in Psalm 119 the gentle and charmed monotony of daily life.

The psalms are compendium of human experience; an encyclopedia of our human-ness. By praying the psalms day by day we are giving prayerful voice to the sentiment that “nothing human is alien to me”. 

In the proclamation of the Christian faith in our time we face an enormous hurdle in what I like to think of as the existentialist fallacy; the myth that we are merely accidental organisms existing in isolation from one another. Christianity relies on our having a shared, common humanity; that the stuff, the material of which we are made is something that we have in common with every human being that has ever and will ver exist. This is important because without it the incarnation is unnecessary and the redemption wrought by the cross and resurrection can have no possible effect on us.

We are saved only because our common human-ness is saved. 

That human-ness has its roots in the biblical account of creation where God creates us in our own image and likeness. Again, this is really important because it both means that God’s first revelation of God-ness is in our own being but also that when God became man in Jesus the gulf is at the same time immense and yet not impossible. God could become human because it was always going to be a good fit, to use clumsy language. When mystical theology speaks of our becoming divine, our divinisation, the gulf is not impossible to bridge because we are already God shaped.

So when we recite the psalms they both help us to realise our human-ness and remind us that there is something in that which correlates closely to divine nature.

For many years i have taught mindfulness meditation to children and adults. Simple mindfulness of breathing and occasional loving-kindness visualisations. Adults are always rather self-conscious about describing their experience but children speak very powerfully about it. Over and over again i have heard children say two things: It is like there is someone there.” and “Its’s like coming home, like I belong.”.

This is exactly right, our busy-ness the many things which we pass the time and fill our days all too easily alienate us from ourselves. So that we experience the nausea that the existentialists identify.

Yet when we sit in stillness we can ‘come home’ to our basic humanity. And we can find that there is someone there.

The psalms function like that too. By repeating them over and over again we come home to being human and we find in their narration that Someone who is the constant in the story: God.

That recitation of the psalms either in order, as in the Prayer Book Office, or in some other arrangement has an objectivity to it that is important. Our common human-ness is not based on any individual’s ability to empathise with others. Nor is based on feeling that feelings that are expressed. The psalms simply reflect a human experience that is real, that exists, that is. 

So I have described how the events that we are celebrating in this Holy Week rely on our common humanity to be efficacious, to have any effect. They also rely on another aspect of our human nature that is essential to make redemption not only possible, that is, of course, sin.

Sin is why we need saving. It is what makes salvation necessary.

In our world sin is not very fashionable. We prefer a more therapeutic understanding human nature. I believe therapies of many kinds are important and helpful, but if we don’t recognise sin in ourselves we will find it impossible to understand the Christian faith let alone participate in salvation. 

The psalms of course are full of sins. The psalms of repentance; the penitential psalms; psalms that express anger and hatred and wish destruction on our enemies. I very much recommend that you pray those psalms too and don’t omit them as many modern arrangements of psalms for worship do. If we whitewash over human nature we are missing out on a crucial part of the picture.

When we think of sin we have a tendency to think of it in a legalistic kind of ways; as lists of rule-breaking; particular individual things that we wrong. This is, of course, true. We all commit sins; we all do break the rules.

But sin is more like the fundamental orientation of our lives. A picture that I find helpful is of a bicycle on which the front wheel is not properly aligned with the handle-bar. If you have ever tried to ride a bike in that state you will know how difficult it is. It is impossible to cycle in a straight line no matter how hard we try.

We are sinners.

That is who we are and who we will remain as long as we live.

The psalms show us how God reacts to the fact our sinfulness. It is in a simple Hebrew word, hesed (pronounced with a soft ‘ch’ at the start like Scottish loch).

It occurs an amazing 127 times in the book of Psalms in contrast to the next books where it occurs most often 1 Samuel and Genesis where it occurs a mere 11 times each.

hesed is translated a variety of ways. Most often in the Prayer Book-Coverdale psalms, as loving-kindness, but sometimes just as kindness, or mercy or goodness.

The problem with mercy is that it can all too easily sound like God’s reaction to that list of sins, a ticking off in the sense not of telling off but of forgiving each sin individually.

In fact God’s loving-kindness is much deeper and more significant than that. It embraces the whole of us, it embraces us as sinners.

Because of our culture people often come to the Confessional with deep seated self hatred. shame and loathing. I occasionally as a penance propose using a praise psalm for the sin. Praising God for the fact of sin which has brought us to the means of grace; brought us to repentance and which reveals our need for God, our need for Jesus.

I love the Jesus prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

It contains that hesed, that mercy which is God’s reaction to us.

It acknowledges that I am a sinner, and I find that tremendously liberating.

I am a sinner, I always will be a sinner, I will always need Jesus.

I don’t know if you have been able to make your confession this Lent, this Holy Week.

Allow me to set you a penance.

Read Psalm 135.

It is a great litany of hesed.

The refrain Great is his love, love without end.

His mercy endures for ever.

His hesed will never end.

Talk 3

Towards the mercy-seat

Read psalm 28 in the Coverdale/BCP version:

[28]. PSALM XXVIII. Ad te, Domine.

1 Unto thee will I cry, O Lord my strength :

think no scorn of me; lest, if thou make as though thou hearest not, 

I become like them that go down into the pit.

2 Hear the voice of my humble petitions, when I cry unto thee :

when I hold up my hands towards the mercy-seat of thy holy temple.

3. O pluck me not away, neither destroy me with the ungodly and wicked doers :

which speak friendly to their neighbours, but imagine mischief in their hearts.

4. Reward them according to their deeds :

and according to the wickedness of their own inventions.

5. Recompense them after the work of their hands :

pay them that they have deserved.

6. For they regard not in their mind the works of the Lord, nor the operation of his hands :

therefore shall he break them down, and not build them up.

7. Praised be the Lord :

for he hath heard the voice of my humble petitions.

8. The Lord is my strength, and my shield; my heart hath trusted in him, and I am helped :

therefore my heart danceth for joy, and in my song will I praise him.

9. The Lord is my strength :

and he is the wholesome defence of his Anointed.

10. O save thy people, and give thy blessing unto thine inheritance :

feed them, and set them up for ever.

Biblical scholars on the psalms have spent much energy identifying different types or genres of psalm. Psalm 28 is agreed by all scholars to be a lament of an individual. There may also be a royal element to this with the voice of the speaker being identified with that of the king; we know that the psalms are traditionally ascribed to David and this one even includes the word Anointed in verse 9. As Christians we know that Jesus is the descendant of David and the anointed messiah, so we should always sit up when we notice the word in Scripture.

It is in fact a rather nicely constructed psalm and typical of psalms of lament that move from woe to praise. This is, of course true of Psalm 22 which Jesus prayed from the cross and moves from the desolation in the opening to praise at the end, a movement frequently commented on in devotional writing about the crucifixion.

I am going to comment on two features of the psalm.

The first is the passage that forms verses 4 – 6 (read them again). In the current form of the Roman Catholic Daily Office these verses are omitted as being unsuitable for public worship. I imagine this entire psalm does not appear in Common Worship provision either.

As I said earlier in the week I think it is a shame to omit this important part of human life.

One of my favourite psalms is psalm 93. It is a psalm I have often used in school assemblies.

When I was Headteacher of a rage comprehensive school in south London almost all of the children were black. The older boys would quite often be stopped by the police and sometimes searched, the controversial stop and search policy; if the young men reacted badly they might find themselves taken done to the local police station. On one occasion our Head Boy thus found himself under arrest and his mother rang me to meet her there to take him home. I had often spoken to the school about the importance of good manners and how we are more likely to get what we want by speaking politely. By the time his mum and I got there he had calmed down and was being extremely polite. He was soon released and we were on our way out.

As we walked out of the station this young man bent down (he is very tall) and whispered to me the opening lines of Psalm 93. Do you know them?

Here is the Grail version:

O Lord, avengingGod, avenging God draw near.

I was thrilled. He understood that his anger was appropriate, but he also understood that there was an appropriate time and place and means of expressing it.

These psalms, these verses are important. We might like to think ourselves incapable of wanting revenge, or even victory, or even of having enemies. But that is probably unlikely. What is certain is that these are common human feelings. Acknowledging the reality of them is essential if we are to be fully human and if we are to allow that full humanity to be redeemed.

The second element in this psalm that I want to draw your attention to is in the second half verse 2 when the psalmist talks of the mercy-seat.

Mercy-seat has now become an established part of the English language. Even some modern translations use it. 

When Miles Coverdale was translating the psalms in the early sixteenth century he consulted the German translation of the Bible that Martin Luther had produced. In that text this word gnadenstuhl appears. Mercy-seat, is a translation of the Hebrew word kaporet. It doesn’t really mean seat at all. It refers to the lid on the box or container in which the tablets of the law were stored. The lid, the kaporet had a statue of an angel, a cherubim at each side. If you google this you will find some images. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur – kippur having the same root as kaporet) the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrificed ram on the kaporet.

I like the translation mercy-seat because it captures the sense of something concrete, is not an abstract concept or even a place it is a thing. I haven’t found any modern translation that does better; most do worse by turning it into something abstract.

In my first two talks I have reflected on the Christian use of the psalms, this word kaporet is a good example of that. 

In the century before Jesus the Hebrew bible was translated, allegedly by 70 scholars, into Greek. These seventy led to the translation being called the Septuagint, often in books indicated by the Roman numerals for 70, LXX. It is this version of the Hebrew Bible that St Paul quotes from.

The Septuagint translates our word kaporet by the Greek word Hilasterion. This word occurs just twice in the New Testament, both in St Paul’s writing at Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5.

In Romans this verse is key to understanding what Jesus does.

[Christ] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. [ESV]

I have already spoken about the importance of sin in Christian life and the necessity of our common humanity for Jesus’ saving work to be possible, to be effective.

the hilasterion, the kaporet, the mercy seat is the propitation, the offering of Jesus himself.

