Pentecost 18 – John McLuckie – 13/10/19

The world feels more uncertain right now than it has for a long time. Old allegiances are challenged and the deep wisdom of our religious heritage is scorned by many. Faith is often caricatured as a kind of feeble appeal to an external, unquestionable authority and even the wisdom of scientists and experts is dismissed as mere opinion. When faced with a barrage of philosophical speculations like these, Voltaire’s character, Candide, replies with a disarmingly simple piece of advice: ‘Il faut cultiver le jardin’ – we must dig the garden. Christians would do well to heed his advice, for the turmoil of our world requires patience, not panic, wisdom, not slogans. Candide’s advice is that we should tend to the basic elements that make it possible for life to flourish, that we should see to the simple and deep stuff, not the shrill and superficial stuff. It is tempting to react to overwhelming challenges with elaborate schemes and eye-catching innovations or, worse, with simplistic judgements that propose winners and losers, insiders and outsiders. Faith, by contrast, urges a different response; a patient tending of the garden, trusting in the growth that is given when we seek to make good the conditions that make for growth.

This is beautifully expressed in words from today’s Epistle where Timothy is urged, in the RSV translation, to ‘present [him]self to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.’ I prefer this to the translation we heard a few minutes ago where the work is seen as an intellectual, interpretive endeavour. In this version, Timothy’s work as teacher and pastor has value when it is seen in terms of the rightful handling of the basic material of the spiritual life. He is an artisan who treats the stuff of his trade with respect and care. And what is the basic material of the spiritual life? Well, it is nothing less than the stuff of life itself. What is praised here is not elaboration, not sophistication, but endurance. In other words, the spiritual path is not one where we present an idealised version of life, but one in which we choose to stick with life’s path, whatever it throws at us. The spiritual life is simply life.

The world of faith is not abstract but concrete: how do I respond to this setback? How do I live with my limitations? How do I live with the reality that whatever choice I make in this situation comes with difficult consequences? What can I do in the face of a challenge that is far bigger than my own limited sphere of influence? How can I love when that love may find no reciprocation? Christian faith is profoundly realistic when it comes to such questions. I confess to feeling a degree of impatience when people suggest that religion offers easy answers for the simple-minded. It does not. It offers clarity but not easy comfort, encouragement but not escape, penitence, not self-justification. Above all, what faith offers us is perspective. It urges us to see beyond the immediate and towards the ultimate, beyond the self and towards the whole, beyond the perishable and towards the imperishable. And it offers us concrete strategies to make this possible.

If Christian faith is a matter of tending the garden of our lives, then its practices and insights are ones which require persistence, confidence and hope. Gardens are not the work of hours and sometimes not even the work of one lifetime. When Timothy was encouraged to see himself as a workman rightly handling the material of his life, he was given a pattern for such a way of life. Firstly, a workman like this must die to self, die with Christ. I was urged last week to say something radical in my last sermon with you, and here it is. We must die with Christ. This means nothing less than a complete re-centring of our lives so that they do not revolve around self-concern but are lived in radical freedom, abandoned to the greater truth of life in Christ, life in all its fullness, life that is free from the compulsions of success, recognition, status or domination. But this is also a life that is free from self-loathing, blame or condemnation. As Timothy was told, the Word of God is unfettered, free, abundant.

There are many practices and disciplines that allow us to tend the garden of our lives and the greatest among them is our practice of unceasing prayer, the prayer of the heart. But today’s Gospel offers another, perhaps less obvious one, and that is the practice of gratitude, of giving thanks. Here, an outsider receives the gift of health from Jesus, but he receives even more when he responds with gratitude. The other nine lepers are also freed from disease, but only he is freed to embrace life because he has discovered its fundamental truth, and I can let you into its secret: life is a gift! There’s another radical statement for you today – life is a gift! And what do you do when you are offered a gift? Well, you might do two things. First, you receive it. Second, you give thanks. The first movement is related to my first radical suggestion to you this morning – receiving a gift requires a kind of death to self. To accept a gift is to relinquish control, to be open-handed and open-hearted. It is a kind of vulnerability because it says that I do not have all that I need in myself. It says that I am willing to express my insufficiency and my place in the great chain of life. Our life is not our own creation but a gift from God.

