Pentecost 6 – sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 12th July 2020

Genesis 25.19-34; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

Who are you?

The question is perhaps rarely put as baldly as that. More politely perhaps, at a party or work meeting, we get asked to say something about ourselves, reveal something of who we are. If you are anything like me then there are perhaps stock answers that we offer – something about work, family, where I am from. If the conversation progresses we might talk about our sense of identity, nationality, faith, what we get up to outside of work and family. And then as the conversation goes deeper we might talk about the kind of person we are – our characteristics and personality – and we begin to tell stories that exemplify that or show how we come to be that way. Stories that help make sense of ourselves, to ourselves as well as to others. Stories that display and reveal something of the depth of each of us. Any conversation about who we are that lasts for very long moves beyond a succession of facts about me, into stories. Because stories are how we understand ourselves and each other.

One of the reasons I love the Old Testament – and wish perhaps that we read it, and preached on it, more – is that large parts of it are stories. Stories that reveal in the telling something of who the people of Israel, the people of God, are. Today we began the story of Jacob, the last of the three great founding forebears: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob it is who will later be named Israel, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. So his story is one that will be picked up and woven into many people’s story – he will become a fundamental part of how the whole people of God understand themselves. And so it’s a story worth attending to, for the clues it reveals about who this people are, what has shaped them. The story of Jacob is deep in the DNA, we might say, of the people of Israel, and therefore of us too. The bible invites us always to see our story in the light of this story, our own stories both reflected and revealed.

Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, finds herself pregnant with twins, struggling within her. ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ she enquires of God. Rebekah already has a sense that life with twins will never be easy. God’s answer invites us to see the twins as fathers of rival nations: Edom (which means red, ruddy) and Israel. Esau, red and hairy, is born first; Jacob swiftly follows, his hand already gripping Esau’s heel – a telling detail of the story. And then, as the boys grow up, we are invited to see other contrasts: the hunter and the gatherer; the man of action and the quieter reflective one; the one loved by the father, the other preferred by the mother – Daddy’s boy, and Mummy’s boy? The final vignette reveals Esau as governed by his belly – willing to sell his birthright, the right belonging to the elder, for a bowl of lentils that meet the immediate need of hunger; and Jacob, we gather, is altogether different – clever, a trickster who is happy to exploit his brother’s need to reverse the usual power relations. And yet that hand gripping the heel of the other echoes through the story – these two, a study in contrasts, are nevertheless intertwined.

The question, ‘Who are you?’ swiftly, in conversation, becomes a story intertwined with the story of others. In conversation we make points of connection, and difference, with the story of our conversation partner. Taking the cue of this story, of the birth of two nations in these brothers – and here I begin to tread warily – we might find echoes of the story of Scotland and England. National identity, and how that connects for each of us with our own personal sense of identity is complicated, but at the most basic level the story of Scotland, of what it is to be Scottish, is intertwined with the story of England. It’s a story often of contrast, but also about that intertwining, a rivalry and a need of each other. Our Old Testament story, told principally from the perspective of Jacob and his descendants, is both a laughing at their neighbour – the Edomite, so named for their forebear who sold his birth right for a pot of red stew – but also an admission that they are indeed bound together.

The story delights in Jacob’s cunning, and it doesn’t stop here; the story goes on to tell of his tricking of his now old blind and needy father, Isaac, to further rob Esau of their father’s blessing. Jacob’s cunning has a dark, uncomfortable side, even as he dances through life. He too will be tricked in his turn (but that’s the story for a future week), and this is not the last we hear of Esau either. Jacob and Esau’s intertwined stories continue, toward one of the most devastating and moving moments of reconciliation in the bible. Through it all we are invited both to recognise and rejoice in Jacob’s cunning, but also sense that things are more complicated that we like to admit. That there is both dark and light to Jacob, and to us.

In contrast, the story, the parable of the sower, told by Jesus in our Gospel can seem remarkably straightforward. I have to admit that I often find it a bit flat, predictable, ponderous even compared to other parables. The story of the sower who goes out to sow, with the seed falling on very different ground and soil, feels very direct, but it doesn’t have that element of surprise seen in the best parables or a twist to draw us in. I realise that much of that reaction is due to the somewhat crude tagged on explanation of the meaning of the parable given to the disciples. Many scholars argue that this explanation reflects the interpretation that the story gained in the early days of the church. For me the best stories are those that, like people, resist easy explanation. The explanation given tends to emphasise the seed that does not reach full harvest and the different ground it falls on. We become tempted, in this telling, to identify ourselves, or others with inhabiting a particular ground – well-trodden or rocky or thorny. One way to restore the surprise to the story is to remember that the first agrarian hearers of the story would have been astonished at the profligate practice of the farmer, throwing his seed around, willy-nilly. Any good subsistence farmer would have been much more careful than that, and ensured that the seed landed in good soil. And so the parable, on that telling, becomes also about the mysterious activity of God’s grace, dispersing seed in all directions, rather than through careful planting. God’s purposes of an abundant harvest are achieved through waste and destruction and indiscriminate sowing, so that the good soil might be also be seeded. That’s a surprising and very different way of imagining the activity of God in our lives and world.

I find that a more helpful way to understand the parable as, like Jacob, I know that within all of us is both dark and light; we all have within us a mixture of rocky, well trodden, thorny and fruitful ground. Our more honest stories reflect that. Maturity of faith and life comes when that ambiguity is admitted – when we move beyond painting ourselves, and others, as all good or all bad; when we admit the truth that we and others are more complicated than that, but that God’s abundant grace keeps being given out in expectation that the harvest will come.

Who are you? Who are we? As we navigate our way out of this time of crisis and re-evaluation, who are we called to become, where within us and between us might the seed be growing, waiting to be harvested? We will discover that as we tell our stories, stories of rivalry and intertwining, and as we recognise our need for each other, as we recognise God’s abundant grace at work in ourselves and each other. Amen.

 

Questions to consider

How are stories a unique way to understand ourselves and others?

Who do you sympathise and identify with in the story of Jacob and Esau?

In what ways do you find the categories of ground identified by Jesus in the parable of the sower – trodden down, rocky, thorny and good – helpful?

What does the action of the sower, and by extension, God, in distributing seed in such a liberal and indiscriminate fashion, suggest to you about the activity of God in the world?

Pentecost 3 – Sermon preached online by John Conway, Provost – 21st June 2020

Genesis 21.8-21; Matthew 10.24-39

On the face of it, our first reading this morning is a troubling story. It is the story of Hagar and her young son Ishmael being cast out into the wilderness, cast out following a fit of jealousy on the part of Sarah and Abraham, as they protect Abraham’s other son Isaac and his inheritance. Hagar and Ishmael are forced out to wander in the wilderness, there to come close to death, before finding, even in the desert, with God’s prompting, a well of water from which they are replenished, and so wander out of the pages of our bible. The troubling aspects of the story only increase as we examine the background, the preceding chapters of Genesis which have laid out this story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar.

The story begins with God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants, more in number than the stars, will fill the earth and bless it. That promise appears frustrated as Sarah and Abraham remain childless, until they have the idea to ‘use’ Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, as a surrogate mother. It’s a suggestion that initially at least Abraham appears to have little difficulty with, but in the course of time perhaps unsurprisingly it ends in mutual recrimination, as the now pregnant Hagar is cast out for the first time. Prompted by God she returns to the household, and ‘submits’ to Sarah, even as Ishmael is then born to her. To Sarah’s astonishment – she had laughed at the prospect – the seemingly impossible happens and Sarah herself becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. And so we reach this morning’s story; when at a great feast to celebrate Isaac’s weaning, his older half-brother Ishmael is spotted playing with him, and Sarah and Abraham respond to the blessing of this child by turfing out the potential rival, banishing Hagar and her son Ishmael. This story of the blessing of all the families of the earth through the progeny of Abraham starts unpromisingly.

