Sunday, December 17, 2023

Advent 3B at Southwark Cathedral 17th December 2023

 Today all our readings are full of music. We have Elgar "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me", Gibbons "This is the Record of John" and Purcell et al inviting us to "Rejoice in the Lord alway"...wonderfully appropriate for this Gaudete Sunday, when, were we wrapped in heavy-duty penitence, we might cast it aside briefly to break into pink vestments to express our joy.

But - what is there to rejoice at, - in our world or in our worship in this troubled and troubling season? Can we rejoice at all?

I'd say we certainly can. There's much to celebrate in our life as a community here. One of my personal highlights in all the busyness of these first 3 months at Southwark is undoubtedly that service of Compline which the Merbecke choir sang under the Museum of the Moon. Listening to the music of ancient prayers said and sung so beautifully, in this space where so many have brought their hopes and fears, under the peaceful light of Luke Jerram’s great moon was a truly wonderful, joy-filled experience that I will treasure for some time.

But the amazing thing about the real moon, of course, is that of itself it has no light at all.

It shines only with the reflected light of the sun.

If that light were extinguished, among many other problems, the moon itself would be all darkness.

 And here in today’s gospel John the Baptist stands as the moon, to the sun that is Jesus.

He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness to that light….

He bore witness because he too shone with reflected glory….and he at least was in no doubt that his role in the gospel was not centre stage.

He was not that light but was sent to bear witness...

His calling was to be a sign, pointing the way to Jesus.

We too share his calling to reflect the light of Christ and to so shine that others can see the way…


There was a man sent from God whose name was John.

Not much of an introduction, but then John was not one who cared about such things. He stepped out of his priestly heritage, shrugged off the wonders that surrounded his own birth.

You could imagine him saying, again and again “It’s not about me”.

John was quite happy with a life of wandering in the wilderness, rough, unfashionable clothes, basic food, and an unshakeable, uncompromising message.

 Uncompromising, but compelling.

So compelling that people assumed that he must be the Messiah, and we completely nonplussed when John said,


That silences the questioners for a moment, but then they are off again.

“Well, if it’s not you, where IS the Messiah? He must be close, if prophets like you are abroad.”

"He is here. He is among you," says John.

And that was almost as startling as anything that had gone before.

Imagine, you have been waiting and watching for the Messiah all your life long, your people have looked for him for centuries, and now you are told that he’s hear among you already. Surely not…

The Messiah arriving unrecognised? Unthinkable…

 But John is insistent, absolutely confident that he has heard God aright, and that he knows his own place in God’s script of salvation.

Thus he can say, with no false modesty,

"I am the voice crying in the wilderness...As Isaiah foretold, the day of the Lord IS coming. Get ready..."

John´s message is compelling, right enough. He believes it himself and is wholly committed to his task, in the tradition of the great Old Testament prophets.

His claim to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way for the Lord,' immediately aligns him with Isaiah as his authority. This inheritance absolutely real to John, and the authority that he received from God shone in his commanding words.

And of course, John´s message is so compelling, so authoritative, because, above all, he points away from himself towards Jesus. That’s the foundation for everything, - all that he preaches, all that he does, all that he is

 He is the moon, not the sun, remember..."Not that light"... "Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."

And this is the mark of all those who aspire to preach the true Gospel. 

We must remember always that the Gospel is all about Jesus, the Jesus who took as his mission statement, when he preached in the synagogue at Nazareth, these very words of Isaiah.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel..”

John points to Jesus, and Jesus comes, not with a teaching which would imprison us with fear, not with words which would tie us up in knots, but with tidings of great joy. 

As the way is made straight, as our lives are put right, so we can know that the good news of hope and freedom is for us as well. This is the promise we hear in Isaiah.

"He has sent me to bring the good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted; to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord´s favour."   "to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning."

 Isn’t that fabulous?

This, surely, is the central core of our gospel, the heart of the church's ministry.

Healing for the broken-hearted. 

Liberty for the captives.

 And yet so people can be imprisoned by religion rather than freed by it. It’s not a coincidence that many assert that the root of the word comes from the Latin “religare” ,to bind...though that binding can, at its best, be a benevolent banding together of those drawn by a system of belief. Not always, though.

At its worst, religion really CAN imprison. 

We’ve seen this recently during those synod debates that set out to determine who might be in and who out, or where the most pure doctrine might be found. It’s always a risk when you travel with those of like minds...Its all too easy to strengthen your own position by building relationships based on exclusion...whether on account of gender or sexual orientation, youth or age, or preferences in worship.

When that happens, it's not good news at all.

Emphatically not the gospel. 

In case of doubt let me remind you - the gospel is not about legalism, but about liberation, justice and joy.

The year of the Lord’s favour.