Reading the psalms, reciting them day by day as Christians takes us to the heart of our biblical, Christian faith. The Old and New Testaments as we call them are not in any way separate. They are a continuum; the new is foreshadowed in the old because they are simply the single story of salvation history; of God’s plan for humanity. Just as our very humanity, our own beings reveals God to us because we are created in his image and likeness.

This Holy Week, we are on pilgrimage to the mercy-seat. Not to the container of the tablets of the Law but to the living Torah, Jesus himself who is the way, the truth and the life.

Finding God in gardens: one couple’s experience

Sacred, Christ Church Cathedra, Oxford 21st March, 2021

Sub Dean, Fr Richard Peers and his partner Jim Cable, horticultural writer

Trinity After Rublev, Meg Wroe

RICHARD 

When I learnt my catechism as a child I learnt the first question by heart:

Why did God make me? He made me to know him, to love him and serve him.

God wants us to know him. One way I have come to know God better is in gardens.

I’ve been examining the Church of England’s calendar of saints recently. Those people we remember as we celebrate the Eucharist and Morning and Evening Prayer each day.

Someone not me has done the maths and worked out that 80% of those commemorated are men. Just 20%, a fifth are women. And just as strange is that only 5% were married. Part of the vocation of LGBT+ people in the church is not to have the conversation about homo-sexuality but to embrace the conversation about sexuality. 

This is particularly strange to me because after my baptism as a Christian, my 35 year relationship – so far- with Jim is the principal means of grace in my life. It is this relationship that most converts me, most turns me from self-centredness and sin, and most engages me in the universe. It is my relationship with Jim that is my principal call to holiness, even though I constantly fail.

When I marry couples, I always give them a present, and the present I always give is a crucifix, that sign of Jesus dying to self, dying for us.

Christian marriage is a way God gives us of growing in holiness. Of dying to self. Jim constantly makes me, has to work making me less self-centred. 

I am often amused at the etymology of the word homosexual. It means same, of course in the Greek. In what Jim and I are going to say tonight I hope that you will see that apart from gender, we are incredibly different. I feel more hetero than homo to him. It is that difference, his love of gardening; his physical work; his finding Jesus in the garden, through gardening that enriches my life and draws me a little closer to holiness.

JIM  

When I was a child my parents were restless and their marriage not altogether happy. We moved house several times and my way of coping with the upheaval was to create my own little gardening space each time. It helped root me in the new place.

Gardening is a skilled practical task. It cannot be rushed. Many jobs require a high level of concentration. So when I am pruning, for instance, I am looking closely at where the buds are that will produce new branches and imagining the shape of the pruned tree or shrub that will result from my actions. There is a rhythm to it. At the same time, it is not that difficult – once you know what you are doing – so the mind, lightly tethered, can drift to some extent. …And that is where God creeps in. 

Psychologists refer to a state of flow. We might say we are in the zone. In any case we are deeply absorbed but also receptive. It is one reason why time flies in the garden.

I guess you could call this informal prayer and it comes naturally to me but Richard taught me by example early on in our relationship how to take what is on my mind to God in more ritualised ways. I was baptised and confirmed as an adult during the time Richard was at theological college. 

RICHARD 

Part of the difference between us is that I am a very religious person. I love going to church, worshipping, being with other Christians. I enjoy almost every kind of worship I have ever attended. From Pentecostal to Greek Orthodox. 

Jim came to faith while I was at theological college in the 1990s but his experience of prayer is very different to mine.

JIM

As well as the mindful craft work I described a garden can be a place for more defined prayerful practice.

I have been involved in two projects where a labyrinth has been central to the design – one outside a church in London and one in a historic walled garden open to the public. Lose yourself in a maze, find yourself in a labyrinth goes the phrase. And while trite it does hold some truth.

At Minsteracres retreat centre, near Consett, in County Durham there is a grass labyrinth near the main housedesigned by Michael Grogan. It is used spontaneously by visitors but also as a teaching aid for groups on retreat. Gardener and lay member of the community Lya Vollering explained to me that for people who find formal ‘religion’ difficult the labyrinth helps them get in touch with themselves, nature and a ‘higher power’. The journey to the centre of a labyrinth reflects the inner journey we all face, that of letting go of all that blocks our way to God. The Minsteracres labyrinth has a shiny stainless steel gateway at its centre. You see see yourself in the mirrored surface but in the context of the utterly beautiful County Durham landscape. God’s creation – the trees, the sky, sheep and wildlife. The centre offers a moment to give thanks before you begin your outward journey back into the world. Lya has used it many times with family and friends of substance misusers. Weather permitting, she encourages them to walk barefoot… “to feel the earth, the grass, to be grounded”.

RICHARD 

One of my favourite Christian writers is St Augustine. Augustine describes God as beauty. When we experience beauty we experience God. When I was a Head teacher we chose a new motto for the school and we came up with Deus pulchritudinis. God is beauty. 

I love many human made works of art, poetry, music, art. But there is something about the beauty of nature that involves no effort. We human beings can end up trying too hard. It is all about succeeding and even competing. But But nature is unselfconscious. Natural things are at ease with themselves.

JIM

When we garden it is almost impossible not to marvel at God’s creation. 

Perhaps the obvious thing we look for in a garden is flowers. We enjoy their colour, scent and intricate arrangements.

Flowers have evolved to aid pollination and perpetuate a species. They are not for us human beings so why do we respond so positively towards them – that miniscule leap deep inside when we stumble upon a perfectly formed bloom. We don’t often eat flowers; they serve no practical function and yet they speak to us.

As the poet, Louis Hemmings, puts it:

How do flowers bring hope?

How do their silent lips speak?

What dreams their sweet scents evoke?

Flowers give strength to the weak.  

It is a bit of mystery. Colour may be significant. The ability to spot ripe fruit amongst vegetation would have been a useful and rewarding skill to our ancestors. I feel symmetry has something to do with it. As Professor Jonathan Edwards, of University College, London puts it “The beauty of the delicate flower is in the sexy invisibility of an unbelievably intricate act of creation and our attraction to it is likely to be an exaptation – of no usefulness in itself but a sign of a useful attraction to things that show ordered complexity.” 

RICHARD 

I do a lot of work with individuals as they reflect on their spiritual lives. I have worked on my own spiritual life with directors since I was a teenager. I have hundreds, thousands of books about prayer and spirituality. But if I had to sum up spirituality in a single phrase it would be remarkably simple. 

The whole of the spiritual life, consists, I believe in doing one thing: letting go.

When Jesus died he was letting go.

Letting go of control, letting go of life itself, letting go of holding on.

JIM

Gardening is a creative interaction with Nature. It is a form of control made most manifest in the grand formal gardens of the 17th century but, try as we might, the results are never perfect. While formal gardens are impressive, I prefer a lighter touch. I love the wilder areas of my garden but in a sense, they work in contrast to the imposed neatness of the more ‘gardened’ areas. Letting go is an important counterbalance to discipline and that juxtaposition makes a garden. Thankfully we are learning that since it is futile to attempt to control what is a living eco system there is no place for chemicals in our gardens. 

W creating a new garden I like to recycle what is on site rather than filling a skip and buying new. 

RICHARD 

If you come and visit us at the Sub Deanery here at Christ Church you will see lots of versions of this famous icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev. The Trinity is what we as Christians think God is like.

For me one of the most powerful lessons of the doctrine is existence of difference at the heart of God’s own being, God’s own life.

LGBT+ have an important vocation in the human family because we will always be different; always be the minority and that’s good.

I believe profoundly that when we are most ourselves we allow other people to be themselves.

JIM

Over my career working with volunteers in a garden setting has been a great joy. The two places where I have encountered the most diversity in the people I engage with have been within the Church and in the sphere of Horticulture. Gardening seems to be a great leveller. And of course, as a physical space a garden can be a great place to meet others. We are blessed here at Christ Church with a garden in the centre of a city. Now the grip of the pandemic seems to be loosening we are looking forward to entertaining in the garden and hearing people share their unique stories. There is something about being in the safe living embrace of a garden that helps us relax and be honest with one another just as walking in the countryside or even going on a long drive together can help us speak the truth. Perhaps one day we can hold an open-air Sacred in the Sub-Deanery garden?

RICHARD 

One of the things I am enjoying most about being here at Christ Church is the opportunity to meet and form friendships with our academic colleagues in the college and university. This Lent I have been interviewing some of those colleagues as part of what we are calling Open House which is a conversation we live stream on Monday evenings.

In my preparation for one of those I had a great discussion with Mishtooni Bose, a professor of literature about suffering. How we cope with suffering she said is the fundamental question of human life.

In this pandemic the whole human race has been confronted with the reality of suffering.

It is no accident that the principal sign of Christianity is a cross or crucifix. 

Suffering, and how we deal with it is who we are.

JIM

The Church year has a definite structure and overlays the natural cycle of the seasons. A true gardener loves winter as much as high summer. It is a time for work as well as waiting. The death of winter is merely a transition time with life slowed to an almost silent tick within the dormant plants, bulbs and seeds.

At this time of year, during Lent, gardeners are acutely aware of the lengthening days of spring.  Easter is a time to sow and nurture and marvel at the reburgeoning of the garden that will lead to an abundance of food and flowers for the summer feast days.

RICHARD 

Jim and I met 35 years ago. We knew pretty early on that we wanted the same thing. 

We wanted a shared life, a life together.

As the Song of Songs in the bible says love is a strong as death, fierce

But I am also with St Augustine once again. Love is an act of the will, it is a decision.

To commit is to make an irrevocable decision. It’s a bit counter cultural. We like to think that we have a choice, choices all the time.

Although I had been brought up in a Christian family it was as a teenager that I committed my life to Jesus. I had an experience of God, of the Holy Spirit that was so powerful that I knew there could be no going back. 

My commitment to Jesus, my commitment to Jim are both part of the same thing.

They are choices I have made as I craft my life.

Gardening is a craft. 

I have spent most of my life as a teacher in schools as well as a priest.

The thing I most want children and young people to know is that we are the craftspeople of our lives.

JIM

I think it is safe to say Richard is better at prayer and me at gardening but maintaining a prayer life or a garden each demand discipline and commitment. I know that gardening can be a solace in the hard times.

