Marion Chatterley – Lent 3 – 24/3/2019

Here we are, already half way through Lent and I suspect that many of us will be struggling to maintain whatever Lenten discipline we set for ourselves.  The first couple of weeks are usually OK, we can keep up the momentum and the focus but by this stage in the journey we can begin to feel a bit weary and to wonder why on earth did I decide to do that?  And anyway, what’s the point?  At the end of yet another week of news that is almost unbearable to watch, a week when we’ve watched in horror as an entire country has been devastated and left changed for ever, what does it matter that we are struggling with some small and probably temporary change in our own lives?

This morning’s Gospel doesn’t at first sight offer any encouragement.  It is essentially a question and answer session.  We’re confronted with the issue of bad things happening, we’re warned against making differences between people – and then we’re given a rather impenetrable steer towards a way forward.

The fundamental question Jesus points us towards is: why do bad things happen indiscriminately.  Notice that this isn’t quite the more usual question in our society of why bad things happen to good people, this is a broader question, why do bad things happen and impact on whoever happens to be in their way.  The reading reminds us very starkly that tragedy doesn’t impact on people in any hierarchical way according to their past behaviour, tragedy impacts on the good and the bad; the flood waters or the cyclonic winds or the terrorist bullets – none of those discriminates in any way, shape or form.  The devastation is real regardless of the back story for the victims.  The popular press may be quick to try to identify the most innocent of the victims, or to create a hierarchy of sadness, but the blunt truth is that the needless loss of any human life is a tragedy and should be mourned.

So what does Jesus say?  In his translation of this morning’s Gospel the Jesuit scholar Nicholas King adds in a small word – King’s translation reads: unless you all repent…  That additional word gives a clarity, an emphasis; it makes sure that none of us imagines that we are let off the hook.

This first half of this morning’s reading is clear about two things – there isn’t a hierarchy of victimhood and there isn’t a hierarchy of repentance.  We could all be victims; and at the same time, we all need to repent.  So let’s think about that word repent for a moment.  Those of us who were here on Ash Wednesday were marked with ash and the priest used a form of words.  Those words have changed a little in our current liturgy – we used to say ‘repent and turn to the Gospel’ and we now say ‘turn away from sin and follow Christ’.  That phrase gives us our church’s definition of repentance – turn away from sin.  This is about something more than feeling sorry that we did this or didn’t do that, this is about amendment of life, a change in direction, perhaps even a shift in our focus.  It’s about both personal and collective repentance – things happen round about us and we are not divorced from them.  They may happen in other, far away parts of the world.  But they happen to people like you and me.  They happen to communities like yours and mine.  They happen to people at prayer and people at play.  And it is so easy to feel helpless and hopeless.

Yesterday, I went to George Square to participate in an Edinburgh University response to the shootings in Christchurch.  About 200 people came together; a Muslim student sang the call to prayer; shoes were laid out to remind us of the lost lives; words were spoken and silence was kept.  What was really moving about the event was the gratitude expressed by the New Zealanders and the Muslims amongst us.  People who have never been to New Zealand; people of other faiths and no faith came to support and show care and grief and respect.  Nothing a terrorist does can ever take that away.   The human to human response that was evidenced at that vigil gives us hope that goodness is inherently strong, that there is a collective desire to turn away from sin.

And that brings us to the second half of this morning’s reading.  The fig tree that isn’t managing to bear fruit.  The fig tree that is in danger of being cut down and replaced by something more productive.   That fig tree is perhaps a good example of how easy it is to sink into victimhood – to look elsewhere for reasons we’re not flourishing.  To play a blame game.

And we’re then reminded that the tree might not manage to reach its potential without help.  The suggestion is that tree may be lacking in nutrients, may be longing for the food of life that will enable it to flourish.

The fig tree is an illustration of the parts of ourselves that have not yet been sufficiently nurtured and nourished, the parts of ourselves that need more time.  The parts of ourselves that lack nutrients, that long to be filled with the food of life.  And God, the gardener, God the creator and architect is offering that opportunity.  Let’s give it some more time.  Let’s wait and see whether there are any promising shoots emerging.  Let’s see what difference the right nourishment might make.

The tree may not emerge into full fruit within that first year, but what a difference there will be if we simply begin to see the signs of growth.  The signs that the care and the nourishment, the attention that has been paid to that rather sad fig tree might just be enough to turn things around.  Slowly and painfully – bud by bud – but a move in a positive direction, a move away from sin and towards Christ.

Returning to the question of our Lenten discipline – whatever form that takes.  Our thinking about the fig tree offers some help here.  The tree of our intentions may well be needing a bit of water and TLC.  And we may still feel as though nothing much is happening.  The result of our efforts is not just in picking the fruits, there is perhaps even more value in the journey towards that end, the journey that forces us to pay attention, to be consistent, to care.