It is not about hierarchy but about equality and inclusion.

It is not about fear but about freedom, security and hope

It is without doubt GOOD news – the best possible !

THAT is what John points towards. THAT is what Jesus preached, in word and in deed. And – that is our calling.

 John stands as a model for us.

We share his task, to witness to Christ in our lives, our words, our actions…To speak good news and to be good news as well, hoore in this cathedral for sure, but yet more when we go out into our working weeks, into the flurry of last-minute busyness, the tetchyness of weary crowds.

Like John we are to point to Christ, knowing that any light we may bear is not ours but reflected from him alone…We might be surprised to find that in doing that we become surprisingly beautiful, - as beautiful as the moon on a cloudless night, away from the heart of the city.


When you get home, please do read the gospel again, and put yourself in the place where John stands


There was a man (or woman) sent from God, whose name was ...


May God strengthen us as we witness to the Good News each day.


Monday, November 13, 2023

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, 12 the November 2023 at Southwark Cathedral

History repeats itself.

It has to. No-one listens.

I have used those words as a tag, a way in to preaching on Remembrance Sunday time after time but they have rarely seemed more poignant. Even a few seconds engaging with world news reminds us so forcibly that the peace that we might have imagined was largely secure in most of the world is far more fragile than we hoped. I prepared this sermon having not heard the day’s news, but certain that it would be terrible. We seem to be living in a smouldering world that might yet burst into flames around us…

History repeats itself. It has to. No-one listens.

So, what is the value of today if humanity refuses to learn the lessons of history and turns away from the radiance of wisdom...and what on earth are we to do with those 10 bridesmaids, gathered in their wedding finery just outside the door?

That question, unsurprisingly , took me back to my son’s wedding here in Southwark  in April. It was all very beautiful...the music, the space, the sheer volume of love for Jack and Rachel that filled the building to overflowing. And yes, of course, there were bridesmaids, looking fabulous as they followed Rachel down the aisle.

But that is not why they are important to us as a family. 

Each of those friends  is someone who had shown love and care for the bride and groom through some very tough times...who had been responsive to cries for help, quick to meet needs that were sometimes hard to put into words.

Theirs was an active role, lived out over months and years

And  as the parable reminds us, to be a bridesmaid escorting a delayed groom also needs care and attention, forethought and preparation. It’s absolutely not about being passively decorative and hoping for the best. There is work to be done if we are ever to celebrate. 

The parable invites us to be ready to take our place in the kingdom of God, that place of justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…

But how can we get ready in this broken, angry world, where the lessons of peace seem to be beyond us? We have prayed for it, looked for it, longed for it to arrive – and yet, we’re still waiting.

Perhaps we’ve imagined that the responsibility lies elsewhere. Perhaps with our friends from the Services whom we have welcomed today.

After all, one middle-aged cleric singing Evensong doesn’t have much power., no matter how often she sings “Give peace in our time, O Lord”…

Should I just keep singing, and do nothing else, in the hope that my song might drown out the cries of fear and pain that are echoing outside?

To do that is surely to make our Remembrance worthless, to dishonour the memory of the dead by losing sight of the purpose of their sacrifice.

We have to be willing to be changed ourselves, if we want to change the world

Mahatma Gandhi understood this writing

Peace is not something you wish for

It is something that you make, something you do, something you are, something you give away

Peace is something you ARE.


That’s a challenge, is it not? And yet, Christ has promised us the gift of his peace...if we can only open ourselves to receive it.

But that process of opening will repeatedly demand that we give up bits of ourselves...habits of heart and mind, small seeds of unkindness, growing plants of selfishness that let us believe that somehow, our own needs, our own agendas have more value, more justification than those of others.

And there may be other things to be set aside, - things that are good in themselves, but which we need to give away, as individuals or as communities, on our journey to the greater good of ultimate reconciliation. 

Even as we stand at the war-memorial and ponder the names and dates of those who died too soon, it matters that we remember those who were “the enemy” - but whose deaths were as painful, whose loss was felt as deeply, who were every bit as truly the victims of war as our own heroes.

I don’t say that lightly – but I’m convinced that we won’t end war until we come to really understand the equal humanity of those whom circumstance has placed as the “other”.

I am not sure how the conversation would have gone with my own father, injured by the Japanese in Burma, still less sure if I would dare to speak thus on the streets of Jerusalem or amid the broken chaos of Gaza.

But when we only see the issues, and not the people, we’re horribly, cataclysmically stuck so we need to find a way to change our lens.

Being a peace-maker, and a peace-keeper is hard and costly. 

