Easter 2 – Sermon preached online by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 11th April 2021

Intimate Breath, Intimate Wounds

Last Sunday, we were in a garden, with the sunlight beginning to break through the branches and the breeze rustling the leaves as the risen Christ spoke Mary Magdalene’s name.

This Sunday, we are in a locked room, perhaps with a streak of evening sunlight cutting through shutters and lamplight licking at the walls as the risen Lord appears among the fearful apostles all of a sudden and speaks peace to them.

Two quite different scenes and stories. But both are imbued with a profound sense of humanity, with a deep mystery and a glorious intimacy. That last ingredient — the intimacy of the way the risen Jesus relates to his disciples — leapt off the page for me this week. In this era in which we’ve got used to the necessity of social distancing and wearing masks, the sheer physical intimacy of Jesus’ interactions with the apostles, which might have seemed commonplace before, becomes startling and unsettling as well as a comfort bulging with hope.

What unsettled me first of all was the fact that, after Jesus greets the disciples, proves his identity through his wounds and commissions them, he breathes on them and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (verse 22).

He breathes on them. The past 13 months have made us all much more aware of what we breathe out and what we breathe in. Our lives and the lives of those we love may well depend on our being careful about what we breathe out and what we breathe in. At times, this has turned some of the most mundane places in our lives — the supermarket, for instance — into places of fear. In that experience, there is something of a small analogy with the disciples’ situation: we share with them a reticence to move around out of concern for our safety.

While the Jewish authorities are breathing out threats, Jesus breathes on the disciples bringing to them the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of peace and boldness. This feels at once unsettling and comforting. It unsettles me because I can’t help think about the virus. And I can’t help think about how it would be wonderful to be close enough to the friends and family I’ve seen only via Zoom for them to breathe on me like that.

But it should unsettle us too because Jesus’ breathing imbues the disciples with the unruly, unshackled, unshackling power of the Holy Spirit. This is the Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation. The Spirit who blows where she will. The Spirit who overturns the order of the world, setting free the captives, exalting the lowly and reversing death itself.

However, this gift of the Spirit is comfort too. Jesus’ breathing on the disciples in this way links the Spirit directly to him. The Greek word for ‘spirit’ can also ‘wind’ or ‘breath’, just as is the case with the Hebrew word. Perhaps we could just as well render the line: ‘Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Breath.”’

This breath is holy because it is the breath of God. This breath is comfort because it means that God is intimate with the disciples and they are intimate with God. It is God that they breathe in and breathe out.

Christ still breathes on the church. Christ still breathes on us and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’

Easter is not just some mystical hope for the future of our souls and bodies; it is the about the real presence of Christ, the real intimacy of God with us here and now and every day. It is about the breath of God filling us with ‘life anew’ each and every day.

How can we be intimate with Christ if we do not recognise him? It seems the disciples, and not just Thomas, had trouble knowing who Jesus was. We read that, when all the disciples bar Thomas were together with the door barred:

Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (verses 19–20)

Notice the order of things here: Jesus came, Jesus spoke, Jesus showed them his wounds, thenthey rejoiced when they saw the Lord’. It is almost as if they didn’t see him until he showed them his hands and side.

Perhaps, like me, you have focused in the past on Jesus showing his wounds to Thomas. Poor Thomas: he gets a bad rap for wanting no more, really, than the proof that his fellow apostles had already seen. Proof of something really rather incredible. But Thomas’s insistence highlights for us the function that Jesus’ wounds play in this narrative: they are the markers of his identity, the means by which all the disciples recognise him.

We don’t know exactly what Jesus did: ‘showed’ could mean he simply displayed his wounds and pointed them out. That may well be what is implied, although it could be that he invited them, as he does with Thomas, to touch him. Likewise, we don’t know whether Thomas did touch Jesus’ wounds, although I think the text implies he didn’t: he simply and emphatically recognised the risen Christ as ‘My Lord and my God’ (verse 28).

There is little that can be more intimate and vulnerable than showing someone else your wounds. Our wounds shape us, even though they don’t and shouldn’t wholly define us. When I think about Christ’s vulnerability, I’ve been apt to think mostly of the crucifixion. Seldom if ever have I considered the risen Christ as vulnerable. But here we have it: Jesus on the day of his resurrection is being as vulnerable as one can be to another human being.

God incarnate shows us his wounds. It is God’s desire to be that intimate with us. And we remember those wounds every time we break bread in the Eucharist. So when we stretch out our hands and our hearts to receive the sacrament, we reach out in response to Christ’s invitation to be intimate with him, to know his wounds, to recognise him as our Lord and God.

If he, our Lord and God, displays his wounds to us, we ought to be able to show our wounds to each other. The church should be a community in which we can open up about our own brokenness, can be open to one another’s brokenness. Not in ways that continue to wound but in ways that move us towards healing. For it is in that brokenness that we see Christ in each other.

We speak in our liturgy of being united in the sign of the Living Bread being broken. In that moment of fraction — of breaking — our own brokenness meets Christ’s brokenness and all these wounds can become a source of freedom, freedom such as that Thomas found to stand against his own fear, against the power of the authorities and alongside the wounded and gloriously resurrected Christ. May we know that freedom this Eastertide and in every season.

Lent 5 – Sermon preached online by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 21st March 2021

Passion Sunday 2021

If you had to draw a shape to represent your life, what would it be? I’m not sure I could easily answer my own question and I doubt whether any of us, with the way the past year has been, would sketch something smooth and seamless, like a circle. In this week’s Gospel, though, Jesus gives us some strong indications of what shape our lives as his followers should take.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

This extremely brief parable — just a single, stark image — is a crucial verse in the reading. It sits at the start of three verses of sayings that point unavoidably to the cruciform shape of the Christian life. It follows a declaration by Jesus that his crucifixion is approaching. ‘The hour has come,’ he says, ‘for the Son of Man to be glorified’ (verse 23), using the turn of phrase that he regularly deploys in John’s Gospel to speak of the Cross. It also precedes a saying that is clearly not about Jesus but directed at people who reject or follow him: ‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’ (verse 25).

The parable of the grain not only stands between these two statements but connects them: it clearly refers to Jesus’ death and its effect — an effect he spells out at the end of the reading when he speaks of ‘the judgement of this world’ (verse 31) and says that when he is ‘lifted up from the earth, [he] will draw all people to [him]self’ (verse 32). But it also relates to the life that his followers are called to lead: a cross-shaped life, a life of self-giving.