I am reminded of Kipling’s famous poem The Glory of The Garden – 

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him seesThat half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away! 

I abandon myself: Abraham in St Paul’s letter to the Romans

Christ Church Cathedral

Lent 2 

28th February 2021

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

Sources:

Schoeps, Hans Joachim. “The Sacrifice of Isaac in Paul’s Theology.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 65, no. 4, 1946, pp. 385–392. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3262158. Accessed 27 Feb. 2021.

Paul and the Patriarch: The Role of Abraham in Romans 4

N.T. Wright

Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35(3) 207–241

Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Beale, G.K. and Carson, D.A; Baker Academic 2007

Well, we now know the road map. there is light at the end of the tunnel. If all goes well by June 21st we will be out of lockdowns.

I expect there are things you are yearning to do.

I am yearning to see my dad in his care home. 

To go for a long walk that ends up with a pub lunch.

To invite people for dinner and sit at a table with friends.

I’ve never really thought of myself as particularly a travel addict but I am also yearning to go abroad, to hear people chatting in other languages, to see places I’ve never been before.

And I am yearning to worship in other languages. I love to go to church in France and pray in French.

One of the places I am missing most is the little Burgundy village of Taizé perched on a hill a few miles east of Cluny. I first went there when I was 17 and I have been most of not quite every year since. It’s the home of an ecumenical monastic community where thousands of young people gather over the summer months. I am excited that Clare, our college Chaplain, and Dirk an academic in chemistry and next year’s senior academic (Senior Censor) at Christ Church have agreed to come with me and a group of of students on a chaplaincy pilgrimage in June 2022.

When I am Taizé I maintain my discipline of celebrating Mass, the Eucharist every day by concelebrating with one of the monks in the little crypt chapel under the main community church. the chapel is full of icons and very beautiful. In the corridor outside there is a stunning stained glass window. It is tall and narrow and this canvas is a photo of just the lower half of it. It’s an image of a boy, perhaps seven or eight years old and you can just see adult hands , one on each shoulder. In the whole window you can see that the hands belong to the man stood behind him, a man with a long beard.

The window, made by one of the brothers of the community at Taizé portrays a story from Genesis 22. It’s a searing and heart breaking story. And even though I have this canvas on the wall in my cellar chapel here at Christ Church I can hardly bear to look at it. The boy is Isaac and the man is his father Abraham.  The story in Genesis 22 is the account of God asking Abraham to take his son, his first and most beloved son up a mountain and slaughter him, to kill him as a sacrifice.

Looking at this picture, this stained glass, the trust on Isaac’s face for his father is total.  His faith in him is total. His eyes look up secure in the knowledge that his father will care for him.

Genesis 22 is one of the most powerful passages, among many, in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jews today read this account on the High Holy Day, the Days of Awe, the Day of Atonement and the Jewish New Year each Autumn. 

In our first reading today St Paul reflects on the Abraham cycle of stories. The letter to the Romans where our first reading comes from is notoriously complex and Paul’s argument is difficult to understand. It is particularly hard for us to follow when we get snippets to read like today’s passage which really make no sense without the larger context, the whole argument. It is even harder to understand because our minds are full of the arguments of history. Our reading of St Paul is overlaid with thoughts about faith and works that owe more to the sixteenth century Reformation than to first century Judaism. Finally, it is hard for us to lay aside centuries of Christian anti-semitism that makes us think of the ‘superior’; Christian grace taking over from the supposed ‘inferior’ Jewish law.

Romans 4 is a key passage in Paul’s letter. Almost all of the commentaries will point you to Genesis 15 as the key text on which Paul is commenting. They do so because Paul is clearly reflecting on the promise made to Avram – who has not yet been renamed Abraham – that his seed would many. That Abraham would be the father of many nations.

However, I want you to think of this picture of Isaac as vital to understanding Paul’s viewpoint. Paul was clearly familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, almost certainly in the popular Greek translation made at Alexandria. he would certainly have been familiar with what we know as chapter 15 of Genesis. The covenant God makes with Abram. But chapter 15 is hardly the most memorable , the most colourful, the most dramatic of the stories of Abraham.

The covenant is in some ways an important turning point in the story but it is not the heart of who Abraham is. It tells us very little about Abraham’s character or history.

The whole of that character, all of that history would have been in Paul’s mind as he wrote his letter and as he reflects on Abraham here.

Abraham is fascinating because (in Genesis 12) he leaves his homeland, his family and community behind. He leaves everything. In his travels he meets  Melchisdech, an otherwise unknown king and priest; a priest without lineage. God makes this covenant with Avram that his descendants will be as many as the stars of heaven and then he is asked to sacrifice his son, presumably necessary to make that happen on the mountain of Moriah. And Abraham obeys. he takes a knife, would to burn the body of his on on and goes up the mountain.

Only at the last minute does God intervene and halt the sacrifice.

Puzzlingly St Paul doesn’t make much of the obvious parallels between Isaac and Jesus, later Christians have often done this. I think that’s because Paul is much more concerned with Abraham as the image of the true believer whose faith is absolute trust in God.

Paul must surely have known what we call the Lord’s Prayer. The remarkably simple, seven clause prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them how to pray. Again it is so familiar to us that it is hard for us to read it as if for the first time. It is the fourth clause that stands out for me every time I pray it. “Thy will be done”.

Just think about how extraordinary this is. We spend our whole lives making plans, making sure we are in control of things, and then we pray Thy will be done.

We pray it but we don’t mean it. We get ourselves worked up for job interviews, we pray Thy will be done: but mean: God, make sure I get this job.

Abraham really meant it. If God’s will meant leaving home and everything he knew he would do it. If it meant killing his beloved son, he would do it.

As I’ve already said I miss worshipping in French. So I ahve been using some French in my prayers lately. One of my favourite French prayers is by Blessed Charles de Foulcauld, a hermit priest who died early in teh twentieth century and will soon be formally named as a saint:

The paryer begins Mon Père, Je m’abandonne à toi. My Father, I abandon myself to you.

It’s an impossibly hard paryer to really mean.

Father,
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures –
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

An impossibly hard prayer to mean. But really all it does is extend that clause of the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done.

That is Paul’s faith, that is Abraham’s faith. Total abandonment to the divine will. 

This picture of Issac reminds us of nothing ore, but nothing less than all the crosses and crucifixes in this building. It is the sign of abandonment. The sign of giving ourselves totally and utterly to God.

This is the heart of the Christian faith. This is what Paul understands: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Forget sterile arguments about faith versus works. Pauls’ understanding of Abraham is utterly simple. As simple as the faith of a child. Into your hands I commend my spirit, my life my all. Je m’abandonne à toi.

Plunging into the heart: Sermon for the Presentation of the Lord, Christ Church Cathedral

Sermon

Presentation of the Lord

Christ Church Cathedral 31 01 21

It feels endless now. 

The lockdown. 

We are weary. Fed up of it.  We’ve had enough.

It is dreary. The same, few places, the same few people – no matter how much we love them. 

The endless Zoom calls and tedious Teams meetings.

In 1902 the central European poet Rainer Maria Rilke visited the small zoo in the botanic garden, Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

One of the animals pacing in the cages there was a Panther. 

It inspired one of Rilke’s most famous poems. Here is the translation by Stephen Mitchell:

The Panther

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,

has grown so weary that it cannot hold

anything else. It seems to him there are

a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,

the movement of his powerful soft strides

is like a ritual dance around a centre

in which a mighty will stands paralysed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils

lifts, quietly —.  An image enters in,

rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,

plunges into the heart and is gone.

We are not caged by bars. But our lives are caged. The same, few, places, the same few people – no matter how much we love them. The endless Zoom calls and tedious Teams meetings.

But there is hope. Images can enter between the bars. there can be moments of revelation.

Moments of revelation like those experienced by the prophets, like Malachi in the first reading; like the prophet Anna in the Gospel. 

By our baptism we are all called to be prophets, priests and kings. You and I are called to be prophets just as much as Malachi or Anna or Simeon.

Malachi is the last of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. The final book of the Old Testament in Christian bibles. But he is firmly in Israel’s prophetic tradition. He is the successor of Isaiah and Jeremiah, of Ezekiel and Haggai.

Lots of Christians are disappointed in their prayer lives because they think there is something extraordinary about mystical experiences, about the spiritual gifts, including prophecy. As if these gifts were something strange, something reserved to the famous prophets, to times past.

But just look at what the prophets do. Like the Panther pacing in his cage they get a glimpse of what lies between the bars. They see the world, the actual world, and they read it theologically. They understand it in the context of faith and speak of it with the language of believing. 

For Jeremiah it is the boiling pot, for Hosea it is his failing marriage his unfaithful wife (who some of us have been hearing about at Morning Prayer this week). For Malachi it is the refiner purifying gold and silver.

To be the prophets of our own lives is to take the ordinary stuff of our day to day existence and to understand it theologically, to describe it in the language of faith.

So what is the stuff of your life?

How do you spend money?

Who have you fallen out with?

What do you resent?

Who annoys you?

What are the unexpected things in your life?

I heard the Archbishop of York say to a group of priests earlier this year that the most useful thing our Spiritual Directors could see was our bank statements.

Don’t ask God to appear in a blaze of light, ask God what he is telling you in your diary, your emails, how you spend your money.

Over the last few months I have been re-reading Susan Howatch’s novels about the Church of England. They are not especially fashionable at the moment but I recommend looking at them again or for the first time if you don’t know them. They are written in blockbuster novel style and are an easy read, and they are significant. 

Howatch is brilliant at showing how impossible it is to understand the reality and complexity of human life in only one way, only one dimension. We need a variety of narratives if we are to avoid self delusion and grow in maturity. 

