Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway at Palmerston Place Parish Church – Sunday 22nd January

Ezekiel 34.1-10; John 10.11-18

Jesus said: ‘I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’

It’s good to be with you, in this Week of prayer for Christian Unity. To practise something of that unity, that coming together, as we together pray for our world, and try and respond to the needs of our city and our time.

We just heard a reading from St John’s Gospel chapter 10. Palmerston Place – you are currently embarked on Sunday mornings in looking at the great ‘I am’ sayings of John’s Gospel – the series of claims, or better, disclosures, that Jesus makes about himself, his identity; a series of sayings that help structure John’s Gospel, and bring into focus who Jesus is. John chapter 10 includes 2 of the I am sayings – last week you were thinking about Jesus’ statement: ‘I am the gate for the sheep’ at the beginning of John 10. That section ends with what perhaps can be thought of as the summary of the whole of John’s Gospel, as Jesus says, ‘I came that they (my sheep) may have life, and have it abundantly.’

And this week, we take up Jesus’ rumination on the sheep, what keeps them safe, and provides life, and the role of the shepherd in that. ‘I am not just the gate through which the sheep pass into pasture, but I am the good shepherd’ declares Jesus.

I’m not sure if this was your intention, but I admire a Presbyterian church inviting its Episcopalian neighbour to offer some thoughts on Jesus as the good shepherd. The image of shepherd is, after all, the main metaphor upon which the understanding and practice of bishops is based. It’s not for nothing that bishops usually arrive carrying a crook. And of course, historically, the presence and practice of bishops has been one of the great matters of dispute between us. Even if, fortunately, those arguments no longer carry the weight and bitterness they once did, I shall resist the temptation, in this week when we pray for unity, to explore that particular avenue!

But I want to resist that temptation, above all, because I think the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and what that suggests about leadership and community that is rooted in him, is of very wide importance to us all. I would not want to miss that significance by narrowing this down to a sermon about bishops.

We should admit, first of all, that most of us are somewhat distanced from the agrarian imagery that Jesus draws on throughout this chapter. Not many of us are particularly familiar with sheep and shepherds in our day to day life, here in the West End of Edinburgh. Such imagery would have been more familiar to Jesus’ contemporaries and hearers, both in their daily life, which would have been much closer to the land and its produce, but also because Jesus is drawing on well-known images from the bible, that themselves have emerged from among an agrarian people, for whom the skills involved in tending and guarding sheep would have been much more familiar. So when Jesus says, I am the Good Shepherd, they would have instinctively known something of what that meant. The Good Shepherd is the one who protects, guides and cares for sheep he knows intimately; he is the source of authority too, the one in whom the sheep trust, and so feel safe.

As I say, that’s an image with a long biblical history. We might think of Psalm 23 above all – that beloved psalm no doubt just as beloved in Jesus’ day. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul. Here is a basic, central, image for imagining God and how God is toward us – God who provides every want that we genuinely need, who leads us in good paths and revives the soul, seeks out the good pasture and is our support and comfort in troubling times and the shadow of death. So when Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd he is explicitly linking himself with that understanding and image of God.

And that claim to divinity is made even more explicit by the use of the I am form. You will already, no doubt, have explored the fact that the most holy name for God, heard by Moses in the Burning Bush, is “I am who I am”. That elusive name, I am, is given content by the sayings of Jesus that punctuate John’s Gospel – I am the light, the way, the truth and the life, the bread of heaven, I am the gate; and now I am the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd is not only in scripture an image of God, however. It also is used by the prophets to critique those who have failed to tend the flock as they ought, those leaders who have failed in their duty to nourish and sustain the people – whose leadership is in stark contrast to that paradigm of the Good Shepherd. We heard a classic example of that critique from the prophet Ezekiel:

‘The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds.’

So when Jesus proclaims himself to be the Good Shepherd, he is making a claim about the leadership he embodies, and that distinguishes it from how power and leadership is often exercised. The image of the Good Shepherd, drawing on its deep roots and connections to the agrarian lifestyle of many, became a vital image in the early church – an image of how Jesus continues to exercise power and leadership. The earliest pictorial representations of Jesus that we have – in fourth century mosaics – are of Christ as the shepherd with the lamb slung across his shoulders, the lamb who has strayed but is now brought home rejoicing. From the Old Testament through the New and into the early history of the church, the Good Shepherd is a central image for knowing who God, and then Jesus, is, and therefore what the church is all about, what  we are called to live out.

There are two key elements to what Jesus says about the himself as the Good Shepherd that need to be brought out however. The first is that he pushes the image further than most would usually take it. ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ Moat of his hearers, and the readers of John’s Gospel, would have known that that is not usually true. The shepherd would guard the sheep, keep them safe, be alert to danger, and seek out good pasture. But not many shepherds would think it was part of the role to give up their own life if that was called for. There is a going further, an excess, in Jesus’ self-understanding – a going further that is linked to the abundance we identified as central to Jesus.

And the second element to notice is that Jesus is the good shepherd because of the mutual knowledge and indwelling of the Father and the Son: ‘I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’ The mutual knowledge of the Father and the Son is seen in the relationship of the shepherd to the sheep – we are known, and loved, to the very core of who we are. And that love enables us into offering who we are for the abundant life of our world, just as the love of the Father enables the Son to be that Good Shepherd in ways that go beyond the norm.

So what does all this mean for us? Well first of all that the image and understanding of Jesus as the Good Shepherd should continue to question and nourish our understanding and practise of leadership. Are those with power and authority more like the hired hand; seeking high office simply for personal gain and egotistical ambition, in it for themselves? Or are they able to articulate, and more importantly display, a sense of calling, so that leadership is offered in the public service, from a motive of wanting to make a genuine contribution to the common good, a glimpse of that abundant life which is at the heart of John’s Gospel. That’s not just a stick to beat our politicians with, however; it’s a question about what has happened to the language of vocation more generally. In our somewhat cynical age it’s a word that seems to have almost disappeared from general use; or at least become shrunk so that it only refers to those who are interested in exploring a vocation to the ministry. But if the insight of John’s Gospel is right – that Jesus is the Good Shepherd because of the mutual knowledge of the Father and the Son, because of that love that flows between them, and into which we are invited to be drawn – so we discover who we are, what we might be, by abiding in that love. And we begin to find the strength to participate too in that excess, that abundance, which Jesus also displays: the language of vocation is about a life of service, of losing oneself to find oneself, of the possibility that every life might find meaning in service of others; that to be ourselves is only possible when that connects us with others.

And the challenge for our two churches is to go deeper into that mutual knowing, within the love of God, so that each of us is enabled to be more fully ourselves. For our unity is not found in becoming the same, but in that deepening mutual knowledge and love, that enables each to be themselves.

‘I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’ To proclaim Jesus as the Good Shepherd is to be drawn into that love, and know it for ourselves, for the abundant life of our world. Amen.