And that matters, of course. For this is the story of Abraham – the father of faith. And yet it’s a pattern we have seen before: the blessing of the Garden of Eden is soon disturbed and Adam and Eve find themselves cast out; that first family finds itself undone by jealousy as Cain turns on, and murders, his brother, Abel. The Hebrew Scriptures are very clear eyed in their depiction of the jealousies and rivalries that threaten to undo the blessing of God that they also attest to. That is what makes this story troubling: Abraham and Sarah’s blessing – both the covenant that promises to bless the earth through them and their descendants, and the concrete blessing of this child, Isaac, given to them even in old age – Abraham and Sarah’s blessing does not unleash generosity of heart and action, but a casting out of the one who, they think, is no longer needed for this story, is indeed a potential rival. Hagar is superfluous. Nevermind that the story was supposed to be one of blessing, blessing for all people, the whole earth.

We are often not as clear-eyed as scripture about these things. We don’t always recognise the same jealousies and protectiveness in ourselves, or in the church, the proclaimer of God’s blessing. Any self-examination however, and any prolonged experience of the church, that community of flawed human beings like you and me, quickly disabuses us of the notion that living in an awareness of God’s blessing prevents us from selling that blessing short. It’s a pattern played out all too often in the name of religion – the blessing of God is narrowed, and becomes a possession for me and mine; the outsider and the other is superfluous to the blessing, their wellbeing and blessing somehow not part of the gift. We recognize ourselves in this account of Abraham and Sarah.

What redeems the story is its recognition that God is not limited to such behaviour. Abraham may be the centre of this story, the primary recipient and means of blessing, but his failures to see a different future for Hagar and Ishmael, do not determine their fate. The story recognises that God is bigger than that, that God’s promised blessing is faithful, and Hagar not forgotten. She may wander out of the pages of Genesis, but the hint is there that God does not desert her: ‘I will make a nation of him also’, says God before providing the well in the desert to replenish and renew.  Muslims trace their religious ancestry back through Ishmael and Hagar to Abraham. Hagar is the mother of the Islamic faith – the well in the desert where she finds water is traditionally thought to still spring in the desert, a short distance from the Kaaba at Mecca. When Muslims perform the Haj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, many will journey between the Kaaba and the well to replicate Hagar and Ishmael’s search for water. To drink from the well is to re-find blessing.

So our first reading explores the gap between God’s promised blessing, and our en-action and reaction to such blessing; it suggests too that God is always bigger than we had imagined, always at work to enlarge our flawed living out of the blessing.

Here at St Mary’s Cathedral this week we are busy planning the re-opening of our building for prayer as lockdown begin to ease. It’s proving quite an effort – to make sure we can do that safely. Ordering the hand sanitiser, finding volunteers to staff the rota, setting up the building for social distancing as well as prayer. But we do that because this building is one of the ways we seek to bless our city. Just as its doors were shut back in March, not out of fear, but out of love; so now the effort is important, is one expression of the blessing of God that we want to proclaim and deepen. Every church has it’s own ways of seeking to be a blessing, an expression of that gift of God given to each in the gift of life together.

‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ That is the dynamic of the gospel, words which end Jesus’ challenging speech to the disciples we heard in today’s gospel. Those words suggest that to be a blessing is not straightforward, and that it’s certainly not about hugging the blessing to ourselves.

Jesus has two fundamental messages to the disciples which underpin that insight that to gain life is about letting go. The first is the exhortation to the disciples: Do not be afraid; a exhortation found again and again in the gospels. Fear is what makes us hold the blessing tight to ourselves – fear of the potential rival, fear of the other. And second, the mission to widen the blessing is not easy – it may even bring us into conflict. Those hard words of Jesus, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,” are not easy to hear. They only make sense, it seems to me, in a world where family loyalty is everything; where the protection of me and mine is the over-riding loyalty. That is the loyalty which caused Sarah and Abraham to drive Hagar out. Family bonds, the bonds we share with those we love, or are familiar, or are like us, those bonds are important and a blessing, of course, but they can become oppressive of the outsider, and a limiter of the blessing. Jesus words are an exhortation to widen the circle of blessing, to include more than we would naturally, instinctively. And that is the task as we move out of lockdown. How might we live out, and offer that blessing, given to us so that all might be blessed? A blessing that we discover as we share it.

The doors of this Cathedral will, we hope, be once again thrown open this week – not just for our sake but to be a place of refuge, of transformation, of prayer, of community, of blessing for all. Amen.

Pentecost 2 – sermon preached online by Andy Philip, Chaplain – 14th June 2020

Where do we go from here? I imagine that this question was on the lips of all 12 apostles as Jesus sent them out. To judge by the Gospels, he doesn’t seem to have detailed them to go to certain towns and villages but instead to have trusted their judgment and nous.

Where do we go from here? I expect this question is also on most of our minds as we trace the implications of the gradual, tentative steps out of lockdown in Scotland, as we try to envisage what life will be like, what work will be like, what school will be like, what church will be like in whatever the new normal is like. I also expect it comes to mind as we follow the footage of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, the UK and elsewhere, as we reflect on the experience of the black and minority ethnic communities in our society and on how we respond as individuals and as a community of faith.

Last week, we heard Jesus’ Great Commission. The Provost spoke of it as an invitation to participate in the divine life, creating room for all people, all creation, to breathe deeply that life, to breathe in concert with the Holy Trinity, the God who is love.

This week, we once again hear of Jesus sending out his disciples. We jump back in the story to before the crucifixion and resurrection, a jump cut in the lectionary that reminds us there is a line of continuity in Jesus’ sending. Sending out isn’t something Christ keeps back for after the resurrection; it’s part of the story the whole way through, for Jesus sends out his disciples in imitation and extension of his own mission, his own sending by God the Father.

It is not enough to wait for others and welcome them into our walls, even though hospitality is a fundamental kingdom value. Like Abraham, we can and do encounter God as we welcome the stranger to our space. But we are called to break out of that space. Like the disciples, we are summoned and sent in imitation of the one who sends us, the one who is himself sent and who, through the Holy Spirit, perpetually sends himself to enable us to go just as he went.

So where do we go from here? Where are we sent to? Matthew tells us what moved Jesus to send out his disciples:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (9:36)

They were harassed and helpless. It’s quite vivid, but I was taken aback to read in one commentary that the Greek words we translate as ‘harassed and helpless’ mean ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’.

I was taken aback because I can’t hear ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’ without thinking of George Floyd with the policeman’s knee on his neck. Or, indeed, without thinking of Sheku Bayoh who died in Kirkcaldy five years ago in disturbingly similar circumstances, and who shares with George Floyd his last words: ‘I can’t breathe.’

And I was taken aback because none of the other English translations I have to hand convey the violence of that image: ‘weary and helpless’, ‘bewildered and dejected’, ‘confused and aimless’, ‘bewildered and miserable’.  None of them says, ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’. William Lorimer’s Scots translation, however, comes close when it speaks of the crowds as ‘sair dung and forfachelt’ — ‘struck down and exhausted’.

Jesus sends us out to those who are ‘sair dung and forfachelt’, those who are ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’. He sends us out to

‘proclaim the good news […] Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.’ (10:7–8)

That is, to bring wholeness, to create room for the oppressed to breathe.

To bring that wholeness, we are given authority to cast out demons. It’s the first thing Jesus gives the disciples authority to do in this passage and it’s the last thing in the list of his instructions on the essence of their task, so it brackets or bookends the way he lays out the mission.

