Pentecost 12 — Andrew Philip, Chaplain — 1st September 2019

“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”

I guess that not many of us often serve up what we’d call banquets. For me, the word conjures up images of a Tudor monarch gorging on a seemingly unending stream of dishes. Whole roast wild boar with an apple in its mouth, haunches of venison and birds roasted inside other birds. Platters and trenchers and overflowing goblets.

Whatever the connotations of the word — even if it just brings to mind a muckle cairry oot from the local Chinese takeaway, enough to stuff all the family full — I presume we all tend to serve up something much more modest. Nonetheless, by the standards of many people in Jesus’ day — and even by the standards of a host of people throughout today’s world — the daily bread we lay on our tables has more in common with a banquet than with a simple crust.

It’s important to acknowledge that global perspective. It lands us in a much more complicated context than rural first-century Palestinian villages and towns of the Gospel narrative, where everyone knew who in the community was poor, crippled, lame or blind. Everyone knew who was in need and who was in plenty. The poor were not some abstract group hidden half a city or half a world away but real next-door neighbours.

That means we have to work harder to understand how to put into practice the challenge that Jesus lays down in today’s Gospel.

Strangely, the lectionary leaves out a crucial bit of context for that work. It skips the final parable Jesus tells at this Sabbath lunch: the parable of the great feast. You know the one: it’s the story where the feast is all laid out but the invited guests are much too busy with their other concerns, so instead the host orders his servants to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” — exactly the same groups that Jesus tells his host to ask to dinner. But even that doesn’t fill the party and the servants are sent out to the highways and byways to bring in the people they find there.

To leave that out of the lectionary altogether — we don’t even get to hear it next week — is a puzzling omission. The Gospel of Luke isn’t put together in some haphazard way. It’s constructed by a writer who knows what they’re doing and who is evidently aware that context is important because it changes how you read a story.

The parable of the great feast is the last and longest of three pieces of teaching at the table during the Sabbath dinner where our reading is set. It’s placed, if you like, at the head of the table, in the seat of honour. It’s the one that helps us to understand the other two more deeply. And the crucial point about that is that the Gospel writer makes it clear that the feast in the parable is a picture of the Kingdom of God.

The two pieces of teaching we heard in today’s reading — the parable about not taking the place of honour and the challenge to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” — are not quite so obviously about the Kingdom. The first might seem to be about nothing more than heading off embarrassment and getting the most out of a social situation. The second is more about generosity. However, when we read them both back in the light of the parable of the feast, we can see clearly that Jesus is not simply lecturing his hearers on table manners and social cohesion but illustrating the values of God’s Kingdom. In fact, he’s talking about God’s generosity, about how God invites the humble and the excluded to be the guests of honour at the Kingdom party.

The point is that the ones who big themselves up before God get sent to the back of the queue for the buffet. And the ones who thought they weren’t worth inviting in the first place are called up to the front, seated at the top table and waited on. The ones who are left out and left at the bottom of society’s heap, the ones who are debarred from contributing to the economy and from full participation in religious life, are invited to be the life and soul of God’s party.

Sound familiar? It’s part of the great overturning signalled at the start of Luke’s Gospel when Mary sings her great song of praise.

The stories we heard today are about more than food. They’re about more than where you sit at a dinner party. They’re about more than who you eat with day to day. At heart, they ask:

  • does what and who you value line up with who and what God values?

They show us what God’s values are and what a community that lives by those values looks like.

Well, does it line up? We welcome all to eat at Christ’s table in the Eucharist, but do we live up to that outside of the service in our interactions with others? Does the way that we treat people say that they are welcome to the party, even though they might be excluded, regarded by society as the lowest on the heap?

Of course, we might not personally know anyone whom we’d class as poor. But we need only go a matter of metres to find someone begging on the streets around us so maybe the first thing we need to do is to take the time to speak to them and get to know the people behind the appearance a little.

Not all today’s poor are homeless, though. Increasing numbers of people are a food parcel or two away from destitution and their situations can be hidden behind seemingly cosy front doors. So sharing our bread with the poor might legitimately include donating to a food bank, but Jesus’ words still challenge us to take the next step and build relationship between the haves and the have-nots. This means applying our creativity to find ways to overcome the fragmentation of our society.

