Pentecost 2 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 19th June

1Kings 19.1-15; Luke 8.26-39

‘Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.’

A sound of sheer silence. The Authorised Version famously translated this moment of meeting between God and Elijah as ‘a still, small voice’ – the translation picked up in our gradual hymn and that wonderfully evocative final line, ‘O still small voice of calm.’ That’s certainly one way to understand this moment – a moment of calm, a voice of calm, after the noise and fury of the earthquake, wind and fire. But ‘a sound of sheer silence’ suggests other possibilities too, possibilities rooted in our own experience of silence.

A literal translation of the original Hebrew, I’m told, would be ‘voice of thin silence’, voice of thin silence. This is not quite nonsense, but you can see the difficulties that translators are confronted with, especially when the uniqueness of this passage means that we have no idea what the Hebrew would have meant to its original listeners – there is nothing else quite like it, to compare it to. A certain incomprehensibility is all to the good, for this is speech about an encounter with God, and what ever else we go on to say, our words about God should begin with an admission of their inadequacy. God begins and ends in mystery – any adequate response to a moment of encounter is wonder and awe. Any translation, while remaining faithful to the original, needs to help us into that moment of stillness and encounter, beyond the raging wind, and earthquake and fire, to meet the living, indescribable, God.

A sound of sheer silence. I’m immediately reminded of that moment at the end of the performance of some pieces of music; when as part of an audience you are profoundly aware of the silence; you want that moment to last, for you have been carried to a place of stillness and silence. After the noise and fury of what has gone before – sorry that doesn’t sound very complimentary to the music, but you know what I am driving at – after all that has gone on before, that silence is a moment of transcendence and community; it is larger than any one individual, and I stretches out, until the dam bursts and applause can be held back no longer. The silence is dependent and in contrast to what has gone before, but it is very much a communal experience. In our passage from 1Kings, Elijah is alone, downcast. This moment of encounter turns him around.

A sound of sheer silence. Be still and know that I am God, Psalm 46 exhorts us. There’s clearly a long tradition of an encounter with God beginning in silence. The practice and discipline of maintaining silence, of being still and letting God be God, is hard, however; often difficult to sustain. In our busy, noise-filled lives, we long for silence, and yet for many of us, I suspect, it remains at that level of longing. We protest loudly that ‘all I want is some peace and quiet’, but given an unexpected hour of space, we often go looking for something to fill it. And perhaps that is because actually sheer silence is unnerving – the encounter with the silence of God uncomfortable.

A sound of sheer silence. Does it make any sense to speak of that silence being the place of encounter with God? For the atheist, that silence is vindication of the absence of God. The silence is the silence of nothingness, of meaninglessness. As Pascal famously noted, ‘the eternal silence of the infinite spaces terrifies me.’ And to enter silence can be to enter that place of doubt, that abyss: be still and know the pain of the lack of God’s presence, of the loss of meaning. To enter into silence is to risk finding the world meaningless – no wonder we prefer the temporary comfort of busy-ness, and noise. Entering silence involves a stripping bare, but that is where, at times, our true hope lies. For that may not be simply meaningless. Elijah, in the cave at Horeb, is at the end of his tether – desperate, alone. The earthquake, wind and fire are in that sense outward manifestations of what is going on internally – noise and confusion and terror. It is a sound of sheer silence that reveals something new, turns him around, moves him out of his self-obsession, and gives him a new task.

For silence, rather than betokening meaninglessness; silence is where God can be at work in us.