I imagine that many of us are not the most comfortable with talk of casting out demons. Don’t worry: I’m not about to propose that we all run around commanding unclean spirits to leave unsuspecting neighbours and strangers. Instead, I invite you for the moment to think of demons as defining evils of this age, evils that shape the way we live and influence our conscious or unconscious thoughts, our attitudes and actions.  And I invite you think of casting out demons as confronting those evils.

Think about the events of past few weeks in those terms and it’s clear that they have thrown the spotlight on one such demon among many — the evil of systemic racism — generating headlines dominated by attempts to confront it.

Now, I’m aware that there are dangers in the direction I’m going here, not least of which is the danger of falling into some kind of saviour complex. Here comes the church to set everything to right by confronting racism! That simply won’t do. It simply won’t wash because we, too, have been complicit in the system that perpetuates racism and have failed to confront it in our own house. For instance, I read this morning that the Church of England owned slaves. I read this week of a black ordinand down south who was rejected by one possible curacy church this year partly on the basis of his race.

If we are to cast out the demon of racism from our society, we first need to cast it out of ourselves, as individuals, as a community, as a church. Those of us who are white — the overwhelming majority of Cathedral members — need to take a good, hard, long, prayerful look at ourselves and to put ourselves under the judgment and tutelage of our black and minority ethnic brothers, sisters and neighbours in order to pinpoint the ways, the often subtle ways, in which the disease of racism has infected us. We need, in a word, to listen.

That will doubtless be hard and unsettling work, as I’m sure casting out demons was for the disciples. It is often unsettling when the Spirit is at work, not least because the insights that work produces might come from unexpected quarters and lead us in unexpected directions.

I was asked this week by a young person, ‘Why is Jesus white?’ There’s a straightforward answer to that: he wasn’t, and he isn’t shown that way in all traditions, but white European Christians made white European images of him and then imposed them in places they colonised. They made an idol of a white Jesus. But the question made me think afresh about the images of Christ in our Cathedral and it struck me that, as far as I can recall, they are all images of a white, European Jesus. Here, then, is one of those subtle ways that racism has influenced our own community. Here is that demon hanging around in our own sanctuary.

How do we go about casting it out? How do we go about toppling that idol? Awareness of the issue is the first step, but only the first. As a community, we need to reflect on what response that understanding demands of us. Perhaps there are other things in our past and our present that we will also need to uncover, own and cast out. But we should take heart, because Jesus has given us the authority to do so and it is his Spirit of freedom that will create the room to breathe.

Where do we go from here? This question faces us every day and it faces the church in every age. But wherever we go from here, we go with the Spirit and we go in Christ’s name and in his resurrection power. May we, like the apostles, be among those who bring freedom, justice, change, room to breathe.

 

Questions for Reflection:

In the Cathedral, we are good at welcoming people into our space. What might it mean for us to break out of that space and go to others?

How do you react to the description of the crowds as ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’?

What we work do you/we need to do to address systemic racism and other injustices in our society?

‘It is often unsettling when the Spirit is at work.’ How has the Holy Spirit been working in you during the lockdown? Has that shifted in this period of unrest and protest?

Trinity Sunday – sermon preached online by John Conway, Provost – 7th June 2020

Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-31; Psalm 8; Matthew 28.16-20

In the name of God, Creating, Redeeming and Transforming. Amen.

I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

Those are words that might possibly come to define these months that we are living through. I can’t breathe. First Covid19, attacking people’s ability to breathe. And seeming to target the vulnerable – the elderly, particularly those in care homes; those with underlying health conditions; those in black, asian and minority ethnic communities. And the death toll in those communities particularly stark amongst those who have responded most selflessly to the pandemic – those essential workers we have begun to appreciate with new eyes: carers, transport workers, those in the NHS. Covid19 has attacked that most fragile, basic and necessary aspect of being human – our breathing. And in the wider lockdown that all of us have experienced – for how many of us has that been an increasingly suffocating experience, as we have felt choked by the need to stay indoors, not able to physically meet with family and friends; unable to escape situations of abuse, or trapped by the suffocating anxiety of an uncertain future, of financial pressures and worries. I can’t breathe.

And, of course, this last week, those words have resonated across America and beyond. The dying words of a man being suffocated to his death; the police whose job it is to protect and save lives, now becoming, as all too frequently before, the administrants of death to a black man. I can’t breathe. Is it any wonder that those words have been picked up and shouted at demonstrations across America, succintly expressing both the particular brutality experienced by George Floyd, but also the wider sense of frustration and rage at a system, a political order, a society, which suffocates the life from black communities and people? I can’t breathe.

Breath is the most basic, and taken for granted, aspect of being human. To live is to breathe, and to breathe is to live. For that reason religions have always brought our breathing to mind, to consciousness: whether that is in basic breathing techniques for meditation and prayer, or as a sign of the life given to us by God – the breath breathed into the dust of the earth to create life; or as an analogy for the divine life within us – the Spirit and breath of God. To live is to breathe; to live in faith is to recognise that breath as a sign of the living Spirit within us and all life. ‘I can’t breathe’ expresses a radical challenge to that which is most sacred and most basic. We are suffocating, and we need the breath of God to blow through us like never before.

Words from our Old Testament reading this morning:

Why do you say, OJacob, and speak, OIsrael, ‘My way is hidden from theLord, and my right is disregarded by my God’? Have you not known? Have you notheard? TheLordis the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of theearth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and beweary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for theLordshall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

In a world seemingly suffocating and fainting, what has faith to offer; how might we bring breath to mind and sense?

Our breath connects our spirit to God’s Spirit – it is neither solely one, or the other; our breath is an analogy of our participation in the divine. We breathe because God breathes in us. And it is that participation in the action and life of the divine that the Trinity tries to name and shape. On this Trinity Sunday we celebrate and deepen our trust in God who is creative power, saving love, transforming freedom. The mystery that is God is named by the Trinity as beyond, with, and within us; as above all, through all and in all; the Trinity points to a God from whom, by whom and in whom all things exist, struggle toward freedom and in that freedom find their true home and end.

The Trinity is therefore a dynamic image – an image of a personal God, but not of three persons sat around in some sort of heavenly conference. It is a dynamic image because it speaks of God in terms of movement and relationship, continually reaching out and receiving back. Giving life to all things. To attend to breath is to attend to that gift of life within us, and within every living creature; it is to attend to the mystery that we exist and to trust in that which has given us life, to trust our creator.

But God does not simply create the world and sit back to admire the handiwork, but in the Word, the Logos, through whom all things are created, God enters creation, becomes involved, and is encountered here. At the heart of creation lies the mystery of a man so open to the claims and possibilities of love, so fully alive to the breath of God within him, that that engagement of God in love shines out. The human Jesus of Nazareth confronts the dominating power of evil and death. The relationship of love between Creator and Word is, in that confrontation, stretched to breaking point, as Christ journeys into the horror of the power that, on the cross, snuffs out the breath of life. But from that horror, new life is offered. The Risen Christ breathes new life into broken disciples, giving them the faith to live no longer in the fear of death and the power of domination, but to trust in the power of the saving love of God. And we too breathe in that faith, the faith to protest against a world that suffocates, and create a world where all might breathe.

Faith witnesses to that Spirit within us – transforming our broken lives, our unjust structures and desire to dominate; transforming us in and for God, a transformation achieved by the gift in love of freedom. We are not coerced, dominated by an all powerful God into transformation – rather in the Spirit, in the gift of breath and life, we are gifted our true selves, the promise and possibility of true humanity. We and all creation are invited through the Spirit to participate in the divine communal life of the Trinity. In prophetic action, in the searching after justice and peace, in generous lives of love, in the glory of what humans and our whole earth and cosmos are capable of, the mystery of the Spirit is revealed and creation is turned toward its maker.