The Mennonite theologian John Paul Lederach, who has written and worked extensively on reconciliation tells us that we will only truly arrive as reconcilers when our own constituency believes that we have betrayed them…

in other words, what he refers to as conflict transformation will provide us with a new set of lenses through which to view both the presenting problems and their underlying meaning.  This matters because, to reach peace, we need to be able to look hard at the triggers for war, in ourselves and in others,  to look behind and beyond those to explore relationships at a deeper level and then we need imaginative, distance lenses to help us see how the world COULD be.

The problem with Remembrance-tide is that inevitably it invites us to look back, - and though that can sometimes help us to learn from history, as we’ve established, it doesn’t in itself make us creators of peace. But re-membering means bringing the scattered pieces of the past into our present – where we are invited to take a serious look at ourselves, and establish whether we are part of the problem or its solution.

That’s a choice. We can join the sleeping bridesmaids and leave the work of peacemaking to others but it seems to me that to do that is to condemn ourselves and countless others to a remembrance that is soaked in the blood of today’s wars, 

Or we can consider what actions we can take, what tools we might need to find, what oil should fill our lamps to help us set out on a journey of peace-making. That probably won’t involve you or me heading off to a war zone to stand as a human shield, though I do know a couple of people who have done just that. However, it’s more likely to mean that we have to confront our negative feelings about that former colleague, that awkward relative, those siblings in Christ whose  interpretation of Scripture differs radically from our own., and invite the Holy Spirit to help us look beyond the issues til we can recognise and love the face of Christ in each. 

Monday, November 06, 2023

Sermon preached at Cathedral Evensong on All Saints Sunday, 5th November 2023 Isaiah 65 & Hebrews 11 & 12

Say what you like about the author of Hebrewsl...he’s nothing if not logical!

On this All Saints Sunday we’ve been given snapshots of the stories of some of the heroes of the faith, and reminded that they represent unfinished business, since their company and their story is incomplete without US…

The evidence is amassed in Chapter 11 and then, after perhaps the briefest pause for reflection, chapter 12 begins with a triumphantly assertive THEREFORE, answering any question that might have been lurking at the back of our minds

“So they did! So what?!”


“THEREFORE since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….”

Our ancestors in faith, men and women whose spiritual DNA should run in our blood, firing us up to follow in their footsteps. On a good day, it’s easy to answer the “so what?” question as we stretch out willing hands to receive the join in the children’s hymn with conviction…


 I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green:
they were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

Oh yes. We’re called to be saints. Let’s get on with it, right here and right now. Where do I sign?


Except – did you notice how many of them had a pretty miserable time of it. - tortured, mocked, flogged, stoned, sawn in two

This is not really the stuff of stained glass windows, nor, if I’m honest, the kind of adventure I really long to sign up for.

Physical courage isn’t my forte…

I’m inclined to agree with S Theresa of Avila, who famously said

“If that is the way you treat your friends, Lord, it’s not surprising you have so few of them”


And yet – and yet – we ARE surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses...and the courage that filled the hearts of the martyrs of old burns bright in God’s Church even today.

Behind me in front of the high altar the Tears of Gold exhibition illustrates this powerfully.

I’m sure many of you will remember the horrific news in 2014 that school-girls had been kidnapped by the terrorist group Boku Harem

The world was, rightly, outraged and we prayed for those young women in many of our churches for weeks on end. Now some of those stories have faces. .In the Sanctuary there are self-portraits of some of those Nigerian Christian women, created as they began to process their traumatic experiences, and to look for healing and hope. In each self portrait, the woman weeps, - but she weeps tears of gold, a reminder that the God who holds all our tears in their bottle, treasures each woman and their story of faith and courage.


For now the tears are all too real. The pain of the world is acute today, and our pictures give but the tiniest glimpse of it, but our first reading gives us a promise that God is not oblivious to that suffering, but hears the cries of God’s persecuted children.

 “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard...or the cry of distress” we are told.

The picture of hope in Isaiah’s prophecy takes us into the same realm  of realised perfection that we will meet later, in Revelation 21, where what is broken is restored, what has been lost recovered, where the future is secure

They shall build houses and inhabit them”...and where even the natural instincts of fallen creation are transformed.

“The wolf and the lamb shall feed together and the lion shall eat straw like the ox….They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain”


A parallel transformation is expressed in our exhibition through the art of Hannah Rose Thomas which stands side by side those self-portraits. Those rather naive, childish images, the ways in which the women see themselves, are turned into something very different as Hannah Rose writes them afresh as parallel icons. Their stories of suffering become windows for the soul, enabling us to look through the likeness, the brushstrokes, colours and shapes, to glimpse the deeper mystery and meaning of God’s love.

 As we pause, look, and listen with our hearts, we are changed and perhaps those unspeakable experiences, and that untold courage seems less remote, less unattainable, after all.