Howatch shows how our personal narratives can be unpeeled like an onion, how our own accounts of ourselves need balancing with other people’s realities. She is superb at illustrating how psychological narratives are profoundly helpful in dissecting our self-delusions and self-centredness. But she also shows the limits of our ability to understand things only rationally and the necessity for religious language and experience. She never says this narrative is true and the other isn’t. For her spiritual realities are deeply true, and so are other narratives. And she is brilliant at exposing power and the shadow that lies behind glamour. For her there are many powers, not all of them good.

On Friday I was the speaker at the school assembly for our Cathedral school – on Zoom, inevitably – and I showed the pupils this statue which I have in the Oratory in the cellar of the Sub Deanery. The Oratory is dedicated to St Joseph and this is a statue of a Sleeping St Joseph. Clearly it is St Joseph asleep, but I prefer to call it the Dreaming St Joseph. In the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel Joseph has four dreams, take a look, most people can’t list all four.

I encouraged our pupils to enjoy their dreams and pay attention to them. 

Anna and Simeon were dreamers. They had dreamed the dream of a Messiah. 

Like all dreamers they were ready for the unexpected. They had eyes that could see when Jesus was brought into the temple. They had beginner’s mind. They were open to possibilities.

To be a dreamer is to be open to our imaginations, to be those who trust the many layered nature of reality, the multiple narratives we need to make sense of our lives; to allow ourselves to be changed and transformed. 

To be a dreamer is also to be open to the horror of life. When Simeon looks through the bars he sees the sword that will pierce Mary’s heart.

If your prayer seems dry, if you are not glimpsing the world beyond the bars; use your imagination. Don’t worry so much about whether it is just your imagination; ‘just’ is such a poisonous word; allow God to speak to you through that imagination. Imagine God speaking to you.

Like Susan Howatch allow yourself the possibility that there are many ways of describing the reality of your life.  reflect on your life prophetically.   Abandon the lie that events are random and meaningless and imagine that all the events of your life reflect spiritual realities. 

Anna and Simeon were ready and prepared. It can’t simply be that they had not thought of the presence of God in their lives until this day in their old age when ker-pow the messiah appears. They were ready for the Messiah, ready to meet Jesus, ready to recognise him immediately because they had been looking for God in every event of their lives. Every encounter, looking for him, finding him and seeing him.

To live without this spiritual muscle, is to see only the bars of our cages. Not just the cages of lockdown but the cages that diminish and hinder our lives at all times. It is as if our mighty wills are paralysed. Our powers bound.

Dear friends, my prayer for you this week, for all of us is that we will dream dreams; that in our prayer our imaginations will run wild.  And that in the cage of this lockdown the images you see between the bars will plunge into your hearts.

The Panther

Rainer Maria Rilke

Tr Stephen Mitchell

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,

has grown so weary that it cannot hold

anything else. It seems to him there are

a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,

the movement of his powerful soft strides

is like a ritual dance around a centre

in which a mighty will stands paralysed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils

lifts, quietly —.  An image enters in,

rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,

plunges into the heart and is gone.

Micro-ecologies of kindness: Sermon for St John the Evangelist

Sermon 27 12 20

Christ Church Cathedral

St John the Evangelist 

1 John 1

John 21: 19b – end

St John writes: We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christmas in a time of pandemic.  Christmas when the world seems dark and the news full of shadow. Christmas when we hear as we did in this church just two days ago the great prologue to John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word …” and the good news that the darkness does not overcome the light.

And the first Chapter of the first letter of John deliberately echoes that prologue, with its themes of light and dark. Its mention of the beginning.

This Christmas I’ve been re-reading Lord of the Rings where the themes of light and darkness, and the struggle between good and evil is so strong.

It is, of course, a deeply consoling book. Good does triumph, the One Ring is destroyed, Sauron is vanquished.

There is consolation in the elves, the ancient ones, even in the Ents, those slow moving trees. And homely wisdom in the Hobbits. Not least in the grounded Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s friend. Describing the darkness of their time Samwise says:

“In the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.” 

But I want to think about another theme in 1 John 1 which we have just heard and which finds a strong echo in the title of the first volume of Tolkien’s story: “The Fellowship of the Ring”.

We know the word fellowship well. We use it here in this church every day at the end of Evensong when we pray the grace: the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

It has a more technical meaning in this House  and in academic life generally. But in the New Testament this is one of those occasions when we have to go back to the Greek to really understand how crucial, how significant this word is.

It translates, of course, the Greek KOINONIA.

It’s not a word that appears much in the Gospels, just a cognate once each in Matthew, Luke and Acts. But Paul uses it extensively and intensely to describe the relationship between Christians and between Christian churches.

Here in 1 John there is something really quite extraordinary. The use of koinonia to describe the internal relationships of the Trinity. That of the Father and of the Son and the participation of the author and his readers in that koinonia.

The word can be translated in many ways. The Latin communio  is often used, and in the current translation of the Roman Catholic Mass where the Grace may be used as a greeting at the beginning of Mass it is that Latinisation which is given. koinonia means a sharing in, participation, a partnership.

Nicholas King a Jesuit across the road at Campion House uses communion in his excellent translation of the New Testament, but suggests in his notes that it can also be translated as fellowship, union, partnership, community and solidarity.

I’ve been struck by the number of people who were deeply moved by the Queen’s speech this Christmas day. One phrase has been much quoted on Twitter: you are not alone.

This is the heart of the meaning of the word koinonia. By our baptism we participate in the life of the Trinity; we have a share in the divine life. And our relationships with each other as Christians are made of the same stuff as the relationship between the Divine persons. 

Think about how radical that is. When I chat with members of the congregation here on Zoom, or talk outside the porch on Tom Quad, when I meet with my fellow Chapter members, the nature of the relationship is the same as the nature of my relationship with God, and even more startlingly the same as the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Now this presents us with two problems. The first is that we human beings are difficult; we fall out with each other; we irritate one another; we fall out and disagree. That’s not how we want to relate to God and not, surely, what the life of the Trinity is like.

But there is a second problem that I think is even more fundamental, more serious for us in our mission to the world, our ability to tell people the good news of Jesus Christ. It is the existentialist lie. The untruth that we are somehow individuals, that we are alone. This untruth undermines all Christian doctrine, most fundamentally the incarnation and redemption. Which simply lose all meaning if we are not all intimately connected by our common human-ness which God in Jesus has come to share in. His death and resurrection have an effect on me because we share in common humanity.

And this common stuff, this human-ness of which we are made precedes, of course, the incarnation. It exists because of creation, “In the beginning” as St John says, “without him, was nothing made that was made”.

I have been teaching the practice of Mindfulness meditation to children for over 20 years. Over and over again children report common experiences: a feeling of kindness; a feeling of connectedness, of belonging, at-homeness, and a feeling of Presence, that there ‘is somebody there’.

None of that should surprise us Christians. We are created in the image and likeness of God. We are hard-wired for God and the pattern of his being is reproduced in ours.

At the Eucharist when a little water is poured into the chalice with the wine many priests pray:

“By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

Just as Jesus shares in our human-ness, so do we share in his God-ness. And remember that koinonia has that meaning of sharing, participating in.

In the Queen’s speech she powerfully states a simple truth, we are not alone, we can never be alone; we are always part of something more than ourselves. 

This is just as true of Jesus as it is of each one of us. Yes, in his divinity, but also in his, in our humanity. That is why it is so important that John who we celebrate today is loved by Jesus. It is Jesus that is doing the loving.  Our ability to love is part of the God-given pattern in our very beings that draws us out of ourselves. It is why the church in these days after Christmas celebrates the saints: St Stephen yesterday, St John today, the Holy Innocents tomorrow. These are the comites Christi, the companions of Christ. When we celebrate the incarnation we are celebrating connectedness and Jesus is the ultimate connected one.

This connectedness is not just an abstract concept. I’ve been thinking about that connectedness a lot in my first four months here at Christ Church. In this building I have felt deeply connected with those whose memorials surround us. The dead who live in Christ.

Deeply connected to those living and working on this site in a time of pandemic.

And deeply connected to the hundreds of people who are part of the Cathedral’s community but who can’t be here. In some ways the grief at not being able to be here makes that connection all the more real. Absence, strangely, can be as much a presence as presence itself.

On Christmas Day Canon Graham organised Mulled Wine and members of Chapter made cakes for some of the international students who have been stranded here at Christ Church this Christmas. The gathering in the marquee in the Master’s Garden covered Egypt, New Zealand, France, Italy, Germany, Poland and probably more.  It was a reminder to me of the profound significance of this joint foundation, our being both cathedral and college; and the gratitude of the students a reminder that simple gestures can reflect profound truths. “Micro-ecologies of kindness.” As Canon Graham put it just before the service today.

We don’t know how much longer lockdowns are going to continue, what it is going to be like living with this virus as part of our world. There are certainly going to be many weeks, months in which absence continues to be a reality. But that absence is not disconnection. As our Queen said: we are not alone.

On tiptoe all the night: Sermon for Advent Sunday

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Advent Sunday

29th November 2020

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

Isaiah writes: “awesome deeds we did not expect”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A poem, by the British Australian poet Kevin Hart:

It’s not too late, Dark One, 

      For you to come 

      And have me close 

And stay an hour or two, 

It’s not too late at all 

      For you to slip 

      Past fossil light 

And quickly touch my hand. 

It’s deepest night, Dark One, 

      I look straight up 

      And won’t be born 

Another billion years 

If you’re so far away; 

      Come closer now 

      So that I taste 

Your breath: I have been here 

On tiptoe all the night, 

      And I shall wait 

      For you, Dark One, 

Till all those years are done.

Christmas will soon be here. 

We know that the days are still getting shorter, that the darkness appears victorious but we light the candles. The light grows stronger as we light more candles each week of Advent, as we deck our trees with lights.  Our homes with Christmas decorations and strings of light.

And yet the darkness grows stronger.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, this terrible year of plague draws to a close with vaccines within our reach; multiple ways of defeating the virus seem possible. We can almost begin to think think that life will be normal again, one day.

And yet the darkness grows stronger, we are told that it will be a hard winter, there will be many deaths. We can’t visit the elderly; we are encouraged not to see family and friends at Christmas.

