Epiphany 6 – sermon preached online by Revd Professor Paul Foster – 14th February 2021

2 Kings 5.1-14 and Mark 1.40-45

I have only visited the holy land once. However those six days have left an indelible impression. There is a sense of awe while walking the bustling streets of Jerusalem knowing that somewhere my path would have intersected with where Jesus walked. Or a different sense of reverence standing on the more silent hills of Galilee where one looks out across the timeless sea below and contemplates the meaning of eternity. During this past week I had memories of the time at the ancient Roman site of Caesarea Maritima. The clue is in the name. It is located beside the Mediterranean and a number of our group took the opportunity for some sea bathing. Believe me as I looked out at snow drifts this week – I certainly knew where I would rather be.

Yet there is another memory I wish to share with you today of my time in the holy land. One afternoon we were taken by coach to see the baptismal site of Jesus. There was a sense of anticipation – the very place where John the Baptist met Jesus, and the Spirit descended in the form of a dove. I knew this was going to be special. As we drew near I was struck by the presence of barbed wire and signs warning tourists not to stray from the road, and even clearer signs of the presence of minefields – a reminded that the river was the border with Jordan. We disembarked the coach and went down to the bank. I looked and took in the scene. I surveyed the thick reeds, and what was called a river – so narrow that a Dutch dyke jumper could traverse it. I was so, so disappointed that I turned to one of my travelling companions and said, “this is not very impressive, I expected this would be a wide flowing river.” As quick as anything, he responded “Are the rivers of Damascus not greater than the rivers of Israel.” Since that day I have had a lot of empathy with Naaman.

Our Old Testament reading presents an evocative story, rich with a cast of multi-faceted characters. First Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. We are told that Yahweh had given him many victories. Yet we are left wondering whether Naaman knew that his success was a gift from Yahweh. Then we come across two unnamed female characters. The first is a young slave girl taken captive from northern Israel or Samaria. While outright war was not constant between Syria and Israel, border raiding was. The more powerful Syrian forces would engage in grab and run tactics, harrying and despoiling neighbours to the south. The captive young child had become the maid-servant of Naaman’s wife. This carefully plotted narrative also informs readers that Naaman, the great military leader of Syria suffered from leprosy. Actually if we understand Naaman’s skin condition to be equivalent to modern leprosy we are sorely misled. Modern leprosy or Hansen’s disease was unknown in this period in ancient Israel. Instead, Naaman was afflicted with some debilitating and perhaps disfiguring skin condition. Thus, we meet a proud and successful military leader, who is also a tragic figure. Providentially the captive slave girls tells Naaman’s wife of the existence of the prophet in Samaria. This, in turn, is communicated to the king of Syria who sends his trusted commander to Samaria with a message for the king of the northern tribes of Israel.

The next scene takes us briefly into the court of the king of Samaria. The letter bids him to cure Naaman of his leprosy. The king of Israel assumes that the request is a diplomatic rouse by the Syrians to pick a fight with its weaker southern neighbour. It is at that juncture that the prophet Elisha appears in the story. Somehow news has come to him of the predicament. In contrast to the panic of the king of northern Israel, Elisha sends a terse but calm reply. He asks the king why he has torn his robes in distress. Then we might expect the message to say “send Naaman to me and I will heal him for you.” Yet, it does not. Instead it says, “let the man come to me and let him know that there is a prophet in Israel.” Elisha’s agenda is not the agenda of the king, nor the agenda of Naaman. There is something else that is at stake here. Next we are told that Naaman travelled to meet Elisha in his pomp and splendour, with his horse and chariot, no doubt carrying all his silver and gold and the presents of fine clothes. Then something strange happens. Something that is insulting, and maybe which could be read as a provocation to the war that the king of Israel feared. Elisha refuses to meet Naaman. Instead, he sends his servant to tell Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan. Naaman is infuriated. Doesn’t this upstart Elisha from the puny kingdom of Samaria not know who he is. Naaman exasperatedly states “I thought that he would surely come out to me, stand here, and call upon the name of Yahweh his God, and wave his hand over the infected place and cure the leprosy.” Then Naaman’s classic comment follows – “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the rivers of Israel?” On that score, I have to concur with Naaman. However, it is not the greatness of the river that is at stake, but the greatness of the God of Israel. At this point Naaman storms off in rage.

Next, a new set of characters are introduced. In many ways these are the wisest people in the story. Naaman’s attendants see what is really at stake and calm their Master. Addressing him as “Father”, they ask “if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? Now all he says to you is, wash and be cleansed.” These calming and wise words result in Naaman following that advice and being healed. So what is going on here? Elisha’s refusal to meet Naaman is in my opinion not some crass ethnic prejudice against Syrians, neither is it an attempt to belittle a wealthy person. Instead, I suggest, Elisha is undermining Naaman’s presuppositions. The great military leader turns up and he believes he can classify Elisha as some wonder-working healer, who will do the things that exorcists and shamanistic healers are supposed to do. He will get himself into a trance-like state and mutter some incantation and then the healing will take place. By contrast, Elisha wants Naaman to know that he is not able to categorise the one who will heal him. The healing is not attributable to human power, and even the brackish little waterway in which he is to bathe has nothing to recommend it. Naaman has to realise that he is being healed by none other than Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God of the universe.

After this story and its sequel in the remainder of the chapter, Naaman disappears from our view. We know nothing more of him and he is almost forgotten in the rest of scripture. That is, apart from a recollection of him by another Jewish prophet-like figure. In the Gospel of Luke, among other characters, Jesus recalls Naaman. He says, “there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha, but none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian” (Lk 4.27). Here, Naaman is recalled as an example of the universalism of human salvation made possible through Jesus.

It is this same Jesus we meet in today’s gospel reading, encountering another individual described as a leper. Here after a rapid sequence of preceding events, Jesus is sought out by a man in need of healing. This is no prestigious military leader. In fact this man’s presence is a threat to Jesus’ own state of ritual purity. Jesus heals the man with the skin condition, but then he does something unexpected. Instead of declaring the man clean, he becomes indignant with him and commands him to silence. The man is told to go to the religious leaders and make a thanksgiving offering in line with Torah stipulations. Then Jesus says something strange. The man is to carry out those actions “for a witness to (or maybe against) them.” In the same way that Namaan assumed that he could categorise Elisha as a healing shaman, it appears that Jesus wanted to challenge the priestly perception of the day. Had they categorised Jesus as no more than a Galilean wonder-worker, or perhaps even worse – they had forgotten the power of the God of Israel to heal the sick. Like the actions of Naaman, those of Jesus challenge false perceptions about human ability to understand spiritual power and to categorise the actions of God.

