Christmas Day Sermon 2017

“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”

Lying in bed as a child being read to by my dad, usually the latest Roald Dahl story – is certainly one of my early memories.  Stories, it seems, were easier to hear back then when the boundary between real and imaginary was less clear, when the world in my head interacted more openly with the world out there.

One of the cruelties of adulthood is the removal of story from that central position, the relegating of the things of the heart, the things of the imagination to a secondary place.  It’s a process, maybe necessary in some ways but also destructive.  With the teenage years can come a ‘grown-up’ perspective where story becomes something less than real.

As a teenager I disliked Luke’s soppy story of the birth of Jesus with its shepherds and stable and sheep.  I had ‘grown up’ sufficiently to know that it was all just a fantasy, an invention that took place in Luke’s head alone.

Thankfully as I get older I find I can creep back into Luke’s story, peer round the corner of my scepticism into that back yard stable and maybe glimpse something that I never saw before.

Lancelot Andrewes in his 1618 sermon for the feast of the nativity calls the manger in which Christ was born a cratch – in fact its an old Middle English word for a feeding trough or rack for animals and it comes from the Old French Creche.

Andrewes writes:

We may as well begin with Christ in the cratch; we must end with Christ on the cross.  The cratch is a sign of the cross…  The scandal of the cratch is a good preparative to the scandal of the cross”

The beauty of these lines is the powerful link they make between the manger and the cross.  The story of Jesus can move us, can transform us but it is when we see the bigger story that our life is changed.  When we allow ourselves to hear the story from the cratch to the cross.

Sometimes when we know stories well it can be difficult for us to hear them again, as if for the first time.  I am sure all of us have had that experience of seeing a play again after many years have passed or reading a book for a second time that we first read decades ago only to find that the story disappoints or that it hits us like a whirlwind and seems to transform everything.  I am not good at returning to novels but when I have done it often seems like a different book!

Some people are keen to distinguish between nostalgia and the deep longing for a lost innocence – but I am not sure I can always tell the difference.  However we are richly blessed by God when he gives us the grace to see this story of the birth of Jesus again, as we first saw it, to rekindle, as it were, our first love.

The word manger seems to have lost all its dirt and horror, the word cratch is maybe too niche and beasts feeding trough sounds too utilitarian.  But whatever it is, it holds on this holy night of story, the son of God.  It is the sign that the angels have given to the shepherds, a sign that speaks of great humility.  Would that we could be overtaken by such humility ourselves this Christmastide.

The profound humility of the manger is a story we can never tire of hearing but it is also a story about love.  To quote Andrewes again:

“The cratch is the cradle of his love, no less than of his humility, and able to provoke our love again”.  How does this story of God coming to us in the Christ child, provoke your love?

The Greek Philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics insists that in certain expressions form and matter are indissoluble, that the transformative power of story and the meaning of the story are grasped through the story itself.

Which is a posh way of saying, read the story dummy – its all there.  God appears to us in a manger, in a stable, surrounded by the beasts of the field.

Luke’s angels and shepherds, his stable and Christ lying in a manger is just a story, the stuff of childhood make believe.  By God’s grace may it be a story that leads us from the cratch to the cross and beyond, a story that provokes our love and helps us to see once again the son of God lying in a manger.  Amen.

Midnight Mass Sermon 2017

I can still remember sitting in a Coventry classroom being told about Forster’s novel Howards End.  ‘Only…connect’ my lovely English teacher would say gently touching her hands together.  I was glued to the BBC version which begins, like the novel with the delivery of a letter.  In this novel Words are very important but also how they are communicated.

Our Midnight Mass order of service could also have printed on its cover the words ‘Only Connect’ because we come here at the dead of night to celebrate the mystery of the incarnation, the Word made flesh.  God seeking connection with his creation.

When I first arrived in the parish 2 years a go I delighted in telling people I was the new Adam.  The last Vicar was called Adam but ‘the second Adam or the new Adam is a title for Jesus.  God becoming Man in Jesus.  The title second Adam reminds us that Jesus doesn’t appear out of nowhere.  As the 17th century Divine Richard Hooker writes:

All things which God… hath brought forth were eternally and before all times in God… Therefore whatever we do behold now in this present world, it was enwrapped within the bowels of divine mercy, written in the book of eternal wisdom…” (Bk 5. 56)

The world around us, the created order, our loved ones, our communities, trees, sky, land and sea – all of this is at root of God.  But our failure to recognise this, to see God in the world around us has led to a disconnect between us and creation.  We live selfishly for ourselves forgetting the poor, the needy, nations torn apart by war and forgetting  our place as participants in creation rather than its rulers.

Christmas is the celebration of God redeeming creation through creation.  God comes into creation as a human person, showing us the path to a renewed creation.

This Christmas lets hold on to the inherent goodness of the created order, hold onto the divine mercy which infuses every part of creation.  Did any of you see Judi Dench’s amazing programme about trees.  I only caught a bit of it but she seemed to have named all the trees in her garden – maybe after departed loved ones, but she also spoke to a succession of ‘tree experts’ who revealed to her the incredible way in which trees communicate with other trees and with the world around them – changing the taste of their leaves when under attack or sending off clouds of dust to attract or repel.  The most amazing thing was the network of fungi on the roots of trees which allows them to communicate underground.  The planet in all its diversity is talking to itself in numerous ways we are yet to understand – created through the word of God, those words are still reverberating.

Some Christians get very taken up with the notion that God had to send Jesus because we had messed up the world with sin.  While this may be so there is a Franciscan tradition that Jesus was always coming, that this birth carries with it not primarily a note of admonishment but primarily a desire to connect, an opening to joy, to divine sharing.

And just as Jesus was always coming to be with us so the work of the incarnation continues as the love of God is realised in our living and our connecting. Jesus Christ is not a sign pointing beyond himself to an angry God, he is himself the indivisible God/man, he is the reality he signifies.