We care for ourselves; we care for people we know; we care for people we will never meet.  And in so doing, we make a small impact on the potential for those shoots of hope to emerge.

Standing alongside our Muslim sisters and brothers won’t of itself change the world, but it might change how just one person sees us and equally importantly, it might change how we see them, and in turn how we see ourselves.

Closure of the St Mary’s Cathedral Workshop

It is with profound regret that we announce that the Board of St Mary’s Workshop has decided that from Monday 18th March 2019 the Workshop will cease trading, and shortly close.

The Workshop was founded more than 30 years ago to train stonemasons and renovate the stonework of St Mary’s Cathedral. For 25 years, it received substantial funding from Historic Environment Scotland and others to complete those tasks, taking on a couple of apprentices every year as work on the Cathedral continued. In recent years the Workshop received further funding to complete the renovation of the Cathedral, but also to develop a different model of training stonemasons, which, we hoped, would allow the Workshop to prosper and continue its core task of training apprentices.

This Shared Apprenticeship model, formed in collaboration with Skills Development Scotland, meant that apprentices worked not just on the Cathedral but on placements across the industry. The income from those placements, together with support from CITB, HES and other funders, would cover the costs of training and running the Workshop.

However, we have been unable to secure the funding required to make the model sustainable. The Board developed several alternative potential models for the scheme but could not identify one that was sustainable in the long-term without additional funding.

The Board was left with no alternative but to declare the Workshop no longer a going concern and begin to wind it up. We are making active efforts to place our 12 apprentices with other employers.

The Board would like to thank all the employees of the Workshop over the years for their hard work and efforts. Not least our current Trainers, Jordan Kirk and Max Scott, and our Administrator, Maggie Tennant, who have worked tirelessly to try and find a future for the Workshop and to continue to produce the highly skilled stonemasons that our historic buildings need. It is a matter of deep regret and sadness that that has proved impossible.

John Conway – Managing Director
John McKinney – Chair

Andrew Philip – Lent 1 – 10/3/2019

Staying True to Our Calling

What gets to you most? I don’t just mean what most gets your goat; I’m thinking about what goes to the heart of who you are. Who are you when everything is stripped away?

That’s what faces Jesus in today’s Gospel. The temptations he fends off in the wilderness come from deep inside him and strike at the heart of who he is. After the very public high of his baptism, at which the Holy Spirit has descended on him, at which his identity as God’s Beloved Son has been proclaimed by the voice of God the Father, Jesus is sent by the Spirit into the desert to grapple with his identity and calling.

The question behind our Gospel passage is: what sort of Son is Jesus going to be? How is he going to live out his calling? For, each of the three temptations is an enticement to Jesus to become a false version of who he is; to be untrue to his calling not by rejecting it but by allowing it to be twisted subtly out of shape; to become fake good news.

The first and third temptations begin with, ‘If you are the Son of God …’. Scholars tell us that this would be better translated ‘Since you are the Son of God …’. Satan, the plausible but lying voice inside, is not trying to deny Jesus’ Sonship but to twist it out of shape.

We too face the temptation to be untrue to our identities as children of God and to our calling to be part of God’s redemptive mission, the temptation to allow the pattern of Christ in us to be twisted out of shape. Every day for us brings the question: what sort of children are we going to be? So what does the text tell us about the temptations that we, along with Jesus, face and how to withstand them?

The first temptation flung at Jesus is to turn stones into bread. For a famished Jesus to make bread from stones seems like a good idea. And if he can accomplish that, he can easily feed the hungry masses. But it is a temptation to accept and be false sustenance — a quick fix, a spiritual fast food that addresses the wrong need. Jesus will, indeed, satisfy the hungry with bread, not just in the feeding of the 5,000, but in the bread that is his body broken on the Cross. A far cry from desert rocks transmogrified as if in a Hogwarts classroom.

Next, Jesus is tempted with the power and glory of all the world’s kingdoms. But this is false glory and power on offer. The issue is whether Jesus will become the kind of king the world already knows too well: one who rules by might and force of ego. But for him to do that would be to turn away from the servanthood he came to model, to reject the way of the Cross and, ultimately, to forgo the joy, glory and power of the Resurrection.

This temptation is, however, also a cloak for a deeper, more subtle one: the enticement to worship the false gods of status, influence and ego. Satan shows his hand here when he tells Jesus, ‘If you will worship me, it will all be yours’. It surprises me how many commentators seem to take at face value Satan’s claim that the kingdoms are his to give away. I mean, we’re talking about a character who is described in the Gospel of John as ‘a liar and the father of all lies’. Jesus knows this voice is faking it and that to turn away from the God who called and named him is to turn away from truth.