Jesus said to them, ” Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Breathe. It all starts with breath – attending to our own and that of all creation, to the breath of God. Attending, nurturing and not destroying breath, to the ends of the earth. That is why we will fight the pandemic with all the reources we have available – so that all may breathe. Why we must use this moment of fracture to reset and re-imagine – so that all may breathe. Why black lives matter – for the Spirit gives life that all may breathe. We are not made for suffocation, but for breathing, breathing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

 

 

Questions to consider:

How does/might the discipline of attending to your breathing play a role in your own spirituality and practise?

How does the Trinity help you think of/speak about/pray to God?

One of the things that the Trinity does is help us focus on what God does (create/redeem/transform) and on the relationships between the persons of the Trinity (God the Father begets the Son; the Son is inspired by the Spirit; the Father breathes the Spirit into all creation; the Son intercedes to the Father for all creation etc). What changes in how we think of /speak about/pray to God, when we imagine God  as a verb, rather than a noun – a (transcendent/immanent) agent, rather than a thing?

What does it mean to say that our vocation (as human beings, and as part of all creation) is to participate in the life of God?

Easter 7/Ascension Sunday – sermon preached online by John Conway, Provost – May 24th 2020

Acts 1.6-14; 1Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11; John 17.1-11

Jesus said: ‘This is eternal life, that all people may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’

This has been an Easter season like no other. There is no need to rehearse the reasons for that – we are still living in the midst of that strangeness. But this Easter season, we have been proclaiming the resurrection of Christ in the midst of much uncertainty, fear, turmoil, and change. That has been a challenge certainly – not least having to do all that in online worship, but it has brought to the proclamation of life in the midst of death, a vitality and a fresh urgency.

And now, as we collectively, I sense, grow increasingly bored and frustrated at lockdown, and long for its easing, we celebrate the Ascension of Christ.

And that too is not inappropriate, for the Ascension is a moment of transition: for the first disciples it marks the transition from the intimacy, the life-changing richness of the first resurrection appearances, through the sudden absence of that bodily presence of the Risen Christ, as Christ is taken up into heaven; through to the proclamation, in the power of the Spirit given at Pentecost, that Christ is everywhere, abiding with us, and us in him, until the end of time. Ascension is a hinge point, a turning point for the disciples, and therefore for us; it’s the moment when the gift of the resurrection, given to us at Easter to turn us each around, now becomes our responsbility, our story, the way we walk in. In Luke’s telling of the Christ event, the Ascension marks both the end of his Gospel – it is the climax of the resurrection appearances, and it marks the start of his telling of the Acts of the Apostles, the living out of resurrection life by the early church.

George MacLeod, one of the founders of the Iona Community used to retell an old legend about the return of Jesus to heaven after his ascension. It is said that the angel Gabriel met him at the gates of the city. ‘Lord, this is a great salvation that thou hast wrought,’ said the angel. But the Lord Jesus only said, ‘Yes’. ‘What plans hast thou made for carrying on the work? How are all to know what thou hast done?’ asked Gabriel. ‘I left Peter and James and John and Martha and Mary to tell their friends, their friends to tell their friends, till all the world should know.’ ‘But Lord Jesus,’ said Gabriel, ‘suppose Peter is too busy with the nets, or Martha with the housework, or the friends they tell are too occupied, and forget to tell their friends  – what then?’ The Lord Jesus did not answer at once; then he said in his quiet wonderful voice: ‘I have not made any other plans. I am counting on them.’

The Ascension is both our celebration of the culmination of Christ’s redeeming work, his carrying into heaven the fullness of our wounded, redeemed humanity; and the moment when that work becomes our work, in all our fragility and frailness. For Christ’s kingship that we proclaim, is not the kingship of a potentate lording it over his subjects, but the kingship of inspiration, of loving service, of handing over to Peter, James, John, Martha, Mary, you, me, the work of reconciling all creation in the power of the resurrection.

We are at something of a hinge point in our response to the coronavirus too. We are looking toward slowly coming out of lockdown. That lockdown has been a time of unexpected gifts, of discovery and even in some things delight. But it has been a time of enormous suffering too. I’m not sure that our reading from 1Peter this morning was a direct inspiration to the UK Government’s new, slightly muddled, public messaging, but it too counsels, keep alert! The famous image that follows certainly didn’t figure in Government advice – like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 1Peter is written in a very different context, but it makes clear that suffering is not something that the resurrection removes, protects Christ’s disciples from. Rather, resurrection faith provides the courage, the strength to persist and resist, and beyond that, the desire to wrestle meaning and possibility from the suffering. ‘Resist him, steadfast in your faith,’ writes Peter, ‘for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.’

The power of death is all too real – the grief and agony we have witnessed and known is testament to that. All of us I’m sure, have seen or heard or imagined something of that grief, experienced the ripples of it, even as waves of grief and pain hit others. We know something of its force, and we cannot deny it. But we can refuse to give it dominion. For the heart of our gospel is that beyond, encompassing, redeeming crucifixion is resurrection – the power of life. And this is eternal life, says Jesus in today’s Gospel – this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

It is that life, that desire to connect and create, to cherish and serve, that we have also seen in evidence throughout this pandemic. That response, to meet grief with love, and to celebrate such love, is testament to the power of life: this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. Jesus Christ, whose rising from the dead is the gift, the sign, the enactment of that power of life over death.

The early disciples responded to the sudden absence of the risen Christ, to his ascension, in prayer and a waiting on the Spirit. They had no idea where their faith would take them. And neither do we as lockdown eases and we enter a new landscape. But we wait in faith, renewed by the glory of the resurrection.  For to participate in that glory is to participate in the power of being fully alive, and not in thrall to death. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, says Jesus; and I have been glorified in them. Amen.

 

Some questions for pondering:

How do we make sense of the absence that is at the heart of the Ascension story? Does it help us talk about, and pray with, a sense of the way that Jesus is both with us now, and not with us?

What might the words, addressed to disciples who are staring up into heaven after the departing Jesus, mean: ‘Why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’?

How do you react to Peter’s thoughts on suffering? Is he talking about suffering in general, or particular kinds of suffering? How does his advice on responding to that suffering (‘rejoice, be humble, cast your anxiety on God, discipline yourself, keep alert, resist’) connect with your own experience?

Easter 6 – Sermon preached online by Revd Professor Paul Foster – 17th May 2020

Acts 17:22-31; 1Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21

Mission is a central activity to which all Christian believers are called. In his final words in the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus instructs the eleven apostles to make disciples of all nations, to baptise such people in the threefold name, and to help them to follow the teachings of Jesus. Discipleship, baptism and instruction are thus presented as the three core activities of Christian mission – which itself is the central and final task that Jesus left for believers to carry out. And yet mission often has a bad name. Too often mission is associated with a cheap conversionist agenda where people are not respected as people, but are rather seen as a mere tally or notches on the ego of some flashy evangelist. Big tent mission, tele-evangelism, and promises of miracles have engender scepticism in wider society. This is fully understandable. Such activities often seem to suggest that the so-called unsaved are being treated as little more than a commodity, or conversion-fodder to be moved from the debit column of the damned to the credit column of the converted. Yet despite all these negative images we cannot avoid the words of the risen Jesus that we are commanded to make disciples of all nations. But the question remains, how do we as disciples of Jesus carry out that task with integrity and without becoming some parody of the worst kind of miracle-promising tele-evangelist who only required you to send all your money to the address on the screen!

