Taking the Knee – a sermon for Trinity 2020

There are 4,000 people in Centenary Square. Most of them are young. Many of them are Black, some are Asian and some are White. Many are carrying home-made placards. There are waves of chanting: No Justice, No Peace; Enough is Enough; Say their Names; I can’t breathe; Black Lives Matter.

There is a lull in the chanting. It lasts longer than other silences and I notice that the people in front of me are ‘taking the knee’, lowering themselves to the ground in a symbolic gesture of reverence and humility.My son Joel and I and the people standing around us join them. Soon the whole square is kneeling and quiet. Placards are lowered. There is a pause followed by spontaneous, sustained applause.

I don’t know why 4,000 people knelt or what they were thinking. I can only guess. Some of us, I am sure, were honouring lost friends. Black people who have died in custody, in prison, in bungled arrests and on our streets. Some of us were honouring Black lives diminished by racism; people who have suffered injustices perpetrated by our systems of housing, education, and social care. Some of us were acknowledging our role, the times we have been silent, the times we have exploited our privilege unthinkingly, the times we have not cared enough to do or say anything. Perhaps some of the White Christians were thinking about our particular history; from the slaves branded with the initials of an Anglican mission organisation, to the lack of hospitality shown to the Windrush Generation and the unconscious bias still faced by Black people who seek to be a full part of our institution.

As the clapping faded, people stood again but we were changed. Changed by our corporate act of repentance, remembrance, and reconciliation. It reminded me of the Climate Strikes and once again we were being led by young people, people the age of my children, who seem to be the prophets for our times.

I feel ashamed that we have left the world such a mess and our young people are now being forced to take a lead, to tell truths we would rather hide and ask questions we don’t want to answer. They have not yet got so tied up with the systems that they are afraid to challenge. They have not invested in the structures to such an extent that the prefer the status quo to anything new.

Sometimes as Christians, we are not expected to ask many questions. We listen to sermons like this without being asked to interrogate what is being said. We have neat doctrines and formulas that tell us how to behave, who will get to heaven, how God is experienced and how we should worship. But at Trinity it is hard not to ask questions. I am yet to meet anyone who can give me a convincing explanation of what it means to worship this three-in-one God.

When I am asked about it, and I am a lot in interfaith conversations, I can’t and don’t want to offer a tidy doctrinal package. I can only offer the truth, that it is a metaphor, a mystery, poetry. Imagery reaching for that which can’t be described. The deepest, most beautiful things cannot be described directly. We don’t have all the answers. Our faith is not cut and dried. Our understanding of God is not complete.

And now we are learning again, our understanding of the world is not complete. We have had blinkers on and made assumptions. We have accepted bland explanations and half-truths because it is convenient to us. Our young people are now begging us to look again. They are calling us like the prophets to envision a new way of living. They are challenging us to stop living as if racism, supremacy, patriarchy, and the exploitation of the planet are inevitable.

One of my boys said this week that they could not understand why the church is not at the forefront of the movement for change. I am sure that question is being asked by many in that generation.

We need to change. As individuals and as a body. We need to ask some questions of ourselves and of those in power. We need to accept that what we have always known is not all there is. We need to welcome voices that are not often heard to explain our scriptures and share their experiences with us. We need to renew our faith and change our ideas about God, in order that God, so often depicted as a white, blue-eyed, European man stops being familiar. We need to allow our faith to be a source of questions, not a store of easy answers.

One thing that is often said of the Trinity is that is a model of community. Challenge can sound overwhelming or accusatory when we hear it alone. And today we can’t be together but we remain a community. Together we can learn to practice how to live as Jesus lived, empowered by the Holy Spirit so that all God’s children in their diversity and difference may know justice, peace and freedom in a society where no life is worth more than another and no-one is martyred for the colour of their skin.

Thinking (and praying) aloud on Maundy Thursday

Jesus took off his outer garments and put on a towel…  John 13 v 4.

 

These simple every day words are some of my favourite in the Bible. For me they describe poetically and precisely what it means to be a follower of Christ. They speak of the every day and ordinary, but they carry the truth of a sacrament – they point us to what is eternal and universal.

Jesus took off his outer garments – outer garments protect us and define us. Often, we wear clothes to make a statement about where we belong, who we want to be like or who we want to like us. They might carry markers of our ethnicity, class and perhaps most obviously gender. Our outer garments could be compared to the face we present to the outside the world- the face that proves our success, our strength or our status. They are the stuff of every day, the stuff we are encouraged to focus on, to make judgements on, to invest in. But to really follow Jesus we have to strip those things off and reveal our shared humanity – so we can come alongside other not as rescuers or saviours but as equals and friends. To really join in with the work God is doing in the world we have to rip up our own agendas and let go of our need for recognition and reward. The ultimate symbol of this, for us as Christians, is the crucifixion, where Jesus emptied himself completely, until he could say, ‘it is finished’.

And when we have got to that place of emptiness we have the space to fill, we have open hands and hearts and we can put on a towel – a symbol of compassion, care and humility. From the place where we have revealed our humanity in all its fragility, we can begin to wash the feet of those who need the balm of clean cool water on tired dusty limbs.

