Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The Tree of Life - Thoughts of Hope after Grenfell

This is the text of a sermon preached at St Clement's church North Kensington on the occasion of the blessing of a garden for Peace, Healing and Justice on the 10th June 2018, the week of the one-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire.

 In the Bible there are three important trees, one at the beginning, one at the end, one in the middle. The first was mentioned in our reading from the book of Genesis - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is a tree that represents the choice placed before us -  the choice to turn towards God, towards life and all that is good, or to turn away from him towards the darkness. As the story unfolds, it relates that fateful choice, repeated so many times since, to turn away from God, and love, and goodness, and instead to those destructive patterns of behaviour which lead to so much misery in our world. This tree therefore becomes a symbol of the tragedy at the heart of human life, our tendency to ignore and hurt one another, to damage ourselves, our neighbours and our planet, the entry of evil into our world. It is a symbol of the deep wound of creation, the suffering of the world that we are very conscious of here as we approach this coming week. 

Like the tree of good and evil in the Genesis story, Grenfell Tower today stands as a symbol of tragedy, of pain and our failure to care for one another. Somehow that building was allowed to get to the stage where a small fire could so quickly get out of hand, with the resulting trauma that this community has experienced over the last year and the 72 precious lives that were lost as a result. 

Yet there is another tree - the tree at the end of the story, the one mentioned in the book of Revelation – “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”It is a symbol of energy, prosperity, creation restored - the Christian hope that one day, evil will be banished, God will make all things right, that peace, justice and joy will reign. It is a symbol of life, just like the garden that we will dedicate at the end of this service. 

Yet how do we get from one to the other? How do we move from a symbol of tragedy and despair, to a picture of life and fruitfulness? That is where the third tree comes in. It is the tree that was cut down, and reshaped into a crude wooden cross, on which Jesus Christ, the Son of God was crucified, an event we recall every time we break bread & pour out wine, as we do today, to recall the broken body and spilt blood of Jesus. 

Christian faith tells us that when we grieve and sorrow, God does not stand far off watching, but comes to be with us right in the middle of that grief and sorrow. This week will be a painful and difficult one for many in this community. It will bring back harsh memories and vivid reminders of loved ones whom we have lost; the confusion, grief, anger of those days last summer and many since. Yet in the middle of that pain, we have this pledge that God  meets us in it, and stands alongside us. According to this story, God is a Father who knows exactly what it is to watch a Son suffer and die, a God to whom we can therefore come with our sorrows. A small sign of that is this building, which, over the past year, has been a place at the heart of this community, where people have brought their tears, prayers, grief, longings - as we read in our gospel reading – like a shrub, where “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” As this building stands in the heart of this community so God is present with us in our pain and confusion, offering us his presence and his comfort.

And yet there is more. The Christian story also tells us that God enters into our human experience of pain not just to be with us in it, but to redeem and transform it. 

When something goes wrong, we have a deep and sure instinct that it can only be healed if justice is done. When something happens that breaks the harmony of God’s creation, when we damage and destroy each other, it cannot simply be ignored, glossed over and life carry on as normal - justice is vital if restoration and healing are to emerge. To put it differently, atonement has to be made. 

This world is out of joint with the purposes of its creator, and yet is healed by love - by the self-sacrificial love of God, in his Son Jesus Christ, who in that great act of love, takes on himself the consequences of our sins, mistakes and the harm we do each other, and atones for them on that cross, so that justice is done, and we and the whole world can be healed. In a mysterious way, that can take a lifetime to fathom, healing is brought about as God himself enters into our experience of pain and grief and loss, to redeem it and transform it from within. Healing comes through love – the love of God which enters right into our human struggles to transform them. 

The transition from desolation to joy can only come through justice. We hope, trust and pray that justice will be done through the Inquiry and the Police investigation. But God has already been present here this year, silently working to bring healing in every act of love, of kindness, of listening, people being brought together to urge for change, the courage we saw in the bereaved families as they told their stories at the Inquiry, the slow path to truth that the Inquiry is seeking to find, the lives that are slowly beginning to heal. There is a long way to go, but life is stronger than death, and there are signs of life if we have eyes to see them. 

