Saturday, 31 December 2016

Address for Carol Service 20 Dec 2016

Address for Carol Service 2016

I was preaching from notes, rather than a full text, so this is an attempt to reconstruct what I actually said! We always include a brief address to reflect on Christmas within our Carols by Candlelight.

I received some exciting news today. A friend of mine, Neil, has just featured in the most recent episode of Midsomer Murders! That means I know someone famous.

Perhaps there are people here tonight who know someone famous, or have met a famous person. There may even be someone here who has met the Queen, or at least seen her at close range. I did once – she was much smaller than I expected,  in a blue outfit, I seem to remember. The occasion was the distribution of the royal Maundy money at Coventry Cathedral. Elsie, one of my church members, received money, and very proudly told the Queen that she shared her mum's birthday. Elsie never forgot that day - well you wouldn't, would you?

That made me think of the man who had a little hotel up on the moors - more of a pub with some guest rooms, I think. One snowy night, a man appeared at the door who was very smartly dressed, who requested that a room be made available for a special passenger in his car. The snow meant that the Queen would be staying, and he had a few minutes. What must he have thought?

What would you do first if the Queen called on you? I can imagine all kinds of questions rushing across our minds. Have we hoovered the carpet? Is the loo smelly? Did we remember to buy some... It would bring out all of our anxieties and insecurities.

Christmas is about a King calling long ago. He first drops in to a guest room when things were busy. There was no security man. No driver or entourage - and probably no snow. There was no fanfare before he was born. And yet this isn’t just any earthly ruler – this is the king of kings. The Christmas stories tell us that only a few people got the message at the start – shepherds straight away, along with the innkeeper and perhaps a few from the town. Later the wise men arrive - the powerful paying homage. Herod wanted to kill the one he saw as a rival, such that they had to run away. But largely the king who dropped in was unnoticed by the world. It was only later through his life, death and resurrection that most of learned who he really was.

But Christmas is also about a King calling today. He’s not bothered if we haven’t hoovered or washed up. He’s not looking for a room with an en suite. He won’t be fussy about the brand of tea bags we have in our caddy. He comes to take away our fears, to reassure us in our insecurities. His love casts out all fear. The only question he asks us today is the same question that his parents asked just over 2000 years ago. Do we have room? Do we have time? Do we have the interest? Are we prepared to make some space in our lives for him, especially if that might mean rearranging some of our spiritual and emotional furniture. Only we can answer that question – no one else can do it for us. But each year the word who became flesh places that question before us afresh.

Do we have room? Do we have time? Do we have the interest?

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Sermon for Advent 4 2016 - The Virgin Mary

Sermon for Advent 4 2016

This is the sermon from last Sunday, slightly edited to make it more readable!

Through Advent we have been anticipating an event that is often described using the very technical name of The Incarnation. As my friend Bob once observed, most people when they hear the word ‘incarnation’ are immediately reminded of how they used to eat tinned fruit in the 1970s.

OK – I’ll get my coat…

Today on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we particularly focus on the person and role of Mary, the mother of Jesus in that unfolding story. And it's not easy - Mary has become the church equivalent of a political football over the centuries as theologians and clergy tried to describe her place in the Christian story.

In Roman Catholicism, Mary has a very high and exalted place. She is described as the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of God (we’ll come back to that one, btw), she is described as having been immaculately conceived – without the taint of original sin (our human nature), perpetually a virgin – never having a sexual relationship with her husband, and they also believe and celebrate that she was assumed bodily into heaven. And as you will probably know, Catholics use prayers devoted to her in order to seek her intercession to God. Most well know is the ‘hail Mary’, which quotes the words of the angel Gabriel when he comes to tell Mary that she will bear a child – what we call the Annunciation. Similarly, in the Orthodox churches of Greece and Russia, not all of these doctrines are expressed in quite the same way, but Mary is still held in very high esteem.

Meanwhile, in protestant churches Mary often occupies very little attention outside the readings we use at Christmas. She is pretty much overlooked apart from that.

For Anglicans, as always we are somewhere in between. Back in 1662 the Book of Common Prayer, heavily influenced by Protestant thinking, just had special days in the calendar for events in Mary’s life that are recorded in the Bible and no further. The Annunciation, the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, Christmas etc.

Later, especially in the 19th century when more Anglicans became influenced by Catholic traditions, some churches started to mark more festivals. So much so that our current calendar is a change from the one we had in the Alternative Service Book published in 1980. Then we marked Mary on Sep 8 – traditionally the feast day marking her birth. Now we do that on August 15, when the Catholic Church celebrates her being assumed into heaven.