I was talking to someone a few months back about my spiritual life and she said something along the lines of – Phil you are always like water, flowing out, on the move but you need also to remember to be more tree like, to remind yourself of your rootedness.

In so much of our lives we can be so taken up with the flow of life that we fail to remember our rootedness.  God becoming human in Jesus is not just another event in the endless flow of events which pass us by, another thing to pick up on the way to fulfilled living.  It is the calling to a new rootedness in the divine life of the creator God.  A rootedness that demands a new connection with the earth in all its variety and diversity.

As Margaret declares in Howards End:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect…”

And from our Gospel tonight:

“The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have see his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”





Lamp 7 – The Feast of Christ the King



On  the January 21 1924 in the hills near Moscow Lenin died. Many, including Lenin himself, had wanted Trotsky to take his place but it was Stalin who got the job, and the rest, as they say, is history. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I realised that Russian Communism maybe wasn’t the answer, until I started to see a bigger picture.

World war One had seen the fall of so many big dynasties the Hohenzollerns , Romanovs, Habsburgs, and the Osmans.

For the church and for society there was a fearfulness about what the future held – maybe Stalin was the answer?  The world was changing fast and new ideologies where moving quickly to fill the apparent vacuum.  The Feast of Christ the King was created in 1925 to speak directly into this vacuum.  And although the names and groups are different it is easy to see some comparisons between the mid 1920s and our own time – Brexit, militant Isalm, Trump, Putin and the cult of the strongman leader – we too live in uncertain times and we too, as a Church need to proclaim the Kingship of Christ.

But Kingship sounds so medieval, so feudal, so hierarchical, so patriarchal!  What do we really want to have to do with another group of people proclaiming the ultimate power of yet another strongman?  What’s the difference?

We’ve been reading Mark’s Gospel in the house groups this term.  And in the first half of the Gospel you could be forgiven for thinking Jesus was yet another enigmatic and powerful strongman.  He arrives with no word of introduction and begins telling people to follow him, he casts out demons, he speaks in parables which many can’t understand.  There is no Christmas story, no family background – who is this man?

One would have thought that a powerful strongman who wanted to rule the world would have given us a bit more background, made more of an announcement.  If God exists then why doesn’t he tell us where he is?

But Mark’s Gospel does point us to the Kingship of Christ by making over a third of his story about the passion and death of Jesus Christ.  By in effect saying to us, ‘Do you want to see where God is? – He is here amongst the lonely, the despised, the persecuted, the oppressed.’

The message of God is not, ‘look at me, I am all powerful and here is Jesus my king, the strongman leader.  No, the message is ‘Do you want to see the victory of Love?  Then see what love does in Jesus: The God who created the world comes to sit alongside the poor, the persecuted, the lost.

Today, the last Lamp is evangelism.  The Lamp we all run screaming from because we’re horrified of being associated with the Christians who seem to treat Jesus as some kind of magic man, some kind of spiritual strongman who will instantly take away all our problems.  We know it doesn’t work like that.

But we need to be wary of opposing Christians who just want to convert people with Christians who just want to help people.

We should be passionate about conversion, but a conversion which is not just about the soul but about how we live with others.  Not Christianity as a ticket to heaven but to a relationship which changes all  our other relationships.  We don’t need to be greedy about getting more people to join our club – that’s not evangelism. We need to get on with showing our solidarity with those in need, with the homeless, with those who find themselves on the margins for whatever reason.

But, and this is the big but, we ought somehow to feel able to give voice to our motives for all this.  Sometimes it can feel like our faith is so deep and so inward that we can’t utter any words about it to others.  Karl Barth the theologian writes ‘Ask yourself…is your shyness not shyness about emerging from your uncommitted private world? Going on to say that “where the Christian Church does not venture to confess in its own language, it usually does not confess at all. Then it becomes the fellowship of the quiet”

How fair it is to say that Mary and John church has become a fellowship of the quiet?  But what does it mean to give voice to the kingship of Christ here in East Oxford?

Jesus in his ministry is always engaging people in the matters of the heart, making relationships with people around the things that matter to them, their need for healing, their bereavement, their tortured minds, Jesus is always making connections with them.  And we need to be making connections as well between people but also between the things of the spirit and the practical needs – physical and emotional – of the people we meet.

Sophia turned 17 on Thursday but I still remember taking her when she was about 10 days old to the Church of Christ the King next to the monastery at Mirfield.  There was a lovely priest brother, Fr Dominic who worshiped there on occasion and used to visit all the ordinands with apples from the community trees when we first arrived.  It was his way of bringing together the religious community with the local church and with the new ordinands.  In a small way he was being a sign of reconciliation.

Christ is king because he re-unites humanity with the creator, because he fulfilled the work of reconciliation in his own body.  To be evangelists is to be walking signs of the reconciliation that Christ revealed to us.  And one of the ways we give voice to our faith is in the Eucharist that we celebrate together every Sunday.

During Advent we are going to use our high altar for communion – An opportunity for us to reflect on the kingship of Christ.  Alongside the immanent Jesus in our midst is the transcendent Christ who reigns in the heavens.  The journey to God is in many ways an inward journey to the heart but it is also a search for something that is other, which is beyond and outside of us.  God calls us to be ‘with and in the processes of the world’ but also to be recognising our dependence on the God who is more than our personal subjective hopes and desires.

I suppose all this is to say I want us to recover our contingency.  By that I mean recognising that we are alone, creatures with an uncertain future in an uncertain world.  Wittgenstein once said ‘never allow yourself to become too familiar with Holy things’ – and I think he was warning us not to domesticate God.

Part of the Christian life is recognising our distance from God, living with the pain of our need of God even in the midst of suffering.