Among the writings of the New Testament, the Book of Acts is one of the most exciting to read. It documents the early and rapid expansion of Christianity, it tells of the activities of several of the apostles presumably carrying out the words of the risen Jesus, and it is written in the belief that the Holy Spirit is at work within the early believing community. Our reading joins the text during what is known as Paul’s second missionary journey. In chapter sixteen Paul had left modern day Turkey and crossed over into northern Greece having been directed to do so in a dream. In chapter seventeen, from which our reading is taken, first Paul visits Thessalonica in northern Greece. He enjoys some success in the city, but is chased away by an angry mob who declare ‘these men who have upset the world have come here also.’ Next he journeys south to Berea, where again there is a positive response to his proclamation of the gospel. However, upon hearing of this, his opponents from Thessalonica travel south to agitate a crowd in that city also. The new believers send Paul away further south by boat, and he arrives in Athens waiting for the rest of his companions who are travelling overland to join him.

I wonder how many of you have visited Athens. I was there a couple of years ago during a wonderfully hot summer, enjoying great coffee and delicious delicacies of filo pastry filled with feta cheese and spinach! However, the food is perhaps not my most enduring memory. Although certainly no longer in its original splendour the Agora, the Acropolis and the monumental remains of the ancient city have to be seen first-hand in order to truly appreciate their scale and their magnificence. It was in this city that Paul arrived around the middle of the first century – some time after the political dominance of Greece had ceased, but with its architectural marvels presumably far closer to their original grandeur than now. We are told, however, that what struck Paul was not the huge architecture, but seeing so many idols. For somebody like Paul, raised as a Torah-observant Jew, this was not only a breach of the second commandment, but it characterised the enslavement of Gentile people to gods of their own making. As could happen in ancient Athens, we are told that Paul encountered some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who took him to the Areopagus – a prominent rocky outcrop northwest of the Acropolis. In classical times the Areopagus functioned as meeting place for court hearings, and it appears that by Paul’s day philosophers met there to debate new ideas. Thus, before the great minds of the intellectual centre of the ancient world, Paul proclaimed the Christian message, that is he engaged in mission.

I am struck by the fact that his message is characterised by meeting his interlocutors on their own ground – literally and intellectually. Rather than berate them for all the idols, he compliments them. He says to this group of philosophers that he observes then to be very religious, and then he mentions an altar he saw that had an inscription ‘to an unknown god.’ Many have thought that such an altar was an example the ultimate future-proofing celestial insurance policy ensure that even an unknown god received due deference. However, for Paul, it signified a deep if ultimately misguided piety. Nonetheless, he makes this altar and the inscription on it his starting point for mission. He sees in the Athenians a very genuine spiritual desire, and for a second time he draws upon their own cultural encyclopaedia referring to the insights of Greek poets who acknowledge that all humans ‘live and move and have their being’ in God, and that all people are ‘children of God.’ Paul’s logic is that if we are like God, then in at least one aspect God must be like humans – a living being, rather than one fashioned from ‘gold or silver or stone.’ Having made this point that God is a living God, he tells the Athenians about the God who welcomes those who repent and makes himself known through Jesus whom he raised from the dead. It is unfortunate that we do not get the last three verses of the chapter. There the narrator continues by teling us of a divided response. He states when the philosophers heard mention of the resurrection some sneered, but others desired to hear from Paul again.

So what are we to make of Paul’s engagement in Christian mission in Athens? It is a story that is markedly different from most of the others recorded in Acts. It is characterised by a notable attempt to engage people within their own culture and religious context. It is perhaps more ‘high-brow’ in its approach then several of the other acts of proclamation recorded in Acts, and unlike the stories of Paul’s activities in Thessalonica and Berea, he is not chased out of the city by an angry mob. However, it is by mentioning that core aspect of Christian belief, the resurrection of Jesus, that the message causes a fundamental division between hearers. Some scoff, while others wish to hear more.

For me this story perhaps raises some of the fundamental issues that partaking in Christian mission entails. How is it to be done with integrity, how can those being addressed be treated with respect, to what degree should the message accommodate the prevailing society, and what are the core aspects of belief that must always be presented for mission to be authentically Christian? This story has also occasioned debate about whether Paul’s decision to accommodate the Athenian culture was a success or a failure. Scholars note that only a few received his message among whom were Dionysius the Areopagite (that is an official of the Areopagus) and a women called Damaris. Yet, unlike Thessalonica the city he had just visited and Corinth the next city on his journey, no letters are known that Paul wrote to a stable and lasting community in Athens. So some consider the lesson of this story to be that accommodation to the cultural context dilutes the Christian message, and hence leads to failure in mission. I am not so sure. After all, it is the work of the Holy Spirit that leads people to believe and we are simply called to be faithful in following the instruction of Jesus to engage in mission.

So what can we learn from this story for our own life of mission in the cathedral. I hope you will not be disappointed if I cannot set out a five point plan for successful mission. If I were that good, then I would get my own tele-evangelism channel and a post office box to which you could send money. However, I believe we can learn from Paul’s approach in Athens. More than anything I see that what characterises his approach is that he is not trying to get something from people, but rather he strives to offer something to people. His mission is one of service. He makes himself available and he travels with the Epicurean and Stoic to the place where they are willing to hear him at the Areopagus. I see this as a model of journeying with and alongside people. Paul utilises the cultural context in which he finds himself drawing on the religious piety and upon shared cultural understandings of his hearers. In this way, Paul is willing to meet these people where they are, and also to genuinely learn from them. Yet for Paul the central elements of Christian faith must be shared for real mission to take place – a merciful God reaches out to people who are willing to repent and he argues that the hope of life and the victory of God over death are announced in the resurrection of Christ. As the people of God, Christians are resurrection people. We are transformed by the power of the resurrection, we have been transferred from death to life, and this is a gift that is to be shared. Mission is not about what we can get from people, it is not about a tally of converts. Rather, the hallmark of authentic mission is sharing and giving. As the people of Jesus, we humbly seek to share with others that risen life that has freely been bestowed on us. We strive to respect the full humanity that is in every person as we give from the very best of ourselves to all people in order that together we may be transformed into the fulness of the image of our maker in whom we live and move and have our being.

Was Paul’s attempt at mission in Athens a success or a failure? That is a question I leave for you to debate. The question I prefer to ask is whether Paul was faithful to his calling, and of course whether we are faithful to our calling. As followers of the risen Christ, we are called to share the wholeness of that resurrection life with others, and to meet people where they are. May we be given the wisdom to be sensitive and faithful in that calling and may all our mission activity be honouring to the one who calls us to proclaim his love, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to whom belongs all might, majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever. Amen.

 

Suggestions and questions for further thought and study.

  1. Read the book of Acts. It is one of the most exciting writings in the New Testament.
  2. Was Paul’s approach to mission in Athens effective?
  3. Did Paul’s presentation of the gospel in Athens involve too much accommodation with the prevailing culture, or should he have gone even further in this direction?
  4. What can we learn from this narrative that might inform the contemporary mission of the church?
  5. Are there any practical steps we can take in the cathedral in relation to proclaiming the gospel and serving the wider community that might emerge through considering Paul’s approach in Athens?