The people I would describe as followers of Jesus are people who prepared to take off their outer garments. I’ve met them in Birmingham, in Bosnia and in Belfast. I have met them in the Holy Lands where there are people who do not allow their identity as Palestinian or Israeli, Christian, Jew or Muslim to obscure the shared humanity they found with those they were supposed to oppose. I have met people who resist the role of victim so it doesn’t give them a reason for division and hatred, people who do not allow their trauma to allow them to retreat and erect hostile, defensive barriers.

Many of these people across the world have put on a towel. They have learnt how to forgive quickly, how to transform conflict, how to hold hurt and pain  and how to look fear in the eye.  Many have skills in peacemaking, healing, environmental work or a passion for theatre, space for hospitality or a commitment to education and empowerment. When they see their neighbour tired, thirsty and wearied by the journey they are ready to respond with love and compassion, grasping dirty, dusty soles and offering rest and solace for a moment.

Covid-19 has forced all of us to loosen our outer garments – although I am in no way saying we are all equally effected by this. But now is a time when our humanity – with its need for oxygen, friendship, touch and food is at the forefront of our minds. We are reminded that we fragile and interconnected, blessed and privileged yet vulnerable.

Tonight, we remember Jesus breaking bread and sharing wine with his disciples, He reminded them that they were fragile, they were interconnected, they were blessed but they were vulnerable.

Tonight is the night when we usually strip the church of all its trimmings, revealing angular wooden furniture, bare walls, empty candlesticks and silence, the silence of prayer.

Today I am reminded again that prayer is sometime all we have – and we can wrap ourselves in it. And in prayer we can offer our friend and neighbour, our enemy and our oppressor, our families and those we love the balm of cool water running over tired weary feet, the relief of loving touch and the gaze of compassion. So in these unusual and strange days, which are holy for many, when we’re not zooming and skyping, let us pray.

Here is one to get you started – offered today by the Corrymeela community:

God who washes our feet,
God who commands us to love:
before the prayers in the garden,
and the stations of the cross;
before the tomb and the spices
and the stone they put in place,
there was this moment
when you showed us what it meant
to be divine.
May we not forget
that the power to defeat death
was not what you wanted us to imitate.
It was to lay aside all other things
and to love.
Amen.

A Lent sermon from one who wanders in the Wilderness

A sermon based on the reading set for the first Sunday of Lent. Matthew 4 1-11

 

A cultural desert, I feel deserted, the desert is barren, it’s a wilderness out there. I like words and I enjoy thinking about what words we put together and what words sound like each other. We don’t have many positive associations with either of the words desert or wilderness. But I love the desert.

People often ask me why I travel to the Holy Lands so often, there are a number of noble answers I can give you but one of the most truthful is that I love the landscape  the desert landscape that surrounds the towns and villages of the Bible. The space, the emptiness, the quiet and the broad horizons bring me peace. The stony ground, the dryness and the sharp edges probably reflect my heart and soul!. Last summer I spent four days on a desert retreat in the Negev, it was a time of restoration and healing. A time to see the greatness of God in nature, the splendour of creation revealed in stars, oasis, the dramatic edges of rock formation’s – including one known as Lot’s wife, and freedom from the constant demands of having mobile data or wifi.

The Irish poet and theologian Padraig O’Tuama claims there is a recurring question Jesus asks his disciples and continue to ask us running throughout the Gospels: will you choose life in the wilderness or death in the city.

This may seem counter-intuitive. We visualise the desert as a place of death and it certainly is a place of danger. Even when I was there I had the odd moment when it felt unsafe – one evening I was happily sipping my Earl Grey tea and gazing at the sky when I was urged to stand up immediately and shake my clothes – a guide had seen a scorpion run over my mat. He was always keen to make sure there was fire burning wherever we stopped – not for warmth but for safety.

We know there is not much to eat in the desert and in the summer water is certainly in short supply. Its an isolated place and far removed from the healthcare, supermarkets, policing and infrastructure that we believe keep us safe in the city.

But the city as I think Padraig understood it has too many temptations for our souls to stay alive. We are forced to conform to stay successful, our focus becomes limited to our success in terms of wealth and status, we are disconnected from the land and creation, we are limited by walls either literally or metaphorically and we are subject to the power of institutions and lawmakers. Without time in the wilderness we do not have the strength to live as children of God, our distinctiveness is eroded and our stories overwhelmed.

In the desert we are driven to hear a different story. We become acutely aware of our internal drivers. Our physical needs – that might tempt us to turn bread into stones, our  emotional need for connection, security and specialness, that might tempt us to test God and our psychological need for power, recognition and validation – that might tempt us to seek the adoration and worship of others. Jesus can resist these temptations because he knows the stories of the people of God, the people who wandered in the desert for 40 years, being formed, tested and refined. His imagination was shaped by the story of a God who sets people free, who guides, who comforts and provides.

The writer Ben Okri says: ‘Stories, are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations.’  For me an important Lenten discipline is to listen to the stories I tell, the stories I hear, the stories I repeat and see if they are reflecting the values I choose to live by. It might also be a time to listen to the stories our nation tells itself and think if there is any small way we can start to change the narrative or begin narratives the challenge the dominant stories.