Jesus is the answer, an answer we can share with others.  But his Kingship is not a military victory or a coercive act, it is not a personal will to power.  Jesus’ kingship is an act of love, an act which revealed to us the nature of the God who is love.  Jesus places himself in the heart of God by going to be in solidarity with those in need.    He invites us to follow.  The seven lamps so beautifully restored to our sanctuary are not the answer but they are lights on the way to the mystery of God’s love revealed to us in Jesus Christ – our saviour and our King.  Amen.


Conversations: A Sermon for Multi-faith East Oxford

I went to see the film ‘Victoria and Abdul’ this week.  A film about Victoria’s friendship in the last years of her life with a Muslim called Abdul.  The great power of the film lies in its critique of the arrogance and violence of the British Empire.  By creating a real friendship and empathy between Queen Victoria and Abdul a link is created between Victoria and the Islamic faith.  Where the film fails in my view, is in its air brushing out of any valid Christian spirituality or presence in Queen Victoria’s life.  The Church of England gets one mention as part of the colonialist hierarchy, never a source of spiritual comfort.  When Abdul is present at Victoria’s deathbed he quotes Rumi but there are no Christians to be seen.  The film doesn’t pretend to historical accuracy but to me it is typical of our recent love affair in the West with the spirituality of  other faiths.

Today we come to the third of our 7 lamps – Christ at our heart, Health and Healing and today Inter-faith dialogue.  We live amidst the diversity of multi-faith East Oxford, this is part of our calling and our vocation as Christians in this place.

At this weeks School Governors meeting the head teacher asked if we could take the phrase ‘Community cohesion’ out of a document.  It sounded out of date, community cohesion was, so she said, a Blairite phrase, we changed it to ‘Equal opportunities’.  The discussion reminded me of the 90s where a new generation of the Left in Manchester wanted to do away with multi-culturalism and replace it with anti-racist.  My only reflection on all this is that community cohesion and Multi-culturalism were attempts to speak about the whole not just to protect the parts.  One thing my Christian tradition tells me it that however difficult it is we shouldn’t just speak up for all the different sections of the community we should also try, challenging as it is, to speak to and embrace the whole community.

The secular world view, also so important to this part of Oxford sees Religion as, at best something for the personal consumption of those who like that sort of thing, not part of the discussion about the whole community.

For me the question of what it means to be Christian and yet live in community with Islam here in East Oxford.  Dialogue has to be something which we engage in but how can we also proclaim the love that we believe is revealed in Jesus?

This debate between Dialogue and proclamation has been at the heart of Christian disagreement about inter-faith conversations for years,  With Conservative Christians focusing on Proclaiming the Gospel and  Liberals on dialogue and conversation.

Last year on an inter faith course I had to get a taxi in Birmingham – one of those days when I wish I didn’t go round in a dog collar.  The Muslim man who picked me up gave me a 20-minute lecture on Islam.  He questioned the legitimacy of the Christian Bible in comparison to the certainty of Islam and the Koran.  Unsure how to respond to this deluge which was very much one sided I interrupted “What is the best thing about being a Muslim?” and he spoke for the first time in a more heartfelt way about the Brotherhood and about care for each other including all their brothers in Syria.  This man didn’t want a dialogue, he wanted a ‘my faith is better than yours’ conversation.  I had to step back and engage in a slightly different way.  But what the encounter taught me is that, like my evangelical Christian friends, there are many Muslims who want to prove that they are right and I am wrong.

In the Church of England primary school that the taxi man took me to the head told me that they had  unashamedly Christian Collective worship in their 90% Muslim school.  No provision for Halal either just vegetarian or meat.  I still want to say that I am more dialogue than proclamation but I also think this is a ridiculous division.  When are we going to realise that multi-faith consciousness is not just a potpourri of everything, it is a willingness to be in conversation with the Other, if you like with the Jesus we find in Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism.  We are not a hermetically sealed Christian identity, the self is a fluid thing which is touched and influenced by all sorts of spiritual and religious experiences.

But we need to start with the riches of our Christian Tradition.  This is where God put us, where we found God or he found us –  in the church, even if you’re only holding on by your fingertips!

In the 21st century there has been a move amongst some Christian inter faith thinkers to begin not with texts – ‘my book is better you’re your book’ or ‘lets compare my text with your text’ but to return to the Christian monastic virtues of humility, empathy and hospitality – its an approach which sits well with our position here in Benson’s church on the Cowley Road.

Empathy is explicitly dynamic, it is disempowering and decentring.  It is not that empathy is the only answer, all these debates are hugely complex but rather than it begins the process of entering the place of dialogue with other faiths.

Being pro-active in our understanding of this multi-faith community means that we also inform ourselves and become more empathetic to other situations.  The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim ethnic group, who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. Currently, there are about 1.1 million Rohingya but hundreds of thousands of them are being displaced.  The BBC doesn’t always show us the whole picture.  One of the cleaning staff at Paula’s school showed her horrific pictures of Muslims killed in Myanmar.  These things might feel like they happen far away but they are having a direct effect on the emotional lives of our next door neighbours.  Why aren’t we talking more?

We need to step back from a religious debate which sometimes feels sterile or stuck and re-engage in a different way.  That’s exactly what Jesus does in today’s Gospel when the Pharisees try to trick him into either being pro Cesar or pro rebellion in the question of paying taxes – he side steps the question.  He avoids the binary opposites and affirms a practical position.   Sometimes I need to step back from my own passions, angers and disillusionments in order to really hear what is being said to me.

The great Jesuit Jacques Dupuis claims that: the Christ event does “not exhaust the power of the Word of God who became flesh in Jesus” (p.319 TCTP).  The power of the Word of God exists beyond its revelation in Jesus.

Dupuis seems to suggest that people in other religions can be saved, can know God, can have penetrating experiences of the divine.  Now this isn’t news to me and it probably isn’t news to you but it does lead us to ask what does it mean to be Christian in this multi-faith context?

