Pentecost sermon (for 8am BCP)

May the Spirit give us ears to hear, and hearts open to God’s word for us today.

Today, at Pentecost, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. It would be easy to think that the Holy Spirit makes this brief and rather dramatic entrance in our reading from Acts, shows up a few more times in the early church, and that’s it. End of story.

But that isn’t the end of the story, and it isn’t the beginning either. There is nothing and nowhere in which the Holy Spirit is not present. The Holy Spirit is in every page of the Bible, and every corner of the world.

In the beginning, the Spirit broods over the deep waters of creation. In the words of the great Old Testament prophets (and many prophets since) the Spirit speaks with awe-inspiring, fire-y inspiration. In the overshadowing of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the conception of the Christ, the Spirit moves to make human the God who is beyond human understanding. And in the final revelation of God’s glory, there too the Spirit will sweep over the whole earth, as the waters cover the seas.

So if Pentecost isn’t our first glimpse of the Holy Spirit, what is so special about it? The Spirit is present to the disciples in a very particular, and spectacular, way at Pentecost. The coming of the Spirit is the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to his disciples at the Ascension, just days earlier, his very last words to them on earth. It is a powerful reminder that the promises God makes, God keeps.

The Spirit comes to the disciples in power at Pentecost. This is not the still small voice, but rushing wind and tongues of flame. And the Spirit gives the disciples power – the power they need to spread the gospel. God draws near, and they find that they can do things they could never do before.

In the events of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit brings to birth the Church, just as in creation she brought to birth the world, and in the incarnation she brought to birth the Word. And this birthing is important. The Spirit is, above all, life-giving.

The Spirit is still moving in life-giving ways today, within us and among us. Think of the things that make you feel really, truly alive. The people and places and action. The art and music. The freedom and peace. These are the ways the Spirit is moving in your life, in our lives. And we never know what the Spirit will do next.

Like the disciples, we are filled with the Holy Spirit for a purpose, the same purpose: to witness to the good news of Jesus. That is what it means to be the Church. We are the living stones of which the Church is built, inspired – literally, given breath – to tell and to show the world how God is working in us.

As you came in, you might have noticed a heap of stones on the table. This is going to become a cairn, a sort of way-marker, to symbolise the living stones who make up this church. On your way out, I invite you to choose a stone to represent yourself, and add it to the cairn. We’ll be doing the same at the 9.45 service, and the cairn will remain there for the next week or so, for those who use the church mid-week to add their stones.

If we are to be living stones, witnesses to God’s love and to the resurrection of Christ, we need the Holy Spirit, just as the first disciples did. We need to be filled afresh with the power and wisdom and courage and life that only the Holy Spirit can give. We need to keep on turning again and again to God, who is Source of all Being, Eternal Word, and Holy Spirit, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Church: may contain offensive language

Language matters. It has power. How we use language matters. It has power to wound, to comfort, to offend. What we think we’re saying isn’t always what other people hear. Language is tricky like that: complex, slippery, beautiful, dangerous…..

Sometimes the church is brilliant with language. We use it to elevate, to inspire, to transform. Sometimes the church is terrible with language. We use it to hurt, to divide, to oppress.

I discovered something yesterday about the language I use. I have a colleague – a wonderful godly woman, a Licensed Lay Minister for 25 years, a true saint – who finds the word “Mass” offensive. I only realised the extent of this yesterday. “Please don’t use that word,” she said, “it really hurts me.” I could hear the pain in her voice.

And so I will try not to. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with saying “Mass”. I think it’s a good word, it’s certainly part of my natural vocabulary, and I imagine remembering not to use it, at least around this particular colleague, will be difficult. If I’m honest, I don’t see why she finds it hurtful.

But that really isn’t the point. My colleague, my friend, my sister in Christ, has told me that something I do is hurting her, so I will try my very best to stop doing it. Not because I think I’m doing anything “wrong”, but because I love her and don’t want to hurt her.

And my point is? We need to listen to each other, to hear how our language is heard by other people. We need to be willing to give up words we think are good or right or beautiful if we discover that they hurt or exclude. We need to be ready to sacrifice the language we love for the people we love more.

This isn’t a pro-censorship argument. I’m as much in favour of freedom of speech as anyone. I have every right to refer to “Mass” as often as I like, in the full knowledge that it will offend my colleague. But I will choose not to.