 

Christmas 1 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 1st January

Hebrews 2.10-18; Matthew 2.13-23

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Today we move from the joyful acclamation of Christmas Day, toward something much darker – a portent perhaps of the life that this Christ child will be called into. A life lived in the midst of dark forces, the abuse of power, and fear. But rather than try and rationalise the irrational, smooth over the tragedy of infant genocide that today’s Gospel describes; instead of trying to make sense of unimaginable loss, I want to offer you a reflection I wrote many years ago – when I was curate here in this Cathedral, on a similar Sunday after Christmas; a small attempt to imagine things from the perspective of Rachel, weeping for her children, and to gesture at what Matthew is doing in placing this heartbreaking narrative right in the middle of the nativity.

And Rachel said:
They came in the night. Preceded by cries of anguish from next door, and from further away, it was still impossible to escape – or hide him, hide my child, my son. They’d done their homework – spies had done their job – they knew the score, where everything and everybody was, knew I’d got a boy, a baby – my son. And they were everywhere – there was no running, no fleeing. Of course I hid him – behind the stone jars in the kitchen – hurriedly wrapped in swaddling clothes, to keep him warm. But it was no use – he cried. In his innocence, in his need, he cried. The soldiers froze, stopped their searching. He cried, and the game was up, the quarry found. I was there first of course, wrapping myself around him, holding him close, pleading with the soldiers – what had he done, what had he done?

“Sorry miss,  but it’s orders, from Herod.” That’s all they would say at first – as if that explained everything – orders, orders from King Herod. But my son, my son? How can a defenceless, vulnerable child threaten a King? “Danger to security, miss. We’ve had reports, rumours of a usurper – potential rival claim to the throne. Doesn’t do, miss – upsets everything in the long run – leads to anarchy, no order, no stability. Before you know it he’s raised an army of disaffected people and he’s storming Jerusalem, setting himself up as a rival, and then you’ve got civil war. We’ve seen it all before. Better by far to nip it in the bud. It’s orders miss – King Herod, he knows best. We are sorry it’s your boy, truly, but take our word for it, there is no alternative.”

I wasn’t budging, but what could I do against armed soldiers? And so cursing them, incoherent with rage and grief, I was dragged out into the night and darkness enveloped me. Dragged out to join a chorus of lamentation. And my son became no more. And I shall never forget him.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

I have joined the ranks of grieving mothers, a victim of history written by others, by kings, and emperors. We don’t get to make history, to say what should happen, to demand life, life in all its fullness, for our children. We just suffer at the hands of others, at the hands of their preoccupation with power, and status, and wealth. “It’s orders, miss, orders from above.” And my son is no more. It’s a long, bloody, roll call – this history of the powerful, and the power hungry.

“We’ve had reports, rumours of a usurper.” Well, I heard them too – tales that buzzed round the town about strange foreign magi, astrologers of some sort, coming here to acclaim God’s messiah, to greet the expected one. And some of the other women, well they’re already saying it’s like when Moses was born – Pharaoh slaughtering children to keep his power, to put a stop to the one who will end oppression and injustice, free the people. That’s what some of them reckon, but I don’t know, is that simply clutching after straws in our grief? I don’t want to be some bit part in God’s eternal plan to save the world. The weak and helpless are always shoved to one side in the machinations of the powerful. After all, Moses only freed the people after the first born of the Egyptians were themselves killed. Why can’t God listen to our cry, the cry of the grief-stricken? I’ve got more in common with those Egyptian mothers, than with those who believe it can all turn out right, that God’s on our side, that Herod, and the Romans and all the others will get their just deserts at the hands of God, or his Messiah. Because my son is dead, and nothing is going to bring him back, and I have had enough of killing.

You see, there’s some who reckon God’s in charge – that this history of the powerful will finally be overthrown by the Most Powerful, the omnipotent God or his Messiah. But when you see history like I do, from the underside, with your dead child in your arms, that story rings a little hollow. As I said, I feel for those Egyptian mothers, cradling their murdered sons. Call it the work of God if you like, but count me out, because if that’s God, he looks a lot like Herod.

I hope he got away, the one the magi came to see. I heard his dad knew someone in Egypt and they left before the soldiers arrived. I hope they did – some of us weren’t that lucky – but maybe he got away. And maybe he will come back to lead us to freedom, into God’s promised land. It’s just that I don’t know what that means anymore. Leastwise I only know that it doesn’t usually include the likes of me, those who endure history rather than write it, the forgotten and the unloved. It’s not that I’ve got nothing to say, it’s just that the fighters for freedom I know are more interested in the power of fist and weapon than in the power of tears, the solidarity of grief, and the yearning heart. From the bottom of my heart, I cry “no more”. I have no desire for revenge. I long simply for the killing and the waste and the brutality to stop. That is my son’s gift to me: an unquenchable longing for peace. If the Messiah knew that longing, if he proclaimed and brought in that peace, then I would follow him to the ends of the earth. But how could that be? Such a one would stand silent before those who wield power. Could such a one free us? Not while God remains in charge, enthroned on high. Perhaps if God, like a grieving mother, knew the anguish of holding a dying son in her arms, then maybe the rich and the powerful would not have the final word. For if God endures such grief, then maybe God knows that what is finally important is that my son cannot, will not, must not be lost forever, but be held by God, in God. If God knows the depths of separation and grief then maybe God knows that it is this that must be redeemed.

At times, in silence, I glimpse another way, I know something of the God beyond power and status, who holds all time and all things in being, not just the Herods of this world. In silence I receive the gift left to me by my dead son: that longing for peace. In silence before a now vulnerable God I find the strength, from the wellspring of grief, not revenge, to better accuse those who have murdered my son, and demand God’s peace for all. But the way is hard and lonely; I need companions for the journey. It is all so elusive; the only concrete fact the body of my son, who is no more.

They came in the night … And my grief feels bottomless and inconsolable. Oh God, hear my cry.

Christmas Day – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway

Isaiah 9.2-7; Luke 2.1-20

A Happy Christmas to you all!

A few years ago, when I was at my previous church, I had a phone call from someone asking to meet up with me for a conversation and advice. It transpired that they were a counsellor in Glasgow, and had recently begun meeting with a number of refugees housed in the city – helping to talk through with them various traumatic incidents that they had experienced in the homelands from which they fled. The counsellor had quickly discovered that she was somewhat out of her depth – not because of the subject matter being gently explored, but because, as she told me, those she was counselling all talked about God, and looked to God and prayer as a response to their trauma. Her counselling training had left her somewhat unprepared for that – in fact she had been explicitly told to leave God out of any counselling encounter. But now God was being evoked and brought central – their need of God is all they want to talk about, she told me, God is central to their understanding and response to the world – and so she arrived in my study to try and make sense of that for herself. She was discovering, through the eyes of refugees, the gift that God brings.