And there are people who want us to give answers that are oppositional and divisive, just look at todays Gospel.  But when we move powerfully to the depths of our own tradition in prayer and contemplation so that we can inhabit the space of our faith then we can engage openly with the many gifts that other faith have to offer us.  Empathy, humility, hospitality are the gifts of the Western Monastic tradition that can guide us. The Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff once wrote:

“We must place ourselves in minor and servile positions, and we must renounce pretension that we are superior or privileged because we are Christians” (Quoted in Gaston p.148-9)

This renunciation is in no way a backing away from Christianity towards an endless celebration of diversity but rather it reminds us that we are first and foremost followers of Jesus Christ who died and rose again to new life with God.  Amen.

Lamp 2: Health and Healing – A sermon for Mental Health Sunday

On Tuesday we marked world Mental Health day with a wonderful celebration of the Arts and crafts, a day when people from all over the city came to the Benson hall to demonstrate our solidarity with all dealing with mental health issues.  Organised by Alice and her team is was a wonderful picture of what the community of the church can achieve with and alongside the wider community of people beyond these walls.  In many ways the warmth, the humour, the caring and the camaraderie of the day reflected what we might believe to be a true understanding of what the community of the church might look like.  The Beatitudes, which we have just heard, in a similar way, give us a little snapshot of what Christian community might look like. They sometimes speak to people like a kind of social justice manifesto but they are far more than this, they give us a picture of what Jesus is like, and call us into a deeper communion, to be a community which explores what it means to care for our neighbour, to be alongside those in distress.  And further down the path they might help those in the midst of mental health issues to imagine what recovery might look like, what healing might look like and what it means to be on a common journey of discovery.

It seems to me that one of the great discoveries of recent times has been that mental health issues are a part of everyday life.  Many people have known this truth for years, but now more and more people are coming to accept it: in any one year about 1 in 4 people will experience at least one diagnosable mental health issue and by 2030 the World Health Organisation forecasts that depression will be the single leading cause of the global burden of disease.  But there is still a huge stigma around mental health and speaking about it, as we are doing today, is one way to challenge this stigma.

There are so many things I could talk about but one thing we wanted to focus on is hearing from the real experiences of people, so I want to begin with some quotes from the diary of someone experiencing what is called ‘clinical depression’.  What this person writes is not a manual of what to do or what to think, it is the record of how someone felt, what they thought and, like the beatitudes, it’s a text which can help to point us towards being better neighbours, better listeners:

When you feel bad you feel sad towards others and it reflects in them…cheerful because cheerful, glum because glum

And then the next day:

Not looking forward to the day

Thinking of the future a lot…(Bleak)

Not feeling better

Went shopping

Everyone miserable

Didn’t eat lunch

Now had some cereal

Feeling depressed

How long will this last

Don’t love myself

Don’t feel anyone really cares much

Don’t want hospital treatment – I am a survivor

Others say they are but this is real survival

Have written to say I can’t come this evening

I do hope they understand

Getting through this patch is all I need to do

Must stop repeating myself – my memory is not as good as it was.  Can’t remember what I’ve written

Many people suffer depression, its understanding it that needs to be seen and the more people understand that it is a problem the better…

I have experienced deep depression and thank God if it improves with age.  I am not to blame for much of what goes on in my head.  What is it that keeps me ticking over?

The street is such a mean place to be even if you are well…I have this constant fear feeling that things get worse if you let them.  We all have it in us to make things better…

And a little later he writes after reading a book or going on a course:

Change how you feel by changing the way you think.

positive thoughts…

There is always a temptation when we hear someone’s thoughts or opinions that we should interrogate them, work out exactly what they mean, make suggestions about what they need to do.

One of the most important things I learnt on the Mental Health First Aid course I went on a couple of weeks back was to listen and communicate non-judgmentally.  One of the videos we were shown on the course was of Pat Deegan.  Pat was diagnosed with schizophrenia but the worst of it for her was being told that she won’t ever recover.  She said the diagnosis was given to her in a way which seemed to diminish her humanity.  The fact the she had friends, skills, degrees all seemed to disappear before this diagnosis, it felt like she was being told to retire from life, to give up.

Pat decided, I will become Dr Deegan and I will change mental health and this became for her a survivors mission – although she was careful not to say to her doctors “God has called me to change mental health in this country”, but it became for her a vision around which to organise her recovery.  We need meaning, purpose, a need to move – we can’t build a recovery around a vacuum.  Recovery is about changing our lives not changing our biochemistry.  Communities like this one can become a place where meaning and purpose are celebrated and recovery affirmed.

But we need to be careful talking about recovery too easily, the way some Christians talk about resurrection as if the cross never happened.  It is so important to grasp that recovery is a journey not a destination.  Recovery needs to be holistic – its about all of us, body, mind and spirit.  And, centrally it is not about returning to where we were before as if nothing has happened.  Lastly it needs planned support – this community can act as part of that support – not in a professional sense, we are not health professionals, but in the human sense of being neighbours, listeners, encouragers, people on the Way.

There are still some striking statistics about mental health. 75% of people with diagnosable mental illness receive no treatment.  Suicide is the most common cause of death of men aged 20-49.  These are frightening figures but they also translate into the everyday lives of people we know and people we love.  16 people a day take their own life in the UK – I am trying to learn a new language, a kinder language, we can’t say commit suicide anymore because a crime has not been committed. Being careful about how we speak, recognising how we speak and having the humility to be corrected is the beginning of a journey into a greater understanding of mental health and well being.  Since the Grenfell tower disaster 16 people have tried to take their lives as a result of the effects of that night – suicide is about mental illness but it is inextricably linked to real events, real people and real situations.