We are living through a time when we too need healing. We often pray for the healing of the nations and that the resources of the world will be shared with equity. Those are good prayers, but now they take on a greater sense of urgency and there is a more concrete picture of what those prayers might be seeking. This time has been a period of frustration. Personally, I have felt that large projects have been put on hold. Instead, I have had to spend more time on small things and having to adjust the pace at which things are achieved. It feels like foregoing visits to see the great rivers, and instead being forced to bathe in the insignificant and brackish Jordan. However, what the encounter between Naaman and Elisha teaches us is that it is not the size of the river, but it is the degree of our faithfulness in carrying out the will of the one we serve. Jesus’ own encounter with one who would have been considered an insignificant leper teaches us that God is just as much God over the small matters of life as over the great matters of state. Perhaps during recent times we have all had to adopt a simpler piety, and to carry out smaller acts of faith. Those acts are no less consequential because of the way we might perceive their size.

Yahweh, who is the God of Elisha and the God of Israel, calls us to be faithful in the small things. Jesus himself heals a forgotten human being and then seeks to deflect attention from himself. Instead, he wants the act of healing to testify to the fact that the God who is able to heal is still at work. Today in our own lived-experience, the Holy Spirit is still working through the people of God often in what we perceive to be small acts, which unbeknownst to us serve to bring about the healing of the nations. It is to that God who works mightily through the small things, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to whom we now give thanks and praise for his mighty power constantly at work even in the smallness of human lives. Amen

Candlemas – Sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 31st January 2021

Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40

The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.

So promises the prophet Malachi in our first reading this morning. And that sudden coming is taken up in our Gospel reading, as Luke tells of the baby Jesus being taken to the temple, and there recognised by Simeon and Anna, as, indeed, their Lord and ours – the one who brings salvation, light for revelation and glory. In that sudden appearance, Simeon finds fulfilment and release: ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.’

It is tempting to focus our thoughts, on this Feast of Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in the temple, on that moment of revelation, of sudden, blinding, healing and release. This is the culmination of the season of Epiphany, the season that celebrates the revelation of Christ to shepherds and then Magi in the stable at Bethlehem; by the banks of the Jordan as he is baptised; in the calling of the first disciples: moments of sudden epiphany, of blazing light and faith given. And this is such a moment for Simeon and Anna.

As I contemplated our Gospel passage this week, however, I wasn’t drawn so much to that moment, as to the long years that preceded this sudden coming, this moment of revelation. Anna has inhabited the temple for long years after being widowed at an early age, worshipping there with fasting and prayer night and day. Simeon, we are told, is righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel; promised that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. How long he had lived with that promise we are not told. Had he doubted it? Was he certain what that promise would look like when it came?

We are living through times when our waiting, for the promise of vaccines, for the ability to see, and hug, and comfort, loved ones; when our waiting can seem endless. And still the darkness presses in, as the awful death toll to Covid mounts – we passed beyond 100,000 people dying of Covid in the United Kingdom alone this week. And behind that statistic, each a person known, and loved, and grieved. Each cared for by tiring health workers, who wonder too when this will end; people dying, separated from family and friends by the disciplines of PPE and sanitation, to die without the usual and important bodily farewells. This is a time of waiting, of hard, exhausting waiting; there have been too many false dawns and we are wary of thinking it will soon be all over. We know there is still a long haul ahead: so what will get us through, what can we learn from Anna and Simeon about waiting in the midst of grief, with hope and expectation?

Prayer is many things, but waiting is at the heart of it. Certainly there is rarely a simple correlation between prayer and answer: prayer is not simply about getting a result to a request. It is about that discipline of waiting, waiting on how requests might be answered, but also waiting to discover what it is we truly need, what it is we are actually needing to wait for.

To describe prayer as about waiting may seem to make prayer a very passive activity, but that is to misunderstand the waiting. Anna, we are told, in those long years in the temple, worships with fasting and prayer, night and day. There is a discipline involved to prayer – to the placing of oneself in this moment before God. And that placing is about feeling and knowing this moment, ever more deeply. It’s about not running away from the pressing grief and darkness of now; from feeling for those separated from loved ones, for all those involved in the care of others. Our waiting in consciousness of this moment, deepens our empathy, invites us to inhabit the shoes of others and to feel what they might be feeling. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, said T. S Eliot, in his Four Quartets, and there is certainly truth to that. But the prayer of waiting is about opening ourselves up, a little more, to that reality.

We do so, however – we wait – as Simeon did, in hope and expectation. It is easy for this moment to overwhelm us, to know despair. But there is consolation too, in the waiting; our reality is also about the collective effort we are making; it is about the going beyond, that many feel called to; it is about the care of keeping each other safe; it is about previously disregarded work being revealed in all its essentialness. And in prayer, we know that reality too, and draw strength from it.

Above all, our waiting, prepares us: prepares us to know what we are looking for, what really matters. Prayer is the schooling of our desire, so that, like Simeon, we can recognise our salvation when it comes. In this present moment, our waiting is about becoming more conscious of what this pandemic has revealed about our world, about that reality we inhabit. Our waiting is not simply for it to be over, for ‘normality’ to be resumed. The pandemic has revealed, through its ability to prey on the vulnerable, the deep fissures and divides in our society. The poor, the discriminated against, those without safety nets, are both more likely to be victims of Covid, but also least able to navigate through the wider challenges that the pandemic presents: the challenges of education in a time of home-schooling; of stable employment in a gig economy; of mental health in anxious times.

To pray, to know this time we are living through, is to be schooled in the determination that we will not simply return to normal; that the dead will only be honoured, and our grief give way to joy, if we find ways to rebuild and respond in ways that heal those fissures that have been revealed and deepened. The prophet Malachi, as he offers the promise of the Lord whom we seek suddenly coming to his temple, also warns that that moment is a moment of judgement; of the overturning of the usual ways of doing things: ‘I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, says the Lord.’

This time of waiting, therefore, is a time of discipline; of strengthening; of deepening empathy; of the discovery of knowing what really matters; and of deepening determination for that to shape our life as we move beyond this moment; as we greet our salvation and our healing.

Simeon greets the Christ child, after that discipline of prayer and waiting, and knows that he can depart in peace, not because everything is alright now. He warns Mary of the heartache to come, the heartache that is bound up in the coming of light into the world. But he has waited, and prayed, so that he sees and knows enough to bring him peace. Simeon is the opposite of a cynical old man: in his waiting, he has kept his eyes open to the possibility of his salvation; he has waited in hope and expectation, so that he recognises what will save him, what will grant him peace. And it is to that same faithfulness that we are called – to wait, with open hearts, with candles lit, for that which assures us that, at the end of all our waiting, ‘all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’ Amen.

Epiphany 1 – Sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 10th January 2021

Genesis 1.1-5; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11

New year, new lockdown.