In case we miss the point, Jesus puts it to us again in different words: ‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also’ (verse 26a). Jesus is at this point heading towards the Cross. This, then, is where his servants should be, is the direction in which his servants should be heading. It is, in essence, the Gospel of John’s equivalent of Jesus saying in Matthew, Mark and Luke that anyone who wants to follow him should carry their cross (Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27).

These three verses close with a promise: ‘Whoever serves me, the Father will honour’ (verse 26b). The promise parallels Jesus’ declaration of his crucifixion, the hour of his glorification. When we follow the cruciform life to which Jesus calls us, God will honour us, just as God has glorified Jesus. It’s not clear from the passage what this honour consists of, but this parallelism clearly links it to Christ and his suffering.

We are used to hearing Jesus in John’s Gospel speak of the Cross as his hour of glorification but we should take a step back and consider how strange it is to describe the crucifixion in these terms. This form of execution was an utter humiliation. More than that, it aimed at expunging the crucified person and their memory from the community. In effect, it expunged them from existence. Loud and clear, it gave the message that Rome could do what it liked with you, that the power and violence of the Empire held sway. That you were nothing. It was, if anything, an hour of shame.

This system of power, domination, violence and shame is what the Gospel means when it speaks of ‘the world’. It is a system that leads to alienation from one another and, above all, alienation from God. This is the world that Jesus says in verse 31 will be judged by his going to the Cross and it is life in this world, in this system, that he asks his followers to hate.

The Cross disarms this system and drives out ‘the ruler of this world’ (verse 31), breaks the authority of the system, by exposing just how false the shame and alienation, the violence, power and domination are. The hour of shame becomes the hour of glory. The hour of violence becomes the hour of peace. The hour of death becomes the hour of life.

A glance at the news over the past week or so might well lead us to question how real this disarming is. The murder of Sarah Everard and the shootings in Atlanta show how violence and domination are still rampant in our world. Clamp-downs by Governments throughout the world and even closer to home on peaceful protest can easily be read as another outgrowth of the impulse to dominate rather than serve. And the Vatican’s statement on same-sex relationships lays bare how shame, power and domination are still strong in the church.

I don’t think Jesus is under any illusions about any of this. This is why the Gospel writer has him tell us that ‘those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’ (verse 25). He knows that the system still tries to ride roughshod over the image of God in each and every one of us. It still pulls at us to act in ways that alienate us from one another and from the God who created and loves us. It still drives us to act in ways that oppress others, that do violence to them, to the planet or to our fellow creatures.

Jesus calls us and frees us to ‘hate [our] life in this world’. That call is a cry to take up the Cross of resistance to this system of power and oppression.

And such resistance works, as the non-violent civil rights campaign in the US and anti-apartheid campaign demonstrate. I mention those not simply because they are famous examples but because of the role theology played in them through the leadership of Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu.

We are not living in pre-civil rights America or apartheid-era South Africa. But we are still called to resist the pull towards violence, shame, domination and alienation in the world around us. How, then, shall we live? How should we, as faithful individual followers of Christ, as a community of faith, as a church — a church still run predominantly by men — respond to the reality of the violence and harassment that women and girls face day in day out? How should we respond to attempts to clamp down on the freedom to protest? How do we ensure that, instead of perpetuating shame and gatekeeping God’s blessing, we extend Gospel hospitality to all — and especially the marginalised — just as Jesus did?

These are uncomfortable questions. They are questions we need to reflect on as individuals and a community, continually allowing them, and other questions like them, to challenge us. One thing they demand of us, however, is that we listen, that we allow ourselves to be made aware of what privilege we wield and that we surrender it as far as we are able. That we become aware of how our attitudes and actions pull us towards violence and domination and that we resist that pull. Such actions will bring us into conflict with the world — perhaps even within the church — but when we take such steps, and when we do so Jesus’ name, we lift him up and he draws people to himself. When we live this Cross-shaped life, those who come saying, ‘we wish to see Jesus’ (verse 21) will find him walking among us.

Epiphany 5 – Sermon preached online by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 7th February 2021

Have Courage and Wait
Isaiah 40:21–31
Mark 1:29–39

What does it mean to say that “those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength” when we are in the middle of a pandemic? I’m guessing that many of us come to worship today wearied and worn out by lockdown, by our not so splendid isolation, by the stress of homeschooling, by the amount of time spent in meetings on Zoom. Us weary folk might well be drawn to those words of encouragement from Isaiah, hugging them to ourselves like a hot water bottle on a sharp, cold February night. The prophet’s lines certainly warm us down through the centuries and, though they were written to a very different context to ours, they have much to tell us.

Isaiah was writing to the Israelites exiled in Babylon, the exiles who had been told to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it. We have heard from his words to this group a few times over the past several months. Every time we do so, it is tempting to make a straightforward analogy between their exile and our situation — exiled from our friends and family, from our workplaces, from our community of faith, from the Eucharist.

Yes, there are some parallels, but we should take care not to push them too far. We have not been violently uprooted and our culture destroyed by an invader; we have been ordered to stay at home and our culture put on hold because of a virus. We do not face a dangerous journey to a ruined city but an uncertain wait to find out what the future will hold and how we might, as the slogan goes, build back better.

Despite these profound differences, we share with the exiles the experience of weariness. We share with them the trepidation about rebuilding. Will we have the stamina to wait? Will we have the energy to reconstruct?

“Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength”. These lines of hope come at the culmination of one of Isaiah’s greatest passages of poetry. It’s a poem that begins by calling its hearers to remember what they know of God, what they have heard from the very beginning. In vivid imagery, the prophet paints a picture of God the Creator:

  • the one who sits above the firmament keeping at bay the waters of chaos (verse 22a);
  • the one who protects and provides, creating a home for all creatures (verse 22b);
  • the one who has ultimate command over government and has power even over nothingness (verse 23);
  • the one who calls the stars by name (verse 26), also perhaps alluding to God’s calling Israel by name.

This much might seem obvious, so why does the prophet do it? Because Israel has lost its memory of God’s care. In the midst of their trauma, they have forgotten how God cares. It’s hardly surprising that the people, wrenched from their homeland, complain “My way is hidden from the Lord” (verse 27) but it wasn’t. Isaiah confronts them with all these images of God’s continuing care and consideration, not the divine deliverance of the past, calling them to remember not just what God has done or does but who God is.

What Isaiah doesn’t say is that we will never grow weary. There is a way of speaking these verses that might imply that, if you’re exhausted, you’re not waiting for God. That is not the case. Isaiah tells us that God “gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless” and renews strength. You don’t need your strength renewed if you haven’t grown faint and weary or fallen exhausted.