Many have called icons windows for the soul. The word “icon” comes from the Greek for image or likeness. And, as I’ve shared, God’s image and likeness can be found everywhere. Icons—and other forms of art—are invitations to look beyond the brushstrokes, colours, and shapes to the deeper mystery and meaning. If we take the time, we may all glimpse God;s face gazing back at us, as we gaze at these beloved daughters.


My favourite All Saints story is the apocryphal one of a Sunday-school child who was being quizzed by the vicar about what he had learned in their session that All Saints morning. Looking wildly around he spotted a halo’d being in the nearest window and announced “A saint is someone that the light shines through

I’ve always loved that...because, you see, though there are so many tales of great heroism to be told within the Church of today as much as that of the past, in the end its not our stories that matter. Each of those women at the altar would see themselves, I’m sure, as very ordinary, just as each and every Christian persecuted for their faith in every age would, just as that great cloud of witnesses would...…just as you and I do.


And yet, by God’s grace shining through us, each of us CAN be a sign of hope, of courage, of loving-kindness...building up the Church to be all that she is called to be


I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.                                                                                                  They were all of them saints of God and I mean                                                                   God helping, to be one too.






Saturday, October 14, 2023

Be careful for nothing - sermon for St Hugh's, Proper 23, Trinity 19, 15th October 2023


For a long time I had on the pinboard over my desk a cartoon by Simon Drew.    It depicted a small terrier standing on top of an impressive table tomb, with several thinks bubbles emerging from his head

Will I be able to pay off my credit card”

Did I leave the gas on?”

Whatever can I do about climate change…”

Beneath was the caption

The tomb of the unknown worrier”

You see, I'm rather good at that kind of worrying myself – and this past week has given us all ample opportunity not just to worry, but, as we hear more and more about events in the Holy Land, to be fearful, almost to the point of despair

That's rather a shame, really, because Paul says that this should not be an option for me as a Christian.

Do not worry about anything”

ANYTHING? REALLY? When the world seems to be teetering on the edge of war, the climate is well and truly traumatised and the idea of turning on the heating if temperatures drop is giving far too many people sleepless nights as they contemplate the cost of living.

Rejoice? Don’t worry?


To be fair, Paul doesn’t simply forbid us to worry.

He gives us an alternative programme to follow, as he encourages us

rejoice in the Lord always, and by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving to let your requests be made known to God.”

He's looking for hearts and minds transformed, it seems...and it all begins with joy.

"Rejoice!" Not just once, but again...

look to the things that give you joy – focus on all that is good, and remember that we have the all-time best reason to be cheerful. THE LORD IS AT HAND!

That doesn't mean we all have to turn into Pollyanna's, pretending that everything is just fine when we're surrounded by real and serious problems…Though we might at first read it this way, Paul isn’t acting as a kind of spiritual cheer-leader, insisting on an upbeat response to any and every grief. He is writing to a church filled with doubt and fear, amidst a crooked generation in an aggressively evil environment. Remember the passage began with him telling two good people to fix their relationship...He knows that life in Philippi is a struggle, with in-fighting and persecution. There is no shortage of things to fret about, and yet Paul insists, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.”

I don't know how the Philippians took that – I'm often frustrated that we don't get to hear the response to all those New Testament letters – but I suspect they may have snorted in derision at first, that they might not have been much better at living a joy-filled life than I am myself.

You see, the sad truth is, that often Christianity seems to be a religion for kill-joys...People imagine that we spend most of our time focussing on the things we can't do, and disapproving of those who do them anyway – and it's certainly true that opting to follow Jesus isn't a recipe for an easy life. Everything from our relationships to our shopping habits may need to change...It's hard work...and for those who focus on the external sources of happiness, it just doesn't make sense. But the thing is that joy exists independent of the environment and will persist through any and all circumstances – because it doesn't depend on them.

The secret to joy is not to look at the circumstances of your own life. Focus instead on Christ and his work in you. Now it begins to make sense.

Don’t worry…Be careful for nothing.

This does not mean “Be careLESS of everything” but rather do not be worn down by anxiety…

"Present your requests to God" Let God know specifically what troubles you – what your needs are –No matter what is going on, in all things PRAY!

Suddenly this seems a slightly better reading in this week of terrible news.

This reading is often used at Rogation services, when communities tradtionally gather to ask God's blessing on the sowing of seeds...and that's the perfect illustration, really, since planting a seed is always and everywhere an act of faith. How can something so small and fragile carry within it all it needs for fruitful life? How can burying that tiny fragment in the ground lead to the growth of a whole new plant, just like its parent? Clearly with the planting of each and every seed, we find ourselves in the realm of miracle…and it's so as we plant the tiniest seeds of faithful prayer.

Yes, these ARE dark and difficult days. The world is messed up in ways beyond all telling – and worry might seem the most rational response, though we know for ourselves that it achieves very very litt.e

But we have an alternative...