It seems to me that part of the Christian response – if we can talk of such a thing – to periods of mental distress, is about being with people on a journey as God came to us in Jesus, about a radical inclusivity which we see reflected in Jesus, and maybe more challengingly the attempt to speak of hope in the face of great sadness and distress.  Dignity and respect are at the heart of this whole process.

We never know who we are talking to and the first calling is always to listening. I met a couple who live locally on Friday who were filming in church and we got talking.  It turned out their son has a diagnosis of schizophrenia.  I listened as she talked about him, in fact it was his 18th birthday that day.  They knew that for years he has been desperate to get a Tattoo and as his 18th came near they were nervous about what he wanted, how large it was going to be.  But on Friday he said mum I just one two words on my arm – Be yourself.

Listening, being alongside, encouraging, it is so much more about being than doing, in order that people can be themselves.  We mustn’t be glib about recovery but we are still a hopeful people, and part of recovery for all people is the recognition that life changes us sometimes in painful and diminishing ways but that life after such experiences can be a deeper reality, and bring with it a profound sense of what it means to be human.  This community here on the Cowley road is called to be a place of human flourishing.  Not a finished product but people who are part of a continuing process of healing which we are never finished with in this life.  A people who know the meaning of Jesus’ words: Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.


The 7 Lamps: Christ at our Heart

I want to start a conversation with you about our shared life as the church in this place. And I want this conversation to begin with 7 sermons, 7 reflections from me about the ways in which we seek to live out our calling to be disciples of Christ in this place. The overarching theme of these sermons is: Christ at our heart. And I know some of you may feel that this is a daring or rather an awkward choice of preposition. Shouldn’t Jesus be in rather than at. For me, Christ at our heart is both about a place of meeting or encounter with Christ but also that sense of Christ journeying with us.
The 7 lamps that we have had restored at SMJ hang on the way to the altar, and they represent for us 7 themes – themes of both affirmation and challenge.
On the bookmarks in front of you you have the 7 lamps in 7 words but let me just list all 7: Lamp 1 is Christ at our Heart through Worship, Prayer and Contemplation. Lamp 2 is Sharing the Good News of Jesus. Lamp 3 is Hospitality and Fellowship. Lamp 4 is Discipleship and Exploring Christianity Lamp 5 is Care for Others and for Creation Lamp 6 is Health and Healing – and in fact that is the lamp we will cover next week on Mental Health Sunday. Lamp 7 is Interfaith: Dialogue and Proclamation.

And in 7 words: Pray Share Belong Grow Care Heal Converse
There’s not going to be a test! I mean I can’t remember them all at once, but there they are!
And the first lamp is the one that is already lit, the lamp that represents Christ who we meet in the sacrament, in the scriptures, in prayer and in each other.

At the heart of our life together and at the heart of this building both in its shape and it numerous examples around the church, is the cross of Christ. So we begin with the cross, as a church which ‘must stand over against its surrounding culture and environment and see God revealed in weakness and god-forsakenness, in darkness and negation. And we believe that we are saved by the cross. To save comes I’m told from the Hebrew Jasha (with the noun Jeshua, saviour) and its root meaning is roomy, broad, its opposite being oppressed or hemmed in. The cross and resurrection is a victory over death, a liberation but a liberation only achieved through the experience of desolation and pain. In his encounter with Death and darkness, with the abyss Christ brings us the light and the life of God.

So to be Christian is first and foremost to be a follower of the crucified. We are not just remembering a past event or even imitating that event – this sharing in the passion and death of Christ – as we do around this altar -, is – in Bonhoeffer’s words – ‘a participation in the powerlessness of God in the world’. ‘To be a Christian is to be part of a passion centred community, the Church is ‘the people under the cross’.
There’s a wonderful passage at the beginning of the 1st letter of John which I have included on the pew sheet. Reading it seems to sum up much of what we are called to do. In many ways the passage is a reflection of the Prologue to John’s Gospel but whereas in John’s Gospel there is a definite emphasis on the Divine Word – in the beginning was the Word – here the key phrase is the word of life, this life was revealed and we have seen it and testify to it.
All of our life together flows from this, the desire for health and healing that we will look at next week on Mental Health Sunday, the care for others and creation, the hospitality and fellowship. The love of community, of social justice, of serving those in need flows from our crucified and risen Lord.

John of the Cross writes:
‘In giving us, as he did, his Son, who is his only Word – he has no other – he has spoken it all to us, once and for all, in this only Word, he has no more to say’.
We live in a society that is hungry for the new, for the instant, for fresh excitement and gratification so it is sometimes difficult for us to live faithfully within a Christian tradition which can seem life denying, narrow, dogmatic, brittle or lacking sustenance. We can cope with the fullness but not the emptiness, the speech but not the silence.

Faithfulness, fidelity, trust in the Word of Life revealed to us in Jesus is no easy path to walk. Sometimes talk about God – theology – has seemed to be about a great concern with the proper order of things, as if we might finally arrive at a point where the universe made sense, a rational divine economy – 2+2=4 More recently theology has had to deal with the post modern concern with the end of meaning, the contention that the search for meaning is a waste of time. But what Jesus Christ calls us back to is a recognition of our creatureliness, that our understanding is stinted, broken, partial but that through Jesus’s death and resurrection we are offered salvation, the opportunity to be part of a redeemed creation.
I am saved, I will be saved or I am being saved – however we package it, the root of what we are about is sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is why we come here. We seek to be alongside people as they explore what it means to know, love and follow Jesus. A deepening of our relationship with Jesus brings us to discipleship, a call which is both individual and collective.
Much of Jesus’ ministry seems to have been concerned with creating a new community and with drawing people into this. It’s a community made up of undesirables, nuisances and nobodies, the socially marginalised, the shamed and the stigmatised. The greatest thing about the falling numbers, the slow demise of the church of England in this country has been the opportunity for us to return the crucified Christ, to return to the hope of resurrection.
It can sometimes feel like there are two kinds of churches, those who focus on the cross and those who focus on the incarnation, God coming to be with us in human form. The Cross churches saying its about the transcendent God out there who through Jesus reveals himself to us and the incarnation churches saying its about God’s solidarity with us, God coming to help us . But the reality is that you can’t have one without the other. God does come to be with us in Jesus but through the death and resurrection he also reveals to us the divine nature, a transcendent truth about what it is to be human, to be God’s creatures.
As a teenager I jumped easily from the birth of Jesus to his resurrection but the authentically Christian path runs through the cross. The resurrection that we proclaim is not a new story, it is the story of THE cross, a story about redemption, about being saved, about being made new but a story that passes through darkness and desolation, in order to draw near to the mystery of our salvation. Amen.