We’ve just heard from the final chapters of Isaiah of the frustration the people feel. It is sixth century Jerusalem. The rebuilding of the city, the restoration of the temple and its worship are possible. But they have not happened yet. The people are still walking in darkness and even worse God appears to do nothing. “O that you would …” the prophet cries. He cries it because God doesn’t. God does not tear open the heavens, the mountains do not quake, fire is not kindled, the water does not boil.

These are the things the people expected. Wanted. Hoped for. 

And they do not happen.

*

What do you expect, want, hope for from God?

How does God disappoint frustrate you? Refuse to answer prayer?

Why doesn’t God act as you would like him to?

God is the one who acts in ways that we did not expect. He acts today, in my life, in yours, in the world, in ways that we did not expect. And do not recognise. 

Our great expectations will never be met. God of surprises he has been called. 

The unexpected God. 

The unknown God St Paul identified at Athens.

Jesus is unexpected. Christmas is unexpected. It’s not the story we would tell of God coming; of God made known. And Jesus tells us how we should live our lives ready for the unknown God, the unexpected God:

keep alert

keep awake.

Jesus is unexpected; he doesn’t give the answers people want; he is not the Messiah they were hoping for; he did “awesome deeds we did not expect”.

To be alert, to be awake is to have beginner’s mind; to be open to possibility; to refuse to be the expert; to swim in uncertainty and to delight in the provisional.

This is where the dynamism of Christian living comes, where the energy of prayer is to be found. This is why God always reveals himself to us when we are waiting; when we are in-between; when things are not turning out the way we planned them; when the paper is blank, the road ahead unknown. When we remember that we are always beginners and never experts.

Is there room for the unexpected in your life as you prepare for Christmas?

As we emerge from lockdown what will you change? What will be different?

This will be an Advent like no other. There won’t be the office parties; the family get togethers; the queuing in shops; the meals out. 

It is an Advent we did not expect.

The question is can we allow ourselves to be alert, awake, can we allow ourselves to meet the unexpected God?

Friends, I suggest something quite simple. That you change something about the way you pray. 

Perhaps you only pray when things get really bad; or only when you come to church; or even every day just before you go to bed. Whatever you do break those habits and try something different. Make a regular time every day to pray. Pray without expecting anything other than the unexpected. Put it in your diary. An hour before lunch, or in the afternoon or best of all get up an hour earlier, when the world is dark. That special darkness that is giving way to dawn.

I don’t know anyone who has a solid practice of daily prayer, who is growing in holiness who does not spend time early in the morning to pray. Whatever you tell yourself there will be interruptions, appointments, phone calls, emails at every other time of the day.

We say that God is light, but we find him in darkness. He will be born in the middle of the night.

It’s not too late, Dark One, 

      For you to come 

      And have me close 

And stay an hour or two,

Darkness is a nurturing place; it is the place to escape the overstimulation we subject ourselves to. 

It’s not too late at all 

      For you to slip 

      Past fossil light 

And quickly touch my hand.

This Advent we have a better chance than ever of feeling the touch of God’s hand. Of finding him in the unresolved situations of our life; the time we would have spent at parties; or meals; or preparing for friends and relations.

Keep alert Jesus says, 

keep awake Jesus says. 

As he did to his friends on that night in Gethsemane when they fell asleep. Keep awake, stay on tiptoe. Be ready.

On tiptoe all the night, 

      And I shall wait 

      For you, Dark One, 

Till all those years are done.

Nada, nihil, nothing: Sermon for Christ the King

Choral Eucharist

Christ the King

22 / 11/ 20

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Father Richard Peers SMMS

During the first lockdown I took rather a lot of funerals. Many of the clergy around where we lived were elderly or had health conditions and were shielding. It is always a privilege to be the officiant at a funeral. To seek to pay attention to family and friends, and to the person who died. To weave together a liturgy that reflects that person, that is true to them, that is true to our uncertainties and doubts, our existential questions.

At every funeral that I led in those weeks I was asked to pray one particular text. What interested me was that as I visited the various crematoria where the funerals were held there were a lot of civil celebrants offering not so much humanist or secular funerals but just non-church funerals. the same text that I was using at every funeral, they were using as well. Psalm 23.

When everything else is peeled away this beautiful psalm remains part of our culture, our heritage. It speaks to people. It is a very appropriate psalm for funerals. The image of passing through the valley of the shadow of death speaks profoundly of the need for lament in the face of death and destruction but also offers hope. Death too is a passing over, a journey to something else.

It is also a very suitable psalm for today’s feast of Christ the King when it is set as the psalm for the Eucharist although for Covid reasons we are not having a psalm in our liturgy at the moment. Suitable at the end of this month of November when we have been praying and remembering as we do every year in November, those who have already passed through death’s dark valley. 

It is a psalm that I pray daily as part of my thanksgiving after I have celebrated the Eucharist. It is a deeply sacramental psalm. The Eucharist is itself foretold in the banquet that is laid and the cup that overflows; but other sacraments are also present: the still waters of baptism in which we have been incorporated into Jesus, the anointing of confirmation in which we acknowledge the gifts of the spirit, and the anointing of ordination for those of us ordained to ministerial priesthood.

It is of course, a suitable psalm for the feast of Christ the King because it shows us what sort of King Jesus is. Like his ancestor David he is a shepherd-king.  A king leading his flock.  A shepherd, as Ezekiel tells us in today’s first reading who will rescue his sheep from all the places to which they have been scattered.

And just as the sacramental journey of each Christian rehearses the ministry of Jesus so this psalm shows us Jesus baptised, anointed, gifting us himself in the Eucharist and passing through the dark valley of the shadow of death.

Psalm 23 is a profoundly Jesus psalm. In it we walk the path of redemption, the salvation he has won, the basic doctrines of the christian faith, the thing he has done for us.

As I have prayed this psalm over the years. At funerals, in the daily Office, after Mass there is one line that constantly calls to me. It’s a line that doesn’t normally attract much attention, certainly doesn’t conjure romantic images of fields and ponds and placid sheep idly grazing.

It’s the second line that speak: ‘there is nothing I shall want.’

The hebrew is two simple words: lo ech-sar.

I know how far I am from wanting nothing. My Amazon wish list currently has 62 books on it. I want the house to be warm, good food on the table. I want to be able to go to France again soon. To visit friends in New Zealand. Well, you get the picture. I am a bundle of wants. Like so many prayers I can only pray this line hoping that one day I might be able to mean it just a little bit.

I have been reading the Rule of Saint Augustine over the last few weeks, and I invited you as a cathedral community to join me in doing so. I’ve been commenting on the daily portions on our cathedral blog.

Augustine understands our wanting, our desiring. He might easily be called (dare I suggest in the presence of Canon Harrison) the theologian of desire. Augustine recognises that desire is what leads us to God. Without desire we would not be searchers. But he also understands that we are at our most vulnerable when we follow our desires. God alone can satisfy our desire, our longing. Everything else will leave us desiring more, wanting more needing more. We are like addicts seeking the next fix. 

Even if I were to buy every one of those 62 books, do you, do I, think I would be satisfied …?

Today’s gospel paints the inverse picture. The things we don’t want. We don’t want to be hungry, to thirst, to be strangers, without clothing,  sick or in prison. Being a Christian is always about facing the truth of these things we don’t want, leaning into them and not running away from them.

And this leads me to another way that helps me understand the second line of the psalm: There is nothing I shall want. How do we lean into the nothing. Not to embrace some fatalist nihilism (the Latin version of this line is, after all nihil mihi deerit) but to find the freedom that is the goal of the Christian life. 

John of the Cross the sixteenth century Spanish master of prayer drew a picture of a mountain to illustrate the spiritual life. At the top he repeats the Spanish nada, nothing, over and over again:

“Nada, nada, nada, nada, nada, nada, and even on the mountain, nada.”

The spiritual life has nothing, nada, as its goal.

John writes:

“To reach satisfaction in everything, 

desire satisfaction in nothing.

To come to possession of everything, 

desire the possession of nothing.

To arrive at being all, 

desire to be nothing.

To come to the knowledge of everything, 

desire the knowledge of nothing.”

Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book One, Chapter 13

This is what Jesus shows us on the cross. Giving up his God-ness, his divinity, was not enough, becoming human was not enough, even death was not enough, it had to be a shameful death, ‘even death on a cross’.

And in his dying he too discovered that God is nada: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.”

All my desires, all my wants are for some-thing. But God is not a thing, he is literally no-thing.

Quite often when people speak to me about prayer they say how hard it is, how they struggle with prayer. 

As long as we continue our wanting in our prayer, our desiring this or that spiritual experience, we are wanting a thing. When we let go, when we stop struggling, when we embrace the no-thing we will have found nada. God. And that nothing is to be totally free, it is as Augustine knew total grace, total gift.

In your praying today, in your praying this week my prayer for each of us is that we find the true freedom of nada, we find no-thing, we find God.

“How’s the new job going?” – Sermon for All Saints Day at Christ Church Cathedral 2020

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford 1st November, 2020 Eucharist

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

Revelation 7:14: 

These are they who have come through the great ordeal.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How is the new job going?

The question I have been asked most often in the last 8 weeks.

So how is the new job going?

Well, there are a lot of rules, I say. 

There is the Blue Book, that is the lengthy document that sets out the rules for those of who live in here at Christ Church. 

Then there are the rules for our worship in the Cathedral.

As Sub Dean I read the second lesson at Matins when the Dean is not present, unless I am Canon in Residence in which case I read the first lesson, and the second only if the Dean is not present but I can give away the first lesson to someone else, which is usual, and when I am also Officiant I give away both lessons.

Well, you can see what I mean: there are a lot of rules.

Rules can seem stifling, imprisoning, trapping. It  can fee like they asphyxiate the Spirit, the very breath in us, the very breath of God.

I haven’t even mentioned the rules that the Pandemic has caused. Rules which we have struggled to keep up with. How many people are allowed in any house? How many in a bubble? How long should I wash my hands for? Where  and when do I need to wear a mask.

