Monday, November 28, 2016

Taken or left?

“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

Take it or leave it.  I suspect we’ve all had offers like that. But the Gospel reading this morning asks us a harder question – taken or left, which will we be?  “Two will be in the field, one will be taken and one will be left.  Two will be grinding meal together, one will be taken and one will be left.”   If we look a little harder at the passage, it’s not even abundantly clear which I want to be, taken or left.  When the secret police come knocking, it is clear that you want to be left.  There are Christians and others in the world today who fear the knock at the door.  They desperately want to be left.  But when you live in the midst of war and poverty, you want to be taken to another, better place.  There are many in the world today, not least the many refugees, who long to be taken more than anything else.  The hope and the longing of the refugee to be taken is no greater or lesser than the longing of the oppressed to be left.

Taken or left, which are we to wish for in the light of the Gospel reading?  It will probably be no surprise to learn that there are scholars who take each side.  The majority say that Jesus is expecting us to want to be taken.  But there are others who suggest that Jesus is in fact suggesting that we should want to be left. Now, it is important that scholars have things about which to disagree.  But it needn’t trouble us too much.  For, much like the refugees and the oppressed, it all depends for what you are taken!  Those who think we should want to be taken, see those taken as taken for salvation.  Those who think we should want to be left, see those taken as taken for judgement.  Taken or left, for salvation or for judgement.

Salvation and judgement are among the great Advent themes.  They ask us to lift up our eyes and recall the bigger picture of our faith.  In Advent we are reminded of the whole sweep of our faith.  The Gospel this morning reminds us of Noah – about whom more in a moment.  The Advent wreath asks us to think of Abraham and Sarah, of the prophets, of John the Baptist and of Mary.  The themes of judgment and salvation are never far as we look for the coming of Christ to establish his kingdom among us. 

Isaiah calls us to consider the big themes.  ‘In days to come’ he promises, there will be a time when every nation will come together.  It will be a time not of walls, or of separation, but of walking together.  It will be a time not of arming for war, or of striking at enemies, but of turning weapons into instruments of feeding other people.  Isaiah speaks of judgment and of salvation; he speaks of inclusion and of peace.  This is truly a vision that calls us to the big things of faith.

Salvation and judgement, inclusion and peace.  These are things to inspire us, but they are also things that can dwarf us.  What are we that we can have anything to do with such big and important matters?  The great themes of Christian faith can leave me feeling small, impotent, and, well, incapable of making any kind of difference to them.  The danger of Advent is that it makes me feel that I have little to do with the great vision of faith, of salvation and judgement.  Taken or left, I can do little about it.

And that is why it is so good that Jesus draws attention to the days of Noah.  The story of Noah is, as I will say given any opportunity, the Gospel in miniature.  And on a day of such grand themes, miniature is what we need.  Noah fits the pattern of the gospel reading, in that it is not clear if he is taken away from the world, or the only one left behind when the flood comes.  Is Noah taken or left?  I’m not sure we need to decide!

So let’s picture Noah, patiently building an ark while life goes on around him, ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,’ as Jesus puts it.  Ark building doesn’t seem particularly useful while all of that is going on.  Shouldn’t Noah have been confronting the evil around him?  Perhaps he should have launched a political career or organised demonstrations.  But instead, he built an Ark. Surely there were many times when he wondered if he had it right, if this was really what God wanted of him.  There must have been times of doubt and frustration, of bewilderment and disillusionment.  But Noah patiently built the Ark, one plank at a time, even though it wasn’t raining. 

Can Noah, then, be a figure that speaks to us?  Patient building, seemingly distant from everything going on around him.  What will it mean for us this Advent, to see ourselves as patiently building while the world carries on around us?  What will it mean to worry less about being taken or left, but to be ready for the unexpected hour when we will need to go into the Ark? We live, as Isaiah puts it, “in the light of the Lord”.  The great stories of the faith give us the framework into which we put our lives.  But within that framework we need patience and perseverance to carry one, to see those great themes shaping and working themselves out in the daily parts of our lives. 