There are times when the readings given to us by the lectionary seem right on the money, speaking directly to our situation or the time of year. Normally, the start of a new year is the right time to be taken by our Old Testament to the start of creation, to the movement of the Spirit over the darkness, the formless void and the chaos; the Spirit who then brings forth light, and order, a new creation. The new year seems the right time to think about the baptism of Christ, the start of his journey, the event that propels him into an awareness of his calling and the task ahead. As the new year begins, we ourselves are often asking the same questions, making appropriate resolutions – what might I make of this fresh new year, what am I, are we, called to?

And yet this new year, the course of the pandemic makes it feel hard to turn over new leaves; the past is catching up with us again as we re-tread the lockdown of last year. Despite the shoots of hope from vaccines beginning to be rolled out, we find ourselves, this time in bitter winter weather,  back in lockdown, tired and jaded; anxious if we have the resources to see this through again. And meanwhile, over in America, we witness barely believable convulsions that threaten their transition into a new start, a fresh page. There doesn’t feel much new about this year so far. How might our readings, that invite us into fresh paths, speak to us today?

At the New Year, the Methodist Church often holds a Covenant service: a service of re-dedication, renewing the covenant, the relationship, between God and themselves. At the heart of the service the congregation renew that covenant in a prayer that can be traced back to John Wesley himself:

I am no longer my own, but Thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt:
Put me to doing: put me to suffering:
Let me be employed for thee, or laid aside for thee:
Exalted for thee, or brought low for thee:
Let me be full, let me be empty:
Let me have all things: let me have nothing:
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth let it be ratified in heaven.

On first hearing, it may appear almost shocking in the directedness of its language, and in seeming to hand all responsibility over to God – ‘put me to what thou wilt.’ Is that really what we want to pray, to offer to God in our hard times? Where is human action, our decision making in that? It could be read as a prayer that simply accepts our fate, accepts whatever God has in store for us. The Christian calling is to endure. Is that how we imagine God, however – as the one in control. deciding, almost cruelly, what happens to us. It’s a prayer that asks, very directly, what kind of God we believe in;  how God acts in the world.

In this hard year, in what sense is God in control, the pandemic God’s will? If that’s the case, what kind of God are we dealing with – at the very least, why doesn’t God do something?

In our reading from the book of Acts, Paul, on his travels, meets some disciples. Upon questioning them he discovers that they have received John’s baptism, but not that of the Holy Spirit. This is obviously an important distinction, one that can be traced back to John himself. In today’s gospel John is recorded as saying, ‘I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’ Paul describes John’s baptism as a baptism of repentance – a baptism that offers the forgiveness of sins. It’s an understanding that persists: baptism is often described washing us clean. But for Paul, in the baptism offered in Christ, there is something more: baptism with the Holy Spirit.

One way to describe that distinction is to say that in John’s baptism the focus is on the past; in Christ’s, it is the future. Repentance is about wiping the slate clean, having the past forgiven. Baptism in the Holy Spirit – picking up the language of our first reading from Genesis, where the Spirit moves over the face of the deep, over the formless chaos – that baptism is about re-creation, renewal, it is to be thrust into the future. For Paul, baptism is about recognizing the work of the Spirit of God within ourselves, and all the baptised; recognising the Spirit which guides our human decision making, offers hope and strength, brings life. Baptism celebrates God’s action in the world and reveals it as Spirit – not a controlling force, but coaxer, inner voice if we would but listen, uncoverer of hidden talents, bringing all creation, without undermining its freedom, into relationship with God, and therefore into relationship with everything else that is.

At his own baptism, Jesus hears the Spirit declare: ‘You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.’ Our own life in the Spirit begins here too, is grounded in knowing that we are loved: ‘You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.’ Here is hope, and strength; here is the voice of the Spirit  who nurtures our living, coaxes our freedom to be a little more loving, more hopeful, less fearful.

Our baptism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, is not simply some past event, but a reality to be reclaimed now, that points and directs us into an uncertain future. In a moment, as our affirmation of faith, we will renew our baptismal vows, re-commit ourselves to that God who has not got everything mapped out, is not ‘in control’, in charge of our fate, but is God because God does not give up, does not lose hope, but eternally invites us into the freedom of service of others, into a world bound together by the Spirit.

If God is not the great manipulator of events, but the Spirit of renewal, the creator of order out of chaos, then that Methodist covenant prayer powerful articulates a faith that, whatever the year ahead might hold – poverty or riches, action or patience, esteem or loneliness – we will not give up on God, because God does not give up on us. We will continue to hope because God continues to offer us hope. Events may throw us into confusion, suffering might come upon us; we will be newly aware that we are not in control as much as we would like; weariness is, at times, bound to be our lot; but none of this is the final reality, which is God’s inexhaustible love. In the midst of whatever the new year brings, we will listen for God’s Spirit, the Spirit that forever accompanies us and does not desert us. We will not give up on God, because God does not give up on us. A covenant indeed. Amen.

Advent 2 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – 6th December 2020

Isaiah 40.1-11; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8

‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’

So began our gospel reading this morning; and so begins the gospel which will accompany us, speak to us, this coming year. For this is the year, in our lectionary, our cycle of Sunday readings, when we shall work our way through Mark’s Gospel.

‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’

It’s a beginning that, very characteristically for Mark, doesn’t mess about. It plunges us straight in to what this book is about, announces that if we take it seriously this book will change your life. This is not a detached rendering of someone’s life-story – this is good news, and it concerns someone who has been anointed (that’s what the title Christ means), someone who, Mark states, is the Son of God.

That little familiar phrase, ‘good news’ is easy to skip over. In the original Greek it was Euangelion: the word used to head up official announcements. Listen up people, the emperor would announce, here is some good news you need to know. So this opening sentence to Mark’s Gospel, in all its stark simplicity, and despite the fact that it seems concerned with a fairly obscure individual – a trouble-maker even who met his end in an ignominious death – this opening sentence is making a bold and attention grabbing claim: this book is not just of interest to those who happen to be on the inside of the early Christian movement, but this Gospel is a public statement, something everyone needs to hear. And they need to do so because it concerns an anointed one, a divine person; someone therefore on a par, at the very least, with the emperor. The opening sentence is publicly announcing, then and now, regime change: something new has happened which changes everything.

And having announced this startling good news, Mark immediately takes us off into the wilderness. Mark, famously, has no nativity story; he begins in the wilderness, on the outside of things, off the edge of the map almost. And he begins by quoting Isaiah – that passage from Isaiah 40 that we also heard this morning. It’s a passage written in exile, when the people of God are far from home. Comfort, O comfort my people, says Isaiah to a people who are anxious, uncomfortable and afraid. A people longing to be back home, back to normality.

We might know something about that: a longing to get back to normality, as well as the feeling of being in exile from our previous life, anxious and afraid. As the first shoots of hope, with news of vaccines emerge, so we too might be wondering about the road back home. Mark’s Gospel is the good news we need to pay attention to this coming year; for it seeks to chart that way, from wilderness and exile, in the company of the Son of God, toward our true home.