We can feel trapped, stifled. We are almost literally asphyxiated, our breathing hampered by these horrible bits of material on our faces. I yearn to tear mine off in church, to speak clearly, to hear clearly.

Rules, can, of course, be oppressive, tyrannical. They can be motivated by a desire to control, to dominate.

But I like rules. We need them, we can’t live without them. We need the rules of the game, of sports and board games to be fair, to enable the game to be played. To keep us safe. We needed the rules of Rugby yesterday when England won, but needed them just as much if we had lost. We need the rules of the American election to ensure a safe transfer of power if Biden wins.

We need rules.

I suppose, it will be no surprise to you that as a former Headteacher I like rules,  I enjoy the rules of this House, of this Cathedral. 

I am glad to be part of a team of wonderful people who are teaching me the rules.

I love receiving Mother Philippa’s Rubric copies of our worship booklets with the rules in Red. 

I loved being able to text her yesterday to remind me if I was doing the intercessions at Evensong and I loved getting her one word answer: Yes.

Rules keep us safe. They keep the chaos at bay. Sitting in the comforting stillness of my stall before Matins begins as my colleagues arrive and take their places I am not panicking, wondering what’s going to come, whether I need to read this lesson or that. Like a smooth, well-oiled mechanism the prayer flows and the Spirit is present.

It is that daily unfolding of prayer that is the real answer when I am asked how the new job is going. 

It has been the greatest of joy for me. 

The most exquisite experience of rightness, the joy of tumbling into this bubbling stream that has bubbled in this place since Frideswide lived here and which bubbles still. 

These eight weeks have been among the most prayerful of my life. This is the easiest building I have ever known to pray in. Kneeling in the Latin chapel I physically feel Frideswide’s presence tangibly next to me. 

Places like this are sometimes called thin places, Places where the barrier between the natural and the more than natural is barely there. Thin places is a good phrase. But this is also a place that is thick with the prayers of the centuries, thick with the memories of goodness, thick with the known and unknown, thick with those who will come after us, the centuries ahead when the pandemics of 2020 will be carved into monuments and stones and you and I are long gone.

Rules are important. After Frideswide’s community it was Augustinian canons who lived and prayed in this place; built our oldest buildings; the buildings that are the heart, the core of this place, this cathedral, the Chapter House and the Prior’s House. Preparing to move here and since I have been here I have been praying the Rule of Saint Augustine that was the rule of life of those canons who lived here. It is a beautiful document. Very short, I’ve arranged it so a short paragraph can be read each day over a month. Barely 3000 words in English. Just a hundred or so words a day.

Today we face new rules for the month ahead and perhaps even longer. Rules that are devastating to those of us who love to gather for worship. Rules the like of which we would never have imagined when this year began. Rules designed to keep us safe, to protect us.

Whatever those rules turn out to be in the next few days as bishops and lawyers send us, no doubt, many pages of guidance. Whatever those rules, the stream of prayer in this place will continue. Whether we can gather together in this building, or whether the saints will have to murmur the prayers in here for us while we pray in our homes. Whether it is online daily or weekly. Please in your own homes know that we, you, I, all of us, are praying together. The communion of all the saints is the water we swim in, the air we breathe.

When I meet with my sister and brother Chapter colleagues (on Zoom) in the next few days I am going to suggest to them that we commit to praying two texts in the weeks ahead.

Firstly the Rule of St Augustine. It is a document of its time, it has some wonderfully quirky sections. But it is very beautiful and simple. Please watch out on our website and elsewhere for posts about our praying this or some other text (they may not agree!) 

The other text I would like us to pray together is the key section of today’s Gospel, the Beatitudes.

It is one of the most profound and complex texts in the gospels, yet deceptively simple.

Most scholars believe that there were originally just the central eight invocations of the blessed, omitting the final one. It is these eight which form a perfect poem, a canticle to blessedness.

I’ve been praying the Beatitudes at mid-prayer each day for all my adult life.  I learnt the habit from the prayer book of the Taizé community in France which I first visited as a 17 year old.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, 

for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, 

for they shall be comforted!

Blessed are the meek, 

for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 

for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, 

for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, 

for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, 

for they shall be called children of God. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, 

for theirs is the kingdom of heav’n.

The Beatitudes are a wonderful rule of life. As we pray them together or at home as we dwell in them, we will be formed and shaped by them. They are a complex rule, they don’t tell us who is to read the second lesson, or how often to sanitise our hands. But they are a rule nevertheless. 

A rule can be a tool for measuring. They help us to judge our lives and ourselves.

 A rule keeps us accountable to each other and to God.

To what extent am I poor in spirit and meek? Am I really hungering, yearning or justice? Am I always merciful? Am I known as a peace-maker?

Is the kingdom of heaven the start and end of my life, of my day, as it is the start and end of this poem that is the Beatitudes?

Brother Roger who founded the Taizé Community distilled the Beatitudes into a simple statement:

‘Every day let your work and rest be quickened by the Word of God; keep inner silence in all things and you will dwell in Christ; be filled with the spirit of the beatitudes: joy, simplicity and mercy.’

So, this is my suggestion, that as the Christ Church community in the lockdown ahead we think about our common life by praying these texts every day. Whether you are a long standing member of the congregation, one of our wonderful sidespeople, guides, choristers, organists, employees or a member of Chapter. Whether you have just dropped in on YouTube or Twitter, whether you have been here for thirty years or like me just arrived

Dwelling in these words and allowing them to dwell in us.

The limpid simplicity of the Beatitudes, their complex depth, will help us bear the grief of these times, we will be those who mourn the many losses of lockdown and plague. Enduring this we will be those who have come through the great ordeal for Jesus is at the centre of the throne, he is our shepherd and he “leads us to springs of the water of life.”

In this pandemic may Jesus keep us all in the spirit of the Beatitudes, joyful, simple, merciful.

‘Amen! 

Blessing and glory and wisdom 

and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’ 

Sermon 13 09 20: Jazz and breath – International Music Festival

International Music Festival

Sermon pre-recorded and broadcast at and from St Asaph Cathedral

13th September 2020

Masks are disconcerting to those who see us wearing them. They conceal. I have failed to recognise people I know quite well. They make it hard to intuit mood, to hear – how much more lip-reading I must do than I ever realised. But they are also hard to wear.

I still haven’t learnt how to wear glasses with a mask and not steam up.

the first time I had to wear a mask for several hours I felt dizzy – perhaps  I wasn’t getting enough oxygen.

I have spent much of my adult life teaching people how to breathe. To have good posture, to show them the science lab lungs and explain that its the diaphragm that does the work not the lungs. I have urged people to raise their chins so as not to hamper their breathing, to open their chests out, shoulders back.

And now we do this thing of putting a mask on; deliberately hindering our breathing.

Musicians, and especially singers, know all about breathing and its importance. 

For most of us we are usually unaware of our breathing until we have difficulties, a cold, asthma, or find ourselves in a room full of smoke.

But one of my earliest memories is of breathing.

My favourite hymn is Breathe on me breath of God. Since this is a music festival perhaps I will upset a good proportion of you if I tell you my preferred tune. And it is a hymn text set to a remarkable number of different tunes. But for me  I will always associate the words with Charles Lockhart’s Carlisle.

I love this text because it reminds me of being a small child. I had fallen in the garden and my knee was bleeding. Running into the house my mother scooped me up and sat down with my on the sofa. As I sobbed my heart out I felt her breathing. Her warm breath on my head and her chest rising and falling. That moment has stayed with me for the whole of my life. Breathe on me breath of God. The breath that mothers me. The breath that brings me back to my true self. The breath that weathers storms external and internal.

Musicians know the importance of breathing.

But breathing is important to us all. It is important because it is literally life-giving. In the book Genesis God breathes into the dust, the earth, to give it life. In Hebrew the ruach the spirit is the wind and breath that bring life to dry bones. In the Greek of the new testament the spirit is pnuema, the breath, the air and for Christians the hagia pneuma the Holy Spirit is God. God who gives life and gifts.

Last summer my mother died and my brother and sister and I sat around her bed in the hospice where she died. Over her final hours we followed her every breath as they became shallower and shallower until finally she just stopped breathing.

Breathe on me breath of God.

learning how to breathe might sound like something we don’t need to do.

I teach breathing as part of teaching Mindfulness or meditation. Mindfulness is very much in fashion these days. But Christians have been practising mindfulness throughout Christian history. One collection of texts in the Russian and Greek Orthodox tradition, the Philokalia teaches the combination of careful breathing with the word of the Jesus Prayer; Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

But words are not necessary. Mindfulness of breathing, just being aware of our breathing wakes us up to awareness of so much more. We live in shadow, in twilight for much of our lives not noticing the miracles that surround us; that are us.

Noticing our breathing. Breathing in and knowing that I am breathing in. Breathing out and knowing that I am breathing out.

Music too can be like that. Taking the very ordinary, sounds. And arranging it in a way that helps us notice them.

I am a great fan of the jazz musician John Coltrane and I love this icon of him that has been painted. Carrying the saxophone with the fire of the Spirit showing in it the words on the scroll are a quote from him:

“God breathes through us so completely so gently we hardly feel it. yet it is our everything.”

Breathing is not just about what we do any more than music is just about what any of us does. Breathing connects us to something larger, something greater than just me.

The poet Don Paterson captures this beautifully in his series of sonnets on Orpheus. here is one called, simply Breath.

Breath

Breath, you invisible poem –

pure exchange, sister to silence,

being and its counterbalance,

rhythm wherein I become,

ocean I accumulate

by stealth, by the same slow wave;

thriftiest of seas … Thief

of the whole cosmos! What estates,

what vast space have already poured

through my lungs? The four winds

are like daughters to me.

So do you know me, air, that once sailed

   through me?

You, that were once the lead and rind

of my every word?

When we breathe we breathe in something that is not us and can recognise that we are dust that breathes. That this little breath that I breathe now is part of the air that inhabits the planet. 

It is a sign that we are connected to everything that is. 

This is why our pollution of the air is so frightening. We are polluting the stuff of our own lives. We are polluting ourselves.