Today we celebrate that God comes into our midst, as gift in our brokenness, as healing for our hurts.

We’re very good at giving gifts at this time of year. It is after all, we tell ourselves, ‘more blessed to give than to receive.’ But I wonder if it’s harder to receive a gift sometimes – that takes a certain humility, or at least a sense of what we might need. And we don’t always have that humility or know our need, to recognise the gift that comes at Christmas.

Hanging on our very fine Christmas tree at the back of the Cathedral is a small bookmark-shaped Christmas decoration. It has a series of coloured bands running across it, largely deep blue at the top, and then becoming, by and large, progressively lighter as your eye travels down, before the bands begin to turn orange and then deeper red. Each stripe is a graphic representation, by a climatologist from the University of Reading, of the average global temperature for each of the last 150 years, compared to the average global temperature of the period as whole. The shades of blue indicate cooler than average years, while the red indicates those years that were hotter than the average. The deep red stripes at the bottom – the most recent years – show in stark terms the rapid heating, and commensurate climate chaos, that is happening to our planet, our home.

Our need, beyond the more obvious needs that press in on us, our need is for a gift that regenerates our relationship with and on the earth. That should be clear, but do we yet recognise it? And the other needs of our fractious, divided, anxious age, they too cry out for a gift that heals. And yet what gift comes this day? A baby born to fraught and pushed around parents, soon to be refugees themselves. A baby born to a young Mary and a bewildered Joseph. A baby who will grow up and, in course of time, break bread to share as himself, so that this day, he might be given into our hands as his body and blood. What is this gift?

In the opening 2 chapters of Luke’s Gospel, some of which we heard this morning, an angel, or angels, appear 3 times. First to a disbelieving Zechariah, to tell him of the coming birth of John the Baptist; then to a surprised Mary, to announce the birth of Jesus and seek her consent; and finally, as we heard, to the astonished shepherds in the hills above Bethlehem. And there is one phrase common to each of these 3 angelic appearances: each time, they first declare – ‘Do not be afraid’. We maybe think that such an address is in response to the understandable trepidation of those suddenly encountering an angel. But I think there is something more than a command to calm down being offered here. The first gift, given by the angels, is the gift of courage – do not be afraid. For the opposite of faith is not doubt, as if faith were certainty. Rather the opposite of faith is fear. Jesus himself will go on to declare again and again in his encounters – ‘Do not be afraid.’ For the opposite of faith is fear, and how much of our politics and discourse stems from fear.

Courage is the gift that many new parents discover as they begin to learn to respond to this new life given them. It is the gift we discover we didn’t know we had when confronted by many a new challenge. In our need, courage is the gift that enables us to grasp the opportunities and possibilities that love opens up for us. But joy and wonder are given too in the gift of this child. Joy and wonder lead us to expect those opportunities and possibilities that courage might seize. And love is what moves hands and hearts to respond, to wrap in swaddling clothes, to feed, to nurture, to embrace.

Courage, joy, wonder, love – these are the gifts given this day, in a child born, in bread and wine shared. They are gifts we need more than ever, if we are to negotiate the challenges ahead, of climate change and our divided society. Mary and Joseph, like new parents down the ages, discover that joy, wonder, courage and love – and their unexpected depths – in the gift of this child today. The shepherds are invited to share in that joy and wonder, that invitation into courage, and so return to their fields in love. And likewise we too are invited into joy, wonder, courage and love, if we are humble enough not simply to give, but to receive, today, and always. Amen.

Advent 4 – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 18th December

Isaiah 7.10-15; Matthew 1.18-25

During this new church year, we will be reading, on Sunday mornings, through the Gospel of Matthew. Today we heard Matthew’s sparse telling of the birth of Christ – no annunciation, or shepherds, or choirs of angels for him. Before we return to that story, a quote from an introduction to Matthew’s Gospel that A.N. Wilson wrote about 20 years ago for the Pocket Canons edition. It’s a lengthy quote – but worth it, I hope you will agree. A. N. Wilson writes:

You are holding in your hands a tiny book which has changed more human lives than The Communist Manifesto or Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams: a book which has shaped whole civilizations: a book which, for many people, has been not a gospel but The Gospel.

And you are bound to ask, because you are born out of time in a post-Christian age, into a world of newspapers and investigative reporting and science – ‘Is it true?’

Did a Virgin really conceive and give birth to a boy-child in Bethlehem? Did wise men, guided by a star, come to worship him? Did he grow up to be able to walk on water, to perform miracles, to found the Church, to rise from the dead?

Stop, stop. Don’t ask. They are all questions which seem reasonable enough, but they will lead you into the most pointless, arid negativism. Your educated, scientific, modem mind will decide that no one ever walked on water; no Virgin ever conceived; that corpses do not come to life. And by rejecting this Gospel, you will reject one of the most disturbing and extraordinary books ever written; not, as you might think, on intelligent grounds, but because you (and I, alas) are too hemmed in by our imaginative limitations to see the sort of things this book is doing.

Before you apply to it the supposedly rational tests which you would apply to a newspaper report or a television documentary, imagine the chapters which describe the trial and Crucifixion of Christ set to music in Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. Consider the millions of people who, for the last 1900 years have recited the prayer which begins ‘Our Father’. Think of the old women in Stalin’s Russia, when the men were too cowardly to profess their loyalty to the Church, who stubbornly continued to chant the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount in defiance of the KGB. ‘Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.’

This is a book, not of easily-dismissed fairy tales but of power and passion; more arresting, disturbing and truthful than most reading-matter which you could buy for the price of a magazine on a station bookstall or in the paperback store. This is the Gospel of Christ, in all its terribleness, its wonder, its awe-inspiring truth and its self-contradictions.

A. N. Wilson is on to something very important, in his normal trenchant style. To return to this morning’s gospel reading, it is undoubtedly the case that it is the ‘mechanics’ of the birth described there that trouble many people. I have had countless conversations about stumbling over the line ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ from the Nicene Creed that we will shortly say. Why that line in particular causes people difficulties, I’m never sure – there is plenty else, it would seem to me, that should give us at least pause for thought – and maybe that is at least part of the point of the creed. But undoubtedly that is a bit that causes many difficulties. It points toward the ‘supernatural’ events that surround the birth – the angel visiting and speaking to Mary; it seems to make claims about the suspension of the normal laws of nature – laws that science has to greater and greater extent revealed to us. That’s not how God acts, we protest, to suspend the laws of nature. Or at least we don’t see any evidence of it elsewhere, where such intervention might be very welcome. And perhaps above all, in the role of the Holy Spirit, and the exaltation of Mary’s virginity, Jesus’ humanity is thrown into doubt. The Virgin birth  makes him fundamentally different to us, whereas the heart of the Christmas message is that Jesus is one of us, one with us.