And if we pay attention, we will find it a surprising journey. For as Isaiah announces from exile, and as Mark reiterates, this is not a journey back to anywhere: it’s a journey forward, a making of crooked paths straight, so that the King and his people can enter in. And that surely is the challenge of this coming year, this year through and beyond the pandemic: is it a journey back to business as usual, as life was before? Or is it a journey that makes crooked paths straight; the crooked paths that this pandemic has revealed as much as caused, the deep fissures in our common life, of poverty and insecurity, of racism and prejudice. The challenge of this coming year, and that Mark will speak to, is how we view our time of exile, this pandemic. Can we treat the pandemic not simply as an interruption, before we get back to business as normal, but as that through which we straighten the crooked paths, mend our common life, place solidarity and compassion at the heart of who we are. If the pandemic is simply an interruption, then the mourning and the grief and the heartache will be just that – grief and mourning and heartache. But they could be something more.

Mark’s Gospel certainly has plenty of sorrow and heartache – my favourite quote about Mark comes from an unlikely source. Not a New Testament scholar – with apologies to our own Professor Foster – but a singer and musician, Nick Cave. He says: ‘Mark’s Gospel is a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence. Scenes of deep tragedy are treated with such a matter-of-factness and raw economy they become almost palpable in their unprotected sorrowfulness.’

Mark has plenty to say about sorrow on the journey out of exile. It’s one of the many paradoxes of this self-proclaimed ‘good news,’ that it deals in so much sorrow. But it’s because, at heart, the journey Christ makes is one that redeems the suffering and grief, does not leave them behind or escape them. As Rowan Williams writes: ‘where suffering and insecurity and even the risk of death are daily facts… there are the sorts of people for whom Mark was writing: writing to reinforce a faith in the God who does not step down from heaven to solve problems but who is already in the heart of the world, holding the suffering and the pain in himself and transforming it by the sheer indestructible energy of his mercy.’

And so we begin our journey with Mark in today’s gospel in the wilderness; and in recognition of our need to repent, to turn toward the sheer indestructible energy of God’s mercy. We join the crowds as they flock to the strange figure of John the Baptist, the complete outsider, who nevertheless embodies the wisdom that recognizes the one who is coming, and who captures the longing to journey somewhere new.

This straight path, this highway through the wilderness, on which we embark, that Mark sets out, will not be an easy or straightforward journey. This gospel will overturn much that we thought we knew, and help us discover things in places we didn’t expect. Those who follow in Mark’s account will often falter  – the disciples are, after all, all pretty inept. But, Mark has told us, this is good life-changing news, and if we take the risk of faith, who knows where it will take us.

Remembrance Sunday – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – November 8th 2020

Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25; 1Thessalonians 4.13-18; Matthew 25.1-13

Wake, O wake!
With tidings thrilling the watchmen all the air are filling:
arise Jerusalem, arise!
Midnight strikes! No more delaying,
‘The hour has come’, we hear them saying.
Where are ye all, ye maidens wise?
The Bridegroom comes in sight, raise high your torches bright!
Alleluia! The wedding song swells loud and strong:
go forth and join the festal throng.

Those are the words of the opening verse of Philipp Nicolai’s great hymn; the basis of Bach’s wonderful cantata Wachet Auf, parts of which our choir are busy recording for Advent. It’s a hymn that takes as its inspiration the parable of the ten bridesmaids that we heard this morning. It’s often taken as a parable about the second coming of Christ, a matter of considerable importance and speculation to the early church, who, it is clear, expected that coming imminently. The parable ends, in Matthew’s telling of it after all, with the exhortation: ‘Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day or the hour.’

And yet, the parable is introduced by Jesus, as many parables are, by the phrase: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like this.’ No talk of second comings there, but of the kingdom that elsewhere Jesus has told his disciples is already among them. And the other strange thing about that final exhortation to ‘stay awake,’ is that within the parable all the bridesmaids (foolish and wise) fall asleep. To keep awake is not the issue therefore, rather that to be part of that kingdom which suddenly comes upon us is about being wise rather than foolish. We shouldn’t miss the Old Testament overtones of those words, where folly is about living as if there is no God, no purpose or meaning; and wisdom is understood to be about living within an awareness and awe of God. That foolishness and wisdom are found in the degree of preparedness, of making ready for the celebration that is to come, that will suddenly arrive.

That still begs the question, however, what that preparedness, consists in – what are the flasks of oil, if we are wise, we are asked to make sure we have stocks of? One answer of the Christian tradition is that wisdom is found in the process of remembering: that tradition itself is a school of wisdom; it is by remembering, re-telling and praying the stories of our tradition, that we stock up on wisdom, that we become prepared to see and greet the kingdom as it comes among us.

This is a Sunday when remembering looms large: not just the remembering of our own individual stories, however important those are in constructing our sense of who we are; but our collective, shared remembering: together holding the memory of those who have died in the wars of the last hundred years. Like our personal memories and the process whereby we arrive at them, such remembering is not straightforward: Remembrance Sunday can be an attempt to sanitize (or romanticize) the memories, to put them at the service a superficial patriotism, of ‘our country right or wrong’; but it also springs from a real and visceral need to remember the dead, to refuse to let their memory die also. Remembering is never straightforward, but is vital in shaping who we are, and what we long for.

Remembering is not confined to this Sunday only; it is at the heart of the church: we gather round the stories of the people of Israel, and of Christ and his disciples, re-enacting, re-membering week by week, in word and action, the tradition we are heirs to, and schooled within. In that is our wisdom. That can make the church sound inherently conservative, obsessed with the past, with the memories it inherits and re-tells. But if we characterize memories as the oil in the wise maiden’s lamps, then the point of remembering is so that we can be awake to what is happening. In a world where truth is ever more contested, and fabrications and lies become the common currency, then being anchored in truthful stories that school us in wisdom, in the ability to recognise truth when it comes, becomes ever more important. And, above all, in the Christian tradition, it enables us to be alive to the presence of the bridegroom coming amongst us; like the maidens, to wake up, and greet the coming Christ, the kingdom already amongst us. Without our stories, our common remembering, we would not recognise him; without our re-telling, the bread and wine remain bread and wine; it is the re-membering of the Last Supper which transforms them and us to recognise and receive them as Christ’s body and blood given for the life of the world.