For all that we could read exasperation into the prophet’s “Have you not known”, it seems to me that, instead of burning with condemnation, this poem bursts with God’s compassion for a weary people, battered by events. This is a promise of renewal, not a judgment. It’s a promise that the Creator will recreate the people. It’s a promise not that everything will go smoothly for them — after all, they knew fine well it hadn’t — but that God will restore them after their trauma. It’s a promise that, if you are worn out and weakened, God is waiting to revive you, like someone waiting with water for a marathon runner.

Like the exiles, we are a weary people, battered by events and in need of renewal. The promised restoration, we are told, will come not to those who busy themselves with religious activity but to “those who wait for the Lord”. That’s something of a challenge to our goal-oriented, active, impatient society. It demands patience and calm in the midst of the confusion and pain. It asks us to live with uncertainty and ambiguity. It brings us back to last week’s Gospel, to Simeon and Anna waiting in the temple for the Messiah, and it coaxes us to wait with passion for our restoration.

What does renewal of strength mean for us in our lockdown state? What does it mean to wait for the Lord? Like many people, I battle tiredness and lockdown lethargy, weariness with the restrictions and the stress of juggling homeschooling with work. But I find myself sustained each day in the quiet space of prayer, whether that’s the formal structure of morning and evening prayer with others or simply sitting silently in the presence of God by myself. When I go to God drained and anxious, I find myself given the energy and peace to start putting one foot in front of the other again.

It takes trust to do this. It takes the courage of our conviction that God is with us. As the psalmist says, “Wait for the Lord; have courage and wait” (Ps 27:14). This isn’t about laying more obligations on us. It is simply a call to open ourselves to the presence of God in our lives, building our capacity to be still and encounter the Holy Spirit working in us. It is about turning up, coming as we are not as we think we ought to be, and allowing God to renew and refresh us again and again and again. For the Lord “does not faint or grow weary” and does not run out of energy to refresh, renew and restore us.

We get a picture of restoration in the Gospel reading as Jesus brings healing to Peter’s mother-in-law and the sick people of Capernaum. Moreover, we begin to see what restoration is about.

Perhaps the most telling point in this passage is Mark’s note that, once she was healed — once her strength was renewed and restored — Peter’s mother-in-law “began to serve them”. Although we could see in this incident a simple reinforcement of gender roles, but Mark’s writing is very much about economy, so the fact that he notes this action should cause us to reflect more deeply. The word used here for “serve” is the one from which we get the word “deacon”. The Gospel is holding Peter’s mother-in-law up as a picture of what renewal is about, of how we should respond.

First, it’s about relationship. The healing was grounded in and grew out of relationship and trust. Peter and Andrew trusted Jesus and knew what he could do. The healing also inspired relationship, for Peter’s mother-in-law didn’t just sit back and ignore Jesus but served him. Healing and renewal are meant to bring us into closer relationship with God, to deepen our trust in God, and to bring us closer to one another.

Secondly, our renewal and healing are not solely for our own sakes but should move us to respond in service to others. This service needn’t be anything flashy, spectacular or out of the ordinary. After all, on one level, Peter’s mother-in-law was simply feeding her family and their friends. What could be more everyday? But, rendered to Jesus in response to her healing, this simple act becomes a holy act of loving service — an act of worship, even. This exemplifies for us the complete renewal of life, inside and out, that Jesus came to bring. Likewise, our daily actions and our interactions with others can and should be imbued with the love of Christ, becoming something holy and precious to God even as we deal with the slops of the food and the dirt of the dishes.

This renewal, this transformation of life, is part of God’s recreation, God’s new creation. Ultimately, Isaiah and Mark are saying the same thing: God will not abandon us, God has not abandoned us; God has come to us and will restore us.

Have courage and wait. And, in the midst of the mess and trauma, your strength will be renewed, your life will be transformed and you yourself will become an agent of God’s new creation.

 

Epiphany 2 – Sermon preached online by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 17 January 2021

“Come and See”
John 1:43–51

“Come and see”. In the midst of our second lockdown, when we can barely go anywhere or see anyone, and in a week when restrictions in Scotland are tightening even further, it might seem perverse to focus on those words from this week’s Gospel reading. Nonetheless, I couldn’t move past this phrase as I reflected on the readings and I found that, despite the confinement and frustration that I expect we all feel acutely right now, there is still a lot to find in these words.

“Come and see” isn’t the first thing to be said in the Gospel passage we heard. Jesus utters the first words of any characters when he draws Philip to him with the invitation or command: “Follow me”. We’ll take a look at this phrase first.

We all recognise it as the quintessential phrase of calling. It’s what Jesus says as he calls the disciples in the Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — but he says to someone it only twice in the Gospel of John: here and when he reinstates and commissions Peter after the resurrection.

Despite its rarity in this Gospel, the phrase “follow me” is no less important. In fact, to my mind, the way it bookends the story gives it if anything more significance. Its placing shows that the call is not only to follow the incarnate Word of God — remember, the call of Philip comes very soon after John’s famous prologue “In the beginning was the Word” — but to follow the crucified and resurrected Christ. It is a call not only for those first disciples and not only for those first witnesses of the resurrection but for us who live in the age of the Risen and Ascended Christ.

As you might have heard many times, the usual pattern in Jesus’ time was for disciples to find their own rabbis and not for the rabbis to choose their disciples. So, in each instance in which Jesus says “Follow me” he is breaking convention. In Jesus breaking this boundary, God is breaking out of the run-of-the-mill, out of tradition, and taking the initiative.

God still takes the initiative and invites us with the words “Follow me”. Even if we think that we were the ones to make the first move, when we reach out, we find that God was alway up to Firefox s reaching out before us.

Not only is “Come and see” not the first thing to be said in our reading, but it isn’t said by Jesus. For us to understand its significance, we need to go back a tiny bit before today’s passage. Although Jesus doesn’t utter these words here, he is in fact the first person in the Gospel of John to use the phrase. Jump back to verse 39, and you will find him issuing this invitation to Andrew and another unnamed disciple who have begun following him of their own accord after John the Baptist identifies him as the Lamb of God:

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi … where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ (vv 38–39)

“Come and see” is Jesus’ invitation to the two disciples to spend time with him, to start sharing his life and begin getting to know him. Because of the way that John uses the same verbs later in the Gospel to speak about believing in Christ, we can read it as an invitation to discipleship and, therefore, as an equivalent to his invitation to Philip, “Follow me”.