A sound of sheer silence. This is where prayer begins. And where it ends. Silence is where, to take our cue from today’s gospel, our demons have to be wrestled with. In silence we become aware of both the distractions our minds are capable of throwing up, and the evasions our ego demands. No wonder silence involves a stripping bare. The silence calls us to a simplicity of life before the living God, beyond our usual mess of competing desires, complicated ruses and evasions. Our lives are all too often, like the Gerasene demoniac of Luke’s gospel, filled with clamour; lived amongst tombs of the past, ready at any moment to return to haunt us. The Gerasene reaches the point of stillness, sat at the feet of Christ, clothed and in his right mind, through the confrontation of those demons. The surrounding crowd are unnerved at such healing, at such arrival into stillness and silence. They too have demons. For most of us, such healing involves a lifetime – a continual returning to that uncomfortable silence of God in which our evasions, our demons and fears, are named and redeemed. For the silence is the silence of suffering love, of love that knows all things, bears all things, redeems all things. Prayer begins by entering that silence of the eternal God, and seeing what happens to us there. We might find that like Elijah on Mount Horeb, we are told to stop being so self-piyting and return to our prophetic duties; like the Gerasene demoniac, we might begin to be healed and sent out to declare the good works of God, like Paul we might become clothed with Christ, given a new identity beyond the markers that so easily divide us. A sound of sheer silence. Where God can be God. Amen.

Pentecost – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 5th June

Genesis 11.1-9; Acts 2.1-21; John 14.8-17, 25-27

Our first reading this morning told the story of the tower of Babel. We are in Genesis chapter 11: the final act, one might say, of pre-history. After this, the Book of Genesis embarks on the story of Abraham, and we are into almost recognisable history (however loosely that term is understood). But in the first 11 chapters of Genesis we are in myth, a narrative that articulates how and why the world is the way the world is: we have had the story of creation, of the expulsion of humanity from the garden. We have had Cain and Abel; and Noah, his ark, and the rainbow of God’s covenant with the earth. And the final act in this mythic unfolding narrative is God scattering, creating a babble, to confuse and divide a humanity that has used its one universal language to try and colonise heaven. Humanity has used the power given to it at the start of Genesis, the power of dominion, to dominate, and not to steward; to build up, up, up instead of reaching out sideways. The mythic storytelling lays out a disconnected world, where people are divided from each other in particular by language.

First published in 1951, Ethnologue, is a book which documents the languages of the world. In that first edition, the linguist Richard Pittman identified 46 known languages in the world. In the latest, 25th edition of Ethnologue, published earlier this year, 7,151 known living languages are documented. It is worth noting that that is down from the 7,299 living languages recorded 15 years ago – nearly 150 languages have been lost in that time. Ethnologue, in the 70 years it has been documenting language, testifies to the rapid process of globalisation, that both makes us more aware of those different languages – from 46 to over 7,000 known languages – and to the ways the process of globalisation often hastens their demise. We are more than ever before perhaps, one world. We live that globalisation: information and knowledge and capital flow around our world with unprecedented speed. We live in the age of the internet, and also of Macdonald’s. And yet we are as divided and disconnected from each other as ever. The tower of Babel retains its mythic power to describe our own historical moment: we reach both literally and figuratively for the skies, and many a global company dreams of a universal language where its brand is understood and bought by all, and yet are we colonising heaven, or creating hell?

Our reading from the Book of Acts, that moment of Pentecost, that coming of the Spirit, is of course proclaimed as the moment when the legacy of Babel is overcome. But it’s vital to note that that is not by a reversal of Babel. Pentecost is not the discovery of a universal language, but the moment when a diversity of people are enabled by the Spirit to hear the proclamation of the resurrection in their own language:

‘How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 

Christianity begins in a moment of translation, of meeting in a foreign tongue. The disciples are as confused as everyone else for they are not in control of the process, it has taken them beyond the boundaries of the known. They discover a Holy Spirit who, whilst an advocate, an articulator of God’s deeds of power, is  not one who sets them against others, but help them make connections, find and articulate the truth lived out together. The Spirit creates a community where the stranger is not a threat, where the barriers of language are overcome by taking us out of our own mother tongue, our own comfort zone, and creating something new. Diversity without division, and unity without uniformity, characterizes that earliest church.