The second movement is the heart of Christian worship – thanksgiving. The very offering we make Sunday by Sunday, the offering of the Eucharist, is an offering of thanks. We say that it is right to give our thanks and praise before the priest goes on to give thanks, in our name, to God for the gifts that make us who we are. When we give thanks, our relationship to the things for which we give thanks changes. They are no longer instruments of our purposes but gifts to be relished. This simple act is what gives us strength to endure. This is what makes it possible for us to handle rightly the material of our lives.

Today I give thanks for seven wonderful years of life with you all. We have shared much and I am humbled by the privilege of doing my little bit to cultivate the garden of our life together. Keep on digging, planting and watering with patience and with gratitude. I give thanks for you and I give thanks to God, the giver of all good gifts, for he is faithful and his mercy endures for ever.

Pentecost 17 – Marion Chatterley, Team Priest – 6/10/2019

From the second letter to Timothy ‘Guard the good treasure entrusted to you’.

Words written by St Paul, probably just before his execution; words of command, not just for Timothy but for those whom he would teach.  Words to pass down through the generations of believers.

I’d like to think this morning about the good treasure that has been entrusted to us, what it might mean for us to guard that treasure and how we might pass it on to future generations.  Some of you will have noticed that we launched a new social media campaign at the beginning of this month.  Our hashtag is Treasure our Cathedral and over the coming months we’re going to be sharing posts on a daily basis that reference the life and witness of this place.  When we began to think about the social media campaign, our starting place was the rhythm and cycles of prayer that are at the heart of who we are and what we do.  Day by day, in words and music and silence, in the majesty and the beauty, this place supports and enables the prayers of its people. We are steeped in the prayers that have been offered here over the ages, we add to and enliven those prayers and leave our own legacy for those who will follow us.

Our building is clearly not just our gathering place, but also our spiritual and, for some, our emotional home.  There are physical treasures within this place – art and embroidery; woodwork and glass.  All gifted to us by skilled craftspeople – some in years gone by and some created in recent months and years.  Those visual arts may help us to focus, may remind us of something of the nature of God.

The first treasure then, is tangible.  And within this tangible space come the treasures that bring the building alive.  Our liturgy is one of our treasures – beautifully crafted words that help us to engage with the core of our worship, to share in the breaking of bread and the distribution of wine.  Our liturgy expresses our theology, feeds our minds and our hearts, points us towards the Divine.  In this place, that liturgy is supported and enhanced by our musicians.  Carefully chosen music, performed in a way that is neither intrusive or for its own sake, but liturgical music offered as a part of our expression of worship.

These offerings are, of course, dependent on the work and gifts of individuals who lead and support the different elements of our worship.   People are one of the treasures of this place.  And, of course, people are our treasures not just in this place and in this area of our lives but throughout all of the aspects and areas of life we inhabit.  People are our connections and our inspiration.  People are our carers and those who care for us.  People are those who love us, those whom we love and those whom we find it difficult to love.  And we know from our understanding of Scripture that each one is loved by God, each one is treasured by God.

So what does it mean for us to guard our treasures?  In some ways, the answer to that question is obvious if we’re thinking about our building and the things that are within it.  We have a responsibility to care for this place, to look after the artefacts and crafted work that surround us.  To guard it in order to pass it on to future generations and to make sure that it is in good order when we do so.  And we now understand that our stewardship extends beyond the simple care of our building and possessions.  Stewardship includes our responsibility within this place to care for our wider community and to take into account the environmental impact of all that we do.  Last week our children unveiled the new banners that remind us of those responsibilities.

They spoke about our use of sources of energy; the materials we use; the day to day choices we make – and the impact of all of those on people across our globe.