As we gaze upon that second tree, the tree on which the Son of God was killed, we are assured that this same God that created us and gave us life, enters with his love into the very heart of our human experience of pain and grief to redeem it and transform it. 

And that is why we can have hope. After the death of Jesus came the Resurrection of Jesus. Suffering and pain are never the last word, but can be transformed by the love of God into healing and wholeness. It does not make the suffering and pain right, or take it away immediately, but it does offer the promise of transformation and hope. After a difficult year, it is that hope that we hold onto today, and that we need to hold onto. 

The third tree, the ‘tree of life’ stands for a new world, one that we all long for. A world where ‘the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ 

The garden we will dedicate later is a symbol of all this. This area, even Grenfell Tower itself has long been one where people from all over world live side by side, a place where the nations come together, so especially here it is fitting to remember this promise of the healing of the nations, wherever we come from. 

We long for Grenfell itself to change from a symbol of pain and suffering to one of healing and restoration. Imagine in 20 years time, looking back on Grenfell Tower as a the trigger for a sea-change in the way we looked after one another in our cities, a time we decided once and for all to provide good quality, safe social and affordable housing, when we learnt to look out for one another, even to love one another as good neighbours, not just in times of disaster but as a regular way of life, whatever our differences of ethnicity or faith? 

The road ahead, even the next few days ahead will not be easy. That is why we need to fix our eyes on hope. Hope is sometimes hard to find when everything around seems hopeless. That’s why we need thingsto hold onto, to touch to feel, to represent that hope. 

Today is a day that offers us symbols of hope: in this buildingwe have a sign of God’s presence with us to offer us comfort, shelter and a home, especially for those still waiting for theirs. 

In the bread and wine we are brought back to Jesus, the God who stands with us in our pain and redeems the suffering of the world, through his act of self-sacrificial love. 

And in the garden of healing and peace, we have a symbol of life, of hope, a new world where “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

I pray and trust that the garden that we bless today will be a sign of that tree of life, of the coming healing of the nations, a reminder of the hope of a new world, one where we have learnt to love the God who gave us life and the neighbour who is given to us to love. Whenever you walk past it, let it be a sign of the world that we long and pray for – a sign of God’s presence with us in the darkest of times, a sign that the world is healed through love, a sign that life is stronger than death. 

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Aussie Cricket, Labour anti-Semitism & Chichester Diocese - How the Unacceptable becomes Conceivable

The Australian ball-tampering scandal, the Labour party’s troubles over anti-Semitism and the shameful story of what happened in the diocese of Chichester revealed in the inquiry into child sexual abuse - all of them have something in common - the ease with which organisational culture can slip to a point where the unacceptable becomes conceivable.

The Aussie cricket team has been pushing the boundaries of fairness in what it takes to win for years. Hostile comments before series begin, sledging the opposition during games, aggressive behaviour towards opponents – they have been ‘butting heads’ with opponents for years. Small decisions, pushing the boundaries over time probably made the option of using some sandpaper to rough up the ball to win a small advantage in a series that was going against them seem just one more thing. It was nothing special, something they could get away with like they had got away with so many other questionable practices for years.

The Labour party’s traditional sympathy for the Palestinian cause has allowed the cancer of anti-semitism to grow undetected, moving imperceptibly from a critique of Israeli government policies in particular to a hostility to Jews in general. Again, snide remarks, offensive tweets went unchallenged, all leading to a point where it became acceptable to habitually criticise Jews, defend anyone who did, or make whistle-blowers feel ostracised.

In the diocese of Chichester, the problem began with trusting clergy too much, assuming they could not be at fault, turning a blind eye to rumours of clerical misbehaviour. That then gradually turned into a whole culture of covering up abuse, siding with the perpetrators not the victims, doing anything to preserve the reputation of the church over against the needs of survivors. A culture of secrecy allowed the virus of exploitation to spread, and the victims were those who should have been protected all along.

In all three cases, I’m sure those who took those initial small, seemingly innocuous decisions never felt they were doing anything heinous. It’s only in retrospect that we can see the slow but sure slide to cheating, vilification and abuse.