And our remembering of the dead from the wars of the last century, as well as holding them in remembrance, refusing to let their violent death have the final word, also surely deepens our longing for peace, our conviction and desire to do all we are able to mean that the tragedy of war is never necessary again. So our remembering is not simply about looking back, but schooling us in wisdom, for the sake of the future. Christian faith is above all, centred on the memory of Jesus. The memory of his life, death and perhaps above all, his resurrection – that act of God which breaks open the endless cycle of violence, a cycle often dependent on the cherishing and holding of long memories. The resurrection reveals a God who turns our memories of violence and betrayal around, whose forgiveness, received and offered to others, breaks the hold the past can have over us. The church holds and hands on the memory of Jesus, because, in this man, we find our true home and identity; in the light of his memory, our memories are judged, and healed. Memories can both trap us (in nostalgia, in the longing to be somewhere other than here and someone other than who we are), or they can free us (by giving us an identity, a sense of self and a place in the unfolding story of God’s good purposes for God’s creation). Wisdom is found in that freedom.

Philipp Nicolai wrote his great hymn toward the end of the 16th century. He had lived through violent religious controversies – falling out with both Roman Catholics, and Calvinists; and now as the pastor of Unna in Westphalia, he found himself in the midst of the ravages of the plague. In one week in August 1597, he had to bury 170 victims; in total 1300 members of his parish died. The joyous acclamations of the hymn, and its tune, which he also wrote (although it took the genius of Bach to truly draw it out) – that joy may seem at odds with the those tragic circumstances. And yet, this is what faith offers in what otherwise would be unbearable circumstances: a drawing on a deep well of stories, of schooled wisdom, to offer hope and yes, even joy, in the hardest of times. And as we look toward Advent and Christmas, and wonder how we might offer hope and joy in our own hard, difficult times, then we need to look, our gospel suggests, to the oil in our lamps: the wisdom of our tradition, and our remembering; drawing on that deep well to strengthen our hope, and ground our joy. So that we, once more, recognise and greet the presence of Christ in our midst. Amen.

Pentecost 20 – sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 18th October 2020

Exodus 33.12-23; Psalm 99; Matthew 22.15-22

We need to talk about God. In the midst of this pandemic, and the anxieties, frustrations and fears for the future that it throws up, we need to talk about God. In the midst of the extraordinary stories of love and care and compassion that this pandemic also reveals, we need to talk about God.

We need to talk about God so that we can be clear and articulate about what faith means in the midst of the extraordinary events overtaking us. We need to talk about God so we can deepen our faith, and find the resources to build up the solidarity, the sense of community, the will to persevere, the concern for the vulnerable, that will see us through.

The need to talk about God is something that Jesus too invites us to consider. When those in authority, those who had things worked out, in his own day, approached him to trap him in clever questions, they did so by first flattering him, and then trying to find the question that would condemn him: ‘Teacher,’ they said to Jesus, ‘we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?’

We don’t have to get into the complicated politics of Jesus’ own day, the questions of the legitimacy or otherwise of an occupying imperial army, to realise that the question is about the limits of faith – what impact does faith have on the conduct and the shape of our living; our relationship to authority – the emperor in Jesus’ time. Is faith simply something relegated to the private sphere, or something that has an impact on our public behaviour and attitudes – in this case the payment of taxes to an emperor.

Jesus’ answer to the question designed to trap him, is to throw back the question on to those who ask it, and – for those of us hearing it as part of our Gospel reading for today – back on us, to answer for ourselves in our own time and circumstance. ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ The line is not clear cut; authority, what is demanded of us by others, needs to be respected; but so must the demands of faith. Those demands of faith, the outworking of believing in God, may, or may not, be in tension with the claims of authority. But they need to be thought about, decisions made about how we are going to act, the shape our life might take – what allegiance we are going to owe, to whom, and why. We need to talk about God.

The great American Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, writes this:

Entertain this proposition: That God is the map whereby we locate the setting of our life. That God is the water in which we launch our life raft. That God is the real thing, from which and toward which we receive our being and identify ourselves. It follows that the kind of God at work in your life will determine the shape and quality and risk and centre of your existence. It matters who God is.

The question of who God is, certainly mattered to Moses. Our reading from Exodus sees Moses embarking on a long dialogue with God about the meaning and presence of God in his trials and journeyings. By this point Moses is approaching old age; he’s brought the people out of Egypt amidst great signs and wonders; he’s tracked across the desert with them through great hardship and tribulation. And now he’s wondering what it’s all been about; where has God been through it all? ‘Show me your ways,’ he says to God, ‘consider too that this nation is your people.’ And the replies he gets are a repeat of the theological truths he already has heard, he already knows, but that somehow are not enough: ‘You have found favour in my sight,’ repeats God, ‘I know you by name.’

It is a dense dialogue between Moses and God, full of questions and the repeating of assurances that God is present, assurances that fail to satisfy Moses. And then we have a strange exchange that is worth quoting in full:

Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And God said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’

‘Show me your glory, I pray,’ asks Moses. And then God talks about being all goodness, about being gracious and merciful. But that fullness of God can never be seen: that glory of God – that fullness of goodness, of graciousness and mercy – will pass by Moses, but he’ll only catch the back of it, the trailings of God’s glory. But that will be enough.

We need to talk about God. But even more we need to pray to be shown God’s glory, those trailings of the fullness of goodness and graciousness and mercy, that are the signs of God’s presence and truth. If we knew the fulness of God; if we could define and say, that’s God, then by definition we would have captured something less than God. God is the one who always exceeds our limits of knowledge and understanding, who is beyond our ken, because the fullness of goodness, of grace and mercy, is beyond us. And yet the trailings of that goodness, the signs of its presence through our world in extraordinary acts of goodness, of grace and mercy, the trailings of God’s presence in people and places and moments that lift our heart and direct us toward God – that is what we need to nourish us in faith, to strengthen us for the long journey that beckons, to tackle together the challenges of a pandemic which strikes above all the vulnerable, and questions our solidarity and love. The fullness of goodness is beyond us, but we can know something of its glory, be caught up in its trailings, and allow that goodness to shape us. To give back to God, the things that are God’s – God’s goodness, and grace, and mercy – to God’s glory. Amen

St Francis – Sermon preached online by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley – 4th October 2020

“The whole point of (St. Francis’) point of view was that it looked out freshly upon a fresh world, that might have been made that morning. Save for the great primal things, the Creation and the Story of Eden, the first Christmas and the first Easter, the world had no history.”

That quotation from GK Chesterton’s biography of St Francis gives us an insight into the radical nature of Franciscan spirituality.  Unlike other founders of religious orders, Francis took a very straightforward approach to spiritual journeying, his core instruction was to Live the Gospel.  He didn’t give a set of spiritual exercises or a Rule covering every aspect of life; he kept it simple.  Live the Gospel.  Approach each day as a new beginning, an opportunity to engage with people, to make a difference for people, to care for God’s people.

The personal journey that Francis went on was one that few of us could emulate.  Not only did he give up his personal wealth and some of his father’s possessions, but he actively sought to engage with people who were ostracised, to reach out to people on the fringes of society and to treat them as sisters and brothers.