We are to live lives that make sense of the stories of Jesus, or perhaps better, we are to live lives that the stories of Jesus make sense of.  It is Jesus whose life, death and resurrection gives us the framework to live our lives as Christians.  Perhaps this Advent it would be worth reading through Matthew’s Gospel, and seeing it as the framework for our own lives.  Despite what commercial Advent calendars would have you believe, there are 28 days in Advent this year.  And there are 28 chapters in St Matthew’s Gospel.  It would make a very good Advent calendar.  As we read, let’s ask how we see ourselves in the Gospel stories.  And from that, how we can learn to meet Jesus in our daily lives.

Whether they are to be taken or left, Jesus teaches his disciples to be ready to meet him.  As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, and as we prepare to meet with Jesus when he comes at that unexpected hour, let us prepare to meet Jesus day by day.  My Advent challenge to us all is to read through Matthew’s Gospel, asking how we see ourselves in the Gospel stories, so that we can learn better to meet Jesus day by day.  We begin this morning by meeting Jesus as he comes to us in broken bread and poured out wine.

This Advent, let us prepare to meet with Jesus by learning to meet him day by day.  “O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”  Amen.  Come Lord Jesus.

First given at Derby Cathedral 27.11.18

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Cages and Trees

A Sermon for the Feast of the Hallowing of Derby Cathedral

Nothing befits the solemn festivities of the feast of the Hallowing of Derby Cathedral more than a quotation from one of the foremost theologians of our age.  So let me share this as a theological gift to mark this feast: “I may not know much about God, but we built a pretty nice cage for him”.  “I may not know much about God, but we built a pretty nice cage for him”.

The theologian, for those who did not spot it, is Homer Simpson, patriarch and star of the long running animated family saga The Simpsons.  In one episode, Homer becomes a missionary in the South Pacific, and builds a chapel for the natives.  As the final piece of the chapel is put into its place, Homer says “I may not know much about God, but we built a pretty nice cage for him”.

Jeremiah would, I think, have recognised the satire behind Homer Simpson’s theology.  He stands in the gate of the Temple and proclaims to the people of God “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’”  The temple was the place in which God chose to dwell with his people, it truly was the house of God.  The temple was the place where God could be encountered.  But the danger that Jeremiah saw was that the people had become inward looking, seeing only the place and losing sight of the God that was to be encountered there.  All they saw was ‘the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’.  They had ceased to encounter the Lord, the living God who was to be encountered in the temple.  In short, the temple had become a cage for God, in which he could be safely contained and from which any more challenging aspects of God could be safely ignored.  “I may not know much about God, but we built a pretty nice cage for him”.

On the roadside in Jericho there is a sycamore tree, keenly pointed out by guides to visitors and pilgrims to the Holy Land.  (When pressed as to whether it was the tree that Zacchaeus climbed, our guide simply said ‘It could have been’.)  Fenced off now (caged, you might say) it sprawls over the roadside.  As I have reflected on the second reading this evening, and its pairing with Jeremiah’s invective against the cage of the temple of the Lord, I have come to see that there is something in the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus that fulfils the same function as the temple is supposed to in Jeremiah – the tree.  It is the tree that Zacchaeus climbs to see Jesus, and from which he hears Jesus invite himself to supper.  It is the tree that enables the encounter with God that is at the heart of this story.  It is the tree that starts the whole process that leads to Zacchaeus hosting Jesus, making reparation to those he has defrauded, and encountering the salvation of God.  At the heart of this story of the Gospel is a tree.

The tree is not like Homer Simpson’s cage, or Jeremiah’s temple.  It was not built according to a plan, or a set of blueprints.  Instead it grew, making progress that seems very slow by some standards, pushing out branches in directions that are not always convenient or desirable, sprawling over the road in an uncontrolled way.  And yet it was the tree that allowed Zacchaeus to encounter God, but providing a branch from which a short-statured tax collector could see Jesus. 