In the midst of tragedy what does it mean to be ‘sent out to heal’


(Sermon written on the day we remember Jo Cox MP.)


The news this weekend has been difficult to watch – how can we can best respond, best offer support, best understand what we can do?

But in today’s Gospel the disciples are sent out  and the whole dynamic of the passage is a sending to heal, to proclaim the Kingdom of peace.  And the first thing that strikes you sitting here in this church building that we come to every week on a Sunday is that Jesus sends the disciples out.

The Gospel today is a bit of an inbetweeny place, it spans chapters 9 and 10, but it is also the meeting place of two larger narrative tectonic plates in Matthews Gospel.  We are in transition from Chapters 5 to 9  to the mission focused chapters 10 and 11.  In the earlier block we have the sermon on the mount and Jesus healing and working miracles, in the later block the disciples are sent out to do the same; to teach and to heal.

Matthew has a very tidy mind, it’s a well organised Gospel.  There is clarity here.  But for the length of this mornings Gospel reading we are in transition, moving from one place to another, from receiving and learning to giving and acting.

The very first words of todays Gospel – chapter 9 verse 35, are almost exactly the same as the words of Chapter 4 verse 23, just a few lines before the beginning of the Sermon on the mount in chapter 5.  It is a beautifully crafted thing  – Matthew introduces Jesus the teacher and the miracle worker, Now he sends out the disciples to do the same things.

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel there is a sense that ‘knowing the story of Jesus’ is not enough, but that we, like the disciples are called to live it.  We become disciples of Jesus not because of what we know but how we live out what we learn from Jesus.  And we need to be able to make mistakes, to try things and get them wrong.  We only really share the Gospel when one person embodies for another person the story of Christ.

To be honest I am not set on fire by todays Gospel, by this slightly editorial neatness of moving sensibly but steadily from the teaching to the sending, it all feels a bit organised – but what is dramatic or eye catching about it is that Matthew shows Jesus saying – Go out and get on with it, you are sent to heal and to teach.

For it is true to say that Jesus is the answer, the embodiment of the truth of God, but this is a truth which runs through the whole of God’s creation.  God’s love is revealed in Jesus, but then we discover it is everywhere present in creation, in our living and loving.

In the next section of Matthew’s Gospel he will explain further what he wants them to do, to travel light, to tell people the kingdom has come near.  Often our concern for the status of the church tempts us to employ desperate measures to ensure that the church remains socially significant or at least on people’s radar.  But the church is not called to be significant or large, it is called to be apostolic – sent out!  Indeed some have suggested that it might be the case that God is unburdening the church so that we can travel light again (see Hauerwas on Matthew)

The 12 disciples reflect the later Matthean community of the church but they also reflect us and our calling.  Yesterday the national atmosphere, that potent mix of grief and anger, felt febrile, disturbing and unsettling.  It is, I think right that as a nation we begin to ask questions about the closeness of multi-million pound houses to the poverty of some of the residents in North Kensington.  But there is an anger about injustice which avoids some of the scape-goating of particular political figures on the Left or the Right.

The Queen this weekend called the National mood ‘very sombre’ but there are signs of hope in communities across the country.  In our own community Monawar Hussein was honoured with an MBE, someone who has worked tirelessly for good community relations here especially between faith groups.

It seems to me strangely co-incidental that yesterday the nation celebrated Jo Cox – across the country, (and in our own community with Pat Green down at Tescos on the Cowley Road), people remembered that we had more in common, remembering Jo Cox’s great speech in which she said of her Batley and Spen constituency:

‘What surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’

Remember her speech supporting the Dubs amendment in which she said:

“Who can blame desperate parents for wanting to escape the horror that their families are experiencing? Children are being killed on their way to school, children as young as seven are being forcefully recruited to the frontline and one in three children have grown up knowing nothing but fear and war. Those children have been exposed to things no child should ever witness, and I know I would risk life and limb to get my two precious babies out of that hellhole.

But what can we do?  And how do we understand ourselves as sent?

It’s the very small things but this week this community purchased all the stuff for the parents bedroom of a family who have escaped war in Syria.  This last Tuesday I was in the Benson hall after the Syrian Foodbank at 9.30pm as they broke fast.  Food never tasted so good.  Later this week I am going to meet with Jon at the porch to see how we can be more involved with helping the homeless here on the Cowley road especially next winter.  Alice’s work creating the tea party for those with mental health issues and Bridget’s work setting up the dementia lunch.  These are all signs of a community which recognises we have more in common than divides us.

Grief and anger still feels very close, the national mood is sombre, but today in our Gospel reading, we make the transition from receiving, receiving the message of the sermon on the mount and the healing and miracles that follow, to being sent, a call to action and to a new way of living.

Pentecost Sunday (following terror attacks in Manchester and London – 2017)


Another horror in London last night, sitting in the late evening watching a film suddenly news pops up of another terror attack and Twitter, Facebook and all the online media channels are full of news as it happens.  Last week it was Manchester, today our thoughts are with London praying for the dead, the injured and all those who were and are still involved in helping.