Immersion in the battlegrounds of Perugia and the way he dealt with his subsequent imprisonment give us an early indication of the way that God was working within him and the radical nature of his approach to his fellow human beings.  When others condemned, Francis was compassionate.  When others turned away, Francis reached out.  He had a gift for recognising the humanity in the other, a gift for honouring each person and accepting them just as they were.  One of the better known stories about Francis is about him overcoming his fear and disgust of lepers and getting off his horse to kiss a leper and to offer him money.  Subsequently, he explained that encounter as an encounter with Christ.  And one of the cornerstones of the ongoing ministry that Francis and his friars engaged in was within a leper colony.

What Francis did was more than simply to overcome his own prejudices and revulsion, more than doing good for the sake of doing good.  It appears that he found himself compelled to behave in these ways, compelled to honour the people he met; compelled to live the Gospel on a daily basis.

His personal encounters with Christ marked him – both with the physical marks of the stigmata that he bore and with the inner marks of compassion and love.

Let’s look at today’s Scripture from St Matthew, bearing in mind as we do that Francis instructed his friars to live the Gospel.  The first Apostles were sent out with clear instructions both about what they should be doing but also about how they should go about it.  Jesus is telling them not to plan too far ahead.  Don’t make contingency plans; don’t take your emergency rations or that spare £20 note ‘just in case’.  Just set off and engage with the people you meet and the situations you encounter.

As I hear myself saying that, I know that I could easily become quite anxious at the prospect.   I wasn’t a Girl Guide but I’ve probably absorbed the suggestion that at all times we should be prepared.  And yet, here we read that we should do just the opposite; that we should go as we are, that we should engage in the moment, and that if it doesn’t work out we should simply move on and start again.

Now that really is a description of living with trust, being responsive, a description of an approach most of us just aren’t ready for.  We have bills to pay and dependents to take care of.  We have diaries and appointments and commitment – places to be and things to do.   So is there something we can learn from Francis that would help us to live lives that were a little bit closer to that Gospel imperative, allow us to be a little bit more akin to those disciples rather than perhaps realising that the best we manage is to be the disciples we choose to be?   Back to Chesterton: Francis looked out freshly on a fresh world that might have been made that morning.

It seems to me that the first step towards that way of engaging is to lay down each day at the end of that day.  To find a way to give thanks for all that any particular day has brought, to ask God’s forgiveness for our wrong doing in the course of the day and to remind ourselves that tomorrow will be a new day, an opportunity for a new beginning, a day to do some things a bit differently from today and perhaps a day to build on some of what went well today.  In that popular phrase: every day’s a school day.

Let’s just note the beginning of the quotation from Chesterton: Francis looked out.  Francis didn’t just fall out of bed and find himself immersed in his first activity of the day before he’d properly woken up.  Francis took the time to greet the new day, to remind himself that this was a fresh beginning that would bring fresh opportunities and challenges.  This is the flip side of the suggestion I made that we should lay down all that a day has been.  It’s kind of like bookending our days.  At the start of the day we might take a moment to remind ourselves that this is a new day, that whatever yesterday was or tomorrow will be, this is the day we are asked to live.   And this day comes to its end when we take a few moments to absorb all that it has been and brought and to give thanks.

If we are seeking to give thanks for living a little bit more like the first disciples, to give thanks for opportunities to live the Gospel, then we do well to remember that Francis based his living of that Gospel in his actions and attitudes towards others.

The defining feature of his service is that first and foremost he was interested in people who were most disadvantaged, more discriminated against, most excluded or reviled.  To follow in the footsteps of Francis demands us to reach out to people whom we find it impossible to understand, people who have made choices that make no sense to us, people whose lives are unimaginable for us.  And the danger is then that we try to do good to people, rather than getting alongside and finding out what would make a difference for them.

That’s the challenge – but it’s a challenge that we don’t have to accomplish all in one day.  Today’s reminder is that each day is a fresh beginning and brings fresh opportunities.  The Gospel imperative is to get out there and do it.  Offer what you are able and if it’s welcomed, great, and if not, move on.   Day by day, you will learn what makes a difference and what is best laid aside.

We’re unlikely to become modern day versions of Francis but we can be the best versions of ourselves; and that at both the beginning and the end of the day is all that God asks of us.

 

Creation-time 3 – Sermon preached online by the Bishop of Edinburgh, Rt Rev Dr John Armes – 20th September 2020

Matthew 20.1-16

I don’t suppose many landowners would behave like the man in today’s story. But that’s the point. The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a place or a realm where people behave normally – according to the usual rules and expectations of the prevailing culture. It isn’t the locus for the ordinary but the extraordinary.

In the Kingdom of Heaven – in a world that works by God’s rules – we find people doing extraordinary things, acting with extraordinary generosity. They don’t calculate gain or loss, they’re not concerned about what the neighbours think, they don’t pay heed to doomsayers or the threats of those whose interests are vested in the status quo. By the standards of both his day and ours, the landowner had more money than sense. Who pays someone for work they haven’t done? And surely, if this were to be the usual pattern wouldn’t it simply encourage everyone to turn up at five o’clock and do one hour’s work rather than springing out of bed at first light to toil through the day?

The parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard speaks to us of eternal truths but it’s also very much a story for today. St Augustine would have pointed out that it’s we, Christian believers, who’ve arrived at the last minute to spend our hour in the vineyard before being given exactly the same reward as holy women and men who entered God’s service many centuries ago. He would say that the one denarius each of us receives is sufficient for all we need. If we have enough why would we grumble that others also have enough? In God’s economy, indeed, we do not earn but we are promised eternal life – infinite life – so it’s surely foolish to begrudge infinity to others when there is no limit to the benefits we shall enjoy.

Such is the greater theological truth of this story, if you like, but it’s also a story that has interesting resonances for today. Its inversion of the natural order of things and its challenge to our work ethic is perhaps heard differently in a pandemic world where it has not just been necessary but desirable to pay people to stay at home, to subsidise business owners, to compensate employers, to house the homeless. All this stands in stark contrast to the political ideology, shared by many of us let’s be honest, that idleness should not be rewarded, that people should receive an incentive to work, that one’s ‘worth’ is defined by the size of one’s income.

Haven’t we learned during this time, for example, that the most useful people, the most essential people, aren’t those high up the pay scale? Haven’t we also leaned, of ourselves as well as seeing it in others, that work actually fulfils us – that for most of us inactivity causes all sorts of stresses and strains on our mental health – that we like to be doing things, learning things, joining in things? And, if we don’t get paid for it we’re often willing to do it for nothing. Haven’t we caught a glimpse, a tiny glimmer, of an economic reality that doesn’t demand growth on growth and in which the sharing of wealth promotes health, well-being and creativity? A glimpse, perhaps, of the Kingdom of Heaven where God’s rules apply – and as we’ve looked we’ve wondered whether perhaps it’s not as daft and eccentric as we once thought.