Now these are questions that in many ways I share, and I never want to disparage honest questioning. But, following A N Wilson, I worry that our imaginative limitations are blinding us to something vital and important. To truths that are bigger, and more vital, and life-giving, than those revealed by science and the narrowing of our conception of truth to facts.

Matthew is telling his story of Jesus’ birth in a context where Jesus’ humanity is not in doubt; rather it is the claims about his divinity that Matthew is advancing. Luke and Matthew, in presenting Nativity stories, are wanting to say, from the outset, that there is something about this human life which discloses, enacts, God’s purposes in the world. Here is someone in whom God was and is encountered. The birth stories make that claim in dramatic fashion – set the template for what is to come. The gospel writers are in no doubt that Jesus was a human being: they are witnesses, or at least know first-hand witnesses to that humanity. What they are wanting to assert is the divinity that was and is met in and through him, and that makes claims upon us.

From the beginning of its proclamation of the Good News of Christ, Christianity seeks to witness to both the humanity and divinity of Christ. So the birth is, of course, a biological event in history. Christmas is about a baby born, the Word become flesh. The virgin birth is a way of speaking about a dazzling, extraordinary yet biological happening that has overturned the world.

But the biological event described in Matthew and Luke does not stand as a bald medical claim. That is not the question that the gospel writers are interested in. In putting together his account, Matthew draws on the story from Isaiah that we heard as our first reading. A child is given to King Ahaz as a notice that the present world should neither be feared, nor overly trusted, for the known world is not permanent. By the time this child is eating curds and honey, and is learning good from evil, Isaiah tells the king, the landscape of the world will have completely changed. It is not to be treasured or relied upon.

For Matthew, the birth of Jesus is another such moment; this is a birth that will change everything for ever. And the season of Advent is about entering into that challenge thrown down to King Ahaz – standing under the judgement of God to imagine what in the landscape of this world will change in two years because God is God. What threats that we imagine to be overwhelming will dissipate? What evil that we think permanent will be overcome? What chances for responding to God’s call and love and justice will be taken — or missed? The whole passage is a prophetic reminder to King Ahaz and to us that the present world is not locked into predictable patterns, of either safety or continuing fragmentation. Faith is about the belief that the world is open, the future not determined and fixed; the world is open and on the move, precisely because God is God. The Virgin birth is not presented to be simply a source of fascination but a sign of that ability of God to be God and build a different future. For as the name of the child – Immanuel, God with us – anticipates, the earth has become the place of God’s presence.

Faith in God who creates a new future for us and with us, is what Matthew proclaims in his nativity story. The question it poses for us on the brink of Christmas is not whether we believe in the biological impossibility of it, but whether we stand with Mary in sensing God’s purposes and responding, ‘Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.’ Or whether we stand with Joseph in heeding the surprising voice of an angel and graciously enabling God’s new thing to come to pass. The birth we celebrate at Christmas is not simply an event that happened, for us to believe in or not. It is an event with a future. It is a sign of God’s ability to open new ways and establish fresh vocations in us. To express faith in the virgin birth is about living lives as odd and unacceptable to prevailing reason and cynicism as any biological miracles.

For the first birth was a sign to King Ahaz that the world was shifting; Christ’s birth in Matthew’s telling will be a threat to King Herod; and every Christmas should rattle all our settled ways of thinking and acting. For this is God’s good news, and the exploding of our imaginative limitations.  God is now with us. And we have yet to learn to take that fully into account. Amen.

Advent 3 – sermon preached by Canon Prof Paul Foster – Sunday 11th December

Matt 11:2-11

I do not like waiting. It just seems like a total waste of my time. I have so many things to do and so little time to do them in. So waiting just seems to rob me of opportunities to get on with my “to do” list and to make real progress. The type of waiting I hate the most is the unplanned or unforeseen waiting, when circumstances beyond my control seem to delay the things I want to achieve. In particular, I remember making a plane trip from Edinburgh to Australia. Everything was arranged, the itinerary was straightforward. Edinburgh to Heathrow, just under two hours to change planes, then on to Australia. At the last minute, I was informed that the Edinburgh-Heathrow flight had been cancelled. Instead, I would fly to Manchester, then from there on to Australia, and, oh yes, the email also informed that there would be a seven and a half hour wait between planes in Manchester airport. Now I do not know if any of you have been to Manchester airport? Those of you who enjoy dining at Burger King might not have been as frustrated as me. However, if that is not your number one culinary choice then perhaps you might have some sympathy with my sense of being incarcerated for an intolerable length of time and losing autonomy over my own existence – for nearly eight long hours.

Our gospel reading takes us to the scene of a more severe and unjust incarceration. Despite, or probably because of his successful preaching ministry and critique of those in power, John the Baptist found himself imprisoned by Herod Antipas after questioning the legitimacy of his marriage to his brother’s wife. John had been a busy man. Actively and repeatedly beside the Jordan river he called people to better way of life. He castigated the religious teachers and leaders of his day (that is people like me) and he called-out the abuses of power of political leaders. His activism engendered in him an expectation of God’s sudden and soon intervention to bring about a better and more just mode of existence. And then he found himself imprisoned with nothing to do, with no activity, just waiting, left to his own thoughts. It is at this stage our gospel reading picks up the story.

Despite his imprisonment, John was still able to receive news from the outside world. He was informed about the ministry of Jesus, but his isolation made him uncertain whether Jesus’ actions were truly bringing about the kind of change for which John had been agitating. Consequently, John sent some of his own disciples to seek greater clarity from Jesus – was he really the coming one, or just another pretender? There is more than just a neutral enquiry for information in John’s question, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It appears that what John had heard of Jesus’ activities neither aligned with his own fiery preaching of coming judgment, nor with wider expectations of a political and militaristic messiah who would rid the people of the Roman overlords. In this sense, John’s question comes with implied confusion and disappointment. John the busy man, who when left waiting with his own thoughts, pondered whether the one he had baptised and upon whom he had seen the Spirit descend was truly God’s messiah.