Finally, having failed to tempt Jesus away from worshipping the true God, Satan tries to get him to put God to the test. This is a temptation to false faith, a lure to risk everything in order to prove God in a way God hasn’t called him to do. Instead of this swift, dramatic spectacle, Jesus chooses the long, hard road to the Cross and the hope of Easter morning.

Through all these temptations, Jesus remains true to his identity and calling. To the long way round. To the way that looks crazy but leads to life.

Like him, we encounter voices from within that entice us to be untrue to our identity and calling. What sort of children will we be? Will we run after quick fixes instead of walking the long road to Jerusalem with Jesus? Will we get wrapped up in budgets and finance instead of being bread broken for the world? Will we get caught up in seeking influence instead of looking to serve our communities? Will we be enticed by dramatic ideas or be willing to lay down our lives quietly in service?

The question is how we keep true to our calling. First, like Jesus, we should remember whose we are. At his baptism, Jesus was declared the Beloved Son; our baptisms likewise proclaim that we are Beloved of God. We need to hold on to this identity before all others.

Secondly, we need to listen to the Holy Spirit. Jesus is filled with the Spirit at his baptism, led into the desert by the Spirit and filled with the Spirit when he leaves the desert to begin his preaching ministry. Likewise, we are given the Spirit at our baptism and filled with the Spirit as we open ourselves to God through regular spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading and worship.

And this points us to another resource we have, and the most obvious one from the text: Scripture. Jesus doesn’t argue with the temptations; he simply refutes them with Scripture: the wisdom and strength of his tradition. It’s interesting that he uses desert Scriptures — verses from Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. He learns as much from Israel’s failures as from its faithfulness. If Jesus needs that, how much more do we need to steep ourselves in Scripture. It is the memory book of our tradition, showing us how God has spoken in the past, showing us patterns to follow and develop, showing us how to pattern ourselves after Christ.

As we move through our own 40 days in the wilderness, I encourage you to take something up for Lent: reflect on the temptations. Make them into a form of prayer. Perhaps ask yourself, at the end of each day:

  • What has sustained me and how have I sustained others today?
  • What did my words and actions today say about who or what I worship?
  • How did the way I lived today show my trust in God?

As you ask yourself this, listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit calling you ever deeper into life, ever deeper into your identity as a beloved child of God.

Andy Philip – Candlemas – 3/2/2019

I’m sure I’m not alone in coming away from this morning’s Old Testament reading with the setting from Handel’s Messiah ringing in my ears. Those of you who know the aria will doubtless be glad that I am not going to attempt to sing it, but the way Handel sets the text certainly captures the imagination. The opening passage — ‘But who may abide the day of his coming and who can stand when he appeareth’ — smoulders darkly and elegantly. But, at the words ‘for he is like a refiner’s fire’, the music bursts into flame and vividly brings to life the prophet’s blazing simile.

Malachi’s description of God’s presence as like a refiner’s fire conveys great intensity. It takes tremendous heat to refine gold and silver. Silver melts at around 900°C while gold must be heated to 1064°C for it to liquify. So the refiner’s fire is around five times as hot as the oven for your Sunday dinner. I hope you’ll excuse me mentioning such temperatures on a cold and frosty morning in our chilly cathedral, but it helps us to grasp what Malachi was trying to put across. It leaves us in no doubt that, for him at least, the presence of God was a tremendously powerful, all-consuming experience.

It might be difficult at first to see what this has to do with the presentation of Jesus in the temple. If we are looking for connections between today’s Gospel passage and our Old Testament reading, we more readily see them in Malachi’s assertion that ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’ (Malachi 3:1). It is natural for us Christians, who believe that God was made flesh in Jesus, to read this prophecy as being fulfilled in Luke’s narrative: here we are — the Lord is turning up in his temple in Jesus. But if that is how we read it, the prophecy is fulfilled in such a paradoxical fashion. For the Lord whom Malachi describes as a refiner’s fire comes not as an inferno but as an infant.

Anyone who has spent much time with babies will certainly attest to the fact that they have their own intensity, and sometimes it’s a wonderful intensity, but, unless we are talking about Jack Jack from The Incredibles, it certainly isn’t the same as a refiner’s fire. So, what is the connection?

On Monday, the cathedral’s Poetry Close-Up group met. We gathered to read and discuss TS Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’. It’s a dense and difficult but rewarding piece. At one point, Eliot speaks of how

The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre —
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Eliot is saying that we face the choice of being burnt up by the fire of judgement or consumed by the ‘pentecostal fire’ of Love. The fire of Love saves us from the fire of judgement.

We are not often comfortable talking about judgement. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like a good fit for the inclusive and welcoming community that we aim to be, grounded in God’s love. But we can’t engage honestly with Scripture and avoid judgement for very long. Maybe our understanding of it is still shaped at some level by mediaeval depictions of devils prodding unfortunate sinners into various eternal torments. So we find it hard to see how judgement can co-exist with God’s love, even if that love gives us a way to escape the fire.