I wrote my sermon for today on Thursday and I suppose it was an attempt to talk about faith as personal relationship, about my journey from politics to personal faith.  This is because on Pentecost Sunday I felt the need to return to basics.  In the last days of the election campaign in an atmosphere of fear or at least anxiety about violence then is a space for the Spirit, the consoler, the comforter.  I suppose I wanted to show that the Spirit of God is active in our political and social passions but that she is also at work at a deeper level in our hearts.

In the late 1980’s my family all attended Holy Trinity Church in Coventry.  At the time it was going through a charismatic revival – truly spirit filled – but we were not really part of this and our family tended to represent the people who wanted to remind all these spirit filled charismatics that there was a world out there!  For us the Christian faith meant Liberation Theology, Socialism, caring for the poor and needy and lots of CND marches – I loved it and it imbued me with a deep love of the church!  In my younger days Jesus was concerned with social justice and living authentically as a human being.  The incarnation was everything – it was all about God being with us and in solidarity with us.  The cross was ok as showing God’s solidarity with our suffering but the main thing was the resurrection which was about liberation and love and freedom even in the worst of times.  We were horrified at the idea of ever inviting anyone to share in the love we had discovered in the church and the Christian faith – and we certainly never suggested that repentance was anything that our friend should concern themselves with – that was just for Capitalists and war mongers!

Pentecost was always a little bit suspect because it had been hijacked by the Charismatics and that was far too much about personal engagement rather than global politics.  We liked it being about languages being understood- that seemed to be a sign of multi-culturalism and global understanding – although we were nervous that it might have an element of the supernatural about it!  Something which made us feel uneasy.

Over the years I began to feel that what I had wasn’t enough, or maybe, rather, it wasn’t little enough – it was too concerned with its own personal political integrity.  The idea of letting go has become increasingly important, letting go into God.  Pentecost reminds us of the importance of re-discovering the possibility of giving voice to God in our own lives, in our own community.  And that’s difficult when it can feel like we are the last remnants of the generation that de-bunked everything, that put questioning and ultimately a hermeneutics of suspicion at the heart of everything they did.  Is there really a Jesus who wants to know Phil Ritchie outside of politics and being nice to people?  I think that fairly early on I discovered that there was but it has been a bumpy ride.

When we look on this community in the power of the Spirit we maybe see different things.  We see an inclusion which truly welcomes whatever our struggles with mental health issues, with poverty, with a sense of being marginalised by society.  But we mustn’t forget that the loving inclusion we celebrate here is born not from the values of 21st century British Liberalism but from a love that was revealed to us in Jesus and poured upon us in the Spirit.

There are a couple of people here who most often seem to give voice to this – and they suddenly bring me up short by  talking quite naturally about Jesus, they talk with enthusiasm about people coming to know the life of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.

London Bridge and borough market became last night the site of unspeakable acts of violence.  And there is shock and silence in the face of such horror but there is also the holy  spirit, the comforter and consoler.

I am not saying that we all need to go around telling people about Jesus or raving on about the Holy Spirit.  But I know I am practised at a particularly English evasion, a focus on the importance of silence, a passion for identity politics, an ability to see the invisible link between the Christian faith and High Culture.  I am deeply suspicious of those who claim to have a simple faith.  But despite all of this I feel the need to keep returning, keep waiting for this gift of the Spirit, keep hoping that I might be able to live in simple faith.  To the notion that Jesus is not just for me but for all humankind – and that part of our role might be sharing the Good News with those we meet.

The Dominican Geoffrey Preston writes:

“Stop thinking and acting as though God and yourself are related chiefly as law-giver and subject.  Stop thinking that the relationship between God and humankind is primarily a matter of justice in some ordinary sense of that word.  Believe the altogether extraordinary and unlooked for and well nigh unbelievable news that God has freely chosen to be God in a quite different way to this world, to be God as he who forgives and loves and accepts.

This involves a genuine change of heart and mind.  It’s a free gift but we have to open ourselves to it.  Do we live as people who believe they have received the Holy Spirit?  Do we understand ourselves as forgiven?

To answer those questions might take a very long time – a lifetime perhaps.  But what is clear is that much of our journey will be a journey of iconoclasm, tearing down the false images we have made of what God is like or maybe sometimes returning painfully to images we once judged false but now shine with a strange beauty.  The Christian life is centrally concerned with what Timothy Radcliffe calls ‘entering that Freedom which is God’s own gift’.  I am going to finish with a poem written by  another Dominican, Paul Murray, called ‘The Space inbetween’:

The Space inbetween


What happened was for me

A kind of miracle


Like being suddenly able

To breathe under water


The astonishment at finding

It possible again to believe


And at finding the space

To breathe and breathe deep


Between the word ‘Freedom’

And the word ‘God’



Trinity Sunday 2017


The Gospel today is often referred to as The Great Commission and it is not a passage that I have ever felt drawn to!  Maybe it’s my taste for drama but I have always preferred Marks final lines (before the later addition) which just say: They went away afraid and said nothing to anyone – Now that sounds like an event or the beginning of something worth investigating.  By contrast Matthews ending reads like Conservative Party conferences of old or the cricket club AGM – well organised with all the controversy, the fear and the rage written out to avoid arguments.  You get the feeling that Matthew felt Mark bungled the ending and he, Matthew, is sorting it out.

Jesus meets his disciples on a mountain – as he did earlier in the Gospel in his famous sermon.  You have to hand it to Matthew, he gives us a bit of narrative tension, the disciples worship him – but some doubted.  Maybe Matthew knew there was uncertainty, ambivalence, doubting in his own community?  However, Jesus’ response is part enthronement hymn and part commissioning.  Standing on the mountain before his worshipping disciples he tells them ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me’ and then that well-known commissioning ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit.

That’s the section where a community like ours often starts to feel squeamish – we don’t want to tread on anyone else’s toes, our faith is personal and even maybe private.  A lot of us may feel more Mark than Matthew, and in fact, we might actively disapprove or dislike Matthean evangelists.