Easter 5 (Christian Aid Sunday) – sermon preached online by Andy Philip, Chaplain – 10th May 2020

(1 Peter 2.2-10; Psalm 31; John 14.1-14)

Like so many households right now, the Philip family are a bit scunnered with being stuck at home, for all that we grasp the urgent need to keep following the rules. As the country approaches its eighth week of lockdown with little prospect of any easing, we are all growing a bit more fractious with each other. Even the dog seems fed up: every time I go downstairs, he stares all the more hopefully at me than he would under normal circumstances, his eyes begging for a walk. And we feel like this despite the fact that we have a good-sized garden and so, unlike many others, are able to get outside without having to leave our home.
In the midst of this frustration, the talk of ‘dwelling places’ and ‘spiritual houses’ in today’s Gospel and Epistle might well not be the most welcome of imagery. Confined to barracks as we are, we might prefer to lie down in last week’s green pastures, thank you very much. Conversely, we might feel the readings connecting with where we’re at, especially when we read and hear them alongside the imagery of refuge and fortress in Psalm 31. Regardless of how we react, it’s worth spending a bit of time reflecting on how these images speak to us in our current circumstances.
This week’s passage from the Gospel of John comes from what Bible scholars refer to as the ‘farewell discourse’ — that is, Jesus’ last words to the disciples before he goes to the Cross. The farewell discourse is a familiar form in ancient literature. In it, an important person, who knows that their death is approaching, gathers their family or followers and tells them the things they particularly want them to remember when they are no longer with them. The point to bear in mind about this is that, by putting these words of Jesus into this pattern, the writer of the Gospel is highlighting them as especially significant, calling us to pay close attention.
It’s also significant that we, like the first audience for the Gospel, hear and read these words in the light of Easter, so they are more than your average farewell discourse. Although Rabbi Jesus is no longer here, the risen Christ is very much with us and these are also his living words to the community of the faithful — that is, to us.

They are, of course, deeply familiar words:
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?’
In these verses, Jesus reassures the disciples that he will be with them, and they with him, beyond death: ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.’ For each of us, our ultimate end is to dwell with God. There is a sense of something large and expansive here. It’s not being jammed in pokey wee flat with no green space or even tripping over one another in a decent-sized house. No, I think we’re meant to picture something like those Greco-Roman villas with courtyards and fountains. Something airy and fresh and cool in the midday heat.
These words of comfort and reassurance are given to people whose understanding of the world and whose place in it is about to be pulled violently out from under them and then just as abruptly rebuilt. That — or the first bit at least — is something we can all relate to, given the sudden changes that have restructured our way of life.
However, Jesus’ words are not only aimed at bringing comfort; they also invite, encourage, even challenge us to believe or, as some other translations (e.g., NIV) render it, to trust in Jesus. And he is to be trusted because he is ‘in the Father’ and the Father is in him (v 11). That is, he is one with God. He is so identified with God that to trust him is to trust God. Thus, as the full revelation of God — the truth — he is the one who brings renewal — the life — which makes him the way to where he is himself going: to the Father, our ultimate dwelling place (vv 6, 2).
This dwelling, however, is not solely about the afterlife. In the resurrection, Jesus has already come and taken us, our humanity, to be with the Father. Further on in this chapter, in verse 23, we hear that:
‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’
For us, scattered to our homes as we have been by the pandemic, there is something significant to hold on to here. It is not per se the fellowship or worship of the Cathedral that brings us to God. These are only vehicles, tools, signposts, more or less rough or detailed maps to bring us to Jesus, the Way. Therefore, the fact that we are unable to meet or worship together in the way we did before lockdown does not mean that we are any less able to come to God for God has already come to us.
As well as dwelling with God, we are the dwelling-place of God. We are the ‘living stones’ that are being ‘built into a spiritual house’ (1 Peter 2:5) along with Jesus, the living stone chosen by God (v 4).
Our call to make a home in God is, however, not a call to be quarantined with Jesus from the infection of the sinful world. The spiritual house is more of a mission base, a launch pad, than a sanatorium or hideaway. Action is demanded of us. As a ‘holy priesthood’ we are to ‘offer spiritual sacrifices’ and ‘proclaim’ God’s acts (1 Peter 2:5, 9), not to keep silent and hidden away. This is a matter of lifestyle. Jesus tells us in the Gospel to ‘do the works that I do’ (John 14:12) — that is, to bring the mercy, healing, freedom, justice and love of God to the world.
There is, of course, much that we can’t do in lockdown. But we can always find ways to love our neighbour. We can simply follow the rules and stay at home as much as possible. That’s one way. We can also help those around us if we are able, perhaps by volunteering to help with local responses. We can combat the feeling of isolation by keeping in touch digitally or on the phone.
In this Christian Aid week, we are also invited consciously to think about how we love our global neighbours, many of whom do not have houses where it is possible to self-isolate or access to the running water necessary to keep their hands free of the virus. We cannot do what we would normally do this week to raise money, but we can still donate to Christian Aid online. We can also still campaign — write to our Government about issues of global justice, environmental justice and trade justice. We can, we do, we must also heed Jesus’ call to pray, confident that an end to injustice and suffering is God’s heart for the world. If we can bring that about, even from our front rooms — especially from our front rooms — it will indeed be a greater work than those Jesus performed (John 14:12).

Easter 2 – sermon preached online by John Conway, Provost – 19th April 2020

Acts 2.14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-31

There is an immediate and strong connection, I suspect for all of us with today’s Gospel reading, where the risen Jesus appears to the disciples huddled together in fear behind locked doors. For our own current predicament is that we are huddled, as we are enjoined to do, behind closed doors, and the fear is all too real. Many of us wish that we could open the doors, step out into the light, re-connect with the world outside. And yet, behind closed doors, the Risen Christ comes with the blessing of peace: ‘Peace be with you.’

That presence of the Risen Christ, that gift of peace, may feel all the more urgent in our current crisis. The first thing to notice about our Gospel reading, however, is that, in the disciples’ consternation and fear, Christ is nevertheless recognised by the marks of crucifixion, the wounds of suffering borne, for him, in his hands and his side. His resurrection presence is not despite the suffering, but through it, a reminder of his bearing of it. Whatever that presence of the Risen Christ might mean for us, it will not be despite the current pandemic, the cruel and heartless loss of life, the particular suffering of the vulnerable. Just as Christ bears the marks of his suffering, just as they are now part of his story, his being, so we too are marked, if we have journeyed alongside him and our neighbours, with the scars of our current testing. Christ’s wounds are now part of his identity, so that this is unmistakably him, speaking words of peace. And for us too, the wounds of this crisis run deep – personal wounds as people we know and love are affected; societal wounds as our economy falters and threatens to unravel; fear stalks us – this testing time marks us, forms part of the story that we will tell of who we are. And in that context, what does it mean to meet the wounded and Risen Christ, speaking words of peace?

Famously, our Gospel reading goes on to help us answer that question by offering us the figure of Thomas, who misses out on that first meeting with Christ; who refuses simply to take the other disciples’ word for it; who insists that he needs to see proof that Jesus’ suffering, suffering that he is all too familiar with, is not the end. ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe’, says Thomas.

I suspect that Thomas is a secret favourite of many of us, because how many of us have not doubted, or wanted visible proof that there is resurrection, that the promises declared with such joy and vigour on Easter Sunday are not empty, that life and light do reign, even, especially, in our current crisis and testing. Thomas’ scepticism is familiar and comforting, because it is ours. Thomas speaks for all those countless disciples of Christ, who like us, are not present in that upper room at the first resurrection appearances, but yet are called to believe.

So is doubt the right way to describe Thomas’ reaction? He doesn’t actually doubt resurrection (he had after all, we are earlier told, been present at the raising of Lazarus). It is the resurrection of this man, the one who had been crucified – the vilest, most degrading death imaginable – that he doubts. The nails were driven in precisely to humiliate and place beyond the pale, this man. Can that man, wounded deep in body and spirit, have been raised? It is because he knows the suffering, the depth of the humiliation, that Thomas struggles to accept another reality alongside that one. Is Christ risen in our current unprecedented predicament?