And so if you want this sermon in a sentence, it is simply this: Derby Cathedral needs to be more like a tree than a cage.  Derby Cathedral needs to be more like a tree than a cage.  As we go through the various stages of appointments and development, Derby Cathedral needs to be more like a tree than a cage.  The Cathedral will not help people to encounter the living God if it is a cage in which God is put on display, so that God can be approached from a safe distance.  That is Jeremiah’s complaint about the temple.  Rather the Cathedral needs to be a tree, growing in unpredictable ways, but providing a real vantage point for encounters with God and Jesus that might change people’s lives.  Over the past few years some of these unpredictable growths have been seen in nightshelters, schools, folk festivals, and other ways.  There will be more to come, it’s just that we can’t necessarily see them all yet.  Not every new branch of the tree will be easy, or even welcome.  There will be branches that produce calls for them to be pruned, or lopped off.  There will be branches that I don’t like, and ones that you don’t like.  But the test for all of them is whether they help others to encounter God and Jesus. 

So as the Cathedral goes through this period of transition, let us remember that Derby Cathedral needs to be more like a tree than a cage.  Let us let the branches grow as they grow, and let this place seek to be a vantage point from which people can have life changing encounters with God and with Jesus.  That, after all, is what Derby Cathedral is here for.  Amen.

First given at Derby Cathedral, 30.10.16.

The Need for Saints: A sermon for All Saints Sunday

Let me begin by offering you greetings on our shared patronal festival Sunday from the Cathedral.  All Saints’ Sunday is a good time to be with you, and I want to assure you that the Cathedral prays for you regularly, and that you are in my prayers also.

But let me take you to another church in the Diocese, in the village of Newton Solney.  I know it well, because each year for a week it is used for the pre-ordination retreat.  This is a time for those about to be ordained to spend time in prayer and preparation.  As I have sat in the church, I have spent some time looking at the stained glass windows.  They have been bleached by the sun, so that it has taken me some effort to work out the stories that they tell.  As I worked out what those stories are, it also occurred to me that the windows now tell a deeper story than they did when they were easy to understand.  What the sun has bleached out is the faces and details of the characters in the stories.  What you can see are blobs of colour, in positions that allow you to work out the story.  But they are faceless, featureless characters, leaving what seems very close to a set of stories without characters.  The deeper story that the windows now tell is that the stories of the Bible, the good news of Jesus need people to inhabit them and make them come to life for others.

Let me repeat that, the stories of the Bible, the good news of Jesus need people to inhabit them and make them come to life for others.  And that’s a pretty good thing to remember on All Saints Sunday - the stories of the Bible, the good news of Jesus need people to inhabit them and make them come to life for others.  Today we celebrate that all the people who make up the saints of God.  We celebrate the quiet and the unknown saints as well as the famous saints.  We celebrate those who have played a part in enabling us to inhabit the stories of the Bible and the good news of Jesus.  And we celebrate that we too are numbered among the saints of God.

The stories of the Bible and the good news of Jesus need people to inhabit them and make them come to life for others.  We can see that clearly in the readings we have heard this morning.  Daniel tells us about visions, and those visions set out the whole of God’s plans.  But a vision that has no one to put it into practice is nothing.  It is just a picture with no detail, no life, and no stories.  Visions need those who will inhabit them, bring them to life and create the new world of which they speak. 

St Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ, ‘the fullness of him who is all in all’.  These are great words, but until they become the foundation of people who ‘live for the praise of his glory’ (as he puts it), then they are only words.

Jesus gives us a very memorable set of blessings, they are justly regarded as central to his teaching. But the blessings are about people doing things that are often hidden, rarely glamourous, and always challenging.  They too need people to inhabit them, so that the blessings can be shared.  The blessings of Jesus need people who will love their enemies, who will do good to those who hate them, who will bless those who curse them, who will pray for those who do them harm, who will give, who will do to others as they would have them do to us. 