God takes the initiative, saying “Follow me — follow my path. Come and see — come and share my life.”

Let’s return to Philip. Not only is he the one to whom the call “Follow me” is issued but he is the one who utters the words “Come and see” in today’s passage.

What strikes me about Philip is the first thing he is recorded as doing after Jesus calls him: he goes to find Nathanael and tell him that he has found the Messiah. It might not be obvious, but Philip is doing exactly what he is told here: for all that he isn’t following Jesus physically, he is following Jesus’ example. After all, Jesus has just taken the initiative and sought him out. Philip is imitating what we, the audience, have already heard and seen Jesus do: calling people to follow, to come and share Christ’s life.

It’s clear, therefore, that John wants us to understand that to follow Jesus means acting like him and bringing people to share his life. Philip isn’t a tubthumping, Bible-bashing street evangelist, trying to condemn harassed shoppers into the Kingdom of God, as I had someone trying to do before Christmas. Nonetheless, Nathanael isn’t, shall we say, the most receptive of audiences: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he retorts (verse 46). Faced with this disparaging reaction, Philip doesn’t get into a debate about the Scriptures or Jesus’ good character. Nor does he walk off in disgust or disappointment. He simply invites Nathanael to “Come and see”. He invites Nathanael to an encounter and lets the life of Jesus speak for itself.

These are fractious days. People are at each other’s throats about so many things. Folk are quick to take issue and offence. The comments sections of website after website are thronged with people writing things that make Nathanael’s retort look terribly mild mannered. As we have seen in recent weeks, some people let themselves be whipped up into violence to make their voices heard. But we are called to let the life of Jesus speak for itself.

How do we do that? We might be tempted to say that the life of Jesus can only be seen alive in us, the people of God, but that would be only half the truth. Yes, when people see the love of God at work in us, the peace of God rooted in us, they see the life of Christ. And, yes, it is our calling to let that love and that life shine out of our words and actions. But it is also our calling to keep our eyes open so that we can see all the places where God is at work — the expected, the unexpected and the downright scandalous (the Nazareths of our time) — and point gently and lovingly to them so that others can “Come and see” and be drawn into the transforming power of Christ’s resurrection life.

Questions for Discussion/Reflection
How did God call you?
Where do you see God at work in unexpected or even scandalous ways?
How could you bring that work of God to wider attention?

Christmas 1 – Sermon preached by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 27th December 2020

The waiting is over and the waiting has just begun.

All these years I have been coming daily
to this house of God. All these years waiting
for the Lord to show me the one who’ll set us free.
I’ve lost count, almost, of how many years it is. Waiting
for God to ride in and rescue us.

All these years of prayer and I was assured
I’d recognise him instantly. So many families
passed through the house of God each day
and I glanced at every one of them. So many times
the Spirit told me, No, not this one, just like Samuel
with the sons of Jesse. No, not this one, yet again.

Today they came in cradling a tiny bairn:
a mother and father who straight away you could tell
were prime candidates for the food bank.
Yet something about this family told me at once
my years of waiting were at an end.
Yes, he looked exhausted; she appeared utterly drained
and worn down with the care of keeping her son,
but even so their faces were charged
with love and pride, with awe and fear,
with trust and deep confusion —
that combination we might label holiness.
So ordinary, yet so sacred.

I heard the Spirit whisper to me,
Yes, yes — this is the one. This
is the one you’re waiting for.
And before the parents could approach the priests
to do for him what they had come to do
as their faithful hearts had moved them
according to the commands laid down by God,
I took this newborn in my arms and gazed
down at the face I knew to be my Redeemer’s.

I felt as if a crown were held out to me,
a diadem resting in the hands of God,
as though the Lord Almighty stood before me
as a servant stands before their king,
waiting for me to take hold of the kingdom.
And not only me,
not only all our people even,
but all people everywhere — our enemies among them!

Surely you will say this is nonsense.
Surely you will say that this is upside down.
Friend, barely a day ago
I would have surely said the same
but this child changes everything.

For Zion’s sake, I could not hold my wheesht.
For Jerusalem’s sake, I could do nothing
but burst out in a song of praise to God,
my Master-Servant, Servant-Master
who has prepared our freedom like a feast.
I did not care who heard me then
and do not care who hears me now
save that those astounded young parents
had to know just who they have in their charge.

The waiting for me is over
and I can go now,
happy and at peace that I have seen what was promised.
But the waiting has just begun
for the world to see
what this fragile little newborn will become.

Feast of Christ the King – Sermon preached by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 22nd November 2020

If God were to make a diet pill, what would it be like? What would it do? That might seem like a peculiar question to pose — and it might well be influenced by having recently watched a certain Doctor Who episode with my daughter — but it actually goes to the heart of this week’s readings from Ezekiel and the Gospel.

There is, after all, a lot about feeding in chapter 34 of Ezekiel. The passage we heard comes from a speech that begins by castigating the leaders of Israel and Judah for looking after themselves rather than the people:

‘Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.’ (34: 2–5)

In the section that was read to us, God speaks of how this situation will be overturned. It’s a picture of abundance and restoration. None other than God will gather up the scattered sheep of Israel. God will feed the flock, providing the sheep with ‘good pasture […] good grazing land [and] rich pasture’, bringing back the lost, healing the injured and strengthening the weak (34:14, 16). In other words, God will do exactly what the ‘shepherds of Israel’ neglected to do:

‘You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.’ (34:4)

We might anticipate some poetic justice here: we might expect God to leave the neglectful shepherds to the wild animals that fed on the scattered sheep. Instead, they are to be fed too. They are depicted as themselves being among the flock, pushing and butting at the weaker sheep (34:21), oppressing the poor and needy. But the whole flock will be fed. So God will not neglect these unruly, domineering sheep as they neglected the people. But there is a sting in the tail, for these, ‘the fat and the strong’, will be fed ‘with justice’ (34:16).

Ezekiel doesn’t specify what it means for them to be fed with justice, but it certainly isn’t comfortable, for God proclaims their destruction (34:16). Certainly, their status and authority are stripped from them and given to another: God not only asserts ‘I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep’ but says ‘I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David’ (34:15, 23). One shepherd rather than many. One shepherd who will care. One shepherd with a divine mandate to feed and lead.

Here, then, is an answer to the question with which we began: God’s diet pill is care and justice — care for the weak and broken and lost; justice for the oppressed and judgment on the oppressor. Care that sustains and builds up; justice and judgment that restore the balance within the community. It is a diet that thins down those who have overstuffed themselves at others’ expense and fattens up those who’ve been left with nothing to eat.