Those of us who have the responsibility for overseeing organisations of any kind need to watch our organisational culture like a hawk. Taking moral shortcuts, the easy way out, allowing lies or even half-truths to spread – it all leads only in one direction. St Paul once called for “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God’ (2 Cor 6.6-7). All this points out the importance of keeping habitual standards high, holding to honesty, moral vision and courage at all times - before it’s too late.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Grenfell Tower Memorial Service - A Reflection

The evening of June 13th was an evening like any other in London – it had been a hot day, and the sun went down on a calm, gentle, night. That evening people went out for a meal, went to bed, stayed up talking, doing what people do in London on a warm summer’s evening. Yet that night was to change the lives of so many here in this Cathedral today.

Since then, it has been a long six months. Many here grieve for loved ones, precious people who perished on that dreadful night. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts & uncles, cousins, sons and daughters. Today would have been the first birthday of one of the youngest victims of the fire. Many still struggle with their memories. There are still far too many living in hotels, in a kind of limbo, not sure of what the future holds. There are so many unresolved issues and questions, and it’s hard to live with uncertainty.

Yet in the following days, in the middle of that unimaginable tragedy, we saw something extraordinary. People started coming from all over London, all over the UK & even beyond, bringing offers of help - water, toys, nappies, blankets, food. Churches, mosques, community centres opened their doors as people came with suitcases of clothes they had collected from their homes and driven across the country to deliver.

The emergency services worked tirelessly – ambulance crews, firefighters who entered the Tower again and again, the police - often going far beyond what was required of them to rescue and to comfort.

We saw acts of simple, but remarkable generosity. On the Sunday morning following the fire, I was standing in one of the streets near the Tower, when a man came up to me with his 6-year old son. He said that Alfie had collected together all his pocket money, and rather than spending it on toys for himself, he wanted to give it to one of the families who had lost their home. Alfie handed me a tin – a dented, well-loved Marvel Avengers tin – with about £60 in it – it was all the money he had.

The fire took place during Ramadan and in the summer there are fewer hours of darkness. Many Muslim volunteers had to work long hours in the heat with no food because of the fast, and did so with great willingness and dedication. They worked alongside people of all faiths and none to do what they could to bring help and hope.

I remember standing outside one of our churches the day after the fire, helping the Christian community there organize the help coming in – a crowd of people had turned up to help. What struck me was the variety. Every ethnicity, background, age – for a moment we all lost our fear of each other, we lost our obsession with ourselves and we reached out across the city in love for our neighbour. 

It was a glimpse of what our society could be like - a place where we were for a brief moment more concerned about our neighbour’s wellbeing than we were about our own.

Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God and to love our neighbour. As we come to the end of this difficult year, as we celebrate Christmas, as we move into a new year, nothing can remove the memory of that night – nor do we want to forget those dearly loved people who were lost. Yet my hope and prayer is that this new year can bring new hope of a future, a vision of a city where we lose our self-obsession and listen and learn from places and people that we wouldn’t normally think of reaching out to.

There is something about a Cathedral – it is a place where we are aware we are in the presence of something - someone - bigger than ourselves. As we cross the threshold into this building, it doesn’t matter whether we are politicians, religious leaders, volunteers, survivors, bereaved, residents – we are all equal in the eyes of God. Love makes no distinctions. We are all neighbours to each other and we are called to love our neighbours.

Today we remember with sorrow, grief, tears. And we pledge that those we have lost will not be forgotten.

Today we ask why warnings were not heeded, why a community was left feeling neglected, uncared for, not listened to.

Today we hold out hope that the Public Inquiry will get to the truth of all that led up to the fire at Grenfell Tower, that it will listen to the hopes, fears and questions of those most directly affected by it. And we trust that the truth will bring justice, and that justice will enable true reconciliation – the eventual healing of the divides in our life together that this tragedy has revealed.

As we come this to special time of year; as we enter a new year, we also look forward. We long for a society where we have learnt not just to tolerate our neighbours but to love them. Which means to listen to them. Not just our friends, those who are like us, but our neighbours – those we do not choose, yet who are placed alongside us precisely so we can learn to love them. And to do that we need to see our neighbours differently. Not as those to be feared, despised, neglected. But as a gift to be cherished, valued, loved.

The message of this season, the message that we celebrate this Christmas is found in that ancient word Immanuel - God with us – that God understands, listens and hears the cries of those who feel forgotten and abandoned. And we trust that this service today is an assurance that the families most deeply affected by this tragedy are also not forgotten by our nation, by those who watch and listen around the country today.