However ridiculous, however inadequate it may seem, we have the choice to carry on praying even when it seems to be a completely fruitless activity.

Just as planting a seed involves us in a process of patient waiting while nothing much happens, we have to believe that a similar process will see prayers answered, if we wait in hope.

And as we wait – there's good news, news of God's peace which "Transcends all understanding"...of a peace beyond human reason or logic,- the peace of knowing God's presence and protection.

So a seed of prayer sown, leads to the miracle of a mind transformed.

As the peace of God comes to occupy the place anxiety once held!

That's what happens when we pray in joyful hope.

We pray and God plants a seed within us, diverting our attention from those things which cause us pointless anxiety, which drain our energies and rob us of our sleep. Instead we can focus on

whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure,

whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable...

Doesn't that sound better as a response to the 3 a.m. devils?

So here is Paul’s prescription – his four part antidote to anxiety.

Change your attitude - Rejoice! all shall be well, for God is in charge!

Do things differently - in everything – absolutely everything – give thanks and pray! Ask for what you need, and it will be given to you

Wait for your answer and instead of worry, you will experience the peace of God!

And while you wait, think of all the gifts and blessings that surround you.

Even in the darkest hours, I hope you’ll agree that this is so much better than immuring ourselves in the tomb of the unknown let's pray that through God's transforming power the small nugget of belief, the vestige of faith the size of a mustard seed, that we bring to the table may flourish and grow, so that as the body of Christ in this place we may be full of that irrepressible joy of which Paul writes, as we live lives grounded in the peace that is beyond our reason, beyond all understanding.

Monday, October 09, 2023

Thought for the day 4th October 2023

Until a few weeks ago, I was part of the clergy team at Coventry Cathedral, where my favourite place to pray was the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane. It is separated from the retro choir by an iron grille shaped as a crown of thorns, and behind the small stone altar glitters a huge mosaic of the angel of the agony. That angel dwarfs even the tallest who stand there and the cup of suffering the angel bears seems big enough to contain all the pain of the world.

To preside there, and to lift the chalice at the point of consecration is to stand very firmly amid the tide of God's loving purposes worked out through history.

But in contrast to the glittering splendour of the angel on the other wall there is a tangled mess of greyness,  another less glamorous mosaic that depicts a heap of sleeping disciples who are so easy to overlook that it's often necessary to take visitors up behind the altar if they are to recognise them at all.

They might as well not be there it seems.

Their presence adds no more to the art work than did the men themselves to the outcome of events on that first Maundy Thursday. Everything that needs to happen is played out as Christ wrestles with just what it means to surrender his own will to the will of his Father. The sleepong disciples are irrelevant

Except, perhaps, for people like us.

You see, that is the Chapel where I have struggled to stay awake as the minutes crawled in towards the midnight of the Maundy Watch. It is the Chapel where Christ, present in the Blessed Sacrament, lovingly leads me to acknowledge the myriad ways in which I have failed him, denied him, promised much yet failed to deliver. Like Peter I'm quick to jump in and declare my love, like Peter my passionate devotion is shortlived. I aspire to spend the night in prayer but find myself distracted by aching knees, or trying desperately to suppress yawns that are at odds with my longing to be holy. But I AM still there

That's when I'm glad of those sleeping disciples. Despite everything they remain part of the story, even as they doze on the edge of the action,.

These are the people who in just a few weeks time, filled with the Spirit, will set out to change the world.

And if God can use them, - well, it seems God can use us too.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Thought for day - Matthew, apostle and evangelist. 23/9/23


Once upon a time, while I was training for ministry, I had a conversation that I have never forgotten with a student, whose tradition was far more evangelical than my own. I found myself apologising that, coming from a liberal catholic background, I feared that my relationship with the Bible was nothing like a robust as his – but, bless him, he was having none of it.

You pray the office daily, don’t you

AND you have sung in church and chapel choirs all your life

Add to that your background in English Literature and 7ou have probably spent far longer immersed in Scripture than I have – it’s just that you live in that immersion, instead of sitting down to engage consciously in Bible study.

Rather to my own surprise, I had to admit that he was right. Whereas some English literature degree courses now include an introductory Bible familiarisation programme, to ensure that students aren’t completely oblivious to the influences that shaped much of the writing they will study, even the atheists among my contemporaries had at least a working knowledge of Scripture, though they would never have claimed a special status for those texts. We lived in a world where we had, as Paul reminds Timothy, “known the sacred writings that ARE ABLE to instruct you for salvation”…

Whether they do or not surely depends on how you use these texts.

If they are treated as just another body of historic writing, important in its day but not really relevant, - then that is how it will remain. It is only, as Paul points out, when we combine knowledge of Scripture with faith in Christ Jesus that the words awaken to their full life and power.