Not all the poor whom our actions affect are local, either. I mentioned at the start the global perspective. We must not forget how well off we are in the UK. For all the anxieties about possible shortages of in the event of a no-deal Brexit, we are a rich country, globally speaking, and unlikely to starve. It is not possible simply to sit down and eat with poor people who live on the other side of the world, but we can certainly use our buying choices and campaigning voices to increase justice and fairness for them. The cathedral’s One World Stall is a good place to start, but this also includes how we as a community and as individuals use the planet’s resources wisely and making changes where they are needed.

Nor are all the excluded are poor either. Is there space at our table — space in our lives — for people who are harassed or pushed out because of their ethnicity, their gender identity, their autism or a disability, for example? And this is where it gets even more political. For if we are to be a community of welcome, we must think about what that means in a society where, as many of us will have read this week, a woman who has lived in the UK for 55 years, who was educated here, married here and has spent all her working life here has been refused settled status by the Home Office.

For, at the end of the day, we are all poor before God. What we have to offer is only what God has given us. And it is only through God’s gracious, loving invitation that we have a place at the table. We can serve only because God has served us. So, friends, come up higher.

Pentecost 4 – Andrew Philip, Chaplain – 7th July 2019

What is the heaviest burden you carry? There will doubtless be all sorts of answers to that question. You might identify your greatest burden as illness, for instance — perhaps your own or that of a family member. You might point to a financial burden that’s weighing on your mind — the rising cost of living, perhaps. Or what burdens you the most could be a breakdown in a close relationship. It might be a bereavement that has hit you so hard you struggle to rebuild your life.

My guess, though, is that the heaviest burden that many of us carry is a wound within our sense of self.

These wounds, these burdens, are negative messages that we have internalised and that are playing on loop at an unconscious level. Perhaps it’s the message that we aren’t clever enough or talented enough. Maybe, whatever our achievements, there’s a script running deep down that says we’re failures. Maybe the script says we aren’t beautiful enough. Perhaps, underneath everything, the message on loop is that nobody loves us or even that we aren’t loveable.

There is a fair bit about self-image and self-understanding in today’s reading from Galatians. Most obviously, Paul says:

“if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.” (6:3)

This, of course, is very true. Such self-deception seems to be rife in our culture. We don’t have to look far to find folk “famous for being famous”, as the saying goes, who project their style as if it’s really something but who have little of substance to offer. Those of us who spend any time on social media will sooner or later run into people who appear to think they know everything about any topic and who will readily and aggressively put right or put down even experts in whatever is under discussion. It’s tempting, too, to cast our eyes over the political stage and come to the judgment that certain individuals have a highly inflated sense of their own importance.

But Paul, of course, is concerned about how this plays out in the church. Because those who claim God’s authority for their words and actions without proper humility, those whose boast is their reputation, not the humiliation of the Cross, aren’t living by the Spirit. Such people can end up doing a lot of damage.

But if it’s common for “those who are nothing” to deceive themselves into thinking they are something, it’s also common for people who are something to deceive themselves by thinking they are nothing. For we are all something: we are all Beloved; we are all infinitely precious in God’s eyes. Nonetheless, many of us become burdened with a sense of failure, or wrongness or unloveableness.

This kind of burden, the inverse of the self-deception Paul describes, can come from years of negative messages, perhaps from parents, teachers or other authority figures earlier in our lives. It can be a result of childhood trauma. It can also be fed by all-too-human tendency to compare ourselves negatively against what others have or what they seem to be. Our consumer culture itself feeds off this, stirring up our sense of envy and competition, stirring up the sense that we are falling short of the ideal.

The church to which Paul was writing was being assailed by negative messages. It was being placed under burdens. In essence, some people were telling the Gentile Christians of Galatia that they were falling short of the ideal. They said the Galatians weren’t Jewish enough, that they ought to be circumcised and follow the Torah.