When Jesus comes again, the doors are still shut. The disciples, despite the earlier appearance and presence of Christ, his blessing of peace, haven’t yet reached the point of living without fear. Thomas, with his questions and doubts and scepticism is very much still part of this group. Jesus comes again, once again speaking peace. But this time Thomas is there, and is addressed: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’

We are not told how Thomas responds to this invitation. Does he put his fingers here and his hand in Jesus’ side? What do you imagine? Perhaps he did, or perhaps the suffering is all too real and he doesn’t need to be reminded, to feel it sharply once again. Maybe the point is that in the moment of seeing he realises his earlier request to see is not needed. He does not need to touch and look and so convince himself. He simply exclaims, ‘My Lord and my God.’ He is moved from scepticism to faith, from doubt to exclamation. His earlier demand to see and touch are revealed to not be necessary to believing. Thomas’ exclamation of faith is equivalent to that of the centurion in Mark’s gospel, who upon witnessing the crucifixion up close, nevertheless delares, ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’ Both see and feel the suffering and yet, in a moment, overcome it. Suffering is not denied, wiped away, but also, in these declarations and acts of faith, transcended. ‘My Lord and my God’ – this is Thomas’ moment of receiving the Holy Spirit, as the other disciples have done previously: it is the declaration that begins the process of heart and mind being shaped by this suffering, risen life – the eternal life of God present in the Risen Christ.

One of the things I have taken up during this time of enforced enclosure is an invitation from my youngest daughter to join her in using some of our daily exercise time, to follow an NHS programme to get us all a little fitter: the Couch to 5k, as it’s known. It’s an app on your phone that steadily gets you from walking with the occasional jog, to running for longer and longer, toward the goal, after 9 weeks, of a 5km run in 30 minutes. From couch to 5k. As my occasional exercise routine had been almost completely lost since I took up the post of Provost, it seemed a good oppportunity to get a little fitter. You are much helped in the escalating challenge by the presence of a coach, who via the app, interjects with encouragement, small pieces of advice, and, most importantly, tells you when the time is up. This week the challenge stepped up a gear, but remember, my coach informed me, ‘I’m with you every step of the way.’ ‘Yeah, right’, said my sceptical daughter, ‘she wouldn’t know if I fell over.’ She’s right I thought, and yet, particularly as I struggled through the last minute or so of unwanted jogging, and my trainer’s words encouraged me that I could do it, that trainer was, for me, very gratefully present. There was certainly a need for a suspension of disbelief,  a willingness to accept the scenario the app offered of the trainer present alongside me. But that suspension of disbelief was both helped by knowing that the trainer had indeed walked and run this journey before me; and by the fact that the trainer’s presence visibly enabled me to keep going, to achieve what I had thought, maybe not impossible, but unlikely. With a willing suspension of disbelief, my trainer was indeed manifestedly present.

Now I am wary of pushing this analogy too far! But as Jesus says to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ The move into faith is about finding our scepticism overcome not by answers or proofs (there are none), but by finding that the eternal, transcendent, life of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit catches us up, that the surprise of resurrection joy that the Gospels attest to, that the church is a living witness to, is ours too, and that it enables us better to respond to, live within, the suffering and the testing. The presence of the wounded and risen Christ becomes real, in the power of the Spirit, and on him we lean, and feed, and journey on.

Without my daughter, her holding me to account, and me her, the Couch to 5k would have been much harder, if not impossible. Such companionship, a sense of the other going through this with me, is crucial also. We are not disciples alone, and particularly in this time of social distancing, we need to find ways to make that companionship evident. It is a companionship with each other, and Christians throughout time, nourished together by the Gospel witness to the presence of the Risen Christ, by the gift of peace renewed each week, encouraging and enabling lives of peace.

‘Peace be with you’ is the refrain that runs throughout our Gospel witness to the resurrection: peace is at the heart of resurrection life. But not peace simply for ourselves – it is rather an active commission. When we gather, we meet in Christ’s name, and then share his peace. The gift of peace offered helps overcome fear; our history and identities are accepted one by another in this practise of forgiveness; our suffering attested to be not the end. And so we are enabled into a life we thought, if not impossible, at least unlikely: the life of new creation, of resurrection life. Christ is Risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Maundy Thursday – Marion Chatterley, Vice Provost – 9th April 2020

The Gospel for Maundy Thursday is set within a context that, from the off, isn’t quite what the disciples might have anticipated.  They were gathered around the supper table, and rather than what may have been their customary practice, listening to Jesus teaching and exploring ideas, they find themselves being taught in a very different way.  By this stage in their time with Jesus they knew whohe was and they had learned to trust him.  They call him teacher and Lord – they’re actively looking to him for instruction and leadership, and that is what he gives them, but not in the way that they had expected.  He takes off his robe and ties a towel around himself and then he kneels at their feet and washes them.  It’s an act of service and humility, a teaching opportunity rooted in action rather than words; leadership by example.  It’s an act that would normally be replicated by the clergy team within our Cathedral this evening.  But, as we know, these are not normal times.

Some years ago, I was on the team in a church that had adopted a practice of Maundy Thursday hand washing for every member of the congregation.

Several wash stations were set up around the church and each person washed the hands of someone else.  It was a gesture of care and respect.  People would take the soap and gently lather up the hands of another person.  They would take the time to massage the palms and to make sure that each of the fingers had been washed.  Each person took at least the now mandatory 20 seconds to attend to the hands in front of them before they were carefully dried and reverenced.  Recent weeks have brought those scenes to mind as I’ve watched clips of people carefully and thoughtfully, almost prayerfully, washing their own hands.

Spending time touching the skin of someone with whom you are not normally intimate is an unusual thing to do.  We greet people with a hand shake or an air kiss (at least when we’re allowed to do so) and those are usually mutual and quite fleeting acts.  Quite different from an intentional focus on the skin of another, giving attention to the hands of someone we don’t know well.  Honouring their physical self as a way of showing them respect and honour.

We are being reminded on a daily basis that our hands are potentially the transmitters of infection into our bodies.  Our hands become dirty very quickly, whether or not we can see that dirt.  And in a dusty first century Palestine, that would also be true for feet.

Jesus knelt at the feet of the disciples, that part of them that was most in need of physical cleansing – and he modelled what it means to show love and care and respect.  There is, of course, a sub text here.  In showing what it means to offer hands-on cleansing, Jesus was pointing towards what it means to be offered spiritual cleansing.  In the same way that our hands and our feet are impossible to keep clean for any length of time, so it is impossible for us to keep our spiritual selves free from that which taints and marks us.  Our

Our whole selves need care and attention.  This evening’s reading is pushing us to be aware of ourselves as both physical and spiritual beings.  On Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of this Lenten season we were reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

Here, at the pivotal moment in Holy Week, we are being reminded that we are flesh and blood.  That our skin collects dust and responds to touch.  That our spiritual selves are housed within our corporal selves.

And on this night, at this service, we are particularly reminded that Jesus was also flesh and blood.  He was fully human and also had dusty feet and hands that needed to be cared for and could offer care.  On this night, at this service, we also remind ourselves of the events that took place at what we call the Last Supper, the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist.  Jesus shares bread with his disciples and says: this is my body.

In normal times, we would be inside the Cathedral at this point, and in a few minutes we would hear the priest speak those words and hold up the sacramental bread on our behalf as we bless and break and share.  The priest, having touched flesh in the washing of feet, now touches a different kind of flesh – the body of Jesus Christ which was given for each one of us.

This evening, we’re doing that a bit differently.  The priest will be in the Cathedral and we will be in our homes.  The bread will be held by each of us, the body touched by each of us.  We will bless and break and share.  We may not be physically together, but we are joined as the Body of Christ in this act of worship.  We have collectively become something that is more than the sum of its parts; something that allows us to make that connection between the physical and the spiritual between the tangible and the sacramental.