While the last judgement is part of the picture that the Bible gives us, and the mediaeval torments aren’t, it is clear from Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph and from our Malachi passage that the biblical writers conceived of judgement as something broader and more immediate. Judgement is part of salvation, not just something that happens to the damned. It is part of being purified, which is ultimately to be made whole.

Simeon recognises in the baby Jesus one who ‘will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver’ (Malachi 3:3). He tells Jesus’ parents how their child is ‘destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed’ (Luke 2:34–35). A number of commentators read this to mean that some people will fall and others will rise. Other commentators think that the people who are in view here will all fall and then rise because of Jesus. The Gospel writer doesn’t make it clear. But it is evident from this passage that Jesus’ brings both judgement and redemption. The one does not come without the other.

Simeon and Anna both welcome this. They rejoice in the salvation that Jesus will bring to them and their people, a salvation that includes judgement.  We can all think of people we might like to face judgement — with the way the world is going at the moment, they are probably queuing up in our minds — but are we able to rejoice in judgement not for others but for ourselves? Silver and gold, once they have been refined, can be worked into something far more beautiful and useful than in their raw state.

  • Can we see in judgement the love of God that draws out of us what is detrimental and forms us into a new creation?
  • Can we see in judgement the love that makes us whole?

In many ways, this is what we do when we join in the confession. We know that we have fallen so we ask that we may rise.

We must not forget, however, that this refiner’s fire — this great conflagration of judgement and grace — comes to us not in roaring flame but in a helpless and vulnerable baby, unable even to prevent himself from being taken up in a stranger’s arms. This tiny flame, who will grow into ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32, KJV), is passed from hand to hand just as we must pass the light of the good news from person to person, which we do not only through preaching but through concrete, loving action. Jesus, the Light of the World, asks his church to become the light of the world.

‘Who may abide the day of his coming and who can stand when he appeareth?’ The answer is that, through his sacrifice on the Cross — the sign that will be opposed (Luke 2:34) — we all may abide. We all can be Simeons and go in the peace that we long for.

As Eliot says in the closing lines of ‘Little Gidding’:

all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Marion Chatterley – Epiphany III – 27/1/2019

Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10;    1 Cor 12: 12-31a;    Luke 4: 14-21

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, a day that has become a regular feature in the calendar and in the UK has broadened its remit to include not just the Holocaust of the second world war, but more recent incidents of genocide.  This year is the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and so we are asked to remember that shameful and devastating time in the life of a small African nation.  A time when within small villages, neighbours betrayed one another; a genocide that left no community untouched; a time whose impact is still being felt.  I’ve met some survivors of that genocide and they will live the rest of their lives as people who have been damaged by trauma.   One little example of that was a day when I introduced two women to one another, two women who had both lived through the genocide and are now in Scotland.  In my innocence I thought that each would be pleased to meet someone from her home country, but within moments I realized that there was something much bigger at play.  Each needed to identify very quickly which side the other belonged to, to identify friend or foe.  Luckily it was OK – but no thanks to me.

The strapline for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is Torn from Home.  Both of those women were effectively torn from home but they had brought their pain and history with them – and that history of home was far more significant than any shared story they may have had in this new place that they have come to call home.

One of the intellectual struggles we all have is to imagine how people find themselves in a position where they are committing despicable acts of violence against people whom they once called friends and neighbours.  And, of course, the journey from here to there is an incremental process.  That process has its roots in our sense of identity – the ways that we see ourselves and how we translate that sense of self onto other people.  We never really see ourselves as others see us- and we can be quick to forget that we don’t see other people as they see themselves.  You’ll know the Robert Owen quote ‘All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thee’s a bit queer’.

We make divisions and differences in all sorts of ways – many of which are completely trivial.  Think of the debates about whether jam or cream should be spread first on your scone or scone.   I do wonder whether

Andrew Philip – Baptism of Christ – 13/01/2019

What words do you long to hear the most? What would be a good word for your soul to carry you through 2019?

There are probably as many answers to that question as people present this morning. But my guess is the words that most of us — perhaps all of us — long to hear have something to do with relationship.

When push comes to shove — as it too often does in this world where many are jostling for power and position — we all need to know that we are loved. This is more than a nice, touchy-feely sentiment: hard science confirms the importance of love for the healthy development of a baby’s brain. Child or adult, we all flourish when we are recognised, valued and loved just as we are, not for what we do, produce or consume.

Jesus, in today’s Gospel, hears that he is loved. And he hears it from the most powerful source: the voice of God the Father telling him, “You are my son, the Beloved”.

  • “You are my Beloved” this good word is for all of us and is one that we all need to hear.