Lent also seems to me to be a time to rehearse or practice for the times when we really need to exercise our spiritual muscles of discernment, dependency on God, faith and courage. There may be crunch times in our lives when we are called to set aside our physical, emotional and psychological needs to step out into something new and challenging or stand against the powers of evil manifest in political systems, corporations and institutions. As Jesus approached his death on the cross – he faced again the same temptations as he faced in the desert. He was offered wine to meet his physical need for drink but he refuses it, the men beating Jesus taunt him to prophesy but he refuses to use his divine power for magic tricks and the passers-by urge him to save himself from the cross but again he refuses, knowing that as tempting as miraculous short-cut might be, it will not serve God’s purposes for the universe.

We never know when we might be asked to risk our own comfort in order to confront evil or stand up for the oppressed. We know that is what saints do and we know it is a part of our discipleship but unless we have rehearsed in the desert, in solitude and prayer, we will not know how to respond and we will walk away or miss the moment – joining the crowds and townspeople in unthinking conformity and apathy.

When we pray the prayer Jesus taught us we ask not to be led into temptation and to be delivered from evil. You are delivered from something not by avoiding it but by going through it – think of childbirth. We are led into temptation when we fail to realise that we are prioritising our own comfort, avoiding risk, taking shortcuts for our own benefit and thus becoming tangled in the demands, priorities and values of the town. We can only see that in the wilderness. The wilderness of silence, of solitude, or self-awareness. The wilderness where we eat the bread and drink the wine that nourishes our soul and reminds us of lives that are broken and poured out for others. The wilderness where we deliberately tame our need for constant attention, consumption and security to experience what it means to be dependent on God.

Some of us this lent will be in a wilderness, not because we have chosen it but because that is where life has led us. Some us are creating our own space to see ourselves more clearly as we practice Lenten disciplines. However you got there, my prayer for you is that you find God there as you have time and space to see yourself with fresh eyes, to hear the stories of God’s love for God’s people and to prepare yourself to discern God’s call to you to dance with the Holy Spirit in the broken, forgotten and exploited corners of the world.

Amen.

A sermon I am not sure about – for discussion

A Sermon preached at a communion service on 19th January to theological students thinking about discipleship.

This was the reading before the sermon:

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you belonged to the world,[a] the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants[b] are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 It was to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’

26 “When the Advocate[c] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. (From John Chapter 15; NRSV version)

I wonder how many of us here are hated. I won’t ask for a show of hands but I doubt it’s many. In fact, I expect our churches would not consider us suitable ministers if we were among those who are hated by many. Much of church life seems to be about doing the nice thing, having no enemies and living in peace and yet it is clear from Jesus’s teaching that he expected us to have enemies and he expected us to love them.

So why on earth should a response of hatred be considered a norm for discipleship. I want to think about hatred for a bit – its not something we often talk about. We like talking about love – hatred, not so much.

We see the world hating people everyday. There is the easy Daily Mail kind of hatred for people who are wrongdoers – top of the list are paedophiles, then perhaps rapists and murderers. Their crimes are dangled in front of us giving us an excuse to other them and revel in the fact that we are not them and they are not us. If we ourselves have personally been affected by serious crime, abuse or wrongdoing we will have other reasons to hate mixed with grief, anger, fear and resentment

Perhaps many of us harbour hatred for those who have done us wrong in our personal or collective histories – slave traders, politicians, teachers, or religious leaders – those who have abused the power they have over us and diminished our lives in some way. I have no wish to deny the oppression and injustice you have faced individually or collectively but these people can also become caricatures of wrongdoing that leave us the blameless victim freed from the responsibility of looking how we use our power and privilege in relation to others.

Jesus is expecting his followers to use their power well, for the liberation not the subjugation of others, so this is not the way we are expected to attract hatred – though we are all flawed and we may find ourselves confronted angrily time to time when we abuse the power we have.

I spent the first 45 years or so of my life not being hated by anyone. I often struggled with the love your enemy stuff because I didn’t really seem to have any. Then I started getting involved in peacemaking and reconciliation stuff and that’s when I started to make a few enemies – tho’ I don’t know that I can yet claim to wear ‘hatred’ badge of honour.

I think one of the drivers of human behaviour is to take sides and define ourselves as being against an other. Often this is seen as virtuous. I was very tempted to join demonstrations against the Trump visit last year. In church we are asked to take sides on questions of gender and sexuality. The ‘world’ asks us to join fully it’s military, economic and ideological systems. In some ways we cannot avoid taking sides and if we examine our lives we see we collude with the powerful and unjust systems in many ways, large and small.

But is this how it should be? Jesus seemed to avoid submitting to or joining in with unjust structures or any economic system at all. My life cannot claim to have avoided such collusion but I was one of those kids, probably because I was a weird kid with slightly weird parents, who never sat comfortably in one group and I still struggle to take sides.