In short, the Bible readings this morning all need saints.  They need those who will give flesh to the visions, those who will bring words to life, they need those who will live out the blessings so that others may come to share in them.  The Bible needs saints, the Bible needs you and I to be those saints.

So as together we celebrate the feast of All Saints, after which this church and the Cathedral are named, let us remember that the stories of the Bible and the good news of Jesus need people to inhabit them and make them come to life for others.  Let us give thanks for all those who have brought the Bible to life in this place and in our lives.  And let us rejoice that we are invited to be part of the company of those who bring the visions, the words and the blessings of the Bible to life for the sake of a world that badly needs those visions, those words and those blessings.  Amen.

First given at All Saints, Breadsall. 30.10.16.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Booths and a Baldacchino

A sermon for Evensong

All that I have to say in the next few minutes is contained in a very helpful visual aid that is built into the fabric of this Cathedral.  The Baldacchino, the canopy over the altar, is a sign and reminder of all that I will say.  You could, of course, decide that means that all that follows is redundant, and you would be right to a point.  However, as a Baldacchino is rather uncommon in Anglican architecture, it may be that it would benefit from some explanation as to what it is a sign and reminder of!

It was, the Gospel tells us, the middle of the Festival of Booths when Jesus had this rather difficult exchange.  The Festival of Booths is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot.  It is a harvest festival at the end of the agricultural year.  It is also an annual reminder of the forty years that the people of Israel lived in the wilderness on their way to the promised land.  It takes its name from the way in which it was (and still is) celebrated.  The people of Israel build booths from temporary material and live in them for a week - the duration of the festival.  These booths can be built from any kind of material, but the roof must be organic.  This represents the temporary dwellings that farmers live in during the harvest.  It also represents the tents that the people of Israel lived in during their forty years in the wilderness.  The book of Leviticus commands that ‘You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt’ (Lev. 23.42-43). 

During the time in the wilderness, and for a long time once the people had entered the Promised Land, the place of meeting with God continued to be a tent, a temporary dwelling.  It was not until King David that the idea of a house for God was thought of, and God forbade David to build it.  Solomon built the Temple, the house of God, for the God who does not dwell in places made by human hands and whom heaven and earth cannot contain (cf. 1 Kings 8.27-28).  During the Feast of Booths, the people of Israel dwell in booths, to remind them that they used to dwell like this and to remind them that it was in a tent that they went to meet with God.

And all of this is why we have a Baldacchino in the Cathedral over the altar.  It is a reminder of the Tent of Meeting, where God would meet with his people.  It is a reminder of the temporary dwellings in which God’s people lived.  And it is a call to us to meet with Jesus, who taught in the Temple in the middle of the Feast of Booths.  If the Baldacchino in the Cathedral is a sign and a reminder, it is a sign and a reminder of the tents in which God’s people lived in the wilderness and the Tent of Meeting in which they met with God.

As with all good signs, the Baldacchino points us to things.  It is a reminder of these Bible stories, and it is a pointer to their message to us.  So let me suggest three things that this sign might have to say to us this evening.

The first thing is ‘remember where you came from’.  The Feast of Booths and the Baldacchino remind us of the time our ancestors spend in the wilderness.  They remind us not to leave behind our origins.  They remind us of the way in which God met with his people in the Tent of Meeting, and remind us to recall the ways in which God has met with us in the past.  St John records Jesus and his contemporaries arguing fiercely about where Jesus came from.  I met with a bishop from India this week, and he was speaking about how the Church has been important in preserving the identities of tribal peoples in north India. Origins are important.  They are what have brought us to where we are today.  So this evening, let us give thanks for the places we came from, for the people who brought us on our journey thus far, and for the ways in which we have met with God.