It’s worth thinking about how the revelation of Jesus’ Sonship and Belovedness takes place in the context of baptism and prayer:

“when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying […] a voice came from heaven”

“When all the people were baptised”. Though this might seem like a throwaway line, it makes an important point.

First, this reminds us that, even though we might tend to think of baptism as the act of an individual, it is also very much a corporate event. If that was the case for the baptism John offered, how much more so is it the case for our baptism into Christ. More than simply a corporate event, it is an act of incorporation because it marks our becoming part of the Body of Christ — the Corpus Christi. This is why our baptismal liturgy includes words for the entire congregation, reminding us of the faith and mission of the church as a whole.

Secondly, baptism isn’t just an act of incorporation; it is also an act of identification. If we accept that Jesus was without sin, that leaves us with a big conundrum as to why he wanted to be baptised. He didn’t need to repent and he certainly wasn’t being baptised into his own Body. A standard answer is that he submitted to baptism out of solidarity with sinful humanity. I don’t know about you, but that argument leaves me thinking, “Yes, but surely there’s something more going on.”

One commentator I read (Carol Lakey Hess) says that, in submitting to baptism, Jesus shows that he understands the full implications of the incarnation — that is, he acknowledges that he is fully part of humanity’s broken set-up; he’s born into and from it.

We can all attest to that brokenness. The way that our systems, our social structures, steer and shape our options means that we are left with no unambiguous or sin-free choices. It limits our choice of what kind of work we can do, what clothes of food we can buy and even we can vote for. In other words, as Bruce Cockburn puts it in his song “Broken Wheel”, you “can’t be an innocent bystander in a world of pain and fire and steel”. In submitting to baptism, therefore, Jesus is saying, “I’m taking part in this mess. My choices are walled in by it too.”

If that’s the way we should understand Jesus’ baptism, then it means that the voice from heaven speaks the words, “You are Beloved” to someone who is as much a part of the messed-up system as we are — one who not only identified with broken humanity but identified as broken humanity. But one who also overthrew that system.

No matter how broken we are, no matter how sinful we are, we are Beloved of God. And this applies not solely to those of us who are in the club of the baptised but to the whole world. In baptism, we identify ourselves publicly as sinners in need of redemption, so we identify with the whole of humanity. We also identify with Christ in his death and resurrection and so enter the truth of our Belovedness. But we were Beloved before our baptism, even before we believed, even before we were born. As the First Letter of John says, and as we are reminded every Sunday, “We love because God loved us first.”

This should make all the difference in the world. It should put the words of our reading from Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you”, at the core of our being and it should drive our actions. But we often find it hard to lay hold of this truth.

I think it is significant that Luke mentions that it was “when Jesus … was praying” that the revelation came because this points to one of the main ways that we can grow into the truth of our Belovedness.

A few years ago, I was going through a particularly painful time and could not see the way forward. I could do nothing but sit with the pain, holding it before God. That was the only way I was able to pray. One day, after I don’t know how many weeks of this, it suddenly dawned on me that there was nothing I could do to make God love me more and, more to the point, nothing I could do to make God love me less. The pain didn’t vanish but I felt a profound release and saw a way through. I had suddenly emerged into the truth of my Belovedness.

I still wrestle with my broken humanity. I still mess up. But I can now recentre myself in my identity as Beloved.

  • This is the heart of prayer: not asking God to do things but entering deeply into the relationship that God calls us into, understanding who we are in the eyes of God.
  • Prayer is not about us changing God’s mind but us being changed into people with the mind of Christ.

When we know ourselves to be Beloved of God, we are freed to see others as Beloved too — not just those we find it easy to love, but those we struggle to like, even those who injure us. All these people also need to know that they are Beloved.

This is the task of the church: to live in our identity as Beloved so that others can find that identity too. The person who has survived years of cruelty and abuse — they need to know that they are Beloved. The young person wrestling with their body image or gender identity — they need to know that they are Beloved. The businessman whose life is ruled by the firm’s performance targets — they need to know that they are Beloved.

“You are my Beloved.” Let those words ring out in the depths of your being as we remember now what Christ has done for us and as we go from here to love and serve the Lord.

John Conway – Christmas Day – 25/12/2018

(Isaiah 52.7-10; Luke 2.1-20)

 

Is the dinner in the oven, the feast on its way? The table laid, even? Guests gathering, preparation over. A happy Christmas to you all. Or are you anxious over the details, worried perhaps about what the conversation around the table might turn to in this year of divisions and polarised opinions. Are you aware of who is not with you, grief cutting into our celebrations. It’s good to be together, but we know that many, too many, will be left out in the cold. Our burst of festivity, this year perhaps more than ever, feels like a bulwark against gathering storms, uncertainty and anxiety.