As part of my attempt to break out of my own cosy English bubble of ritualistic, social Justice orientated, evangelism phobic liberal Catholicism I have been reading Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven church – It is quite scary, kind of the Great commission on acid. But it is good on this passage.  He points out that the Greek text of Matthew 28 – contains 3 present participative verbs: going, baptising and teaching.  And that Baptism features so strongly in the passage because it symbolises one of the purposes of the church – fellowship, identification with the body of Christ.  As Christians, we are called to belong not just to believe.


So on this Trinity Sunday I want to talk briefly about Going, about baptising and about teaching.

Going.  Go therefore and make disciples.  It’s a strange thing but I think it is actually true that we have become terrified of what this might actually mean for us, and that we have created this frightening binary opposition between Christians who help people and Christians who make disciples, we stay in the first and we leave those others to do the second.  Often in rather disparaging way we say that they can convert them and then we pick them up when they want something a bit deeper or a bit more socially engaged.  The great medieval mystic Meister Eckhardt says that even those who are given to a life of contemplation still cannot refrain from going out and taking an active part in life, those who are given to a life of contemplation and avoid activities deceive themselves and are on the wrong track.  Contemplation and action are part of all our callings.  And surely part of action is the business sof making disciples. Go, therefore…but how?

Jesus tells us to Baptise people.  Our translation of that sometimes seems to miss the point.  I have baptised a small number of people at the font at the back of church, not many of those people are still here.  But maybe we need to back up a little to look at what it means to re-imagine what Baptism is.  That in Baptism we become one with Christ in his death and resurrection, that by this grafting into Christ we become part of the divine dance of God as Father Son and Holy Spirit.  That Baptism is both an invitation to live in the mystery of God’s love and also an invitation to not only be a new creation but to live a new kind of life.  When we live that life we become a beacon for a different kind of living.  The ‘Go, therefore’ bit becomes easy.  The problem is we have made too much of the faith about learning how to behave, as if what we told people about the Christian life was just what they can and can’t do.  Herbert McCabe writes:

“Ethics is entirely concerned with doing what you want, that is to say with being free.  Most of the difficulties arise from the difficulty of recognising what we want”.

To journey ever closer to living through Christ in the dance of the Trinity teaches us true freedom – it reminds us of what we most deeply desire.

Go, Baptise, teach.  If we thought Going to make disciples was bad, and Baptising a bit of a tall order, then teaching is in another league!  And our fear is, like with the ethics, that it will be rule bound, that it won’t be about freedom, that it will pen us in.  For me this is partly because in a society obsessed by immanence we are terrified of speaking about transcendence.  One American writer has spoken of the process of ‘immanentization’ in our society.  Basically what he means is that we have ditched any notion of the transcendent – of a God out there.  There is the material world, the natural world, and humans in charge of it trying to flourish.  This secular world view has also taken over sections of the church with a singular focus on the incarnation, on the good man Jesus with an associated fear of the otherness of the supernatural, of a God who exists outside of creation.

Mark Vernon in his lovely little book about Love says it comes in three movements: First we love ourselves, but this is just a preparation for realising that there is another in the world whom we might trust to love and be loved by too.  Romantic love tries to tell us that love ends there in that second stage, that love is fulfilled in the one who loves us back.  But there is a third kind f love which brings with it the possibility of sharing in circles of love, family, friends, community – and the more subtle capacity to stand back and reflect on life and love itself.  But a few pages later he goes on to talk about a fourth shift, an awakening to the transcendent.  He ends by saying:

‘It seems as if a final barrier has been dissolved.  The most basic truth in life is not that we yearn for more when clumsily we love, though we do, but that the constant unclouded love of God yearns for us.  The revelation is summed up in the formula: God is love.

Go, Baptise, teach this simple truth, this is the heart of the great commission, the love that is revealed to us in the mystery of the Trinity.




At my daughter’s school they had an assembly this week on Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May as examples of strong women.  It seemed to me another example of the death of a passionate and vibrant culture of political ideology in conversation and sometimes conflict, in favour of the new hegemony of identity politics; gender, race and sexuality replacing economics as the only arbiters of political judgement (and a cynical version of identity politics too – as if those women could be role models for my daughters!)  Its hard not to think that the Marxists were right when they said that the economic base was the thing!  But the politics of inequality have been endlessly parodied as ‘old left’, hopelessly old fashioned in the new world of economic technocrats supported by a cursory nod towards identity politics.

There has been some stuff in the press recently about the death of the political party.  Certainly the whole notion of ‘the Left’ as a place of sanctuary, of integrity and of engagement with real divisions – i.e. the need to lift people out of real poverty, feels lost.  Post Trump and Post Brexit I wonder how we recapture a real conversation about social inequality, about what it means to build an inclusive and compassionate society?

I am tribally Left and I am still suspicious of people who want to have a different kind of conversation in this new world.  Surely it still has to be a conversation about social inequality first and foremost but which goes on to talk about social inclusion and the joys of multiculturalism?

It does feel like there is the beginnings of a desire for a debate about these important issues.  For me the church can be a place where we try to explore some of these issues on the ground, in the community.  But the local church too has got lost in identity politics and refuses to embrace the bigger vision of the Kingdom of God redeemed by the death and resurrection of Christ.  How can we return to studying the virtues if our only guide is a desire to include.  Beyond inclusion is the need for a holistic vision of Christian community which is still able to talk about sin, about judgement, about repentance.

Last week my friend complained that now we were in Eastertide he was missing his daily dose of Jeremiah.  I know what he means, but we lost Jeremiah a long time ago when we replaced the communal need to repent and turn to holy living with an insipid wish to be nice.

Gender, race and sexuality matter but social inequality has to be the defining issue of this election.