In some Church of England churches Mary is still low profile, whereas in others more ceremony takes place on her behalf. I have even heard of Anglican churches processing with statues, casting flower petals and making a great spectacle of it all.

So what do we make of all of this? Should we go 'Catholic' or 'Protestant', or is there another option? I'd like to suggest that there is.

What John's gospel describes as the Word becoming flesh – God coming amongst us as a human caused fierce debate for over 400 years after the time of the Bible. If you think present controversies about sexuality and gender are going on a bit, we haven't seen anything yet! Jesus fully God and fully human was so difficult to describe accurately, and yet was so vital. Why? Because the early church had a very simple way of describing God's saving action in history: "He became what we are that we might become what he is." And it's important to describe him becoming what we are correctly, otherwise it goes wrong - a bit like putting the wrong number in a mathematical equation. 

So here's my take on Mary.

1. Mary wasn’t some kind of angelic being.

Part of the point is that Jesus genuinely became like us – so it seems to me that it is necessary that Mary is an ordinary girl. If Jesus’ mother is completely different to us – unusual birth, unusual death, etc– then has Jesus really become one of us? I’ve always thought there was something strange about that. Jesus must be born of a real human being like us, or God hasn't really entered this world properly.

And why can’t she have other children? The Bible refers to brothers and sisters, although they are explained as cousins in traditions that hold she was ever-virgin. What does it say to the rest of us if even a sexual relationship with her own husband is off-limits? 

I had a friend who was brought up in Ireland as a Catholic. She once described how she had been taught that Mary was the example of motherhood to aspire to; the problem was that no mother was ever-virgin, and neither could they have a child so special. She talked about it as being set up to fail by the person teaching her.

2. Mary can’t be discarded – she’s a strong character

Protestants, on the other hand, often make Mary a bit part, subserviently doing what God asked of her at the relevant moment and then conveniently disappearing from history. But consider these stories:

The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) - Mary's song when she discovers she will have a child. The mighty toppled, the rich brought low, the humble and poor exalted. That sounds more like the slogans of a protest for social justice than a meek and mild subservient girl.

The wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12). Mary isn't put off by Jesus' initial response of 'what is this to do with us', and makes him respond by pointing the servants his way.

Who are my mother and brothers (Matthew 12:46-50) Mary and the family turn up, as Jesus has been away with his followers. He has to account for that, by explaining that he is there for all people

At the foot of the cross (John 19:25) What a terrible anguish it must have been for any mother to see their son crucified. And yet she is there.

Praying with the disciples (Acts 1:14) Jesus' followers are meeting behind closed doors, for fear of being caught, yet Mary is there praying with them.

3. Mary is an example to us all

...but not the kind of example that spooked my friend.

Remember I said we’d come back to ‘mother of God’? In the ancient church, the word they used was 'theotokos', which literally means bearer of God. I think that’s a much more helpful term to reflect on and it’s more inclusive. No-one – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox etc can object to that, as all those varied and different traditions hold to the belief that in Mary’s womb was God incarnate. She carries God in her own body. 

And here’s the exciting bit. Regardless of our biological ability to have children, or even our gender, we can all follow her example to be bearers of God. Not in the same way, but in a very real way. The events of Pentecost moved the focus from God being in the world specifically in one person to being in the world by his Holy Spirit in all who receive him. So each of us who have received that spirit are bearers of God too.

Different people will have different opinions about the formal beliefs about Mary. Perhaps we need to focus more on Mary’s example.

·       Her faithfulness to God’s call
·       Her strength in speaking out against the oppression of her people
·       Her courage in following Jesus even to the hardest place.

And perhaps most of all in following her example to bear God within ourselves, so that all may know the good news of his coming.

Mike Peatman

Sermon for Bereavement Service 4 Dec 2016

Talk for Bereavement Service    4 Dec 2016.

As some of you will be aware, my wife Debbie died in April, so that places me in the rather strange situation of being someone contributing to this service, but also someone who would be on the list to be invited as the funeral took place here at MPC.

For 8 years, early in our marriage, Debbie and I lived in Coventry, as I was based in a parish on the southern edge of the city. Not everyone finds it an easy city to love, but Coventry became very significant to us – especially as we were living there when both of our children were born.