The difficulty is that shortly after we’re born we learn to put on blinkers. Centuries of worldly wisdom crowd in on us, seep into us, and in some part of ourselves we imbibe the idea that those who are poor must suffer for it and those who are rich must be rewarded. Yet, interestingly, the church – in part of its life at any rate – has always subverted these conventions. Its clergy, whose role as shepherds of God’s flock, as those who tend to the deepest spiritual needs of humanity, who share a vision of God’s glory and God’s justice, and as such, I would argue, are doing essential work, vital work of lasting value, aren’t paid a salary but a stipend. And this stipend is calculated on the basis of providing enough to live on rather than rewarding the hours worked (which are many) or the importance of the job done (which, as I say, is huge).

Now whilst the purity of this position has been eroded and qualified over the years, and whilst it’s increasingly difficult to maintain the idea of stipend as against salary – and whilst at times clergy morale is undermined in a culture that equates the level of pay with one’s social status – nevertheless we see here in the life of Christian community evidence of the eccentric economy of the Kingdom of God.

Increasingly others too, quite apart from communities of faith, are wondering whether we haven’t got it wrong. With the emergence of artificial intelligence, the probability that the future can’t promise a 9-5 job for everyone and since there is already plenty of wealth to go around, many are asking whether the time may have come to welcome all this, to reduce working hours, encourage job sharing and pay everyone what’s called a universal basic income.

As I say, recent experience has shown how adaptable we are in terms of working practice. It’s also indicated that people (most people) enjoy being active and that, freed from working long hours, most people can be incredibly resourceful and productive with their time, even in lock-down.

Whether those workers in the vineyard who arrived late did so because they’d slept in or spent the day in the equivalent of the pub, or whether they’d been looking after an elderly relative or child-minding or starting their own small business or learning to play the harp (or any number of other reasons) we’re not told and neither is this the point of the story. Human beings are fallible, they mess up, and because they mess up every economic system they devise is likely to be flawed, universal basic income as well as free-market capitalism. St Augustine is right to remind us that the disproportionate rewards of God’s kingdom are for the next life rather than a utopian possibility for this.

And yet, the story Jesus tells of the employment practices of a rather strange landowner invites us to think about work, about its rewards, about money and status and indeed, about the purpose of life itself. At a time when the unthinkable is a daily occurrence it enables us to see how the values of God’s kingdom might inform and shape our future. This is surely why we pray, ‘Your kingdom come, O God, on earth as in heaven.’

+John

Creation-time 1 – sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 6th September 2020

Exodus 12.1-14; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20

The Cathedral soaring around me is a monumental structure. It was very consciously designed and built less than 150 years ago, of course, to look back, and echo, the great gothic medieval Cathedrals of Europe. But it was also built to last, to re-echo long into the future; re-echo a word of praise and beauty, to witness to realities that transcend time. Past, present and future are here all present, in what we might call cathedral time. It is that monumentality, that presence that underpins the Cathedral as a place of prayer: here is the reassurance of permanence; here the immediate cares and anxieties drop away and a sense of perspective is given by that Cathedral time, those realities that transcend time. The Cathedral in its very structure announces that it is here for the long haul.

The date of 2030 is cited by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as the last opportunity to avoid global warming above 1.5 degrees centigrade, the maximum ‘safe’ level agreed in the Paris accord of 2015.  If we have not drastically curtailed global warming gas emissions by then, then future life on earth is threatened. Threatened not least by the feedback loops established by global warming within nature itself – where change is amplified by the melting of artic sea ice, for example, that it is then very hard to imagine re-freezing. Under the IPCC’s ‘business as usual’ scenario, sea level will increase by 0.84 metres by 2100, but many scientists predict far higher rises given those feedback loops.

As a coastal city this is grave news for Edinburgh. What will the map of Edinburgh look like in the 2070’s, for instance, as this Cathedral approaches its 200th anniversary? And how about for its 300th or 500th year anniversary?  It seems increasingly likely that half of Edinburgh will be under water within a century or two.  We may all be long gone, but what does that potentially altered map of Edinburgh say about the permanence of this building, a permanence surely offered not just for itself, but as part of our offering to our city. The Cathedral announces that we are in this for the long haul, that the realities that transcend time also will endure through time. Climate change puts a huge question mark against that.

And we live in a part of the world that could be relatively unscathed. If we think Covid in recent months has disrupted our usual patterns, then that is nothing compared to what might be coming. As Paul says in his leter to the Romans, You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.

So how do we hold those two perspectives together – the long term, the unanxious presence of this Cathedral; and the sense of crisis in our relationship to the earth and one another that is our current moment and challenge?

Today is the start of creation-time; a month long celebration and reminder that the world is God’s world, not simply ours; that we are because of God’s good gift of life – a gift of life to all creation, life in all its evolved diversity and splendour; a creation of which we are but one part, and on which we, and all humanity, depend. Creation-time begins in the moment when we stop, and in awe and wonder and praise, contemplate the mystery and beauty of that creation.

But we also enter Creation-time at a moment when we know, more than ever before, that God’s creation as we experience it, as it gives life to generations of humans and a profusion of other life, is under peril. Under peril from an unsustainable way of living that treats the earth not as a gift to cherish and hand on to future generations but a resource to exploit for present purposes and gain. You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. Creation-time names our environmental crisis as a spiritual crisis. That doesn’t mean that Christianity has the answer to the crisis in some straight-forward fashion. Rather it is the insight that if we are going to respond to this crisis together then we need to engage with and draw upon the resources and insights that Christianity, and the other great religions, offer, so that we might, together, change. The deep resources represented by the monumentality of this place are desperately needed in the urgent task of responding to a world in peril.

That sense of urgency pervades our first reading from the Book of Exodus. I spoke a fortnight ago about Exodus being the primal narrative of the people of Israel. The heart of that rescue by God, in the story of the Passover, is told in this memorialised form because whatever history lies behind that liberation, it becomes through telling and re-telling, the primordial story of the people of Israel – they are, above all, those whom God has rescued. This is the moment of a new start that can be forever reclaimed as happening now. Our reading tells the people how the Passover meal is to be eaten: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. At the heart of this primal and formational narrative is a perpetual reminder that we are a people on the move, that we are not to get comfortable. The story as old as time, almost, is what brings renewed urgency.