I wonder how you respond to the famous declaration “All scripture is inspired by God”

It is, when you pause to think about it, slightly ironic that many use this phrase, itself surely subject to the same process of exigesis as the rest of the Biblical text, as a proof positive of that text’s surpassing value. An internal system of self-validation may not, after all, seem to be entirely conclusive – yet there is no doubt that this book that reads us can change lives.

But, I would say, it’s not the power of the words alone, however great their impact. This IS a body of words, collected over many centuries, an account of the great love story of God and God’s people – and it does not exist in isolation, to be valued for itself alone. Rather, the significance comes as we ask my favourite “So what! “ question once more.

All Scripture is inspired by God SO THAT everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Scripture helps us to understand how to be the people whom God calls us to be and, on this feast of Matthew the apostle, we give thanks that God chooses to tell his story through many different voices, and many different lives - Jews and Gentiles, Kings and scholars, tax collectors and sinners. Even, by God’s grace, through you and me.

1st sermon for Southwark - The Cathedral Eucharist at 9.00 & 11.00 on Trinity 15, Proper 19A, 17/9/23

If you’re a regular at Sunday worship anywhere in the world, you’ll be conscious of the fact that some Sundays are easier for the preacher than others. There are days when the appointed readings say everything that you could possibly want to hear, when readings, music and sermon alike lift hearts and minds to heaven – and then there are days like this, which feel a bit different. Left to ourselves, We probably wouldn’t have chosen a passage that speaks of a hard-hearted slaves being tortured into a better state of mind (as the ideal way to welcome Max and Freddie into God’s Church). Indeed, if we had written the parable, we might have chosen to rewrite this tale of shocking ingratitude in favour of an overflowing generosity that paved the way for a wild celebration and the assurance that “They all lived happily debt free ever after”

Surely, with Max and Freddie coming to Baptism, it would have been much better to stick to an uncomplicated celebration of God’s love unclouded by any sense of human inadequacy. But that’s why we have the Lectionary. To force us to engage with some of the challenges of faith, as much as with its joys, and so, – here we are, - with no escape possible. Forgiveness, judgement, and yet more forgiveness…the theme runs through all our readings, like the lettering in a stick of seaside rock – and perhaps after all that is not unhelpful as we celebrate baptism, and recall our own today. Indeed, in an age where sin and its remedy, forgiveness, are disturbingly unpalatable concepts, this may after all be exactly what we need to hear – whether we want it or not.

So, let’s dive in together and see if we can wrestle some good news even here and now.

It wasn’t til I began preparing for this sermon that I, rather belatedly, explored the actual value of the coins we hear about, the size of the debt forgiven and the payment demanded.

Let’s start small. The denarius, I’m told, represents something like a day’s pay at the living wage: so the funds owed by one slave to another were substantial – but not, I would say, impossible to bear. You could imagine how such a debt might have been run up, and also, how given patience and a following wind, it might even be repaid if the debtor was free to work, and thus to earn.

Walking the parish, Dickens in hand, in the days before I was installed, I found myself remembering those consigned to the Marshelsea Debtors Prison, - whose arrival there pretty much guaranteed that they would never be able to work to earn their way out of their predicament. That penalty landed with special force on the poorest – as it does in the parable.

It seems, then particularly cruel that a slave should be consigned to prison by a fellow slave – creating a scenario in which both are losers, freedom forfeited and the slate doomed never to be cleared.

In contrast we have the transaction between Lord and slave...a transaction based on the harsh reality of a truly unpayable debt. You see, a talent was the largest unit of currency in the ancient world – and ten thousand the biggest number that could be computed. So, to speak of ten thousand talents is to say “A squillion billion everythings” an absolutely unimaginable sum… debt beyond comprehension, and most certainly far beyond any hope of repaying.

And yet – THAT is the debt that is forgiven.

One so huge that it defies description.

Infinite debt, calling forth infinite forgiveness.

“As the heavens are high above the earth, so great is God’s mercy towards those who fear him”

Ah hah. I’m beginning to scent that good news which we all need so badly – and I’m quite tempted to stop right now and leave the story to do its own work.

We have been made fabulously, incomprehensibly rich by God, who writes off the debt that we have incurred simply by being human.

The spotlight reveals God’s forgiveness as unbounded as God’s love, and it is time to rejoice indeed.

It’s THIS into which Max and Frederick/Freddie are being baptised.

This which should bring us up short day after day after day.

But -what are we going to do once we recognise this, because, you see, always the gospel invites us to ask the question “So what?”

As one commentary puts it “God’s mercy to us is meant as lesson as well as gift”. We are not to be simply passive recipients but active transmitters of that grace we receive.