Pentecost undoes our babbling confusion not by imposing a single language, but by enabling the Spirit’s truth to be known in translation. The unity of our humanity is found in those 7,151 languages, not destroyed by them. What makes us different, one from another is no longer seen as that which keeps us apart, but that which together praises God, the source of all life.

We’ve been encouraged to think a lot about unity these last few days: the Queen’s Jubilee is regularly evoked as a moment of national unity, and I don’t doubt the truth of that. The coincidence of Pentecost and the Jubilee might help us think through the nature and character of that almost intangible unity we celebrate. For it is hard to put your finger on what characterizes it. That unity finds its focus, of course, in a  redoubtable, formidable yet frail 96 year old. Finds its focus in our Queen, who has embraced a life of service and duty and devotion. And yet the Jubilee is about more than her, however much we celebrate her life and reign at its heart – the Jubilee is a national moment, capturing something of the nation’s spirit; it transcends any one of us and yet unites us.

And however much a 70 year anniversary helps us look back, it’s not just about nostalgia either. Some us of remember previous Jubilees – maybe even the start of our Queen’s reign, but that looking back also reminds us how much has changed; and part of that change is how much more diverse a nation we are now than we used to be, or thought of ourselves as. The forces of globalisation have profoundly shaped us these last 70 years, just as the legacies of empire, and yes, slavery, assert themselves and ask hard questions of who we are. Those voices are part of the Jubilee too, the national story which finds focus and voice in moments like this.

And in the very understandable absences of the Queen from moments of this weekend’s celebrations there has been a visible handing on of the reins that begins to hint and shape the future. The Jubilee matters because it embraces all that within the overall joy and power of celebration: the sense of an unfolding story; the strength found in diversity and the praise of many voices; the drawing us into the truth of our future, and not just a nostalgic clinging to the past. God’s Spirit which brought new life to the early church, is at work among us too. Like the first disciples, we are not in control, however much we might like to be. The will to power that tries to build towers that conquer, is undone as we discover the work of the Spirit by speaking the acts of God in new tongues, new ways, new points of meeting. Our unity is not something we can tie down; our truth is not something already known; both are joyfully discovered in the work of the reconciling, transforming, hopeful and surprising Spirit. Praise be to God. Amen.

 

Easter 5 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday May 15th

Acts 11.1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21.1-6; John 13.31-35

And it was night. And it was night.

We are still in the season of Easter but we are taken back this morning by our gospel reading from John to the night before Jesus dies – to the Last Supper. Here Jesus gives the disciples the new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus is at supper, like so often before; a feast to foreshadow the heavenly banquet. But whereas his earlier meals had so often included those others wished to leave out, and that had got Jesus into trouble, here some one has left the meal, the building, the fellowship.

We heard it in the first words of our reading, “When Judas had gone out…” Judas has left to betray Jesus. The sentence before our Gospel reading begins, is that most redolent of comments on Judas’ departure: and it was night.

I wonder whether, at this last supper, upon hearing Jesus’ new commandment that the disciples should love one another, any one of those disciples went out into the night looking for Judas in order to extend that love to him? Did anyone fear for him, miss him, or try, even after he brought soldiers to Gethsemane, to bring Judas back, to talk him out of his shame, his anger, his rapidly deepening hell?

We don’t know. But to ask the question and imagine what that might mean, is to ask how far that love we are asked to inhabit extends: “love one another as I have loved you.”  It’s a question and challenge that has haunted and shaped Christianity ever since.

Our reading from Acts describes the first disagreement, argument, in the rapid expansion of the early church. The Church in Jerusalem summons Peter to give an account of himself. For Peter (before Paul will argue so eloquently and forcefully for it) has recognized the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing to baptism those who are not circumcised, those beyond the boundary of those previously counted as part of God’s people. Peter describes how he felt asked to partake in something beyond the pale; a fundamental taboo, something that goes to the heart of his identity, is put aside – in the name of God. He describes his confusion; and yet his overriding sense that the Spirit was at work where he thought it could not be: ‘The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.’ Peter’s confusion only begins to be clarified when sees the workings of the Holy Spirit on someone who should not be part of things.