Paul is clear that those people are just plain wrong. He spends the largest chunk of his letter arguing that to require circumcision and adherence to the Jewish law is to place a burden on the backs of the Galatian Christians that no one can carry and is to deny the power of the Cross to save us from sin. Paul is adamant that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision” matters; what matters is being a “new creation” in Christ (6:15).

In the passage that we heard last week, Paul outlined what this new creation looks like. It is characterised by the fruit of the Spirit (5:22–23) — the Spirit who creates a community that is not conceited, is not competitive and does not envy (5:26). This is a community that bears one another’s burdens. By doing this, Paul says, it fulfils “the law of Christ” (6:2). The “law of Christ” is the law of love. It is, as Paul mentions in the previous chapter (5:14), to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. But more, it is the new commandment that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34). That is, to lay down our lives for one another.

Paul’s instruction is pretty vague on the practical points. We are left to work out for ourselves what it means to bear one another’s burdens. But that is hardly surprising, because each situation demands a different touch.

What is clear, however, is that this is something the church does as a community. Yes, it very often takes place in one-to-one interactions, but bearing one another’s burdens isn’t solely the job of one or two who are pastorally gifted, whether ordained or lay. It’s something we all participate in by being open, genuine and welcoming in all our dealings with, our words to, one another. It’s something we do through prayer for one another and by practical action to support each other when we are going through the mill. It’s something we do together in our liturgy by creating and holding a space in which people can be in the healing, restorative presence of God.

What of those burdens I spoke of earlier — the burdens of our wounded, broken self-image? Some of them are situations beyond our control. Some of them are wounds that it takes time, care and attention to heal. But the first step for both is often naming them and laying them before God.

We are all burdened in some way, not least because we are all, in George Herbert’s phrase, “guilty of dust and sin”. But the Christ who meets us in the Eucharist is the one who came to take away our burdens. So come, as “the Living Bread is broken for the life of the world”, let the Broken One embrace you, comfort you and untie your burdens.

Trinity Sunday – Andrew Philip, Chaplain – 16th June 2019

“God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!”

We sang these words with joy as we entered into worship this Trinity Sunday morning. You might more readily associate the idea of the blessèd Trinity with a headache than with joy but the doctrine that God is at once one and three should, I believe, be seen as an invitation to praise and worship and into the life of God rather than as an insoluble intellectual puzzle, which we often turn it into.

Christians down through the centuries have tried to make sense of the ways they have encountered the divine by asserting that the God we worship is at the same time one being and three persons. This is the Sunday in the church year when it’s traditional for preachers to attempt to explain this holy mystery by means of a number of more or less unsuccessful analogies. But I’m going to break with that tradition.

The main reason I’m going to break with that tradition is this: as I was thinking and praying about what I could say that would throw some light on the Trinity for us all — myself included — it struck me that the doctrine of the Trinity is another way of saying “God is love”.

If you take only one thing from this sermon, I hope that it’s that statement.

The Trinity is another way of saying “God is love.” What do I mean by that? The revelation that God is love is at the heart of Christian faith. We proclaim “God is love” in as many words every Sunday as we approach the confession. And we proclaim it in the Eucharist as we remember the Lord Jesus laying down his life out of love.

Of course, we understand God’s love for us primarily as it is expressed to us. We understand God the Father mainly as the One who brings all things into existence and sends the Son; we understand God the Son mainly as the One who redeems us from our sin, heals our brokenness and sends the Spirit; and God the Holy Spirit mainly as the One who sustains and renews us, leading us into all truth.

But if humanity had never been created, if God’s fingers had never worked the heavens into being, would God still be love? If the creation and creatures were not there to receive and return love, would it still make sense to say that God is love? The answer must be an unequivocal yes. For God has been love from all eternity. What, then, does it mean to say that God not only is love but that God was love when there was nothing, no universe to love, and will be love even if heaven and earth pass away?

What gives us the confidence to state that God is love in this profound and everlasting way is the doctrine of the Trinity. Because God is three persons, we can say that God’s nature is relational. The heartbeat of God, if you like, is relationship, communion, love.