Judgment is a topic we tend to shy away from, but neither Ezekiel nor the Gospel reading let us avoid it. If we don’t find ourselves shuffling uncomfortably in our seats as we hear these texts, I wonder whether we are hearing their full impact. You might or might not be a leader but we are citizens of one of the richest countries in the world and we all have power to reinforce or resist oppression of others through the choices that we make at the ballot box, in our bank balances, in our behaviour.

Matthew’s Gospel brings this home to us vividly. What divides the sheep from the goats here is not their doctrinal statements, the way they worship God or whom they proclaim as Lord. It isn’t even, at the heart of it, their actions in themselves. It is whether they act towards others out of mercy, whether they demonstrate genuine care. The ones who do so are not driven by the fear of judgment but by a genuine desire to feed the hungry, heal the sick, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and care for the prisoner. They use their time and resources to exercise mercy because that’s who they are. The last thing they are is calculating, so they are shocked to find out that, no matter to whom they showed mercy, they showed it Christ — Christ, who is here designated king in a very similar way to the David figure in Ezekiel but is also occupying the divine judgment seat.

There is undeniably something of the sheep and the goat about each of us. And that is perhaps inevitable, because none of us can address all the injustices in the world. But neither does Scripture permit us just to ignore them all and pass by. We might be tempted to take from the Gospel reading the sense that alleviating immediate need is enough. But Ezekiel makes it clear that God is interested in restoring the balance, that is, in structural change.

Structural change is hard, not least because it often demands that we have to give something up, whether wealth, time, status or attitudes. But this is precisely the kind of service that the Lord requires of us. Ezekiel gave us a picture of corrupt shepherds whom God made into sheep; in Matthew, we have an image of the Good Shepherd who makes himself into a sheep, who is found among the sheep. This is the kind of king Christ is; this is the king whom we serve: one who not only gets his hands dirty but becomes one of the dirty, one with the dirty.

Our service to this hidden king must begin with us asking ourselves the difficult questions these texts leave hanging in the air:

  • Whom do our actions and choices oppress?
  • Whom do we silence, push to the edge and exclude?
  • Whose plight do we ignore?
  • Do even our acts of charity end up having any of these effects?
  • Is there something more or something different we should be doing?
  • How can we challenge and even reshape the unjust structures around us?

These are questions we need to keep coming back to as individuals and as a community, letting them sit in judgment on us so that we might experience the restoration that will enable us to take our full part in Christ’s restoration of justice, mercy and healing.

For Reflection:

Reflect on the questions posed at the end of the sermon.

 

All Saints Day – Sermon preached by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 1st November 2020

Revelation 7:9–17
1 John 3:1–3
Matthew 5:1–12

How does your family celebrate? My siblings and parents stay not too far away so, pre Covid, we tended to get together as a family for birthdays, big celebrations and over the Christmas and Easter periods. There was always food, there was usually laughter and, if it was a birthday, there was definitely singing of a particular song.

I realise that, in that respect, I’m fortunate. Not everyone has family members who live close enough for such get-togethers. Other people, for various reasons, perhaps opt to celebrate with their chosen family rather than their relatives.

Of course, the current restrictions on visiting other households mean that such celebrations are simply out of the question for everyone at the moment. And even if we were able to gather, singing anything would still be out of the question.

It is therefore all the more significant that our service this weekend is a family celebration of a sort. We might not be given to thinking of All Saints Day in those terms, especially if we normally conceive of saints as only those giants of the faith to whom the church has formally given the title. However, today’s readings, even though they do not use the word ‘saints’, are a good reminder of what the word means.

The reading from Revelation gives us a picture that we could describe as a family gathering in heaven. It’s a gathering with shouting and singing, celebration and thanksgiving. But it’s a gey kenspeckle crowd — there are people ‘from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’; there are angels and elders and the mysterious ‘living creatures’.

Clearly, this isn’t a standard celebration. It seems to be unfettered by time and space or by any ethnic or linguistic barriers, let alone any public health regulations. Nor is it the celebration of a family in the usual sense. It is a chosen family but not in the same way that of a group of friends might be, having banded together around a shared experience or interest: this is a family that, as the Epistle reminds us, is chosen by God:

‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.’
(1 John 3:1)

The reading from Revelation, therefore, gives us a family celebration with the pater familias at its heart: at the centre of the picture is God on the throne, with the children of God gathered round, like a family gathered round to celebrate their father on his birthday.

Revelation was written not as a coded guidebook to some distant future but as a comfort for Christians undergoing very real persecution, the kind of persecution that threatens martyrdom. It was written to say ‘God is still in charge’.

Perhaps we are to understand the multitude as what the Te Deum calls ‘the white-robed army of martyrs’. The ranks of this army continue to grow, as the news from Nice this week reminds us. But this great crowd doesn’t have to be read in that way. They are, simply, described as the ones ‘who have come out of the great ordeal’ (Rev 7:14). That is, they are the ones who have stayed the course, who have not given up despite everything that Rome threw at them. They are the ones who have held fast to their hope in Christ, remained secure in their identity as children of God.

For all its ethic, cultural and linguistic diversity, this great multitude must have some family resemblances beyond its fortitude to knit it together and show that these people are spiritual relatives. That is where we come to the Gospel reading. In these short verses, so well-kent,  Jesus lays out what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God. It’s a list of the family traits of God’s children, if you like.

Each of these short pronouncements is headed by the word ‘Blessed’. It’s one of those terms many of us struggle to get our heads round. The Greek word used here, makarios, is often translated as simply ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’. If we think of it in those terms, we have a set of statements by Jesus that, not untypically for him, turns all our expectations on their heads: ‘Happy are those who mourn’. Eh? ‘Happy are those who are persecuted’. You kidding me?

But there is more to this word than mere happiness or good fortune. One commentator I read suggests that we read the Beatitudes through the lens of Psalm 1. This is one of three Psalms that focus on the law of the Lord and it famously begins:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked (Ps 1:1, NIV)

Apparently, there are two Hebrew words that we render with the verb ‘bless’, one which means ‘to be on the right way’ and one which means ‘to bow down’. The one used in Psalm 1 is the one that means ‘to be on the right way’.

If we read the Beatitudes in that light, we can see Jesus as saying, ‘You are on the right path when you are poor in spirit, when you mourn, when you are meek, when you hunger and thirst for righteousness’ and so forth. That makes a lot of sense of a puzzling phrase. But it doesn’t soften the challenge of Jesus’s words in the slightest.