 

Christmas is a season of enormous contrasts; contrasts between the festival of Christmas, in all its joy and excess, its warmth and its madness, and the ongoing reality of a world of conflicts and division and difficult choices. How does our frenzy of activity and spending and preparation, the desire for a good Christmas, how does that frenzy and that desire touch the reality of the complicated and difficult world we live in; and what has all that to do with the story that lies at the heart of Christmas, of Mary and Joseph travelling long distances, and Mary giving birth in an outhouse, and angels proclaiming good news to shepherds? How are we to hold these things together – our desire for a good Christmas, our heartache that it is not always so, and the wee babe in a manger?

 

Lancelot Andrewes, in his Christmas Day sermon of 1620, described the birth of Jesus as ‘the Word that cannot speak.’ This is how God comes among us, the Word that is wordless, the Word that only cries, cries that call Mary and Joseph into parenthood, into a different kind of responsibility and self-forgetting love. God comes, says our Christmas Gospel, not in triumph, showering gifts but in the newborn cry and the suckle, demanding our attention. Richard Crashaw, the poet and contemporary of Lancelot Andrewes, writing in the first half of that rancorous century that will see the outbreak of Civil War in England, famously describes Christmas in similarly paradoxical terms:

Welcome, all wonders in one sight!

       Eternity shut in a span;

Summer in winter; day in night;

       Heaven in earth, and God in man.

Great little one, whose all-embracing birth

Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.

Paradox, the reconciling and overcoming of tensions and contrasts lies at the heart of our celebration of the Word made flesh; God among us, heaven in earth.

The circumstances are far from perfect, the preparation is incomplete, and yet God comes. Mary and Joseph, not yet married, have to negotiate the family politics of an unplanned pregnancy. We too have family tensions to balance, name or avoid. And in the midst of that comes the demand from the powers that be that Joseph register in his home town. The journey is long and arduous, with pregnant wife-to-be. We too know about external demands that disrupt and make life difficult. Many today embark on journeys long and arduous. And yet, God comes.

Like many on our streets and in our city, Mary and Joseph struggle to find shelter, find themselves excluded; Joseph is called back to his home town to discover it is no longer home. And yet, God comes.

And gathering around that manger, around that wordless Word, come not the high and mighty, or the especially holy. Shepherds, as they go about their daily life, suddenly and to their surprise find themselves caught up in a blaze of joy, a glimpse of that inner life of God that is glory. And so we come, leaving behind, at least for a moment, our daily anxieties, our preparations and our present swapping; we come to stop and gaze and wonder: for into our midst, whether we are ready or not, whether joyful or anxious, God comes. And God comes, as the angels announce, not to fill us with fear -‘fear not’ they declare – but with a blessing of peace, the blessing of peace of this wordless Word, reaching out from the heart of God into the heart of our predicaments.

The Word that does not speak lies in the manger – in the feeding place. He comes today, to lie in our midst, to feed us, as we gather around this table, this feeding place. For we come not just to rejoice in the baby, but because that Word of God that is Christ grew up and learned to speak in the accent and cadences of love. Taught us and emboldened us to fear not. And gave himself in bread and wine that those who follow might become his body and blood.

In Christ God enters the mess and muddle of our world to give of himself. Heaven and earth are joined; the irreconcilable reconciled; the divided brought into relationship. God comes in the midst of our festivities, our frantic preparations, our consumerist fantasies, and gives of himself. Today, to be here, is enough, as we welcome the wordless Word demanding our attention; born anew to feed us; creating space in our hearts for love, so that we might echo to the joy of angels. For wherever God is, there is praise.

Today we are invited, in humility and wonder into that praise which is the presence of God. Into our midst comes the gift that restores our true identity beyond fear – this is who we are: creatures made for praising and loving, for wonder and the joy of communion. For this is God, the truth of our living and our world – the hopeful possibility of reconciliation. Here is the strength of God, to uphold our weakness, and break into our same old, same old ways, restoring, renewing, reconciling. Gloria in excelsis. Amen.

 

Andy Philip – Advent 4 – 23/12/2018

Where do we put the Magnificat?

A few years ago, while I was still working in the Scottish Parliament, I was asked to read the Gaelic lesson at the Parliament’s carol service. The reading happened to be Mary’s great song of praise that we’ve just heard — the Magnificat, as it’s known from its first word in Latin — but it wasn’t quite all the Magnificat, for the text that I was given ended at the line “and holy is his name”.

  • What happened to the rest — to the proud, the mighty and the rich, let alone the lowly and the hungry?
  • What happened to God’s mercy and remembering the covenant?

Well may we ask. I wasn’t party to the reasoning behind this rather striking omission. I suspect it might have something to do with wanting to keep the Gaelic reading short for all the non-Gaelic speakers. Nonetheless, it has helped me to take a fresh look at the Magnificat.