When I first went to Bosnia with a charity that seeks to honour those affected by the genocide in Srebrenica I found myself in quite a heated debate with someone who really wanted me to understand that I needed to get on the  ‘right’ side. From what I know of that conflict, the Bosnian Muslims were the most affected by the war, they seemed to have the least power and the stories of their suffering and perseverance are incredibly moving. But I maintained a curiosity about the other side – what had happened to them, what stories did they tell, how were they suffering, what would bring them to a place of peace. In the end, I was asked what I would do in a rape – surely I would take the side of the victim. I thought for a while and then said what would be most important for me is that the harm is stopped and then I would want both victim and perpetrator to receive whatever they need to be made whole and restored to God’s image.  I try to hold this same position in my work in Israel-Palestine and it doesn’t make you popular. It means I am not comfortable company for either the majority of Israelis or the majority of Palestinians –I  risk being seen as a ‘normaliser’, a terrorist sympathiser perhaps even a traitor.

In her book It Will Not Be Taken Away From Her, Fran Porter writes how a woman in Northern Ireland describe this middle ground – the woman quoted says only  God is able to be in the middle of situations of total opposites and not be crushed by them .  She continues: ‘The difference between God and us is that when we get stuck in the middle we get pulled apart, and , for me, you have to choose sides because its too painful to be on two sides at once…  I choose generally the side without power  because to stay in the middle was such a crucifying experience that there was no way you can live there, it was too painful.'(pages 139-140)

I am not hated or in excruciating pain because I only tip my toe into the middle, maybe it is only possible for me because I have never really experienced oppression and grew up with tons of privilege. But in what we know of Jesus’s life I see him standing in the middle, holding opposing ideas together, not really being comfortable in a group and not willing to side with any narrative to the exclusion of another. Jesus did it and was crucified for it – hated by Jews and Gentiles alike. I believed we are called there as disciples – at least to visit even if we cannot live there. I believe the middle is where we find truth of testimony and remain open to the truths of narratives that compete with our understandings and challenge our settled and fixed ideas. These are the places where we hear the Holy Spirit, the promised advocate,  speaking the words of God – words of salvation, healing and freedom.

I have talked about Bosnia and the Middle-East but this country too is crying out for people who are slow to take sides and willing to take seriously competing narratives. The Church too needs ministers of reconciliation to tend to its own woundedness. As we remember today with broken bread and wine outpoured Jesus’s call to follow him to places of pain and disarray let us ask God to open our hearts and minds with compassion as the Holy Spirit leads us to places where we can hear truth – truth that will set us free and liberate the world from fear. Amen.

O Little Town of Bethlehem….

I bet nearly everyone reading this blog has heard this Christmas staple in the past few weeks. I wonder how you responded to it?  Does it jar, inspire or are you numbed by familiarity? Does it occur to you that Bethlehem is a real place, a place in the midst of conflict, the home to thousands of people who share your dreams, your hopes and your passions.

If you have spent any time at all there, you will know it’s rarely still. Traffic is a major problem for the city’s residents as they are unable to build by-passes, tunnels or flyovers and the roads in the town are choked and congested. The Church of the Nativity often looks like a traffic jam too – as tourists stand nose to tail in hour long queues to visit the grotto. There are sounds of life too – busy markets, children in schools, coffee shop chatter and the buzz of friendships gathered round sheesha pipes in the bars and restaurants across the city.

Sometimes there are other noises in the night, the noises of tanks rumbling into refugee camps, shouting as an arrest is made, the heart-stopping sound of weaponry which might be followed moments later by the haunting call to prayer that wends its way over the hills and valleys of this holy place.

When I first visited the Holy Lands I felt as if I had woken up in the land of Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel. Walking past a signpost that simply says Sion on it makes me shake my head in disbelief – the concrete reality of biblical mythology is a faith transforming phenomena for many. But I no longer visit these lands to walk in Jesus’s footsteps – I now visit to walk with people who live as Jesus lived.

Back home in Birmingham much of my work revolves around interfaith social action and it is often cited that the ‘Golden Rule’ is found in all the world’s major religions – the rule to love your neighbour as yourself.

But in the Holy Lands of Israel-Palestine so many people I meet have gone beyond this baseline and challenged themselves to love their enemy – in the midst of conflict, fear, oppression and injustice.

Christians, Muslims, Jews, Druze and people of no explicit faith have followed their calling and allowed themselves to be broken open to love the other in small ways and large ways. Some Palestinians can’t meet people who live in Israel, but they work to prevent the spread of violence and despair by empowering women, giving young people ways to articulate their pain or by investing in training and development for those trapped in poverty.

Jewish people and Palestinians together run programmes to help both peoples confront and heal trauma, bereaved parents meet across borders to seek comfort, solace and reconciliation in their loss and former soldiers join forces to wage peace.

Living in an occupied land is not easy. Water is rationed, this month there have been power cuts across the West Bank, movement is limited, violence can and does flare up; everyday there are many injustices and restrictions to navigate.

But so many people refuse to hate, they refuse to teach their children to hate and their lives speak instead of compassion, hospitality and generosity.

These people are human and sometimes I do hear a complaint – not aimed at the Israelis, or their own Government, or at Donald Trump but at us, the Church and particularly the church in the West.