No family lives up to its best all the time. We, the family of God, are no exception. We try to follow the path that Jesus lays out for us but we often fail. That’s why the confession and absolution are an essential part of our worship. Nonetheless, that path — and our efforts to follow it, however stumbling they may be — are the family resemblance that binds us together with our siblings in Christ throughout the world and in the world beyond.

To be a saint is, in fact, simply to be one of those people, to be a child of God. Throughout the New Testament, ‘the saints’ simply refers to the church. The saints are the ones who are holy not because they have particularly great faith but because they are set apart, have set themselves apart, for God. They are the ones who hear and heed Jesus’ call to follow the path that he lays out in the Beatitudes and demonstrates through his life, death and resurrection.

We are not facing imminent arrest and execution because of our faith. But we are nonetheless going through a difficult trial as we struggle to navigate the continuing pandemic. Our response to that trial is unlikely to confer on any of us even unofficial sainthood — not being Roman Catholics is a bit of a barrier to the official version! But we can nonetheless be saints as we follow Christ and can join with the saints who have gone before in standing before the throne of God and the Lamb as we worship.

As we celebrate those whose lives and witness have inspired us, let us remember not only the great heroes of faith but those whose quiet faithfulness to the way of Christ has nourished us and continues to nourish us. Let us celebrate too the joy of having one another.

Questions for Reflection/Discussion

  1. Whose life and witness has most inspired your Christian life?
  2. Which of the Beatitudes do you relate to most and which do you find most challenging? Why is this?
  3. How does conceiving of All Saints Day as a ‘family celebration’ feel to you? Is it helpful or a hindrance? Does it change the way you think about the day?

Creation-time 4 – Harvest – Sermon preached online by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 27th September 2020

Deuteronomy 8:7–18
2 Corinthians 9:6–15
Luke 12:16–30

Nothing is certain — so the well-known saying has it — except death and taxes. The rich man in the parable we have just heard might quibble with that assessment. Whatever he might have thought about taxes — and I don’t imagine it would be anything positive or necessarily anything printable — death seems to have been rather far from his mind. Nothing unusual about that, we might justifiably say. But whatever he did or didn’t think about death or taxes, he seems to have had a remarkable confidence that his harvest and his treasures would see him through the vagaries of the years ahead — if he even considered the possibility of vagaries.

This character, traditionally dubbed the rich fool, is a bit of an absurd figure. And he truly is a fool in the biblical sense. The Psalms and the Book of Proverbs have a lot to say about fools. The word fool isn’t used to imply a lack of intelligence or common sense but is applied to somebody who denies or ignores God. As the psalmist famously proclaims: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps 14:1).

The rich fool is just such a person. It’s not that he openly says or consciously thinks “There is no God” but that he lives without reference to, or reverence for, God. It’s all me, me, me: “my barns” and “my grain” and “my goods” and “I will do this”. He is purely and simply living off the fat of the land and exploiting it for his own gain and pleasure. There is nothing about his family, his workers or his friends. There is no hint that the bumper crop is not all his doing or that, given different circumstances — a change in climatic conditions, for instance — it could have been a bumper failure. There is no hint that he doesn’t have complete control over the future. “You have ample goods laid up for many years,” he congratulates himself.

He does just what we are warned against doing in the reading from Deuteronomy: he forgets the Lord:

Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God […] When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them […] and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God […] Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.
(Deut 8:11–14, 17, 18)

These words describe precisely the trap the rich fool has fallen into. We even see him exalting himself into God’s place in the language he uses when he talks to himself. His address to his soul ironically echoes the Psalms. Think of the beginning of Ps 103:

Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits

Those lines echo our Deuteronomy passage, which says:

You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. (8:10)

The rich fool blesses himself instead of God. Truly, he is a model of the person who has forgotten the Lord.

He gets his comeuppance for his selfishness and absurd self-absorption. He isn’t allowed to get away with his plans for exploitation, gain and pleasure. Instead, the very things he ignored — God, death and maybe even inheritance tax — catch up with him. The one whom the rich fool denied denies him the chance to guzzle in his greed. God gets the last laugh and we, the parable’s audience, get to laugh at the man’s foolishness.

But don’t laugh too loud, or don’t laugh without at least a wry chuckle at yourself. For the fool is us. Jesus wants us to recognise our own folly: our own capacity for self-absorption, our own greed and selfishness, our own remarkable capacity to forget the God who has given us all we have.

In that light, it is legitimate to read this passage as a parable of our society, a parable of how we are living in relation to our global neighbours and the planet. Aren’t we, as a society, the ones who have been obsessed with continual economic growth, with pulling down our barns and building bigger ones, with enjoying every possible pleasure and creating new ones to fill our unprecedented amount of leisure time? We have done that at the cost of our neighbours in the developing world, at the cost of the environment and at the cost of the very existence of a vast number of the animal and plant species with which we share this planet, this good land that the Lord has given us. Given the likely cause of Covid 19, we have also done it at the cost of our own health. And we have done it at the cost of our own souls.

How, then, should we act to make sure that we do not join our wealthy farmer friend in his foolishness?

Jesus implies at the end of the parable that we are to be “rich towards God” (Luke 12:21). This is the opposite of forgetting God. It surely starts with giving thanks for what God has given us. But it can’t end there. The rich fool could have sought to sanctify his schemes by giving thanks for what God had given and continued with his programme of “eat, drink, be merry”. He still would not have been free of his self-absorption or been “rich towards God”.

The Epistle for today nudges us in the direction we need. There, we read how God provides us with “every blessing in abundance”, so that we “may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8). The harvest is the Lord’s and we are to share it. We are to be not rapacious devourers of the planet’s resources but cheerful givers out of the abundance that God has given us (2 Cor 9:7), giving not only to fellow Christians but to “all others” (2 Cor 9:13). In light of how interconnected our world is, that means making choices that allow others to live — living simply that others may simply live, as it is often put. Not only other people, but other species.

As David Attenborough’s recent programme showed us, that involves some complex choices. It is not simply enough to eat less meat, for instance, if we switch to alternatives that use soya from farms that destroy habitats halfway across the world. But it is part of our calling to grapple with these issues, to switch where we can to more sustainable and more just patterns of living, because caring for the good land the Lord has given us and caring for our neighbours is part of being rich towards God.

Ultimately, being rich towards God is about giving away. Giving away not just material goods but giving ourselves in love. It is then, when our actions — driven by the Holy Spirit and motivated by love — have freed us from the hold our material treasures have over us, that our thanksgiving draws us into a new richness, when we become more deeply aware of how everything we have is a gift.