On the face of it, stopping at “holy is his name” makes a strong statement about what God is like. But there is a more subtle effect, too, because it also makes the reading all about Mary and God. The wider context is stripped out and Mary seems to be singing praises for what God has done for her alone.

Of course, it’s ‘right to give God thanks and praise’ as we say each Sunday. And while it is right to give praise and thanks for what God has done and is doing in our own lives, we shouldn’t forget that we say that line together.

If we stop the Magnificat before Mary mentions God’s mercy to the generations, her song stops being part of something bigger. But what God is doing in these early parts of Luke’s Gospel is definitely something far bigger. For Mary, it is the deliverance of Israel at the very least but, as Luke’s Gospel and its sequel — the book of Acts — go on to show, it’s far more than that: it’s the salvation of the world. It couldn’t be much bigger.

To switch the perspective round the other way, the Magnificat — and in fact our Gospel reading as a whole — brings to light the fact that God acts for the salvation of the world in and through the lives of individuals. God does the big stuff through the small stuff. Sometimes that small stuff is hidden away, just as God-with-us is hidden away in the embryo developing in Mary’s womb at this point in Luke’s story. But God allows people to see and name what is going on, as Elizabeth does for Mary in our reading.

I find that perspective encourgaing. It means that our everyday lives can become part of God’s working to renew and restore the world. We don’t have to do big things for God; we just have to be available like Mary and Elizabeth and to allow Christ to be born in us, in our words and actions. That can include naming for others the work of God that we see in their lives, like Elizabeth did.

As women in first-century Palestine, Mary and Elizabeth found themselves on the margins of society. That reminds us that the margins are where God often acts. Israel’s hopes of deliverance from the power of the Roman Empire were focused on the great symbols and institutions of Jewish nationhood: the temple and the monarchy. In working through Elizabeth and Mary, God is overturning the expectations of that culture. This is part of what Luke is getting at when he places Zechariah’s skeptical reaction to the angel announcing John the Baptist’s birth to him against Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s Annunciation of Jesus’ birth earlier in the same chapter.

There is, of course, a broader, deeper overturning in the second chunk of the Magnificat. In language that echoes the Psalms and that harks back to the prayer of Hannah when she dedicates her son — the prophet Samuel — to God’s service, Mary celebrates how the Lord has turned the world on its head. The proud are confounded, while the mighty swap places with the lowly and the rich with the hungry. The people who thought they were on top find themselves at the bottom.

That can be hard for us to hear. As a society, we’re quite okay with individual religion but less comfortable with a God who wants to shape and shake our social structures, to subvert expectations. However, the God Mary praises, the one who is at work in her and Elizabeth, is just such a God.

It is revolutionary stuff! So anyone who tells you that the gospel is not political hasn’t been reading the Magnificat. Mind you, this isn’t politics as we know it: the King who is coming casts the mighty down from their thrones not to grab hold of the top job or jump on the gravy train, but to lift up the downtrodden and satisfy the starving. He isn’t a leader who will offshore his assets when it suits him but one who will give everything to free his people.

This is what has become known as God’s preferential option for the poor. It is scattered throughout Scripture as obviously and liberally as Christmas lights are scattered throughout the city centre.

We still need that revolution today. The horrors of Syria and Yemen; the horror of the number of people dying on our own streets for lack of food, shelter and care; the mere fact that, in a country so rich in resources, people need to use feedbacks to survive — these all cry out for the great reversal Mary sings about.

The first place where that revolution needs to take place is in our own lives:

  • We need God to topple the pride in our own imaginations, keeping us thankful and humble, open and generous.
  • We need God to pull us from our thrones, bringing to light the ways that we use and abuse power and privilege in our relationships and dealings.
  • We need God to heal us of our attachments to our things, freeing us from the urge to have more and more, freeing us to be happy with enough.

But we can’t allow the revolution to stay there. To do so would be to stop at “and holy is his name”, to live out an individual faith that doesn’t connect with anything bigger. It would be to spiritualise the Magnificat and confine God to the realm of our worship.

Mary’s song challenges us to place ourselves on the side of the poor, the victim and the hungry, not simply through charity but in confronting injustice directly. When everything around us is screeching at us to buy this, buy that, buy more for a happier Christmas, it can be the struggle to remember that the real meaning of the celebration is how the Lord has turned the world on its head, bringing liberation and salvation. Perhaps this Christmas, we should read the Magnificat and ponder prayerfully how we can join Mary and take an active part in God’s great work of reversal, renewal and justice.