We know that even fractured, selfish humans CAN forgive. The Joseph story we heard confirms this and, after all his trials and adventures, Joseph at least seems to have learned that we can never, MUST never put ourselves in the place of God, meting out judgement no matter how justified it may seem. “Though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” points up once again what can happen when we put ourselves in the judgement seat, with all our sadly limited compassion, our puny, inadequate forgiveness.

So – we receive. We are forgiven. We make a fresh start. So what?

Many of you will know that until recently I worked at Coventry Cathedral – and in the bombed ruins of the medieval cathedral of St Michael there is a statue by Josefina de Vasconelos. Originally intended to depict the reunion of two victims of war who had traversed the length and breadth of ravaged Europe to fall into one another’s arms, it has been re-titled “Reconciliation” . If you don’t know it, do have a look online later, or I have placed a small replica at the back of the cathedral this morning…

It depicts two figures leaning into one another in an embrace, so that the arch of their bodies forms a bridge between them, and it seems likely that either would fall without the support of the other. It seems to me that this, THIS is the model of mutuality God invites us into, where it is impossible to tell who is forgiving, who forgiven, for we hold one another up as we acknowledge all our human imperfections yet find ourselves bound together in our mutual dependence on God’s grace.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us can, if it helps, be turned on its head in a prayer that invites God to help us to use that infinite forgiveness to remind us how to live day by day.

Forgive not once, but repeatedly...Don’t keep a tally, imagining that it’s fine to turn away once a limit has been reached – be it 77 or 70 times 7. Just keep at it, remembering that in the final analysis it’s actually none of our business. “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” - and we have ample evidence of the infinite compassion with which God treats us, in all our frailty.

WE have all been freed from prison, the walls of the Marshalsea pulled down – so let us live that way, walking in joy the path of forgiveness as reconciled and reconciling people.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Final Sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral 16th July 2023


Forgive me this afternoon if my main object seems to be to preach, quite literally, to the choir.

I hope my words may have some relevance elsewhere too, but let’s start with the singers. Oh my goodness.If you were intent on reducing your Canon for Worship to helpless tears, congratulations. “I was glad…” presses pretty much every emotional button I have available – from the wedding of a dear friend here, to our Diamond Jubilee service – not to mention the many many times I’ve sung it myself in different choirs and different contexts. And, always, of course, it does what it says on the jar – so that I was and a I AM glad that we have come here together into the house of the Lord….

Glad – but sad as well. In other words, a bit flayed, ….raw, vulnerable, open to whatever God might want to do in this final Evensong of our time together.

And, of course, that is often what music does for us. It bypasses our defences – of logic, of busyness, of simple inattention – and forces us to be present and open in the moment.

And the moment is, most often, where we find that we can meet with God.

That’s why this service of Evensong is so important to me, and why each and every voice in our choirs is doing something that matters even beyond excellence in performance. St Augustine said that those who sing pray twice…On a bad day, it may be that we find ourselves substituting singing for any other kind of engagement in prayer, - but on a good day, music builds bridges to God like nothing else and expresses the truth of God in ways that words can simply never aspire to.

And what is true for you as you sing is true for those who listen as well.

We can’t always do faith with our understanding – though that’s not an invitation to switch your brain off the moment you come in to worship. But if you don’t see yourself as a person of faith, or if the readings leave you cold, or with far more questions than answers, the invitation is simply to let the music take over and do what it does best, transforming the moment as it opens a window onto eternity.

Yes, our worship will always be inadequate. How could it not be, when you consider the greatness of a God beyond all words, beyond all telling?  The spiritual writer and mystic Evelyn Underhill knew this when she wrote

"If God were small enough to be understood, He would not be big enough to be worshipped"

The hymn we will sing very soon recognises that too, with its opening question

“How shall I sing that majesty…” highlighting the gulf between us, in our human frailty, and the God who has drawn us here

But when we worship, when we turn hearts and minds to God, however much we may struggle with the process, we will find ourselves carried, if we’re only willing to allow it. Just that tiniest movement towards God “Where heaven is but once begun”…sweeps us up in the song of praise that started as the world began, and will continue even beyond its end.

And, you know, the notes that we have sung together in this place will resound in God’s heart forever, for God delights in every movement of the heart towards him. Wherever we are, whatever comes next in our lives, in this place where prayer has been valid for centuries we have begun the work that is ours for ever, to magnify the Lord and rejoice in God our Saviour.

So, let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God!

Farewell sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist, Sunday 16th July 2023

 Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you                                                            such good things as pass our understanding:                                                                              pour into our hearts such love toward you                                                                                  that we, loving you in all things and above all things,                                                                    may obtain your promises,                                                                                                    which exceed all that we can desire;                                                                                      through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,                                                                                      who is alive and reigns with you,                                                                                                  in the unity of the Holy Spirit,                                                                                                      one God, now and for ever.