It is a spiritual issue.

There is a wonderful book by Donald Miller the subtitle is “Non religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality” The book’s title is Blue Like Jazz and some of you may know the famous album by Miles Davis A Kind of Blue. That would probably be the album I would save if the waves took the remainder of my Desert Island choices.

In his introduction to his book Miller writes:

“I NEVER LIKED JAZZ MUSIC BECAUSE JAZZ MUSIC doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way. I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve.”

We live in an unresolved world. We live in unresolved times.

None of us can se ethe way ahead in this pandemic, or even know with certainty that we will be able to gather for this music festival in person next year or the year after.

Living with that unresolvedness is hard. It is stressful and creates anxiety.

But when we breathe we are always letting go. Our out breath matches our in breath. We might be able to hold our breath for a few seconds or even minutes but we can never hold on to our breath.

And as we let the breath go; if we wake up and recognise that God breathes through us, in us, that it it is the breath of God we will find a peace deeper and richer than we have ever guessed, we will  breathe the breath of God.

1 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 

fill me with life anew, 

that I may love the way you love, 

and do what you would do. 

2 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 

until my heart is pure, 

until my will is one with yours, 

to do and to endure. 

3 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 

so shall I never die, 

but live with you the perfect life 

for all eternity. 

Sermon Christ Church Cathedral 13/09/20: Resentment, Fairness and Black Lives Matter

Sermon Trinity 13 2020

Christ Church Cathedral and Church At Home, Diocese of Oxford (on-line service)

Having worked in schools for much of my adult life I’ve heard the line “That’s not fair.” on multiple occasions.

Children and young people have a heightened awareness of fairness. At its best this can lead to the wonderful idealism that the young have and heroic works for justice in the way that Greta Thunberg has been doing.

At its worst an unrealistic expectation of fairness can lead to resentment.

Fairness is not a reward for good behaviour and is in short supply in the random-ness of disease, accidents and tragedies.

The two readings we have just heard are wonderful, but quite complicated.

The key to understanding them, it seems to me, is to remember that both Jesus and St Paul were not so much in the business of converting individuals as in creating a community. 

A community of the converted. 

A community of disciples.  

Paul’s letters to the first Christianity communities are almost all about that community-building and how those communities deal with the real, practical questions. 

In today’s first reading what it’s ok or not ok for Christians to eat and what christians should do, if anything, about keeping holy days.

Jesus’ public ministry was relatively short, probably just three years. But that is still quite a long time to be travelling with a group of people. 

The disciples were a very intense form of community. It’s not surprising therefore that a lot of what Jesus teaches us about is how to be community, and particularly how to deal with the intense feelings that arise when human beings live and work together.

One of the key themes of many of the sayings and stories of Jesus is resentment. Fairness and unfairness. 

I think Jesus profoundly understands the corrosive nature of resentment as one of the key poisons that can destroy communities and individuals. 

Over and over again there is a clear reflection on the causes of resentment:

The labourers who work an hour at the end of the day and get paid the same a those who have worked all day; 

the older son who has stayed faithfully at home but then has to watch while a party is laid on for his younger brother who has just squandered half the family assets; resentment about who is the greatest, the favourite, among the disciples.

Today’s story is also about fairness and therefore about resentment. 

And it refers to a pattern of resentment that I see over and over again, with colleagues, church communities and across human societies. 

When someone is treated generously – like the servant in today’s gospel – they resent it and go on to treat others badly.

Now there are, no doubt, in-depth psychological reasons for this way in which we human beings sometimes react to generosity. 

But I want to think very practically about an issue of our own time and how we react to it.

In the twenty first century Christians, for the most part don’t worry too much about what food we are permitted to eat, although the climate crisis might raise more questions than most of us face on this. 

And most Christians are pretty settled about how we observe Sunday as the Lord’s Day and when we are most likely to worship. Although changing work and leisure patterns might suggest that we need to question that more than we do.

But we can’t get away from facing up to the crucial justice issues of our own day. I am fascinated by reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept across not only American cities but around the world and very strongly here in the UK.

It’s a matter of justice that resonates deeply in my heart. Not only because we good Anglicans, are, of course, opposed to racism. But also because of my experience as a Head teacher in south east London where my school was a majority black school, and as a priest there at a church where the congregation was also majority black. Hearing the accounts that my friends, colleagues, pupils and their families shared about everyday racism shook me to the core. 

And noticing racism in action myself.

 When I was a school chaplain to a black Headteacher, if she and I were stood together or alone in a room when a visitor came in the assumption that I was the Head. This happened almost every week. 

Or taking a group of pupils on a school visit and people walking passed black colleagues to talk to me, the white man at the back of the line. This happened on almost every school visit I went on.

And these are minor examples. Casual racism. Every black person I know can tell much more horrifying stories, but those accounts belong to them not to me.

Of course as good Anglicans we are opposed to racism. 

But are we really?

In so many of the conversations I’ve heard about Black Lives Matter someone says, usually not very far into the conversation: 

‘But what we need to teach is that every life matters.’

That is a classic resentful response. Noticing someone else’s need and then switching to universalise it. 

As if there is some kind of shortage of mattering. As if there is something unfair in noticing someone else’s suffering.

An answer, a solution to this can be found in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we had as our first reading. It comes towards the end of the reading after Paul has laid out the presenting issues,  and then he comes in with a typical major statement:

“We do not live to ourselves,

and we do not die to ourselves.”

It’s the sort of sentence from Paul that we are so used to hearing that we hardly notice it.

And yet it’s the heart of the gospel. 

It’s the revolution that is fundamental to conversion. 

We are no longer the centre of our universe. 

Jesus is.

When we are resentful it is from a position of self-centredness; it is claiming I deserve that; that’s mine; don’t take it from me.

When we don’t live to ourselves; when Jesus is the centre of our universe we realise that we are connected in him with everyone; Black lives matter because there is no longer me and them; there is simply us.

So how do you feel about Black Lives Matter?

I want to suggest a practical thing that we could all do to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter in our churches. It isn’t a revolution; it may appear at first to be a very shallow thing. But doing it can have a powerful effect on us.

So in my sermon available to the whole diocese today online in the Church At Home material I am suggesting that we go into all our churches including this cathedral church

and list all the pictures of all the people that you can see.

Perhaps its the clergy team photos, or the PCC members, list them;

then go on to the pictures, in the stained glass windows, banners and other pictures. Then do the same for church websites.

Now add up the people of colour we can see. 

***

Because of my time working with so many black people I have a large number of pictures of black saints, black heroes, and images of Jesus, Mary and others as black people. here are two of my favourites. The first is based on a famous icon of the story of Genesis where Abraham meets three angels or lords. It is often called the Trinity and seen as an image of the way Christians understand God to be. here the artist Meg Wroe has painted a version with the faces of three people from the diocese of Southwark on it. The original is in Southwark Cathedral and is, I think rather beautiful.

Meg Wroe

The other two are by Yvonne Bell an artist who worships in our diocese at Winslow  in Buckinghamshire. Christ of the Flowers, and Mother of God of Clemency.

When I moved here to Christ Church a few weeks ago 

among the removal team were two young black men. 

As they packed my collection of pictures and icons they were beside themselves at all the black images. It sparked long conversations with them as we worked about race, Black Lives Matter, faith and their own experiences of racism and church. It was a very beautiful conversation.

For Christians, working for justice is not about fairness. It is about God revealing himself.

Right at the start of revelation in Genesis we are told that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. Every human being is a revelation to us of God. Our reaction to every human being needs to be awe, wonder and reverence. 

We can depict Jesus as black, not because he was of African origin but because God reveals himself to us in every person.

Imagine if every church in our diocese had images of black and minority ethnic people in it. If every website included images of non-white people.

this is especially important in areas (like rural Staffordshire where I’ve been living for the last few years)

where no black people live.

I have been talking often in my first week about that little carving of the listener above the Sub Dean’s stall.  

Paying attention to Black Lives Matter, to the young in their yearning for justice is to show our love for them, show that we receive the image of God in them.

To make this building a home for all people is to make it a place where everyone can walk in and find themselves here, see themselves in the images, experience the divine in the holy women and holy men of the past, women and men of all races and nations.

Once we live God-centred lives we realise our true equality. As St Paul says at the very end of the first reading “We will all stand before the judgement seat of God.”

Thank fully God’s judgement is merciful and for that mercy “every tongue shall give praise to God.”

Because

“We do not live to ourselves,

and we do not die to ourselves.”

Canvas prints, commissions and cards of icons by Yvonne Bell cans be purchased via her website here.

Sermon: Bartlemas Chapel, Cowley, Oxford 23rd August 2020

St Bartlemas Chapel, Cowley

Vigil Mass 7:30pm Sunday 23 August

Isaiah 43: 8-13   Acts 5: 12-16.  Luke 22: 24-30

Three Scriptures:

You are my witnesses, says the Lord,

and my servant whom I have chosen,

so that you may know and believe me. 

Is 43:10

Many signs and wonders were done among the people

Acts 5:12

I am among you as one who serves.

You are those who have stood by me in my trials.

Lk 22: 26

When did you last hear the Lord speaking to you?

God longs to speak to us, with us, god longs for us to hear his voice.

And the first way in which he speaks to us, the fundamental place for us to go to hear him is in the words of Scripture. Which is why faithful, day by day reading of the bible is fundamental to Christian living. So perhaps this week you might want to spend time with the three beautiful Scriptures gifted to us on this feast of St Bartholomew apostle and martyr.

It is in three single verses, one from each reading that I believe the Lord spoke to me as I prepared to preach this evening.

You are my witnesses. The Lord say in Isaiah 43:10. 

We are all of us, by virtue of, that is the strength given us in baptism called to be witnesses. But we are not all called to be preachers and evangelists, this is what St Paul says in Ephesians 4 (11 ff) only some are called to evangelise.

For the writers of the New Testament the word for witnesses is the Greek word, martures; from which we get our word martyr. It was this word that the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures that the the new testament writers knew, was used here in Isaiah.