Questions for reflection or discussion
Do you recognise yourself in the rich fool? How could you change to be less like him?

How can we be cheerful givers to our neighbours in developing countries? How can we allow them to be cheerful givers to us without this becoming a relationship of exploitation?

In what ways do you “bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you”? Does this go beyond words into action? How might it go further?

Pentecost 13 – Sermon preached online by Andy Philip, Chaplain – 30th August 2020

Exodus 3:1–15
Romans 12:9–21
Matthew 16:21–28

“Who am I?” asks Moses. It’s a question that, on his lips, makes a lot of sense. After all, his upbringing is split between his Hebrew birth family and the Egyptian court. He is rejected by his fellow Hebrews and wanted by the Egyptian authorities for murder. He’s gone from adopted prince to herding his father-in-law’s sheep. With such a chequered history, it would be no wonder if he wondered who he was.

“Who am I?” is a question we all ask ourselves. We ask it consciously and unconsciously as we grow through childhood into adult life. We ask it when a crisis — perhaps in our relationships, in our health, in our careers, in our faith — throws our previous self-understanding into question and reopens our thinking about our identities.

“Who am I?” is the question Jesus asked his disciples in last week’s Gospel. It’s a question that opens up their thinking not only about how they understand him but about how they understand themselves in relation to him. And, in the light of that, how they understand the mission that they are fulfilling alongside him. In this week’s reading, they learn to their great surprise that this mission involves suffering, death and resurrection, that it takes them to the Cross and beyond.

Peter, who last week was identified as the rock on which the church would be constructed, shows himself to be a gey shoogly stane. To be fair, he’s probably just articulating what all the rest are thinking, but he’s always the one to blurt it out, isn’t he. This leads to his moniker of the week: stumbling block. That’s a bit of a come-down, but Jesus isn’t interested in boosting Peter’s ego. The order of the day is to be not self-realisation but self-denial:

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?’ (Mt 16:24–26)

That was and is a hard word for us to hear and unpack. Who wants to hear about self-denial, especially in an era replete with paths that claim they lead to self-fulfilment? Yet Jesus tells us self-denial is a requirement for those who follow him. He doesn’t give us any wriggle room.

Jesus connects self-denial with taking up our cross. What does this mean? The image has become commonplace to us but it should make us deeply uncomfortable. The aim of crucifixion was not simply to kill the victim, not even simply to kill the victim in the most brutal and humiliating manner; it was to extinguish them, to blot out all trace of them. Who would willingly choose such extinction? But Jesus tells us in typically paradoxical style that avoiding self-denial and refusing to take up our cross is the route to extinction while embracing it is the route to finding our true life, our resurrection life.

How can we make any sense of this? What is Jesus calling us to in these verses? It is certainly not a random, reckless abandon to martyrdom at any cost. Yes, there is a call here to be prepared to die for the sake of the Kingdom. As much as martyrdom might have been a literal threat for Matthew’s first audience, it’s highly unlikely that it will be demanded of any of us in 21st century Scotland. So, if this passage says anything to our context, losing our lives for Christ’s sake must mean something in addition to literal martyrdom.

Nonetheless, we can’t dodge round the fact that Jesus focuses self-denial through the Cross. But that, I think, is the key to understanding what it means for us. What drove him to take up his Cross was love — love for broken, sinful humanity; love for us. Looking at the passage in that light, we can see what taking up our cross means: a conscious self-giving out of love.

Love of that kind is at the centre of our reading from Romans today. Paul tells us to

‘love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour’ (12:10).

What is that if not self-giving love? To ‘outdo one another in showing honour’ is a laying down of our lives. It is part of the renewing of our minds of which we read last week. As such, it’s also the opposite of how the world around us works and has always worked. It’s the opposite of a system that says that black lives don’t matter, that the impact of our choices on our global neighbours and on the planet can be disregarded, that we should look out for ourselves, our reputations and our own honour first. Sadly, outdoing one another in showing honour is often also the opposite of how the church works. And I could list many instances when it was the opposite of how I behaved. But it shouldn’t be. It should be at the heart of how we, as God’s people, treat one another.

The honour we give one another must be more than words. It needs to be active and attitudinal. It means living out of generosity, consciously thinking the best of others, treating them generously. It extends beyond the membership of the church to the hospitality we are to offer strangers and to the way we are to engage with enemies, whom we are not only to bless but to feed — whom we are to treat with love.

Right at the start of our Romans reading, Paul says, ‘Let love be genuine’ (v9). One translation [The Message] puts it this way: ‘Love from the centre of who you are’. That brings us back to the question we began with: who am I?

How we answer this question will determine much of how we act. We like to put many things at the centre of our identity: our academic or career achievements; our nationality, race, politics or gender, for instance. These things set us up as different from others. They push us together with some people and away from others. Perhaps they set us up as better than others, more powerful than others. Or perhaps they set us up as inferior. But what does God say is at the centre of our identity, the centre of who we are?

‘Who am I?’ asks Moses. ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?’ (Ex 3:11). God’s response is unexpected: ‘I will be with you’ (Ex 3:12). It is in the going and obeying the call that Moses discovers who he is. It is in the taking up of their cross that disciples of Jesus find out who they are. At the centre of who we are, as far as God is concerned, is this fact that we are called. And we are called because we are loved. God, who is self-giving love, is with us as God was with Moses. Even more so, as God is with us in Christ. We are loved no matter what and called to live out of that love. Called to be a joyful, loving presence, rejoicing in hope, patient in suffering and persevering in prayer (Rom 12:12).

Questions for reflection/discussion:

  • How do you react to the image of taking up your cross?
  • In what ways have you found self-giving to be life giving?
  • Living out of generosity is a vulnerable stance. Are there or should there be any limits to this generosity? If not, why not? If so, what should they be?
  • What is at the centre of your identity? Do you agree that our calledness and belovedness is at the centre of who we are?

Pentecost 7 – Sermon preached online by Revd Professor Paul Foster – 19th July 2020

Genesis 28.10-19a

And Jacob said, ‘How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ … And he called the name of the place Bethel.

Places matter. They can move us, inspire us, and transport us to see things differently. Often that is the value of travel. New vistas are opened up. We see new ways to look at things. We find our world and horizons enlarged. However, when travel is limited and the possibility of visiting new places is removed it can be more challenging to find those new perspectives. We are forced to look in more detail at what has always been around us. In this process, sometimes as we look at the minute details it becomes possible to see clearly the bigger picture. In the microscopic we can begin to lay hold of the macroscopic. Then the panoramic view emerges by considering the small details that constitute the totality.