Bereavement makes you rewind to memories in your life, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that period.  It has prompted memories of the city itself, as well as of the life we shared there. And as I thought about it, different images came into my mind, which spoke into my current situation, and I’d like to share some of those this afternoon.

An Unrecognisable Landscape
A couple of weeks ago, Coventrians remembered the notorious bombing raid that destroyed most of the city centre on the night of November 14 1940. It also resulted in the cathedral being reduced to a burned-out shell. I remember talking to someone who had seen the raid and she remembered her father talking about being on duty that night as an air-raid warden. He had described to her how he had emerged from a shelter and could no longer work out where he was in the smoking ruins. Nothing recognisable was left in that part of the city.

It struck me that bereavement can be like that for many people. It’s like a raid from nowhere, leaving life shattered, and in a world that has few recognisable landmarks. We can feel lost, bewildered and stranded. In my case, I knew what was coming for quite a long time, but even if that is true, you can never fully anticipate the impact, and it leaves you in an alien landscape.

Traces of What Used to be
Later in the 1980s, just before we moved there, Coventry also experienced industrial decline, resulting in lots of factory closures. There were sites all around the city where there were shells of buildings, outlines of walls, and sometimes just a huge rectangle of concrete floor. You could see an echo of a past, but the reality had gone.

Losing someone can feel a bit like that, too – it has been for me. The traces are there of the life we shared with the person we loved, but the substantial reality has gone. We still follow certain patterns, habits, even a routine, but the reason for doing so isn’t really there anymore. I’ve certainly felt that, and realised that the things that used to define some of my day, my week no longer exist, and it’s a shock when you realise that those anchoring points have disappeared

A Limited Life
One day in Coventry, I went to do some supermarket shopping in a different part of town. I noticed that the roads were in a grid pattern, and then spotted road name, which said Standard Way. I realised that I was driving through where the old Triumph car factory used to be. However, where that huge factory employing hundreds, if not thousands, of people with all kinds of manufacturing and engineering skills had once been, there was now a Sainsbury’s, a Blockbuster video shop, and over the way a tortilla chip factory. New life had returned to that area of the city, but it was a limited, restricted, relatively unskilled and limited life.

Life after losing someone can feel like that too – hollowed out and limited in scope. Life goes on, of course, and we can function in our everyday tasks, but it isn’t like it used to be. For me bereavement certainly robbed me of motivation, energy, and the capacity to cope with a lot of things going on at once. It’s taken time to feel able to resume work at anything approaching what used to be a normal pace. It also makes new possibilities hard to imagine. I just need to get through….

The Old and The New
But I’d like to share one other image that has helped me recently – that of Coventry cathedral. When the old cathedral was destroyed, they took the brave decision not to restore it to how it used to be. Instead, a new cathedral was built at right angles to the old one, with steps leading down out of the old church ruins towards the entry of the new. The end of the new cathedral is glass, so you can see the ruins from the new, and the new cathedral from the old. And they are an integrated unit – both sort of depend on the other to work. On Easter morning when it’s still dark, they light a brazier, and then light a new paschal candle, and bring it down into the dark new cathedral, and then light is shared. The light starts in the old and finishes in the new.

That’s my hope for however much life I have left. I can’t rebuild or replicate my life with Debbie. That’s complete and, in a very real way, safe in God’s hands. And isn’t that image in our reading lovely – not only are souls safe, but they run like sparks through a field. There’s energy, life and joy in that picture. A life we do not yet share, but a hope for those we love and for us one day.

And whatever happens next mustn’t erase what has happened – that would be like bulldozers knocking down the old cathedral to make way for the new. Instead, the next bit of my life needs to be like the walk I have often taken from the ruins down into the new cathedral. At the moment, I feel like I’m on those steps – I can see partially into a new life ahead of me, but I’m not in it yet. Later, I hope to be inside something new, and able to look back and treasure the view of the old, and whatever the future is like, it will depend on and be shaped by what has gone before, but it won’t and it cannot be the same.

Some of here will feel like the destruction of life as it used to be is still fresh. Others of us will feel we are still tracing the outlines of what used to be, as we take in what has happened. Most, if not all will have some sense of life carrying on, but in a more limited and changed way than we had ever imagined.

However, we do have hope in a God who is with us in all of this. I hope our prayer tonight will be that we can all find ways to be thankful for all the good that has been, to be freed from memories that are harder to live with, and to have faith that there may be for us a new vision for what life might be in the future.

Mike Peatman