This isn’t a pro-censorship argument, it’s a pro-humility argument. The humility to listen to someone else’s pain, and realise that it trumps our own preference. The humility to be willing to change by putting the “other” first. It’s one of the ways in which we can bear with one another in love: by listening when someone tells us they are hurting, and not questioning their right to that pain, but doing what we can to avoid causing further hurt.

It’s all the more important when the language we use comes, whether we realise it or not, with the baggage of systemic oppression. If someone tells me that something I’ve said has offended them because it was racist, my instinct might be to say “no, it’s not”, because I didn’t mean it to be. But in that knee-jerk reaction, I’m effectively dismissing their pain, refusing to listen to how I’ve hurt them. By saying “no, it’s not” or “I didn’t mean it like that” or “but you know what I mean”, what I’m really saying is “my desire to be right is more important than your pain”.

It’s the same with misogynistic language, and homophobic language, and probably a whole host of other things besides. What sounds ok to a person of privilege (a straight person, a man, a white person) can be deeply hurtful to the person they are speaking to, who doesn’t share that privilege (an LGBT person, a woman, a person of colour). It’s all about perspective.

And that’s where the listening comes in, because language is not just for speaking, it’s for listening too. We have to learn how to listen to each other if we are really to know each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And when that listening reveals that we have, intentionally or otherwise, hurt someone by the language we use, we have a choice. We can try to drive our point home, to use our linguistic arsenal to “prove” we were right all along. Or we can look and listen for the ways we can use language to serve Christ in the other, to repair damage and heal wounds.

Language matters. We have a responsibility to think about how we use it.

What I learned from a grammar school education

I am a product of the grammar school system. I am exactly the sort of person pro-grammar school campaigns would use as a poster-girl: child of a single parent, brought up in poverty, went to grammar school, got into Oxford. Because that’s what grammar schools are for, right? Social mobility, a chance for the poor-but-bright child.

Except that I’m the exception to the rule.

Every study of the effects of academic selection at age 11 that I have seen has certain conclusions in common:

  • children who go to grammar schools do better than their peers do in areas which don’t practice academic selection.
  • children in areas with academic selection who don’t go to grammar schools do worse that their peers in non-selective areas.
  • grammar schools have a significantly lower proportion of disadvantaged children than non-selective schools.

So: grammar schools “work” for those who go to them, and don’t for those who don’t. No surprise there. In any area which still practices academic selection at 11, a minority of children will go to grammar school. Which means the majority of children in that area are disadvantaged by the selective system.

But what of the “social mobility” argument? Quite simply, it doesn’t add up. Grammar schools have a higher proportion of children from affluent families, and a lower proportion of children from poor families, than other state schools do. That isn’t because rich kids are brighter, it’s because by 11 (and long before) the amount of money you have and the background you come from makes a significant difference to your life chances.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who works with children anywhere which still has academic selection at 11. The children who get into grammar school are, by and large, the ones who have been privately tutored, hothoused for the 11+ exam. They are the ones whose parents have the time and ability to help them with their homework. They are the ones who have a desk at home, and enough to eat. The ones who aren’t worrying about caring for a parent, or when the bailiffs will turn up on the doorstep.

By and large, the children who already have the advantages get the advantages of a grammar school education. By and large. There are exceptions (like me) but that isn’t enough to justify a system with a bias to the rich.

And what of the children who don’t get in to grammar school? The ones who “fail” the 11+? Remember, that’s the majority of children in areas which still have academic selection. Imagine how it feels to be told at 11 that you’ve already failed. Imagine the impact of that. I don’t have to imagine it – I see it every day in the devastatingly low self esteem of many of my young people.

That’s what the academic studies and political arguments don’t talk about – the human cost. And that’s what we should be concerned about. Our education system shouldn’t be primarily about ideologies or attainment figures. It should be about nurturing human beings and enabling them to flourish in ways which include, but extend far beyond, the achievements we measure.

People ask me how, as someone who has clearly benefitted immensely from the grammar school system, I can call for its abolition. The answer is simple: this isn’t about me. It isn’t about what worked for one bright child 20 years ago. It’s about what works for every child, of every ability, now.