Why have we forgotten the Palestinians? Why are we not in solidarity? Why do so many Christians support the Occupation and ignore the presence of Christians in the Holy Lands. One Christian leader suggested it was because we in the West have hardly any concept of Kingdom and thus of kinship. Our faith has become reduced to a ticket to the Good Place, our discipleship to a matter of personal morality and convention.

Perhaps another reason is our guilt. The Christian roots of anti-Semitism and our collusion with the holocaust is truly shameful part of our history and practice. How many people have recently  sang Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending  and in particular the words:

‘Those who set at nought and sold him, Pierced and nailed him to the tree, deeply wailing, shall their true messiah see’?

Are we really longing to bring Jewish people to a place of wailing and do we still want to perpetuate the accusation of deicide that has caused such harm over two thousand years? We cannot deny that our ill treatment of Jewish people over millennia has had deadly consequences and therefore shouldn’t we recognise and support the establishment of a Jewish state as a place of sanctuary?

But I believe this is not a zero-sum game. Being for one thing does not mean being against another. Jesus teaches us that. He loved all who crossed his path, he healed the sick child of an occupying soldier, he bantered at the well with a Samaritan woman and went to tea with a tax collector. But he was still passionate about justice, freedom and kindness.

I have friends in both Israel and Palestine – Christians, Muslims and Jews. I hope there is room for me to be passionate about equal rights for everyone in the land. I hope there is space to grieve at the pain of generations slaughtered by Nazi ideology and to hear the hurt of a Palestinian family who lost their home, livelihood and father in the Nakba of 1948.

I don’t go to the Holy Lands to ‘do’ anything special. There are enough peace-making experts, theologians and reconcilers there already. I go to listen and learn. I take others to listen and learn. I go because the people there have become my friends and I want to be in solidarity with them as they live lives that speak of Jesus. I go too to learn how I might live here, as we become aware of the fragmented and fissured nature of our society. Who needs to be heard? Who needs to grieve? Who is living like Christ with a heart broken open with love for the ‘other’ refusing polarities, binaries and the comfort blankets of self-justification, blame and scapegoating? How do we see what God is doing through ordinary people and join in, in Birmingham, in Bethlehem  or wherever God sends us.

If anyone is interested in visiting the Holy Lands please contact me at jess@nearneighbours.com.

 

 

Beauty in Brokenness

Beauty for brokenness, hope for despair….God of the poor, friend of the weak, give us compassion we pray..

This is a song that I have grown up with and perhaps would have been part of my formation in the 80s and 90s. But singing it while on a reconciliation pilgrimage last weekend it suddenly jarred, Who is the ‘us’ in the chorus. Are ‘we’ the poor and weak or are we the rich and strong who need to have compassion for ‘them’ the weak and poor. Are beauty and brokenness incompatible – does one really replace the other or can they be found together? Is not hope seen its most pure and compelling form when it exists alongside despair – a phenomenon I have seen most clearly on visits to the Holy Lands.

The Church of England has suddenly got very interested in reconciliation. There are new courses being developed, the Archbishop’s Lent book is on the subject and for me personally its an emerging theme for my ministry post-curacy.

I don’t think that I or the church as a whole can approach reconciliation ministry as if we think we are whole and sorted and can rescue a broken world. The church has very public flaws and failing, its internal conflicts are well known nationally and internationally. I am glad my failings are not known nationally and internationally – but they are nonetheless real and deep – I cannot pretend to my friends, my family or even to my enemy to be sorted and sinless.

My ministry, now my time as St Peter’s as a curate is over, has several roles and channels of interest – as my focus on international conflict develops and I remain deeply concerned about the welfare of this city and nation. As a trustee, tutor, facilitator, deacon, networker and leader the one thing that holds everything together is reconciliation – the desire to bridge divides, bring people together, to embrace the other, love those considered to be our enemy and to form a more inclusive culture.

The debates and negotiations around Brexit have revealed hidden divisions in our community – these are not usually the obvious divides. I have friends from many different faiths and ethnicities, from different levels of wealth and education among my 450 friends on Facebook but I only had one person on there who is an open Leave supporter. I was recently describing the network of people I love in Birmingham who come from all faiths and none and encourage and support each other to make a difference wherever they can. “Is there anyone in your group who reads The Sun, or even The Telegraph? ” I was asked. I doubt it and wish there were – how to reach beyond people like us, way beyond the usual suspects, continues to challenge me as our network changes, morphs and develops.

The visible divides can still be problematic. I wonder if Shamima Begum would have been treated differently if she were a young, white, middle-class woman groomed by a far-right cult? It makes me sad that Jewish people in Birmingham need so much security when they gather for worship and that not everyone feels safe (whether they are safe or not is another matter) visiting every part of this city.

I hear the call to reconciliation most clearly through Jesus’s call  to love our enemies. His life, death and resurrection show me what it means to live for others, to resist evil with love and to journey in obedience to God even if the cost is crucifixion.  If any of us could live even with a fraction of his faithfulness it would have a huge impact on the world.