Marion Chatterley – Advent 3 – 16/12/2018

This morning we find ourselves in the company of John the Baptist.  Last week, Jim Forrest reminded us that John wasn’t someone who would have a mantlepiece full of invitations to dinner parties or black tie events.  He is unlikely to be the person you would most like to bring back to life.  He was a dirty and ramshackle character who, I suspect, was pretty scary to encounter.  He didn’t mince his words; he wasn’t trying to win friends – he was a prophet in the truest sense, he sought to share the truth.  And he didn’t try to soften that truth or to make it more accessible; he just told it as it was.

And the crowds responded.  They asked him: What then should we do?  They understood that things weren’t as they should be; they understood that they had a part to play in changing the situation – and they came to this holy man and asked him, tell us; guide us; direct us.  Show us what we can do to make an impact on this state of affairs, to begin to shift the norms within our communities.  Tell us where we’ve gone wrong; point out the bad habits we’ve picked up and help us to get ourselves onto the right path.  Help us to have a different focus and a change of priorities.

And John responded to them.  He wasn’t a prophet whose only contribution was to point out what was going wrong, he was also able to make some suggestions about how to turn things around.  And so he began to speak to them about redistribution; about fair treatment of other people; about appropriate behavior with others and about contentment with what we have.  That’s a serious agenda.  It’s a highly political (with a big P) agenda.  It’s an agenda about how we see ourselves in relation to other people, an agenda about turning our gaze towards others rather than focusing on ourselves and what we might desire – or even convince ourselves that we need.  It’s an agenda that reminds us that we are not isolated individuals wandering through our lives in some kind of protected bubble.  We’re each a small part of a number of communities, each of which is part of something bigger than itself and the whole is very much bigger than the sum of its parts.

One of those communities is our worshipping community.  We are a gathered group of people who come together once a week in this place at this time.

Each of us comes with our own story, our own understanding of the situation in our world, our own ideas about what might make a difference.  And perhaps in common with those early crowds who flocked to question John, we are looking for answers, looking for guidance, looking for direction.  This morning we hear some of that from John – share what you have; only keep what you need; do the task allotted to you with integrity; treat other people with respect.  Pretty straightforward principles that are difficult to challenge.  Most of us can, at least, have a stab at that – even if we don’t achieve all of it all of the time.

But that’s not the end of what John has to say.  He gives his guidance, he offers some suggestions.  And the people are touched by what he says, they are questioning in their hearts, they wonder whether this might just be the Messiah.

John is quick to answer: I’m not worthy to tie the sandal of the one who is to come.  You might think that I have something profound and life changing to say but you haven’t heard anything yet.

These are the preparatory steps on your journey of faith;  these are the things you can do now, to begin to prepare yourselves for the real change that is about to come to the world.  These are the ways you might change without too much personal cost or challenge.  But wait.  This is only the beginning of the story.  There is real good news to come – and it’s just around the corner.

We’ve reached that point in Advent when Christmas appears to be coming rather sooner than we might have liked – most of us will have plenty to do between now and the beginning of next week and if you’re like me a growing awareness that there are insufficient available hours for the ‘to do’ list to be completed.  What we know for sure, what we’re reminded of in this morning’s Gospel, is that the celebrations of the Incarnation are just around the corner.  Our encounter with the Son of God, renewed year by year and, in some way new and still magical year by year, is just around the corner.  We can make some preparations, we can think about the witness of John and be thoughtful about our decision making in these coming days, but the main show is yet to come.

The One who will actually change the world, the One whose Incarnation is the fulfillment of these weeks of watching and waiting, the one who challenges us to change in ways that are uncomfortable and sometimes difficult, the birth of that One will be our focus before we know it.

 

And the challenge then is to keep going on this journey of faith.  It’s all too easy to look at the suggestions for change that John the Baptist made, to do our best to achieve those changes, and then to convince ourselves that we’re living our lives in the light of the Gospel.  But that would be short-changing ourselves and in the long run short changing our community.  As soon as Jesus is born, we begin to see that he is a threat to the authorities of the time, that he brings challenge and tough suggestions about what amendment of life might actually mean.  He doesn’t let himself away with anything and he doesn’t let us away with anything.

Fundamentally the Christ child brings a message of hope – hope that God’s Kingdom really will come.  Hope that things really will be different.

The crowds who flocked to John in the desert asked: what then should we do?  The coming of the Messiah gives us a more complete answer to that question.  We should indeed do the things that John suggested – do what we can to make the lives of other people as good as they can be; treat people as we would wish to be treated; share what we have and try to have only what we need.

And in addition to that, we should take our gaze even wider.  We should begin to consider the brothers and sisters we can’t see and don’t know.  We should take seriously our responsibility for our planet, should find ways to exercise good stewardship of our shared resources.  The Christ child came not just for those who encountered Him but for the whole of humanity.  The Christ child came in response to God’s love for the world.  Our response to that child must be to take seriously His incarnation, his presence in our midst, and to seek to follow faithfully and with integrity.