My hope, my prayer is that today we will pledge ourselves to change - from a city where we didn’t listen, where we didn’t hear the cries of our neighbours because we were too wrapped up in our own interests and prosperity, to create a new type of life together, where we are turned not inwards to ourselves, but outwards towards each other: a society known for listening, compassion and love. In years to come, our hope is that the name of ‘Grenfell’ will not just be known as a symbol of sorrow, grief or injustice, but a symbol of the time we learnt a new and better way - to listen and to love.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Why Freedom is not what you think it is

I have always struggled to understand what Christians mean by freedom. There is quite a lot in the Old Testament about Israel as free people, in the New Testament about how Christ sets us free, Christians talk a lot about freedom, and yet Christianity has always seemed to demand things like obedience, submission to God's will, adopting a moral code where certain things are right and certain things are off-limits, none of which really seems like freedom. 

For a number of years now I've been pondering this question, and the result is a book which has just been published, entitled “Bound to be Free: the Paradox of Freedom”, published by Bloomsbury. At the risk of sounding a little arrogant I think I may have worked it out - at least to my own satisfaction!

The problem is not so much a Christian understanding of freedom, but the secular way of thinking about the concept which most of us imbibe without even thinking about it. The book traces the roots of secular notions of Freedom in the libertarian tradition exemplified by thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. The basic idea here is that freedom is individual freedom. It is the ability to do what I choose with my own goods, talents, time and opportunities, without any hindrance from wider bodies like the state or government. J.S. Mill extends this into the idea that such freedom is necessary from all kinds of social restriction and expectation, and that individuals should be free to do as they choose, as long as they do not harm other people, and do not infringe upon the rights of others to exercise their own freedom within their own personal space. 

If that's the way we understand freedom, then it's not surprising that Christians struggle to fit biblical notions of freedom into that framework. However, there is I think a problem with this secular way of thinking about it.

Societies need to somehow square the circle of allowing and enabling personal flourishing, while at the same time enabling social cohesion. The secular libertarian view allows a certain level of personal liberty, but doesn't do very well when it comes to social cohesion.

Basically the problem is this. On this view of freedom, the Other, whether understood as my neighbour, my wife, my children, my friends, or the state, is understood as essentially a limitation or even a threat to the exercise of my freedom. The exercise of freedom is possible within my own personal space, as long as I don't tread on the toes of anyone else, but this sets up the other person as someone whose boundaries I need to tread very carefully, and needs to be resisted in case they tread on mine, precisely because the Other is a potential threat, and therefore someone essentially to be feared.

The Christian idea freedom is very different. It is not freedom to do as I want, because what I want is so often the problem. The Christian doctrine of sin tells us that our desires are not always very healthy, in fact very often we desire what will ultimately destroy us, our relationships and even our planet. Instead Christian freedom is the freedom from anything that would hold us back from becoming the people that we were meant to be - people capable of love for God and for our neighbour, as Jesus taught we were to be.

It is therefore freedom from that obsession with ourselves, our image, wealth looks and prospects, and freedom to be properly self-forgetful in love for our neighbour. It is not so much freedom for myself as freedom from myself. It is freedom from habits we wish we could kick, political systems that stop us caring for one another, an economy that sucks us into personal self-centred consumption. The key to that, says Christianity, is learning first of all a love for God - a recognition that I am not the centre of the universe, and that I need to learn to re-boot my life to fit the way the world is, where God lies at the centre not me, as I develop a relationship with my Creator. I then learn to love those he has given to me – my neighbour for starters. Freedom is therefore a gift and not a right, and the Other becomes not a threat nor limitation, but a gift - a gift to enable me to exercise this crucial virtue of love, and to grow in my ability to love my neighbour. The other is now not a threat but a gift, and so the Christian account of freedom squares the circle of personal flourishing and social cohesion much better than the secular one does.

Of course there's a lot more to the book than this, but it begins to give you a sense of the argument. If you want to get your copy – click here.

The Tree of Life - Thoughts of Hope after Grenfell

This is the text of a sermon preached at St Clement's church North Kensington on the occasion of the blessing of a garden for Peace, ...