As we hold the bread which mirrors the sacramental bread in our Cathedral, let’s remind ourselves that it’s through our physical selves that we are able to engage with our spiritual selves.  In our hands, those hands that have demanded our attention over recent weeks we hold something absolutely ordinary that reminds us of something that is not ordinary, something that we set aside and make holy.

We are not able to gather together this evening, we’re not able to receive the Sacrament, we’re not able to wash feet or hands within our worshipping community.

But we are able to gather in prayer.  We can’t touch the flesh of those with whom we pray, but we can touch our own flesh, regard our own hands, and take care of those hands.  And at this time, we know that the best thing we can do for our sisters and brothers is to take care of our own hands – to continue to wash them in that respectful and prayerful way.  As we wash our hands – yet again – let’s try to remind ourselves that this is one way to serve our sisters and brothers.  This is the way of Jesus, to be like those who serve.

This is not the Maundy Thursday that we had anticipated but it’s the one we find ourselves living. In the midst of this unexpected situation Jesus models a way of responding that honours him and us and those we call our neighbours.

Lent 4 – Gospel and Sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 22nd March 2020

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral – a rather empty St Mary’s, shorn for the time being of the people that make it come alive. But still open, still a place of prayer, and contemplation, and faith, in these times of uncertainty, of anxiety and apprehension.

We hope, by next Sunday, to have developed the means properly to offer worship online from the Cathedral. That won’t be with full choir – an all singing affair – but we do hope it will help us all come together, reduce our isolation and our fear; gather us once again as the Body of Christ. Please do check our website at cathedral.net for details. For this Sunday, we have pointed you via our website towards the act of worship offered by our Primus, to the Scottish Episcopal Church as a whole. We hope you will find the ways to engage in that act of communion.

We wanted to also offer you something today, however, from within the Cathedral. To send you our love, assure you of our prayers, and display a little of the ways that we are working to find new creative patterns of gathering and worship in these testing times.

So today, I’ve enlisted the help of my family – my 3 daughters who’ve returned home – to offer a reading of this Sunday’s Gospel, and a short reflection from myself on that Gospel and our current context and crisis.

But first, the Collect for this Sunday. Let us pray.

Almighty God, through the waters of baptism your Son has made us children of light. May we ever walk in his light and show forth your glory in the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Gospeller: A reading from the Holy Gospel according to John, Chapter 9.

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

Jesus: Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

Gospeller: When Jesus had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him:

Jesus: Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.

Gospeller: Siloam means Sent. Then he went and washed and came back able to see.  The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying:

Man: I am the man.

Gospeller: But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’

Man: The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.

Gospeller: They said to him, ‘Where is he?’

Man: I do not know.

Gospeller: They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.

Man: He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.

Gospeller: Some of the Pharisees said: ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided.  So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.

Man: He is a prophet.

Gospeller: The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’

Gospeller: His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.  Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him: ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man, Jesus, is a sinner.’

Man: I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.

Gospeller: They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?

Man: I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?

Gospeller: Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’

Man: Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.

Gospeller: They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said:

Jesus: Do you believe in the Son of Man?

Man: And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.

Jesus: You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.

Man: Lord, I believe.

Gospeller: And he worshipped him.

Jesus: I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.

Gospeller: Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him: ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’

Jesus: If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

 

Gospeller: Give thanks to the Lord for his glorious Gospel.

All: Praise to Christ our Lord

 

That long reading, from St John’s Gospel, is the reading given for this Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent. At first hearing it’s perhaps an odd reading to reflect on in our current public health crisis. The more I thought about it, however, the more it seemed to address something important and vital – in these days before the expected storm, as we adjust to new patterns and responsibilities, unsure of what lies ahead.

Our Gospel opens with Jesus and his disciples walking along. The sight of a man born blind provokes a question from the disciples, a question that humans have been grappling with since records began – the question of why people suffer; why the world is, sometimes, such a seemingly cruel place. The disciples begin from the supposition that there must be a reason; that suffering must be, at some level, deserved. That supposition is about a belief in the world being a just place, or at least in God being just: we do something wrong, we are punished, God punishes us. The disciples though, are aware that things aren’t that simple, perhaps blame is something that can be passed from parents to children, they wonder. And so they ask: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

They are asking the question to make sense of an, at times, senseless world. It’s a question, we should note, about someone else – the man born blind over there. It’s a real question, but a slightly academic one, about someone else. We may well be asking a variety of the same question, but it’s not just about someone over there – it’s about all of us; it feels close and fearful – what have we done wrong to deserve this? Who’s to blame? Where is God in it all?

And Jesus offers a strange answer. An answer that is, characteristically, no answer at all to the question posed, but an invitation to reframe the question, to see things differently from the start: Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

Neither this man nor his parents sinned – Jesus begins by breaking the connection between sin and suffering. He is not interested in the blame game. It is a question without an answer. Suffering is.

He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him, Jesus goes on to say. Now we may struggle with that sentence – it may seem that Jesus is saying that God has caused the suffering, in order that God’s works might be revealed. Is God to blame? That would indeed make God something of a monster – presiding over the suffering of others – our present suffering – so that his glory might be revealed. That would be, however, to misunderstand the extent to which Jesus is uninterested in who’s to blame. Not the man, not his parents, not God. It is a question without an answer. Suffering is. This we know. Jesus wants to direct our looking away from the past, away from the question of blame, into the future, into what might be, into how God is, always and everywhere, at work. What Jesus’ response suggests is that God is not in the business of finger pointing and retribution, but in the business of eternally loving and rejoicing. And the invitation is to see God at work and so join in: rather than this man’s blindness being something that leads to a debate about who’s to blame, it will be the place of God’s working. And that is what Jesus, very matter of factly, without great ceremony or show, goes on to do:

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him: ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’ Then the man went and washed and came back able to see.

John is uninterested in the mechanics of the healing – the story is about going from blindness to seeing, from a question of who’s to blame and pointing fingers, to recognising that God is at work in the midst of it all and joining in with that movement of healing and wholeness. And it is not just the disciples beforehand that miss the point – the story goes on to relate the growing circles of consternation that this simple healing, this restoration, this working of God, causes in those around, whose world has been turned upside down.

What is revealed is a great reversal: the man born blind, assumed by others to somehow be to blame, to be in sin, is restored, and those who think they know what is going on are revealed to be blind to the truth of things, to God’s working, to those simple acts of kindness – no great miracles – but moments of connection and solidarity that can do so much to relieve the suffering.

And in all the too-ing and fro-ing, the man born blind holds on to the new thing he has discovered. You can hear his growing exasperation at the extent to which others are missing the point. He refuses to get caught up in the blame culture. In fact he makes the opposite journey, to recognise in Christ, not just a healer, not just a prophet, but the heart of all things, the truth of all things. Lord, I believe, he exclaims at the climax of the story.

I don’t want to trivialize, or minimize, the dangers and suffering we all face. The coming days will see much soul-searching, much anxiety; but we will also see extraordinary acts of kindness and compassion; extraordinary acts of faith and trust. Jesus himself went onto say, in response to the disciples’ initial question: We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

He too was about to make that journey into darkness, into suffering and desolation. It’s a journey we will walk once again during Holy Week and Easter; it’s a journey that, in different ways we may all be called to make in the weeks ahead. We don’t know. And suffering is. But as he prepared for that journey, he asked his disciples not to look back, not to indulge in academic questions of blame, but to open their eyes to see how God is at work, to see and join in.

Almighty God, through the waters of baptism your Son has made us children of light. May we ever walk in his light and show forth your glory in the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Christ give you grace to grow in holiness, deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow him; and the blessing of God almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be among you, and all for whom you pray, this day and always. Amen.