Th answer that Jesus sent back through John’s messengers is enigmatic, and we do not know how John responded to the answer. What provoked the question in the first place was the report John had received about the deeds of the messiah. Jesus response to John’s disciples is they should report to John the things Jesus is doing. In other words, it is simply more of the same without a clear answer. Jesus recounts six types of activities in which he has been engaged – I won’t list them, you can check them in the first paragraph of our gospel reading. They are also actions described in both of our readings from the Old Testament. Before listing similar activities in the Book of Isaiah, that list is prefaced with the statement, “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.    He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’” The judgment that John may have regarded as the hallmark of the coming one is only part of the scriptural vision of Isaiah. Isaiah sees such recompense as a precursor to God coming to save the people. Similarly, our reading from the Psalms presents actions of the type that Jesus reports to John as being those that demonstrate that God is at work among the people, giving hope and bringing about justice. Therefore, both by reporting his actions to John and describing them in ways that align with prior biblical texts, Jesus provides scriptural warrant for a redefined view of messiahship that rejects popular political and retributive understandings of the expected deliverer. Thus, what characterises the works of the coming one is healing rather than retribution, hope instead of hatred, and justice in place of judgment. Is Jesus the coming one as John asked from the bleakness of his prison cell? Jesus simply gives him the evidence to work the answer out for himself. Jesus rounds off this section with a challenge not to John, but to the crowds. It is a challenge that is perennially relevant to all who hear about the deeds of Jesus. He says, ‘blessed is the one who takes no offence at me.” The challenge is to apprehend the reality of God’s workings in Jesus without demanding undue proof. John’s doubts from his prison cell, and at times our own doubts, are understandable. However, Jesus calls people not to remain in a state of unbelief, but instead to reflect on his transformative actions that every day open eyes and impart life. By doing so, unbelief is replaced with a deeper understanding, and despair is transformed into hope.

As John’s followers exit the scene, Jesus speaks directly to the crowds about John’s role and status. Whereas John had been uncertain about Jesus own identity, Jesus provides a clear statement about John’s identity and function. Here there is a certain ambivalence concerning the role of John. The first thing Jesus says about him is that he was not a crowd pleaser – John was neither regal nor finely dressed. If John’s destabilising ministry could be placed in any category then it would be as a prophet, one of those disturbing and disquieting figures who challenged oppression and social privilege, and looked for a more egalitarian society based on faithful and godly living. Again, citing a scriptural text drawn from the prophet Malachi, Jesus describes John as a messenger, one sent to prepare the way for Jesus. That is John is seen as the eschatological forerunner, the one who arrives prior to the long hoped for coming one, the messiah. Then Jesus makes a statement that both periodised time, and also to some degree relegates the significance of John. Among those belonging to the previous dispensation, John, in Jesus’ estimation, was undoubtedly the greatest. However, Jesus brings in a new era, the age of the kingdom to which, on Jesus’ schematisation of history, John does not belong. In that new way of existing, spiritual insights are so significant that those belonging to the kingdom are ranked even more highly than John himself. The point here is not to demean John at a personal level. Rather, Jesus tells his hearers something fundamental about the new age which he ushers in. It will be a time when the longed for hopes of the prophets will be realised and when spiritual understanding will result in blessings and benefits beyond those enjoyed by John and his generation.

I used to be a bit of a “news junky.” I had to get my fill of updates on events foreign and domestic. Now, however, I can hardly bear to turn on the news or to read the BBC website. There seems to a constant tirade of gloom and depression. Wars and conflict rumble on unresolved while innocent people continue to be maimed and die, the cost of living escalates and those around have to make the choice between heating or eating, workers find that their activities are not valued, and political leaders at times leave us with a sense that we should have better. I want an end all this oppression and injustice, and I hate waiting for it to come about. Where is the figure who will act decisive to bring about the required change? However, today I am forced to think about the answer of Jesus to John. That change does not come about instantaneously, but rather gradually as the works of the Christ are performed. It is when those who are privileged to be part of the kingdom, even the least in kingdom like me, it is when such people bind up the broken, offer new hope and insight to those who cannot see beyond their present circumstances, when we sit with the dying, and visit those in prison that such change takes place.

This Advent, I need to become better at waiting and recognise that it is not inactivity, but preparation. Around the middle of the last century a man sat in a prison cell. He wrote the following, “celebrating Advent means learning how to wait. Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfilment.” The man who wrote those words was called Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a person who called into question the legitimacy and ethical values that stood behind the Nazi regime. Like John, Bonhoeffer did not live to see the realisation of the end of the old order. Two weeks before the concentration camp to which he was moved was liberated, he was killed. Yet, I believe he had more liberty, more hope, and even more life than those who thought they held power over him.

This Advent we remember the Baptist, we remember Bonhoeffer, we remember all those bound – in physical prison or imprisoned by circumstances and inner torments. It is for all of humanity that we need to perform the works of the Christ. And as we do those things, we need to learn to wait, to be patient but yet not passive, to become uneasy about the sufferings of the oppressed, and wherever possible to perform the works of Jesus on behalf of all people. For it is when we actively wait that then we shall recognise that we are not bound by the gloom of this present time, rather we are part of that kingdom that brings hope, justice, and love for all. And at that moment, we will know that we do not need to wait for another, for the Christ has come and is with us – this Advent and for ever more, Amen.

Feast of Christ the King – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 20th November

Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43

Those of you familiar with this part of Edinburgh will know well the National Gallery of Modern Art just down the road, and the installation piece by Martin Creed emblazoned in neon across the Gallery’s frieze. ‘Everything is going to be alright’ it tells us. I wonder how you react to that sentiment, truism, statement of faith? It is of course a deliberately playful piece – its possible banality, and our reaction to that, is at its heart. Everything is going to be alright. Perhaps you react to it alongside his other piece, installed in the grounds of Modern 2, where countless tourists have photographed its proclamation that ‘There will be no miracles here’ with the spires of this building in the background. I leave you to insert your own joke at this point…

Everything is going to be alright. It may provoke an ironic hollow laugh in a world that feels a long way from alright. Or maybe it expresses in deliberately simple and colloquial terms a longing and faith that everything will be alright – a modern rendering of Julian of Norwich’s famous aphorism that ‘All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.

In Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s popular film podcast, the phrase has become one of their many catchphrases, as they gently and humorously use film to talk about life. Over the months, a number of listeners have written in, in various states of trouble and distress, asking to hear Mark’s resonant tones declare Everything in the end is going to be alright. Some have however have questioned the accuracy and usefulness of the phrase, which has led to it being finessed, so that now Mark declares Everything in the end is going to be alright; and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.

Today we celebrate the end of the Church’s year – the Feast of Christ the King, and look ahead, anticipate, the end of all things. If Christ is King, then everything will be alright: as Colossians puts it, ‘all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’ Despite appearances, Christ reigns we proclaim – the kingdom of love and truth, which he proclaimed and lived, is the final reality. Despite appearances, today we assert our faith that in Christ all things hold together, even as things fall apart.

We might expect that assertion of Christ’s kingship to be triumphant, but triumph is not an emotion that sits well with Christian faith. There is deep in the DNA of Christianity a suspicion of it: the other time we are invited to experience it is on Palm Sunday, and we know how that ends – what the crowd’s triumph transforms into.

And so it is today: our Gospel for this Feast of Christ the King, is Luke’s account of Christ’s crucifixion. To see the majesty of this King we must not look up, but look down – this majesty is revealed in someone who is deeply humiliated, helpless. He is told twice over, in mockery, to ‘save himself’; the title King is affixed as an inscription above him to ridicule him.