In our reading from the book of Genesis, we meet Jacob at the beginning of a long journey. Ostensibly he has been sent to find a wife from his own kinship group. However, there is more going on here. The wily younger twin Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, has just defrauded his brother of the birth-right that was his due to primogeniture. By donning the skins of goat kids, Jacob duped his near blind father Isaac into thinking he was blessing his older and hairier son Esau. Perhaps partially as an act of self-preservation, Jacob follows his parents’ advice to travel to Paddan-Aram or Harran to find a wife. Thus the two estranged siblings are kept apart as Jacob agrees to this journey and the period of self-imposed lockdown that it will bring.

While on that journey, Jacob is overtaken by nightfall. Due to the darkness of a night sky unadulterated by light pollution, Jacob is forced to cease his journey and take rest. He sets a few stones as a pillow (admittedly, a poor substitute for duck down if you ask me), and perhaps unsurprisingly he has a restless yet dream-filled night. He sees a vision of a stairway or a ladder leading to heaven, above which he sees the Lord who self-identifies as the God of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. Then the same promises made to Abraham and Isaac – possession of the land and numerous descendants – are reiterated. Here old promises are renewed, and in fact become new. These are promises made first-hand to Jacob, who has had his own personal encounter with the Lord. After this, the one known as the God of Abraham and Isaac, becomes the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as this wayward and wily twin becomes enfolded into the divine plan. Thus, as the home-loving Jacob sets out on a journey of many years that will take him away from his home and the land of his father, he is promised that he would return. Little did he know that that home-coming would take more than twenty years.

However, during his dream Jacob is struck by the significance of his encounter. His journey has permitted him to meet the God who was worshipped in his home. A God in whom Jacob had previously shown little interest. So Jacob the scheming brother, who was determined to shape his own destiny has his vision enlarged when he realises that he has just met the one who truly shapes human destinies. In response to being overwhelmed by his experience of God, Jacob takes the stone on which his head had rested, he sets his stone pillow a pillar. Then he anoints it with oil to dedicate its sacred significance. He renames the place Bethel, or Bet-El, the house of God. It is some twenty years later on his return journey home when Jacob is fearful of confronting his brother Esau and his own past, that he receives another vision of God as on that occasion he wrestled with God through the night. There is another renaming in that story, as the God of transformations tells him, ‘you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.’ So Jacob who used his own means to swindle his brother of his birth-right is confronted by God and given something much bigger. A new name and a new destiny, that signals that the promises of God made to his ancestors begin to find fulfilment in somebody renamed and remade according to God’s destiny.

So Jacob found God in a special place, a location he called ‘the house of God.’ However, the perspective of the New Testament and some of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible is that God is not confined by place. Instead the limitless and uncontainable God can be experienced everywhere. So our story might seem to set up somewhat of a tension between the view that God can be encountered in deeper ways in certain places and alternatively God is accessible everywhere to all people. In the book of Kings, Solomon declares, ‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you’ (1 Kings 8.27). A similar perspective is presented by Stephen in the book of Acts when he boldly declares ‘the Most High does not live in houses made with hands’ (Acts 7.48). Yet rather than play these perspectives off against each other, I believe that both are true. The God who is limitless and who cannot be constrained by place at times choses to meet his finite people in specific places. So places can instil in us a sense of being in a special location to meet God. This was the experience of Jacob, and it is often our experience too. However, perhaps we must remember it is the way that God reaches out to his creatures in the finitude of their being, rather than overwhelming them with the infinitude of the divine mode of being.

Recently most of us have had to find new places and spaces where me can meet God. Locations to conduct our routine of prayer and praise. Certainly many of us have had a certain sense of dislocation or even loss as we have searched for new ways of being the people of God, disciples of Jesus. A couple of Sundays ago I entered the cathedral for the first time in more than three months. The journey away from the regular spiritual home meant discovering new ways of worship and prayer. Yet arriving back, the home coming was quite emotional and overwhelming. The familiar had become a little unfamiliar and I was forced to look with new eyes. It was a bright day full of sunshine and again I marvelled at our Paolozzi windows. I spent some time looking at the colours cast on the stone pillars that are erected around the building to the glory of God. If you look closely at the windows you will see that there are sections that comprise alternating horizontal and vertical rectangles or bars. Together they create a sense of upward movement. However, what I did not know until the Provost told me, is that sense of upward movement is intentional. In fact it is based on a story from the bible. The vertical and horizontal bars that make one look upwards represents a stairway or ladder that leads to divine encounter. Surely you do not need me to tell you the biblical story that is the inspiration for that section of the window.

Like Jacob, not over twenty years but over the last few months, we have journeyed to new places – perhaps places to which would not have chosen to go. Maybe we were worried about what might have been lost. However, hopefully on the ever challenging journey of faith, we have not lost but gained, we have not withered but grown, and we have not been deprived of the presence of God, but rather encountered it in new and unexpected ways. The journey Jacob undertook resulted in him being renamed and remade. I suspect the journey we have been on will be equally transformative. We will never simply go back to doing things precisely in accord with the old ways. As we have encountered God in new ways, we ourselves have been remade, our acts of worship have become more widely accessible and maybe even democratised. It was not a journey that we would have chosen, but we are not the shapers of our destinies. However, in the process we have met the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We have found his dwelling place to be here and everywhere. We also know our journey of discipleship is far from finished. As we look deeply we might see the stairway to God. The story of Jacob points to it, our Paolozzi window is incandescent with it, and in the Gospel of John Jesus declares that the stairway that Jacob saw with angels ascending and descending upon it is actually none other than the Son of Man, that is Jesus himself who gives us access to his heavenly father.

So to the God of journeys, the God of transformations, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God of Jesus Christ the ladder upon which the divine meets the human, to that God, the one who was, the one who is, and the one who is to come, the God of Bethel, we render along with Jacob all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power both now in our finitude of being and also in the life to come when we will dwell in the true house of God for evermore and worship God with unbounded and unending praise. Amen.

Questions:

  1. Are there any places where you have had a sense of encountering God. What was it about those locations that made them special for you?
  2. Was the choice of Jacob over his brother Esau fair? What does this say about God’s way of ordering events?
  3. All of us have been on a journey of sorts over the last four months. What are your new ways of worship and prayer, and are there things that will change permanently for you because of this enforced time away from corporate worship?