At the moment I am doing some work for a human rights charity, BRAP, running my women’s leadership programme, teaching and tutoring at Queens Theological Foundation and doing bits and pieces for local and national charities and for the diocese. The broad umbrella for all this work is reconciliation in my mind and heart and I hope to strengthen the focus on this as my developing ministry emerges, keeping my connection with Israel-Palestine and Bosnia too.

I am also being equipped and trained for this work too. So that’s why I was visiting a reconciliation centre in Yorkshire as part of a  pilgrimage visiting six centres around the UK experienced in this work and as part ofthe worship there I found myself singing Beauty for Brokenness. I  am also learning a lot about facilitation at BRAP  and am learning to be a coach at Warwick University. I am so grateful for the equipping and the experiences I am being given.

But most of all, I am grateful that I have people around me who help me see my brokenness, my weakness, my poverty and know that the beauty is found within the fragility. The people who inspire me are not those waiting for God to take them out of the mess, nor those who feel God has prevented them from getting into any mess but they are the people who know they are in the mess but know God is there too and they are doing all they can to keep glimmers of glory shining in the shadowy places of beauty and brokenness.

 

 

A Midnight Mass Sermon from Bethlehem

My sixth visit to Bethlehem happened to land in the week before Christmas. The city was full of lights and people were as usual welcoming and generous. But there was a hollowness too – latest statistics show the number of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza has fallen to just 1%, there are very few tourists and even few visitors from local villages, business is slow and there are no signs that lasting peace, justice and freedom will be born again in this city and region any time soon. Its a place that has come to be important to me spiritually, politically and personally and it was a privilege to spend time there again and to find a quiet moment to write my sermon to be given in Birmingham – at a service where we look forward to welcoming people from different faiths alongside our regular worshippers.

This reading from John’s Gospel will be read before the sermon.

John 1 1-14

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.[b]

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[d] full of grace and truth.

 

Allahu Akbar – you’ll have to imagine the gentle sound as I can’t add the sound file here

In the midst of the gentle plainsong of the call to prayer I picked out the familiar words. I was awake at 4 in the morning, in the quiet dead of night, staying in a small and rather chilly apartment not far from the centre of Bethlehem. The sounds float across the hills and valleys of this little town. Drifting over the shops, businesses, refugee camps, mosques, churches, walls, watchtowers and military installations. Allahu akbar – God is the greatest. The word takes form – as it drifts, filled with promise, comforting yet stirring, echoes of the eternal hope in a place where despair seems to be taking a terrible grip.

As I lay there listening I could not help thinking of the word taking flesh, right here in this town, just half a mile from where I lay. Living briefly among the people here, then in Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Galilee – places now familiar to me and visited by thousands who want to get as physically close as possible to the enfleshed word who shone God’s glory among us.

Last time I was here, we managed to sneak down to the grotto that marks the birthplace of Jesus and kneel at the spot where Jesus was supposed to have been born. There is an endless line of people shuffling, bowing, praying and leaving – at this time of year the queue comes out of the door of the church  as pilgrims dash in by bus and dash out again.

Why are people so drawn to this man Jesus, the man who is the Word, life, light and glory. Why do people fly thousands of miles to be close to the places that he inhabited, to touch stones and walk streets that he might once have walked?

I think the answer lies in the last verse of our reading.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son full of grace and truth.

Many, many, many of us, in our deepest being long for a unity with God. We long to know the embrace of the eternal, the unconditional love of the one who created us, the transforming tenderness of the one who can make us whole. But at the same time, deep within our minds and hearts we know God is so mysterious, so unlike us, so not human and so perfect that we are not sure if and how we can connect with such a being. And then there is somebody who can help us make that leap. Somebody who breathed, walked and talked like us but is bringing the fullness of divine glory to our tarnished, tired world.

So what is this glory of God that Jesus brings to earth. In the Hebrew tradition the word for glory is Shekinah – it’s a feminine word that permeates the Jewish understanding of God throughout the scriptures. In the Jewish, mystic tradition, as I understand it, the Kabbala tradition, shekinah is central to the understanding of creation.

In this understanding of the story God had to withdraw and become small in order to make room for the created world.  God contracted and there was darkness and then there was light- 10 vessels filled with the light of God’s glory were sent out to fill the earth. But the power and the light and the glory were too much for the vessels and they shattered – sending fragments of glory out into the universe, like sand, like stars, like seed. (And according to this myth, more of these fragments fell in the Holy Land than anywhere else).

So now humanity has a purpose. To find these shards of light and where they are imprisoned to free them, when they have become dull, to help them back to holiness. And when enough has been gathered – the world will be restored and healed.

For us as Christians, we can see in Jesus one who carries the light, restored and full, holy and whole, healthy and healing. We can see how we could be if we nurture and restore and knit back together the light that lives in us. We can see how others could be, even those we regard as unholy or unsacred, if their light too was whole and healed.