The first message the sign of the Baldacchino has for us is ‘remember where you came from’.  The second is, ‘don’t get fixed down by money and power’.  The reading from the book of Ezra tells of the people returning from exile in Babylon, accompanied by gold and silver and by royal proclamations.  The temptations of money and power were what Israel had failed after they entered the Promised Land, and that was why they went into exile.  As they return to the Land, they return to these temptations.  Money and power hold us where we are, they tempt us to hold on to them.  They make us work to retain what we have, and in doing that we are distorted from being the people that we are and that God made us to be.  Money and power tempt us to ignore those who have neither.  Those who dwell in booths today can be found in Calais, and in makeshift accommodation across Europe.  The displaced and the refugees, the desperate and the persecuted, they are the people who live in tents and temporary shelters.  For the people of Israel, living in tents for a week is part of remembering not to get fixed by the temptations of money and power, not to ignore the plight of the refugee and the desperate today.  That too is what the Baldacchino points us to.

‘Remember where you came from’; ‘don’t get fixed down by money and power’.  Those are the first two messages that the Baldacchino offers us.  And the third is this: ‘We cannot grasp God’.  We cannot grasp God, we cannot make God belong to us so that we can use God’s power over others.  The Tent of Meeting was not a place to fix God, confining him to the canvas.  Rather it was a sign that God could, and did, move with the people.  God moves, God goes ahead of us, God takes us in new directions, surprising directions, even to Wells.  The Eastern Orthodox associate the Feast of Booths with the story of the Transfiguration.  On the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured and appears with Moses and Elijah.  Peter’s response is to try and fix this down into three tents.  But God cannot be fixed down, we cannot grasp God and hold on to him in this way or that.  We cannot have God on our own terms.  David Jenkins, who died recently, wrote that ‘God is far too great a mystery for us to penetrate to the heart of his Being and there is always something hidden’ (Living with Questions, p. 51).  In a similar vein, Jesus tells his hearers ‘You will search for me, but you will not find me’.  To try to grasp God is to try to control God.  We cannot do that.  The Baldacchino, with its open sides, stands as a reminder to us that there is always more to God than we think or imagine; that we cannot control God; and that God moves, and may take us in new directions and on new paths. 

As we hear of the Feast of Booths, and we consider the sign that is offered by the Baldacchino in this Cathedral, we are given these messages: ‘Remember where you came from’; ‘don’t get fixed down by money and power’; and ‘we cannot grasp God’.  May we hear them and follow our living God.


First given in Derby Cathedral 18.9.16.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Book Launch - Imitation and Scapegoats

You are invited to the launch of Imitation and Scapegoats a new book by Simon J Taylor, Canon Chancellor of Derby Cathedral, Area Dean of Derby and Director of Curate Training. 

The book uses the work of René Girard on violence and religion to ask how minsters and pastors can deal with rivalry, conflict and scapegoats in their own lives and ministry. The ideas are explained through stories from the Bible, case studies and questions for reflection and discussion. 

Please come and mark the launch of the book, with refreshments and a brief introduction to the themes of the book. Copies will be available for purchase. 

Friday, September 02, 2016

Questions from Synod

Now the Report of Proceedings from the July Synod is available online, I reproduce these two extracts from the question time when I asked two supplementary questions.  As ever, this is about transparency in relation to what happens at Synod.

The first relates to Safeguarding, and to the difference in cycles between DBS checks and training requirements.  I have been involved in working out a Diocesan training schedule for Safeguarding and we have found that it misses a trick to combine the two cycles making record keeping (and hence reminders and up to date training and checks) simpler.

35. Revd Canon Jenny Tomlinson (Chelmsford) asked the Chair of the House of Bishops:  Can it be confirmed whether or not DBS checks are in future to be required every three rather than five years; and, if they are, what is the estimated cost to the whole Church, and benefit, of such a change?