Loving you in all things and above all things.

Really, I think that this is what it is all about…the Eucharist, the Cathedral, ordained ministry, the whole Church in all its wild wonder and terrible pain. It’s why we are here – not just here in the cathedral this morning, but why we were created in the first place. That we might learn to recognise God wherever we turn, and recognising, love with all our hearts

And put like that, it sounds so deceptively easy…not least because the Collect frames that love in terms of aspiration to a reward – because, of course, that’s how humanity functions. The need for future promises is never part of God’s identity. God’s love does not depend on our response, - not for one moment., - and as we reflect on this morning’s gospel, it’s probably good to remember that.

You see, I suspect I’m not the only one who has spent anxious hours (perhaps not at a stretch – I’m not that pious) wondering what kind of soil I might be. Usually, I land myself somewhere midway between the rocky and thorny ground, conscious that many a promising beginning in my journey of faith has been curtailed because I’ve been just too preoccupied with other things – sometimes, even with doing things FOR GOD as a priest in God’s Church. Then there’s time for a bit of self-recrimination, wailing and gnashing of teeth (I'm good at that) before I am gently reminded that maybe Jesus didn’t intent this parable as a motivational tool, but simply a reminder of how God is.

Here’s the thing. The sower keeps on sowing. Wildly profligate, flinging the seed- that message of reconciling love – recklessly far and wide, regardless of the success or otherwise of the process…It’s bonkers by any human standard. Such a waste! And yet, God keeps on doing it…because it’s part of who God is. Not just love but outrageous EXTRAVAGANT love.

 Let anyone with ears listen…

You see each seed is always, without fail, a sign of hope.

That something so small should carry within it such potential is never less than miraculous, even when our focus is the relatively ordinary…And yet time and again, despite the inherent risk of sending, perhaps, a dandelion blowing every which way on the breeze, that potential is eventually realised. Maybe not in the way we expected, or where we had planned – but nonetheless, realised as something new comes into being.

We’ve all watched seeds of hope flourish here in this place…The hope that Provost Howard voiced in that extraordinary Christmas message – that his community, shocked, battered, grieving, - would TRY to banish all thought of vengeance from their hearts and set out to build a kinder, more Christ-child-like world. Who would have guessed we would still be telling that story 83 years on? Or what kinds of reconciliation plant would grow from his vision. Clearly he had both heard and received God’s seeds of love…

But there have been times, too, when we’ve felt the disappointment of a world and a church that seems largely oblivious to the words we share day by day, as years have passed without us being noticeably different from any other community that aspires to much but falls over its own feet repeatedly. We long to be a reconciled and reconciling people – but sometimes its hard even to be reconciled to ourselves.

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted…”

We know that the plant of kindness doesn’t always grow as well as it might in our own hearts and souls. Does that mean that we need to return to that cycle of self-doubt and recrimination which can sometimes trap us?

Surely we can trust that the seeds that have been planted will come to fruition, because they are not ours but God’s…There’s so much inevitability in our first reading. God speaks…

My word shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

It’s not down to us, not dependent on our efforts, our determination to transform ourselves into more fertile, more productive ground. It’s all going to happen, as surely as the cycle of the seasons.

During that first spring of the pandemic, when I’d imagine most of us spent at least some time contemplating our mortality, I found the sheer beauty of life returning to our city, the sunshine, the birdsong, the hawthorn blossom, deeply reassuring. It helped me to remember that while my time here had always been limited, that was exactly how it should be, that I was only the tiniest part of the great cycle of creation in which we could recognise God, and that God’s self-revelation in everything had begun long before humanity and would continue beyond us, in every corner of the universe, and beyond the farthest star. That’s the promise we hear expressed in Isaiah…

12 For you shall go out in joy,
   and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
   shall burst into song,
   and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
   instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.


An everlasting sign.

God in all things – there for us to recognise, there for us to love, - in all things and above all things.

Over my years here, there have been so many moments of recognition for me – yes in our worship, the alchemy of word and music that transforms again and again;  in the beauty of our building and its power to surprise and subvert…But even more in the stories of fragile hopes and broken lives entrusted to me along the way…in random acts of kindness from friends and strangers…in shared moments of silence when we knew beyond doubt that God was close…

I’m so very grateful for all those glimpses – and for your part in them, as God’s beloved people here. Long long ago, Augustine wrote “Life is for love…Time is only that we may find God” – so let’s pray that Collect once more today, but try to live it every day, to the glory of God’s name.


Merciful God,
you have prepared for those who love you
such good things as pass our understanding:
pour into our hearts such love toward you
that we, loving you in all things and above all things,
may obtain your promises,
which exceed all that we can desire;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.