This is what we are saying when we recite the creed, affirming that the Son is “eternally begotten of the Father” and that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father”. It is not as though God was one in the beginning and then, when Christ was incarnated and the Spirit came, God split into three like some sort of divine amoeba; no, there always has been one God in three persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The beginning of John’s Gospel teaches us that the Word — that is, God the Redeemer, the Son — existed before all things began. And our reading from Proverbs this morning speaks of Wisdom — often associated with the Holy Spirit — in terms that are redolent of such pre-existence.

It is important that we be careful in how we speak about the Holy Trinity. I have used predominantly the traditional terms: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I am nonetheless profoundly aware that this very male language can shrink our understanding of God. It is vital that we balance this with feminine language for God and with imagery that pushes us beyond gender, such as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. The metaphors used in the Bible do some of that work but our understanding of how power is gendered requires us to renew that effort.

At the same time, we must watch that we don’t end up using language that leads us think of the Sacred Three as just different aspects of how God reveals Godself to us, as if there were one God who just looks different from three different angles. If we do that, we lose the richness of our distinctive Christian understanding. Most significantly, although we could still say that God loves us, we lose the basis for saying “God is love”.

The God we proclaim in our prayers, our creeds and our hymns is a God of relationship, of communion, of love. And the language of Father and Son, for all its problems, makes it clear that we are talking about relationship and community. Some writers speak of the Trinity as a dance between the three persons. Others speak of God as hospitality, of the Father, Son and Spirit making room for one another, being “incomparably hospitable to each other” [see Daniel L Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding p82]. That’s a profound image to meditate upon as we approach the table prepared for us to enjoy Christ’s hospitality.

Whatever metaphor helps us to conceptualise the Trinity, it’s clear that God’s nature is self-giving. We understand that primarily through Christ’s giving of himself for us. But our Gospel reading today indicates that this selfless giving of self happens within the Trinity. Jesus tells his disciples, “All that the Father has is mine” and says that the Spirit will “take”— or “receive” — “what is mine and declare it to you”. A mutual, a reciprocal giving and receiving underlies the life of the Trinity.

That self-giving, of course, is not confined to the internal life of the Trinity. For God gives of Godself in creating the universe. God gives of Godself in redeeming us from our sin and brokenness. And God gives of Godself by making the life of God available to us through the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.

God is love. God is self-giving. God is incomparable hospitality. This should lead us, as God’s children, into wonder, praise and adoration. But it should also lead us — who are invited into the life of the blessèd Trinity — to emulate our heavenly parent as we interact with our neighbours.

A world riven by hatred, violence and threats, a world breathing warfare and breathing down the neck of climate catastrophe, a world filled with division and derision needs that hospitality, selflessness and love.

The challenge that thinking of God as Trinity poses us, then, is much less how to get our heads round the fact that God can be both one and three and much more how we demonstrate in our lives — our actions and our words; our pockets and our presence — that God is love.

 

 

Easter V – Andrew Philip, Chaplain – 19th May 2019

This far out from Easter Sunday, you could easily be forgiven for forgetting that we’re still in the Easter season. The surplus chocolate eggs have been sold off cheap and the chicks and bunnies have vanished from the shop displays. We might still be saying our Easter ‘alleluias’, but the world around us has gone back to business as usual.

That world of business as usual — which means power struggles and injustices, fear and violence — that is the world in which today’s Gospel is set. Our text from John plunges us back into the drama of Maundy Thursday, just after Judas has left to betray Jesus and just before Jesus predicts Peter’s denial.

This world of betrayal and denial, power and fear, is the context in which Jesus gives us the commandment to love one another as he has loved us.

That is, to love one another through a life of service, to love one another so thoroughly that we are willing to lay down our lives. Jesus, in calling us to love this way, challenges us to create a different world.

Our reading from Revelation offers us a vision of that different world. This is a universe renewed; resurrected; redeemed from the grasp of fear and power; released from injustice; a world in which not only sorrow and pain but death itself has been abolished. This is truly a world transformed, truly an Easter vision and it proclaims:

  • that resurrection doesn’t just happen to Jesus alone;
  • that resurrection is not even the preserve of the chosen few;
  • but that resurrection is for all creation.