The Bishop of Durham (Rt Revd Paul Butler) replied as Chair of the Joint Safeguarding Working Group: I will start by saying that a criminal record certificate is only truly accurate on the day it is issued. However, there is no official renewal/expiration date for a certificate. It is left to organisations to set the renewal period. The current policy in the Church of England, as approved by the House of Bishops, is to renew criminal record checks every five years. Of course, this period is kept under review. Three years has been mentioned as a possibility, as many charities, local authorities and schools adopt this time frame for renewals, but currently no final decision has been taken to amend this renewal period. Obviously, before such a change is made an analysis of the relevant pros and cons would be undertaken.

Revd Canon Jenny Tomlinson: Thank you very much for this answer. If this analysis of relevant pros and cons is undertaken, can Synod be assured that it would be both quantified and published?

The Bishop of Durham: I am sure that when this analysis is done there will be a clear communication about what the conclusion is.

Revd Canon Dr Simon Taylor (Derby): Would it also, as part of that consideration, be possible to bring the renewal of the DBS into line with the requirement for the renewal of safeguarding training? At the moment the two things seem to be out of kilter and three years and five years only align every 15 years, which is quite a complex system for dioceses seeking to retain records and to get this in good order.

The Bishop of Durham: That is a very helpful observation as part of the consideration. Certainly, the three-year cycle does work quite well because you have to have a DBS when you have a new appointment and so on, but that is part of the considerations that we look at.

The second question relates to schools, and the challenge that Derby Cathedral has felt in articulating and being understood that the proposed Cathedral School is not for our benefit but for the good of Derby.  It is to be a Church School serving the city of Derby, not a faith school serving Anglicans or the Cathedral.

50. Mrs Mary Durlacher (Chelmsford) asked the Chair of the National Society Council: Although the Government is no longer proposing to turn all existing schools into academies, the commitment to opening 500 new ‘free’ schools by 2020 remains in place. Very few bids for new Church schools are succeeding, despite the Church of England’s record of providing excellent education. Given the high cost of each bid (£30,000), what proposals does the Church of England have for resourcing this invaluable provision to the nation?

The Bishop of Ely (Rt Revd Stephen Conway) replied as Chair of the National Society Council: I refer to my answer to Question 49. The level of resource required to submit a bid for a Free School is considerable. The National Society is funding the provision of consultancy advice to dioceses. Part of the consultant’s role is to identify areas where bids are most likely to be successful so as to avoid wasting precious resource. Co-ordinating and sharing intelligence across the network of dioceses will help this bidding process but we recognise that other providers have access to significant funds which can make comprehensive and professional bids more compelling. We do not think that the future of the educational offer in a community should be determined by the quality of marketing or the amount of money spent on a bid, but dioceses need, as a matter of priority, to consider how to use their existing assets to ensure that they continue to enhance their provision as this is a unique opportunity to develop new schools.

Mrs Mary Durlacher: Thank you for clarifying that dioceses will be expected to continue funding bids. My question is, therefore, this: for dioceses like mine, Chelmsford, with larger than average population growth, therefore a greater need for new schools, will the national Church help with the cost of funding bids because we really cannot afford to keep losing £30,000 per bid?

The Bishop of Ely: I would love to be able to say, Mary, that the answer is yes, but I think we have to recognise that resources are limited and so there is a question about being strategic where the bids are being made. There is support from the centre for helping to make bids that are effective, but we cannot promise that there would be central funding, as far as I know at the moment, to underwrite bids. This needs to be a real priority set by the diocese itself.

Revd Canon Dr Simon Taylor (Derby): Derby Cathedral is currently going through the bid process. Can I ask how the National Society Council is helping to articulate a model of a Church school serving the common good of all as distinct to faith schools serving the children of the faith? And how it is helping Government and decision makers about faith school applications to understand that distinction?

The Bishop of Ely: I am grateful for the question. It obviously demands quite a complex answer which cannot be supplied in the time that the Dean of Southwark will allow me. To be absolutely clear, what we are seeking to do and putting before the DfE all the time is that in our bids to provide new schools to meet fresh demands for our children that our Church schools are Church schools for all in the name of Jesus Christ. They are not faith schools simply to serve our own purpose as part of the distilled service of the Church of England for the common good of all.