And our Gospel reading, addressing as it does, disputes and dissensions within the church, provides the spiritual resource of honesty. When serious matters are in view – and what could be more serious than the imperilling of life on earth – when disputes arise, work these things out together, says Jesus. The life of mutual forgiveness that Christ calls us into is a life that asks us into costly relationship with others – as we are now realising with all creation, present and future. These are not relationships to be given up on, but worked out in and through the practise of forgiveness. For in this way the God of all creation breaks open our selfish ways with his liberating presence – for where two or three are gathered, I am there, says Christ; where two or three are gathered, I am is there; the God who gave God’s name from the burning bush as I am, is there, is here. Calling us into a different future, so that with urgency and humility we  lift our eyes beyond simply our present concerns and needs, and embrace the purposes of the one who holds all life in being, through all time. To God be the glory and the praise. Amen.

Pentecost 12 – sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 23rd August 2020

Exodus 1.8-2.10; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20

Our first reading this morning was the beginning of the book of Exodus. The Book of Genesis immediately prior to Exodus has set forth the creation of the world, and the stories of our great forebears in faith – Abraham, Isaac and JacobBut that setting forth of the world as God’s gift, and the response of faith in those forebears, needs to be laid alongside the Book of Exodus. For Exodus in many ways is the ‘primal’ narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures, and of the people of GodIt is primal because it is of the greatest importance in the self-understanding of Jews, and then Christians; primal because it is the story which brings to birth the people of God, as they understand themselves – the people of Israel. We enter here almost ‘recognisable’ history, stepping out from the shadows of creation stories, myths, and folk talesExodus is archetypal – it is a story which bears repeating (as is indeed done in the Passover tradition for Jews to this day) because it sets out the basic understanding of the people of Israel: that are they are made a people by the action of God in history. The action of God which overturnthe lordship of Pharaoh, of the powers of this world. Exodus is, for Jews and then Christians who re-interpret it in the light of Christ, the archetypal, the primal story of liberation from slavery, of the overcoming of the power of domination by the power of God, the creative power that makes a people. 

And so I invite you, as we dig together into the opening of this story, and enter imaginatively into its world, to ask yourself: what are we enslaved to? What is the liberation we long for, and that God provides? 

You might have some immediate answers: we feel pretty enslaved to the Coronavirus at present; its threat, and our response, increasingly governing life and what is possible, and not possible. But beyond that, perhaps you recognise other enslavements – to a life-denying job or pattern of work; to patterns of addiction; to the pressure and our need to possess certain goods, or particular attributes? In the context of climate crisis, perhaps we are all enslaved to ways of life that outstrip the ability of the earth to sustain life: we know that we must change, but we don’t know how – we are prisoners to forces seemingly beyond our control. Our need for liberation is as pressing as ever. And so what can we learn from the Book of Exodus, this primal telling of the formation of a people by God through the process of liberation from enslavement? 

The opening verses set out the themes that will follow. The values of Pharaoh, of the lordship that dominatethis world are quickly established in a few lines: ‘Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.’ The end of Genesis told of the rescuing of Egypt by the Pharaoh’s right hand man, Joseph, alongside Joseph’s own rescue from the hands of his brothers, and their subsequent rescue from starvation by him – but now all of that is forgotten. The power that rules the land has forgotten its history, its debt to others, its entwined history. The language becomes impersonal, as the new king says to his people: “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them.” They’ have become people we do not know; ‘more numerous and more powerful than we’ – is that really true? Or is it the spreading of inflated claims, fake news. And so the king settles on dealing shrewdly with them, which turns out to be setting taskmasters over the people to oppress them with forced labour These are the tactics of populists throughout the ages: the spreading of misinformation and fear, the tactics of divide and rule. ‘They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them,’ we are told. 

We move from this big picture to the immediate and local. Two midwives are named as those who deal with the Hebrew women, and the Pharaoh attempts to conscript them in his crackdown. They, however, show a certain amount of cunning; they know how to tell white lies couched in terms that the king will relate tothe Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women,’ they sayfor they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them. The claim is nonsense, but in a world where lies about us and them have spread, it is believable; fake news propagates and spreads. The midwives are the first heroes in this story, however, their vocation to bring life and not death allies them to the lordship of the God who is life, who wills his people to be liberated from enslavement to death. 

And so we arrive at the birth of Moses: and a story which began by setting out the divisions between Egyptians and Hebrews, us and them, suddenly becomes about the entanglement of each, and the solidarity of women who conspire to bring life in the midst of the threat of death. Is it too much to read a certain knowingness into the actions of Pharaoh’s daughter as she discovers the basket containing this child, a basket placed there in desperation, a son literally given to the waters in fear and hope by a desperate mother in fear of her son’s lifeSurely Pharaoh’s daughter knows what is going on when a girl suddenly appears and offers someone to nurse the child, she surely guesses this is the child’s mother? But Pharaoh’s daughter too decides to act in defiance of the power of her father, the power of death and destruction, to act for life. Indeed her actions are the template for the actions that God will soon take: She ‘comes down’, ‘sees’ the child, ‘hears’ its cry, takes pity on him, draws him out of the water, and provides for his daily needs that he may live. So will God shortly do, coming down and seeing the oppression of the people, hearing their cry, and drawing them out of the deeps. All this God will do, through this child Moses. 

And so from the start there is something different about Moses – he is neither one of us or one of them; he is a Hebrew brought up in the Egyptian court; a son who owes his life to brave women on both sides of the divide who don’t judge him by his race or background, but risk everything to give him life. The one who is to help liberate his people is someone who is fully at home in neither the world of the enslaved, nor, as he becomes aware of his own origins, in the world of the powerful. 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, says Paul in the reading from Romans we also heard. Refusing to be conformed to this world is to take that journey of liberation that Moses shortly embarks on, freeing ourselves from the patterns of domination, of that which brings deathThat is not a journey of the solitary self, however. As Moses will discover, the process of liberation is about the formation of a people who stand together, who recognise their dependence on God and their need of one another – members one of another, as Paul puts it. The transformation by the renewal of our minds enables us to see ourselves part of that whole, and to live within the values of solidarity, of compassion, seeking together liberation from the worldly values which so often enslave us and others. It is about being part of the church. 

I began by asking us to ponder what we are enslaved to. I suggested that the current pandemic is one immediate, whilst not the only answer, to that question. To be liberated from the pandemic and its effects will not be achieved through the patterns of domination – everyone for themselves, the rush for a quick cure that will make a profit, the blame game of fake news about who is most responsible for spreading it. Liberation requires the development of true solidarity, the sense of being in this together; the collective effort of science to seek understanding and cures and mitigationthe acceptance of necessary limits and disciplines; the compassion of protecting the vulnerable. And if we can do that together, so we should be able to rise to the even larger challenge of our climate crisis – developing the true solidarity of being a community together, bringing the best resources of technology and science and creativity to the task, accepting necessary limits and discipline, with the compassion to protect the vulnerable. That is the journey of liberation that responds to the call of God to bring life in a world dominated by the powers of destruction and death. It is the journey of the church. It is our journey. Amen.