Just as in Martin Creed’s artwork, there is irony here: the reconciliation of all things is glimpsed in ways that overturn our usual understandings of majesty and kingship. The majesty of Christ is found not in glamour, but in poverty. The usual end to be celebrated is to be rich and beautiful, influential and successful. The slogan ‘Save yourself’ in our world is no ironic jibe, but the dominant philosophy of life. If we cannot help ourselves, then we are tossed aside as useless.

Useless as a dying man on a cross.

The Feast of Christ the king overthrows our ways of imagining the world. Jesus has spent his life overturning the usual order: through forgiveness, restoring relationship where there was none, calling the unworthy and overlooked into discipleship. And now that way of life has brought him and us to this place of crucifixion, where outcast, Jesus finds himself among those, fully identified with those, he has sought to include and restore.

And on the cross, Christ is the living embodiment of the truth that ‘everything will be alright; and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.’ Living embodiment of that faith as he finds the strength to forgive those who crucify him.

And so it is for us:  today we look to the end, celebrate that end, even as we know it is not the end. In our Gospel reading, Jesus is addressed by the two thieves crucified alongside him, on his right and left. With which thief do we identify? Are we the one who mocks, ‘What kind of King is this?’. Or do we stand with the thief who sees in this man, and his way, a kingdom that he might be part of.  ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus replies, Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’. The latter thief offers an action of hope in the darkest place, and finds what is at the end coming to meet him where he is.

After today’s service, we hold our AGM – an opportunity to reflect together on the past year, and look ahead. And that is the question that should shape our reflection: what are the actions we are taking, acts of neighbourliness, common humanity, kindness and forgiveness, that mean the end comes to meet us where we are.

Today is not some climactic great triumphant end, for we are not yet at the end. But it is a claiming of the faith in that end, while we still journey on. For that promise of paradise where Christ is King, is the final and fundamental reality, breaking into our world today, here and now in hidden, overlooked acts of generosity and kindness, and surprising forgiveness.

For as we shall say in our post-communion prayer, ‘Father, your steadfast purpose is the completion of all things in your Son.’ Amen.

All Saints Sunday – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 30th October

Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31

Cavalcade, a poem by Jonathan Magonet, a British Rabbi and scholar.

For copyright issues, we are unable to reproduce the poem.

Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday, celebrate the cavalcade of people through time, and across the world, who have overcome fear, lived out their faith – lived, as our reading from Ephesians put it, ‘for the praise of God’s glory’. Magonet conjures up the somewhat motley nature of that company – not necessarily the respectable and upright, but the weary, the whimsical, the prophetic, the clown. And something of that same surprising company is encountered in Jesus’ Beatitudes that we heard from Luke’s Gospel. Jesus purposefully blesses those often disregarded and thrown aside in our rush to judgement: Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and the hated and excluded for their prophetic witness. A motley crew indeed, the company of saints, the blessed.

And today we invite Cassie, through baptism, to join that company; and all of us who have been baptised are reminded once again that we too have been invited into their ranks.

For saints are those who, in their following of Christ, help the Church to be Christ: live out Christ’s continuing transforming presence. And so saints are, like Christ, surprising, irreligious, compassionate, unafraid, and trusting. We can so easily think that the Church’s call, our call, is about being right, that being the Body of Christ means behaving in particular (respectable) ways. And we live in a society that continually offers us a consumer fantasy of what the perfect life looks like. But the saints show that the desire to follow Christ, in loving God and loving neighbour, takes us beyond what is reasonable and necessarily sensible. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus follows the beatitudes, the blessing of the overlooked, by first pronouncing woes upon those who are the self-satisfied, the exalted in the eyes of many; and then suggests that we need to go beyond the sensible and rational: ‘I say to you that listen, says Jesus, Love your enemies…. Do to others as you would have them do to you’. Love is revealed to be, not so much a warm fuzzy feeling, but that which brings us into mutual relationship with others, with the different and puzzling, even with our enemies.

And the start of that journey of faith is baptism. In a moment, parents and godparents, on Cassie’s behalf, you will renounce evil and turn to Christ. And you will promise, in loving and caring for Cassie, to follow the apostles’ practice and prayer; to proclaim God’s good news in word and deed; to work for justice and peace in all creation. This is the shape of life that the saints embody, but it’s not easy or straightforward. Baptism itself, in its language and symbolism, is about entering the waters of death, the waters of chaos and confusion, through which we are re-generated to participate in Christ’s resurrection life.

And so the saints we celebrate today are those who witness to the call and the work of God in the midst of that chaos and confusion. They are the people who re-trace that baptismal journey through death to resurrection: they respond to the chaos, not with fear, but with love; to the confusion, not by retreat, but by taking risks; they are those whose eyes are not fixed on their own needs, but on God and on the people given to them to love.

Parents and godparents – the calling given to you today not to bring Cassie up to be a morally upright, productive citizen – or at the very least not simply that. The calling is to be alive to the divine spark within her, the desire to be in God’s blessed company, the re-birth we celebrate today. The call is to nurture that which makes Cassie truly Cassie, so that in the company of all God’s people she is alive to the possibilities of a God who encompasses more than we can imagine, whose welcome always exceeds ours, whose arms are wider than we dare believe. For after all, we may never see Cassie’s like again. So hang on, don’t be afraid. She can join the cavalcade.

Creation-time 3 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday September 18th

1Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13

‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.’ Those words from our, not entirely straightforward, Gospel reading, jumped out to me this week. This week when we have mourned and contemplated a faithful life of service, they seemed a fitting comment on our late Queen: to the remarkable sense of duty that permeated every aspect of her life, from the little to the much. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.

That commitment to duty and service has been much lauded this last week, as that which gave shape to her long life and reign. But it has also not gone unremarked that these are words that are now somewhat alien to many; that the Queen’s self-understanding and commitment to duty were in sharp relief to other more contemporary understandings of ourselves. We have gathered this week, queued many hours in some cases, to pay homage, but what might it mean for us to go beyond lauding such attributes? What might it mean to discover a re-imagined sense of duty?

The American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, talks about the path of Christian discipleship as about transforming our fate into our destiny. Transforming our fate into our destiny. What he means by that, is that at the heart of the life of faith, and of the church, should be a willingness to engage with the realities that are given to us; that faith is about a willingness to be shaped by those givens – because they are seen as gift, as our destiny and not our fate. It is through embracing those givens, recognising as a blessing that which might be seen as a curse, that the world is paradoxically transformed.

The Queen’s youthful vow, much played this last week, is an amazingly articulate example of such an embrace: I declare before you all, she said, a few years before she ascended to the throne, that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.