We were also reminded last week of our more local responsibilities to people who may be less fortunate than us.  Our foodbank collection was a practical way for us to care for others; it was also a symbolic way for us to treasure the more vulnerable people within our communities, to remind ourselves that we have a responsibility to care for God’s people alongside our responsibility to care for God’s created world – it’s not an either/or.

Within every place of worship we have a responsibility to treasure and honour, to hold the balance between ‘in here and out there’, recognising that everything we do is grounded in our collective life of prayer.  We offer the best worship we can – in our words and our music, in the ways that we conduct our services and in what we seek to share about God within the content of those services.   In praying together, we journey together.

We guard all that we treasure week on week as we gather as the body of Christ in this place, and others, because the ultimate treasure isn’t the building or the liturgy or the music or even the people – the real treasure is the grace that we receive when we encounter and engage with the risen Christ in our midst.  The real treasure is the love of God which is revealed to us in the tangible and intangible treasures that are right here in this place.

One of our responsibilities is to ensure that the gift we find in this place is kept healthy and alive in order that it can be shared with future generations.  It’s been a real pleasure to welcome the Friends of Cathedral Music over this weekend and we hope that you will take something of what we treasure back with you to your home churches.  It is incumbent on each one of us to honour our traditions and to do whatever we can, to give in whatever way we can, in order to ensure that the treasure is not just preserved but enhanced and enriched for the benefit of those who will follow us.

Let’s return to our hashtag – Treasure our Cathedral.  Whether or not we are people who engage with social media, we can share the message of that campaign.  The treasure that is this Cathedral, its building and artefacts, its liturgy and music, its people and their commitment – that treasure is too good to keep hidden.

We all carry the responsibility to share the Good News that we find here, to invite others to experience the treasures that are on offer.  In so doing, we will play our own part in ensuring that this place and all that makes it what it is, will be available for many generations to come.

Friends of Cathedral Music – The Royal Diamond Fund

“Last week I payed a visit to Liverpool for three days with The Royal Diamond Fund representing the St Mary’s Cathedral choir in their concert bringing together lots of choristers from all over Britain in aid of helping families in challenging financial circumstances meet the costs of chorister life.

On day one the morning was full of travelling, planes and trains. And then the afternoon was more eventful, we (me and my dad) made our way across Liverpool to the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral where we made our first impressions and had the first rehearsal. What was striking about the first rehearsal was how incredible 70+ singers all sounded together in one room, and the level of professionalism and skill everyone had, it’s an unforgettable sound.

Day two, rehearsals in the morning meant getting up early but I didn’t mind, that morning everyone was introducing themselves and making friends, it’s refreshing to hear everyone else’s stories of their own choirs and hearing other choristers that have the same life as you’ve had, sometimes chorister life can feel isolating from others but when you meet people that do the same thing as you do everyday and have such similar yet so different experiences, you can really appreciate the experiences you’ve had.

From rehearsal to concert we had a break where we visited the Tate modern art museum, an interesting and confusing place but nonetheless beautiful.

Just before the concert I was chosen along with a few of my friends to meet the Duchess of Gloucester who joined us for the first half of our programme. The concert included pieces from ‘Zadok the Priest’- by George Handel  to ‘Yesterday’- by The Beatles to ‘You’ll never walk alone’ – by Richard Rodgers (in memory of The 96) and was all round a greatly enjoyable experience with great friends and great music.

On day three we had a few hours to spare before travelling home so we spent the day firstly in the (incredible and moving) Beatles Story, and then walking across the harbour to the (also extremely moving) Slavery Museum ans then we rounded off our day in the John and Yoko exhibition, which very nearly brought me to tears being a Beatles fan, I think we visited these in perfect order and would highly recommend all of these to anyone of any age who is interested (especially the John and Yoko exhibition). 

We left Liverpool with a tear in our eye and a smile on our face, all round a great experience I will cherish for years to come.

Thank you for making it possible.”

Nora Rose, Senior Chorister

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.