Jesus walked among us, full of grace and truth. It’s odd how virtues and gifts often seem to go in pairs. One of my favourite organisations is the Centre for Action and Contemplation,  because one of those is not enough on its own – we need new ways of being alongside new ways of doing.  And it is the same for grace and truth – they need each other. Grace, the unconditional love of God, the non-stop kindness, the unquenchable compassion. We need it. We need to know that we won’t be abandoned, that we cannot fall out of the circle of God’s care, that God never gives up on us. But if that were it we could become lazy, complacent, infantilized and purposeless. Grace needs truth alongside. Truth keeps us learning, changing, seeking and responding. Truth sets us free. It opens vistas, corrects our misunderstandings, widens our preconceptions and heals our prejudice. But on its own truth can feel overwhelming, threatening and scary. It can make us defensive and we may run away from it. But together truth and grace give us what we need to become whole.

Grace and truth, offered to us by the one who made the earth and walked among us,  let the divine light grow in us and we too can share God’s glory. And of course, we can be grace and truth for one another. We can offer support and love and care while making sure to be truthful, not to collude but to offer others new ways to see themselves and the world around them.

In Bethlehem I have met many who seek to live lives of grace and truth in difficult circumstances. Sometimes these people feel they are not changing anything, achieving anything, doing anything,  yet their presence is essential and their lives speak of divine love.  Our lives too, wherever we are, can be a sacrament, a tangible sign, of divine love.

At Christmas we may need plenty of grace, we may hear some truths for which we are not prepared. But as we spend times with those we love and those we sometimes find hard to love, let us look for the glory of God in them and offer them the priceless, timeless gift, that flows from the gift of God to humankind, the gift of grace and truth, working hand in hand to bring us all to the glory of God.

Amen.

Hear again the call to peace – a sermon of remembrance for the people of Bosnia.

Shell-shocked. A war without weapons. Pock-marked. Scarred. Raw open wounds. Brokenness. Injustice.  My clearest memories of three days in Bosnia are abstract but vivid.

There is no doubt, Bosnia remains shattered by the war. Its politics, economy, the social fabric, cities and towns and individual lives remain in tatters nearly 23 years after the war ended. Perpetrators and victims meet in shops and libraries but justice has not been done and acts of denial continue the cycle of violation. Three presidents, representing different religious and ethnic identities take it in turns to lead the country but without real power or collaboration the economy is stagnant – only in the Democratic Republic of  Congo are more people unemployed than in Bosnia.  Many who can, leave.  Sarajevo, the capital city, is broken. The city bears physical scars of shooting and siege.  The river running through the centre of the city is a reminder of the fierce front line and schools, neighbourhoods and lives are divided by the legacy of the war. A city of co-existence and tolerance is now living with an uneasy truce.

But this beautiful country has another dimension. Survivors who have witnessed horrors and grieved and mourned seek to live without hatred and revenge. In Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 people were massacred, I saw the tenderness of a younger man, translating for an older woman – his hands resting lightly on her shoulders, he kisses the top of her head with affection and respect like the son she has lost.  The Mufti of Sarajevo, a senior Iman, brings young faith leaders together to train for peace, inspired by his Muslim faith he reaches out to those belonging to the same faiths as those who have killed and persecuted his family to offer a new way forward.  The city is permeated with time honoured traditions, coffee that can never be rushed, hospitality offered generously, good wine, great food, beautiful scenery, history and the fascinating mix of cultures – a line on the main road where east meets west – the Ottoman empire and the Austro-hungarian empire colliding.

Reading a travel book on the flight out – these words leap out  – the passage from coercion to co-operation, of people coming together because they choose to and not because they are forced to, is one of the greatest human journeys. My encounters in Bosnia bought home how different countries are in different places on that journey –  asserts the author.

But am I different? Are we different? What choices do we make about education, housing, socialising, worship, work and leisure?  Christians in Bosnia were perpetrators of horrific identity based violence. They waited to commit the Srebrenica genocide until July 11th so it could be an offering to St Benedict. They prayed the same prayers us as, read the same scriptures and worshipped the same God yet in a harrowing piece of film we watch them stop a brutal execution because the batteries on the video camera ran out and they wanted to go back to base for some more before finishing off the massacre.

How do we as Christians, as people who follow Jesus, make peace-making, reconciliation, love-building and boundary breaking central to our faith and practice? How are we formed and how are we forming others so that fear, greed and identity politics cannot turn friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour in an ‘intimate’ war like the one in Bosnia. Are we happy with an uneasy truce when we meet someone who threatens our beliefs, challenges our privilege or competes with us for resources we perceive as scarce?

I pray that the church will be seen and known as a community of people who live out the call to love our enemies, to embrace the other, to recognise that we are intimately connected and that every single human being carries the spark of the divine and is loved by the one we seek to worship. We remember today the terrible dangers of division, the carnage of hatred unleashed and the futility of violence but we listen too for the call of Christ, who embodied the way of peace, who gives us peace, who died for peace and we pray today for the grace to follow where Christ leads us. Amen.

Peace by Piece

Here is one I wrote earlier – about a month earlier – when we were just back from Israel-Palestine and the Women, Equality and Faith conference was still being planned. But it has just been published this week on the Heartedge newsletter. Hope it is worth an airing….

I’m writing this a week after flying back from Israel where I had been part of a group of 24 people from Birmingham. Drawn from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions, together we were exploring holiness, conflict and peace in one of the most contested places in the world.