For, as Colossians says, through Christ

‘God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven’ (1:20).

And as the voice of God says in our reading from Revelation,

‘See, I am making all things new’ (21:5).

It’s a beautiful picture and a wonderful thought, isn’t it? It wasn’t written by some spiritual guru sitting in comfort, removed from the realities of suffering. The book of Revelation tells us that it was written while St John was in exile on Patmos as a result of persecution by the Roman Empire, so he knew what it was to suffer as a result of standing up against the power struggles and injustices of this world. He knew what standing up against the Empire could do to you.

In that context of fear and oppression, violence and injustice, John’s basic message is that God wins. Love wins, for God is love. Against the destructive force of the Roman Empire and its all-conquering military machine, John pits the renewing power of the Creator God.

As in Genesis, God’s creative power overcomes chaos, represented by the sea, which is no more. But, unlike in Genesis, where God was only a daily visitor to the garden, the divine presence dwells with humanity. Apparently, when Revelation says ‘the home of God is among mortals’ and ‘He will dwell with them’, the root word for home and dwell is the same as the one for lived in John 1:14: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us.’ God dwells with mortals in the incarnation of the Word and dwells among us still through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

It’s worth staying with that thought for a wee bit because it points us to the significance of the reading. Many are the Christians who have tried to turn rich metaphors in the book of Revelation into an events guide for the end of the world. While it is legitimate to read the book of Revelation as being about the end times, John is certainly speaking about the present — his present and ours.

Because, as I just mentioned, God dwells with mortals now. The new Jerusalem is the gathering of the redeemed — that’s us, the church. In us, God is making all things new already. God is already wiping the tears from humanity’s eyes. This new creation is not complete and, yes, the church too frequently behaves like it’s part of the unredeemed world of power and injustice, too frequently reacts out of fear rather than love, but the new creation is no less real for that.

So how does God make all things new? How does God wipe the tears from our eyes? The answer to that brings us back to the climax of our Gospel reading:

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

Love isn’t just a smile on a Sunday and a warm handshake at the Peace. Love is being willing to wash others’ feet — to serve them — even the ones who will betray and deny you. Love is being willing to go to the Cross, to sacrifice all you have not only for your friend but for your enemy. As the reading we heard from Acts this morning reminds us, there are no boundaries to this love.

It is our hands, reaching out in love, that God uses to wipe away the tears and to fashion a new world.

Those of you who have read the materials for this year’s Christian Aid week will know that the work Christian Aid is doing with pregnant women, new mothers and babies in Sierra Leone is very much about wiping tears away from eyes and building a new world. As a bereaved parent myself, I relate to the grief that Tenneh Bawoh speaks of when she tells how her first child died:

‘I will never forget that day,’ Tenneh recalls. ‘I felt sick like I’ve never been sick before. I loved my baby so much.’

But, with a partner organisation in Sierra Leone, Christian Aid has been able to provide a nurse whose care has ensured that Tenneh’s second was safely delivered and is fit and healthy.

Every Christian Aid envelope pushed through a door, and every pound placed in one of those envelopes this week, is a contribution to wiping away the tears of Tenneh and many like her throughout the world.

We can also look closer to home: after the service today, we are all invited to gather and consider how we, as a congregation, will help to meet the needs of the homeless people on our streets. This, too, is about wiping away tears. It is about loving as Christ has loved us. It is about becoming God’s hands fashioning the new world.

I will finish with some words from the writer Rachel Held Evans, who died around a fortnight ago:

‘Just as God comes to us through water and wine, God comes to us through touch, through the holy acts of holy hands. […] The hands that pass the peace can pass a meal to the man on the street. The hands that come together to receive Christ in the bread will extend to receive Christ in the immigrant, the refugee, the lonely, or the sick. Hands plant, and uproot, and cook, and caress. They repair, and rewire, and change diapers, and dress wounds. Hands tickle giggling children and wipe away tears.’ (Searching for Sunday, p98)