It was a vow made in her ‘salad days’ as she put it years later, and it is a remarkable fact that as a 21 year old she embraced that lifetime of service. The vow was made in response to the accidents of history, to the fact that she would one day wear the crown of the United Kingdom, a day that arrived sooner than she expected or hoped it would. But rather than rebel against the unfairness or the untimeliness, or the demands that that placed upon her, she accepted a life defined by those limits and demands. A life of duty, as she described it. As I suggested earlier, such commitment might feel alien to us now, or at least we might characterize it as a weight, a burden that she carried. Much of the lauding of the Queen has been in admiration of her carrying of that burden.

I don’t underestimate either the sheer hard work that was involved in seeing that vow through, or, on the other hand, the immense privileges that she enjoyed that helped her carry it out. But what has struck me also this week is that the sense of the vow being a burden is at odds with much else that has been reflected upon: the Queen’s wit and wisdom above all, but also her ability to properly listen, and to take courageous steps for peace. You don’t do those things, it’s hard to be witty and wise, if you are weighed down and burdened. And so I wonder if it is possible that that youthful vow, rather than burdening her, actually liberated her? That in transforming her fate into her destiny, she discovered the freedom to be herself, discovered the vocation that would both define her but also make her.

Freedom in the modern West is often understood as the throwing off of the shackles of history – the creating of a life not defined by the accidents of history, of our birth and of our time. Freedom is characterized by that adolescent energy that sees the world as its oyster, so that life is what we make of it, is best lived without limits, or at least in defiance of limits. Freedom is in the perpetual rebellion against what limits us; be that, to take two very different recent examples, institutionalized racism or the institutions of the European Union. Duty strikes us as a fusty constraint, potentially oppressive in its demands that keep us in our particular boxes; its often seen as a limit on our freedom and self-actualization, as people or as a nation. And of course there is truth in all that, so that at the very least discernment is needed to see what is oppressive and needs to be resisted and overcome. But the point is that a particular and limited notion of freedom, as being that which lies beyond imposed limits, is unchallenged.

And yet, the climate emergency is teaching us that there are, in fact, limits. Limits on what our earth can sustain. And not only that, but as Covid began to teach us, we are often less in control of our lives than we imagine. And the coming years, as the climate emergency bites, might teach us that over and over again. Characterising freedom as the throwing off of our limits, as limitless possibility, brings us to the brink of disaster. For there are limits; limits on what the earth can sustain; limits on the injustices others are willing to bear; limits on what is technologically possible, to remedy what we have done. And so the sharp question is how we will react to that experience: in the hard years to come, will we experience the necessities of life as cruel fate, or as something to face and embrace, and so paradoxically discover another path to freedom?

I suggested earlier that freedom as it is often defined has an adolescent quality. It’s certainly true as we grow older that, for many of us, the necessities of life press in on us, we realise how shaped we are by things of which we are barely in control. We have made particular career choices, married a particular person, have to live within particular means, our bodies begin to fail us. Through both active choices, and the happenstances of life, our lives have taken on a particular shape. Some people continue to rail against that narrowing of life – many a mid-life crisis is the resurgent bid for freedom characterised as rebelling against the limits. But most of us know others who are now comfortable as themselves, and embrace and serve others from that place of freedom; so that freedom is not sought in the escape from how life has shaped them, but known in the embrace of that; in the embrace of the giftedness of that life, the blessing known in its particularities. In the transformation of fate into destiny. And in that embrace is found wisdom, so that, as in Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer, we are granted the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.

The Queen’s youthful vow ended with an exhortation and invitation to all her future subjects: I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it. May we have the grace and wisdom to continue to rise to that challenge, and in that common embrace, find our freedom. Amen.

Mourning Her Majesty the Queen – a sermon preached by Rt Rev John Armes, Bishop of Edinburgh – Sunday 11th September 2022

Micah 4.1-15; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.35-40

We know how to mourn. Or at least we all learn how to mourn, for death and loss and lament are part of what it means to live. Most of us here know all too well those feelings of bleak finality which accompany death – those moments when we wake in the night and remember that the much-loved face, the familiar habits of someone who meant everything to us have gone… gone for good… leaving us bereft.

Bereft, all the more so for the gratitude we also feel. Gratitude not merely for memories but for the impact of another’s life on ours, the way their life shaped us, blessed us. Which means that the mix of emotions we feel at the death of our Queen are familiar to us. Sadness, certainly, and immense gratitude too.

We also know how the ending of someone’s life enables us to see them differently, allows us to see them whole, as it were, and to reach a measured estimate of what their life meant… to us and to others. Most of us didn’t know Queen Elizabeth personally, although so public was her life that perhaps we felt we did. Either way, we know enough to recognize the stature of the life now ended, and to acknowledge that to describe her as Elizabeth the Great, as some have done, isn’t far off the mark.

Greatness, not derived from genius or exceptional intelligence, but from a willingness to endure, to occupy the space given to her and to do this with all her ability, all her self-denying strength. What good fortune it was for the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, the world that such a unique space should be filled by such a remarkable person for such an extraordinary length of time. The past few days have allowed us to recognize what we have had and to acknowledge what we have no longer.

This is what it means to mourn and it’s why we must give ourselves time over these coming days, weeks, months to allow ourselves to mourn, to weep and to laugh. All the while remembering that it’s those whose life was closest, the royal family, who will feel the loss most keenly and very publicly.

But it’s not just about mourning one person. Nor is it simply about having a different head on our stamps and coinage. The smoothness of our constitutional transition cannot mask the fact that the Queen’s death will be destabilising in all sorts of ways. For many of us, the last few years of political uncertainty and Covid pandemic have felt as if things long held precious, reliable and stable have been disintegrating. War in Ukraine, mass migration, climate crisis, not to mention soaring inflation and fuel poverty, all these are enough to cope with, surely. But now we must cope also with the cutting of the golden thread that’s given us over all these years a sense of permanence, something to hold onto. Governments may come and go, but the Queen was always reliably there, including those Christmas broadcasts we may or may not have chosen to watch.

Something has shifted, and in ways subtle and not so subtle we must reconfigure our inner pathways, our sense of who we are and the defining characteristics of our nation and the shape of our world. We must be honest about this, for it’s hard to exaggerate the destabilising effect of the Queen’s death in an already febrile, anxious and angry world. If we Christians are to be of any use, to bring any sort of comfort or reassurance, we must tell the truth to ourselves and to others, and we must admit to how this truth affects us all.

And I do think we should expect to be of some use. For, one of the most important things about our late Queen, the one thing that motivated and inspired her above all else, was her Christian faith. Our Sovereign she may have been, but above all she was, and still is, our sister in Christ. She shared our longing, expressed by Jesus in our gospel reading, that we shall be raised up at the last day.

She died on 8th September, the day the church celebrated the birth of another famous woman of faith, Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary too, as a young woman, was placed in a unique position, with little choice but to obey God’s call, yet was eager to do so nonetheless, eager to obey. Mary gave of her very best and did her duty. ‘Be it unto me, according to your word,’ she said.