As we returned I was plunged into preparations for a conference on Gender, Equality and Faith to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th. These two pieces of work may seem at first glance to have nothing in common but for me they are both about peace.

I believe the Bible is a narrative of peace and reconciliation, Jesus’s death was a cosmic peace-building moment and all Christians are called to be peace-makers. Policy makers call one part of peace ‘cohesion’ and for this reason I have got involved in various cohesion initiatives across the city.

But at a recent event we were presented with a report of findings drawn from a series of ‘Honest Conversations’ that challenged the idea that faith communities have a serious part to play in cohesion. The report concluded that peace-builders needed to offer spaces and places in which all were free to participate and contribute but faith communities often excluded groups of people from full participation for doctrinal reasons or cultural reasons and not only were non-believers marginalised, women’s voices were not often heard, minority ethnic Christians have struggled to find a place in established churches and LGBTI+ people were not welcome. These are some of the issues we’ll be exploring at our conference.

The importance of shared space and place was highlighted on our recent visit to the Holy Land. Peace-builders struggled to find spaces and places that all could access because of the way land was divided and controlled. Organising events for faith leaders generally meant no women were at the table and so we met activists who had switched their focus and terminology  from faith ‘leaders’ to faith ‘actors’ to make sure that women could be present and represented. I would like to see that happen here too. Another issue for peacemakers in Israel-Palestine is language – how can peace be built when people don’t share a common language?

Sometimes as Christians in the UK we speak a completely different language from our neighbours. I remember joining a mission organisation aged 18 and not speaking for two weeks as I had no idea what anyone was talking about because I came from a different church tradition from other participants. Our Christian culture can be baffling. Our confident pronouncements can leave people feeling judged.

Our neighbourhoods are crying out for places where all people are welcome, for activities that include all people, for encounters that turn the stranger into a friend. Our world is crying out for models of community that straddle difference, for people who love one another across perceived divides.

Ringing in my ears is the challenge from a Palestinian peacemaker, Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust: be a model for us of how to live well together. If you can do it in Birmingham the ripples will reach us here.

Every day, we pray the oldest Christian prayer – ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ I am sure that all in the kingdom of heaven are included, are free to participate and are valued. Let’s have a go – in Birmingham, in Bradford, in Bristol and beyond and we can be sure the ripples will be felt across the world.

PS The Gender conference has now happened and we had a great time as women and men together exploring what it means to flourish, to share leadership and to be fully engaged with our faith communities. Before the conference we commissioned our friends at BRAP to hold some focus groups exploring how women engage with their faith communities. You can read the report here.

Here is the graphic report produced during the conference

NN - IWD2018(S)

The Subjectiveness of Seeing

Walking along the canal today I passed a man who was intent on taking a photo. He stood for quite some time focussing and refocussing a professional looking camera, gazing at a spot over the water. After passing him I glanced back to try and understand what had caught his eye – but I could see nothing – just a bleak tree backed by a sixties tower.

This moment reminded me of the reflections we had yesterday, one month after our visit to Israel-Palestine as a group of Christian, Muslim and Jewish friends. The Israeli organisation which led the group is called ADAShA which means lens in Hebrew and Arabic.  They accompanied us with great expertise, giving us multi-faceted perspectives, helping us to understand nuance and complexity, stretching our understanding and challenging our preconceptions.

As we met yesterday one of our local group leaders commented that to some extent we had seen what we wished to see. I wanted to disagree and say what we saw are the facts on the ground, they are indisputable. But the conversation continued reminding me that on our first day in Jerusalem I had said I was unnerved by the predominance of guns because they spoke to me of violence and oppression. Other people saw guns and felt grateful for safety and security. For others who had lived abroad they were simply normal. The diversity of the group and leading and guiding of Adasha worked to move us on from our preconceptions and give us new understandings and new insights.

When I was a teenager, one of the few convincing things I heard about repentance – that was much more palatable than the no drinking, no smoking, no dating interpretation – was the idea that repentance means having new eyes, new lenses – it is a whole new way seeing.

I have been to Israel-Palestine four times and looked with four different perspectives at the situation there but I still carry fixed ideas, prejudices and judgements.

If there is anything I am learning over the last few months it seems to be one simple thing. It is probably something some people don’t need to learn or others learnt ages ago – that simple thing is that it is not important to be right.

In Scriptural Reasoning this evening we looked at King Hezekiah and his healing. He is described as man ‘who has walked before you (God) in truth and with a perfect heart and have done that which is good in your sight.’  Not a bad epitaph. To me a truthful character seems quite different from being right.

Right is about facts, truth is about virtue; right is about competition, truth is about an honest humility; right makes demands and will not necessarily bring peace, truth seeks to look beyond one’s own experience and limited knowlege; right is often knee-jerk, truth is the long slow gaze that focuses and refocuses the lens.

I know there is far more truth to learn in Israel-Palestine than can be learnt in four short visits and some of that truth will conflict. I know repentance is ongoing and my lenses need constant changing, cleaning and refining. So thank you to all of you who have broadened my vision, helped to challenge my prejudices and thanks to the man with a camera who has reminded me that truth needs a slow, thoughtful gaze, accurate focussing and the ability to see beauty where others see nothing.