God calls all of us, you and me, each of us here; every baptised person to be his martyrs. Now in a strange way I find that quite liberating.

If witnessing simply meant talking about Jesus, telling people about our faith and encouraging people to come to church; well, it is all a bit one -dimensional. In some of the literature on mission it can all be made to seem a bit too easy. “Bring a friend Sunday and we can double our congregations.”!

“You are my martyrs”; is a whole other ball-game. We are all called to die for Christ. Well, at one level, of course, that is true. We are certainly all going to die one day. But this call is a call to be martyrs to die for a purpose and that purpose is made clear by Isaiah, it is so that “you may know and believe me.” Not so that others may know God, but so that we may know God; when we are martyrs; when we die;  we know God better. This is important.

It is in today’s Gospel  that we move to doing things for others. “I am among you” Jesus says, “as one who serves”.  And then he immediately describes the service the disciples have given him, “you have stood by me in my trials.”

I think the teaching given in these two readings is profound and important. The martyrdom we are called to; which I have come to believe is the only, the single aim of the spiritual life is what Christian writers call abandonment; what the new testament describes as dying to self. The possible New Testament references I could give here would take most of the night, so you will be pleased to know that I am not going to suggest more than a few. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) Jesus said “”If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself …” (Lk 9:23), “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies” (Jn 12:24 “whoever loses his life for my sake” (Mark 8:35) and so on.

This is the very heart of the gospel, and it is gospel, it is good news because it is profoundly liberating. 

When we are seeking to shore up our sense of self; when we are constantly seeking to affirm ourselves, even our identities; when we need possessions, or status, or qualifications, or power; or whatever it is that to make us feel like we exist; that we are real; the pursuit of all that is relentless; it is exhausting; and like any drug the more often we get it the weaker the effect and the more of it we need.

The alternative; letting go of whatever props us up may seem scary at first, perhaps even impossible to do but it sets us free. It releases us and allows us to see what is really important. Perhaps, in these Covid days of lockdown and strangeness you have seen how you can live without something that you once thought was vital to your life and well-being? Perhaps, you have found this in standing with someone in their trials?

I suggest one way in which we can both work on our dying to self, our martyrdom and in which we can measure our progress on this journey which is really, of course, a lifetime’s journey.

It is the extent of our capacity to pay attention to another person; to another human being. To be truly present to them.

To encounter them in a way which honours them, which recognises them as a revelation of the image and likeness of God.

There are some people who seem to have this gift naturally. Who, to meet is a pleasure and joy because they are not constantly thinking of the next thing to say, of what their response is going to be or even of somewhere else they would rather be; or someone else they would rather be talking to.

These people have the gift of being really present to us. Giving us their full attention.

My suggestion is that the scandal of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not that God is present; but that we are not.

This is captured beautifully by one of my favourite poets, Denise Levertov in her poem Flickering Mind. I will read it and it is also on the cards I have handed out.

Lord, not you,

it is I who am absent.

At first

belief was a joy I kept in secret,

stealing alone

into sacred places;

a quick glance, and away – and back,

circling.

I have long since uttered your name

but now

I elude your presence.

I stop

to think about you, and my mind

at once

like a minnow darts away,

darts

into the shadows, into gleams that fret

unceasing over

the river’s purling and passing.

Not for one second

will my self hold still, but wanders

anywhere,

everywhere it can turn. Not you,

it is I am absent.

You are the stream, the fish, the light,

the pulsing shadow,

you the unchanging presence, in whom all 

moves and changes.

How can I focus my flickering, perceive

at the fountain’s heart

the sapphire I know is there?

In our second reading tonight, from the Acts of the Apostles, we are told of the signs and wonders that were done among the people. It was this; not talking about the faith, not bring a friend Sunday that,  grew the church; it was the power of faith acting in the lives of the disciples that so struck those they met that they wanted to be a part of it.

When we meet someone who pays attention to us it is compelling. The poet Rilke says that to pay attention to is the best definition of love. I would call it holiness.

And we can learn to do it by spending time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. By bringing even our absence; even our flickering mind, to be present with Jesus. Just sitting there without expecting a spiritual experience, a revelation, without thinking about what to say. Just our own, ordinary, simple, straightforward presence. To be with Jesus in the way that Bartholomew was who he described as being without guile. To be guilelessly present to Jesus just as he is guilelessly present to us.

When we do that, rather than something for ourselves; when we do that, rather than accumulate something that builds up our ego. Then we are entering into abandonment; then we are becoming present to the Real Presence and then we will do signs and wonders; then we will stand by others in their trials; then we shall be martyrs, witnesses, that God is real; that God is true.

You are the stream, the fish, the light,

the pulsing shadow,

you the unchanging presence, in whom all 

moves and changes.

How can I focus my flickering, perceive

at the fountain’s heart

the sapphire I know is there?

“The aroma of love” – Guest post from the Bishop of Warrington

Monday in Holy Week is the day when the Diocese of Liverpool gathers at the Cathedral for the blessing of oils and the Renewal of Commitment to Ministry. In this time of pandemic the diocesan communications team prepared a video service. The Bishop of Warrington, The Rt. Rev’d. Bev Mason, offered a reflection on the powerful gospel reading John 12:1-11. It is a profound and deep meditation that moved me greatly. I am grateful to Bishop Bev for allowing me to post her words below. You can watch the service here:

In our reading, Jesus is back in Bethany. It’s after the raising of Lazarus so you can imagine his celebrity status there, and the cult following he’s attracting.  It’s also just 6 days before the crucifixion, and he’s having dinner with Lazarus and his friends.

Wouldn’t you have just loved to have been there, listening and participating in the conversations. Undoubtedly, he was preparing them, as well as himself, for his formal entry into Jerusalem as the Messiah. (We’d have celebrated this, from our places of confinement, yesterday on Palm Sunday).

Well! Suddenly the conversations are interrupted by Mary – she’ the one, remember, who would sit with the disciples at Jesus’ feet as they’re being apprenticed.  I don’t know that anyone would’ve noticed her getting up …. But they’d certainly have noticed what happened next! She quietly fetches some nard oil … she goes back to Jesus,  she kneels down and she pours the oil over His feet.  

Now Nard was an exotic oil –  it comes from the Himalayas and so imagine how costly this was.  And she doesn’t just take a few drops – she takes a pound of Nard. She gently massages it into his feet. And then letting down her hair, she wipes his feet with it. 

It’s so intimate, that it almost feels intrusive that anyone else should be present:   In this most tender and beautiful expression of love,  the oil is soaked up from one body to the other … and the aroma of love, fills the room.

Usually when hear of incense and aroma in the Bible, they’re associated with priestly offerings and sacrifice.  Mary would have known this – as I’m sure, she’d have known the teaching from Hosea, where God says, 

“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, 

the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. ESV Hos 6.6

In this ritual Mary is participating in Jesus’ death. 

I wonder if she knows that in doing so, she’s participating, too, in his risen life.  

Mary was a disciple of Jesus. She’d listened and watched and prayed and learned from Him. 

She knew that had Jesus been present when her brother was ill, he would’t have died. 

She saw him raise her brother from the grave.   

Through Jesus’ proximity to her and her, what we call,  teachable spirit, her asking and searching …. and desire to learn, Mary grew in the knowledge of God.  

Did she know she was in the presence of God?

At Jesus’ trial, just a week later, the Chief Priest will ask Jesus outright:  “Are you the Messiah? Are you the Son of God’… .  News that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead had spread and this was clearly what people were claiming on the streets of Bethany and in Jerusalem.  

Is this what Mary believed?  

I suspect so!  And I suspect it’s the knowledge of this and the fear of how this was all going to unfold, that brought her to her knees before him.  

This is a woman before the Messiah, the Son of God,  giving herself to him.

Today in this (Not the Chrism Mass!), from our places of isolation, we recall and we shall renew our commitment to God’s call upon our lives …  and the promises we’ve made to :

give ourselves to Him; 

and to follow and to serve him ….. in the good times and in the challenging times.  

We are each called in different, yet life-changing ways 

and each tasked with particular vocations and responsibilities.  

Friends,  I believe Mary teaches us so much about the Christian vocation.  

She sets before us a model of humility and service … 

She dares to buck stereotyping; 

In a room of men, she lets down her hair and exposes herself to rebuke – even though she’s about the service of Christ.  

She pre-figures the footwashing by Jesus of his disciples, in the Upper Room.  (I wonder if Jesus recalled this moment, as he washed his disciples’ feet!  

Mary embraces the drama of the anointing …. without explanation or commentary …  and in no small measure she pours out the costly oil, which speaks of the immeasurable love Christ pours upon us; and WE, in turn are to pour out upon others.

One of the immense challenges for each of us in these days of Coronavirus, is understanding what vocation means when things are unfamiliar. When we can’t minister in the tried and tested ways and when we mustbe distanced from people.    Mary draws us back to LOVE which is the essence of our being, our thinking, our actions, our service.  I think it’s this that Jesus was driving at, when he said, ‘I no longer call you servants. You are my friends.’

God calls us friends as he calls us to minister to him, and through him, to the world.   

And at the heart of calling and service is love.

This is exactly what we’ve been seeing in these present trials:

Friends, Bishop Paul and I are so very deeply touched and profoundly humbled by the faithful, creative and imaginative ways colleagues have adapted to the Corona crisis and how you’ve endeavoured to support, encourage, pray, lead praise, and provide pastoral care and bereavement support.  This is happening in parishes, hospitals, schools, prisons and very many other work places. Each in your way, and under very challenging circumstances, are pouring out the NARD of blessing of your calling – we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your inspirational ministries!  

For some Colleagues, confinement is something of a gift of time to pray and  read and learn. I encourage you all to make time to  attend to and build up your inner life.   

And as we journey, each in our way, through Holy Week, to the Cross and the Empty Tomb, 

may the life and joy of the resurrection touch and bless each of us, making us   ready for the new morning – and the world beyond isolation.    

God fill your heart with love.  God keep you safe and bless you.  Amen