We revere Mary, the greatest of all saints – but she was not our Saviour. She gave our Saviour birth, she gave him place, but ultimately it is Christ who is our rock, God the one in whom we find immoveable and solid stability. Similarly, we may revere Queen Elizabeth, we may be in awe of her faithfulness to the very end of her life, but in losing her we haven’t lost our reason to hope, lost our anchor – for we still proclaim the very same God in whom her life was anchored, the faith in which she remained a learner to the end of her days.

At her Coronation service, she pledged her allegiance to God before she accepted the allegiance of her subjects. A very young woman, she modelled the simple commitment required of every Christian person that, whether our lives are glamorous and in the public eye or not, God comes first. In whatever space we are given, whatever space we fashion for ourselves, we turn to Christ, we resist evil, we serve God in word and deed, and, to the best of our ability, we work for justice and peace in all creation. Whatever the vows of her Coronation, whatever the limitations and opportunities offered by the role she inherited, for Queen Elizabeth her baptismal promises were those that most shaped her life. So it should be for us.

We have good reason, I believe, to trust that King Charles III will also be faithful to this calling. But let’s not ask more of him than he, a fallible human being just like us, can give. And let’s accept that all of us bear the responsibility to shape the country over which he now reigns, and to hold ourselves accountable to the same standards and ideals that his late mother so well represented.

Someone has estimated how many times the Queen heard the national anthem during her life. It was a lot! Was ever a prayer for long life more fulsomely answered? Now we sing it, and pray it, for our King, that his reign should be happy and glorious and somehow transformative of the troubles that just now beset us. But the glory we look to, as was the glory Queen Elizabeth sought, isn’t about jewels and rich apparel, power or palaces, but is to be shown in the joy of serving and loving others and of walking in the name of our God for ever and ever. May we together realise Micah’s vision of a world in which the nations gather in unity, committed to the commonwealth (in the best sense of that word), where swords are beaten into ploughshares, and where no one need be afraid. It’s a worthy aim for any royal reign. It won’t be achieved by one person alone but only by a whole people dedicated to seeking the ways of God.

The old gives way to the new, the page of history turns; but the loving call of God endures, unchanging, from one generation to the next.

Creation Sunday – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 4th September

Jeremiah 18.1-11; Luke 14.25-33

Today is Creation Sunday, the start of Creation-time: a season of the church’s year that invites us over the next month to think and pray about what it means to worship God the creator, the source and ground of all things. Our first reading from Jeremiah offers a very direct metaphor for that action of creation: God is imagined like a potter, struggling with the clay, destroying a failed attempt and re-shaping, re-making the soft clay to produce something of beauty. That’s an image that invites us to see God’s creative activity as ongoing, not executed in a one-off moment back in the dim distance of time, but as a dynamic presence within the world. God our creator is the One that constantly offers new possibilities that re-shape the world. The goal of the potter may be to produce something of beauty, but Jeremiah pulls no punches about the moments of destruction, of re-shaping too that are part of the process. We may resist the sense that God is responsible for that destruction, but we can surely relate to the sense of a world being re-ordered, a time when we struggle to make sense of things, and are fearful for the future. We sense destruction far more than creation at present – our world seems out of joint and out of control as the financial crisis spirals, war haunts our continent, and the climate itself turns against us.

Pakistan this week found a third of itself under water. That’s an area larger than the whole of the United Kingdom flooded, livelihoods and crops ruined, infrastructure destroyed. It’s barely imaginable, even as more monsoon rains, and melting glaciers in the Himalayas, contribute further water to the floods. And this week scientists warned that based on studies of the melting ice of Greenland over the last 10 years, a rise in the sea level of at least 30cm is now inevitable, with more very likely. What do such sea level rises mean for low lying delta areas, especially when such rises meet the floods we’ve seen in Pakistan this week? The destruction of creation is something immediately current, even as we might struggle to sense God’s activity within it. The destruction is much more related to our own patterns of behaviour, to the re-shaping of the world to which we have contributed these last 200 years. To inhabit the image of the potter, re-shaping the clay, destroying as well as creating, seems frighteningly prescient.

And our Gospel reading provides little relief either, as Jesus starkly speaks, in the context of following him, of ‘hating’ father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself. It’s possible to argue that we need to understand such language as ‘hyperbole’ – over the top language to drive home a point. That the verb translated as ‘hate’ is a way of describing the practise of detachment: a putting into proper perspective the things that bind you most closely, such as family. The call of Jesus to discipleship overrides all else, puts everything into proper perspective. All our relationships, including those that bind us most closely, and demand our time and energy, have to be understood and worked out in the context of responding to the creative activity of God encountered in Christ, the costly love he embodies.

But above all,  Jesus is attempting to shake out of apathy the large crowd that is travelling with him – to wake them up and ask: are you listening, do you know what this means for you and the shape of your life? The stark language is refreshingly clear eyed, designed to provoke a reaction and make us think and act in new ways. And so in the short parables which follow, the tower builder has to be honest about the costs involved; the king plotting to wage war is counselled to be clear-eyed about his chances of success. The call of Christ to us, in the midst of the destruction of our climate, is to wake up to the truth of that destruction that we inhabit and the re-creation that is possible; let’s have an honest conversation, and resultant action about that.  Let’s listen properly to the science: the International Panel on Climate Change could not be clearer about the risks and consequences of climate change, a rise in average global temperature which seems inexorable, unstoppable, without concerted action. For unlike the tower builder, or the king, it seems we are not willing to face hard truths, to be honest about our likely future; any momentum built up around COP26 in Glasgow last year seems in danger of frittering away as other concerns crowd in.  But there is no point celebrating the gift of God’s creation on this Sunday, worshipping God our Maker, if at the same time we are desecrating that creation. Our Gospel is a call to wake up, to an honest conversation and planning in the midst of much obfuscation and denial.

Jesus ends this short Gospel passage with the suggestion that the re-creation that is God’s work might involve us re-evaluating our relationships to possessions. None of you, says Jesus, can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Up until now, Jesus has spoken of relationships, of family. Now he asks us to examine our possessions.

Possessions are stuff, material things. Creation is stuff, material things, as well as the teeming life of our eco systems. And part of the honest conversation and action that is required is about our relationship to that stuff, the disposable culture that doesn’t think about where stuff comes from and where it goes; that doesn’t find ways to value the material, resources that we are rapidly burning through, or the easily made plastic that is choking our oceans.

So this creation-time we are invited by our clear-eyed readings into a prayerful honesty: about the destruction and re-creation we are in the midst of. And as we proclaim and worship the God who re-creates, we are invited to be honest and curious about the stuff that fills our lives, on which we often depend. To learn to give up more because we value it more. To re-create, with God’s grace and courage, both relationships and stuff that will last, to stand the test of the coming storms. Amen.