Today is the start of Christian Aid Week. Through its more than 50 years of existence, Christian Aid has constantly challenged the churches with that question of how far our love extends, where do we imagine the Holy Spirit is at work? It does that by focusing on particular people, bringing their struggles and joys and humanity to our attention, and getting us to recognise the Holy Spirit there. If you go to Christian Aids website this year you will encounter Jessica and Janet, women from Zimbabwe. Janet Zirugo, who is now 70, describes what makes her smile: it’s seeing her grandchildren’s faces light up, she says, as she hugs them tight. For Janet has a big heart. Many of the children in her family are orphans, and she is their sole provider. ‘In my family, children look up to me and I must give them food. I am more than glad to share what I have,’ she says. In her village in Zimbabwe, Janet has seen how drought pushed her family into desperate hunger. ‘One year, there was so little food. Rains had not fallen. We ate things which we wouldn’t eat in normal times. My heart was so painful thinking that my family would die. By God’s grace we did not die. We soldiered on.’ With faith, hope and love, Janet brought her family through this painful time. Christian Aid has now provided her with drought-resistant seeds that can grow in this harsh climate, so that farm is now bursting with life: . She proudly shows us the food she has grown – bowls full of groundnuts, wild fruit, golden corn; a rainbow of colour is proudly displayed. She has built a storeroom to keep her harvest safe and secure, to help her bounce back in future droughts. As she reflects on how her life has changed, Janet sings with joy, and we are invited by Christian Aid to do so too. We rejoice with her. For night has turned to day.

‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ The gift of the Risen Christ is that love. The Christian story always places a question mark against drawing the circle of that love too tight. Peter has the grace to discern the Spirit where he thought the Spirit was not. For the Spirit is the bond of love, that which places someone inside the circle rather than outside. And we should be constantly surprised by the Spirit.

In Revelation 21, on the very final pages of the Bible, in that great vision of the consummation of all things, we hear how some day, one day, when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven decked out like a bride approaching her breathless husband, God will set out a great marriage feast. God will throw the party to end all parties at which God will wipe away every tear. Then will all mourning come to an end – no more tears, no more pain.

Will Judas be present at that great feast, along with Jessica and Janet, and you and I? Dare we hope that? I suspect we can. He will sit amongst all the rest of us who bear the scars of our own betrayals beneath our white robes. For so long as Judas remains out there in the night, wandering alone or swinging lifeless in the breeze, there will be tears and aching in the community where his place is still set at the table, but where he does not sit. When he has been found, then I know that I, too, shall have been found, and forgiven, and loved.

A foretaste of that heavenly banquet is set before us today. We will shortly remember once more that night of the new commandment, as we also look ahead to the day of its fulfilment. And we gather with Janet, singing for joy; we celebrate our reconciliation one with another,  and we live in hope while we wait for the day when every place at our table will be filled. Amen.

Easter 3 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 1st May

Acts 9.1-20, John 21.1-19

We are celebrating the season of Easter, of Christ’s resurrection. But what we celebrate is not just Christ’s resurrection, but that of the disciples too, and of ourselves. The resurrection of Christ is what brings a new community into being, a community of those turned around from their previous experience of grief, guilt or even violence. In Eastertide we always read, Sunday by Sunday, through the book of Acts, alongside hearing the resurrection appearances of Christ from the Gospels. We do that because the story of the early church set out in Acts is the other side of the coin to those resurrection appearances that are at the heart of our Easter proclamation: the resurrection of Christ brings into life this new community that witnesses to the new life made possible in Christ.

Our readings this morning are two of the most poignant and profound witnesses to the shape of that new life. It would be possible to spend a lot longer than the next 10 minutes pondering these two stories, but let me draw out two perhaps neglected details from them, that I think illuminate what the resurrection, what that new life, might mean for us.

Let’s start with John’s Gospel and that wonderful intimate encounter between Jesus and Peter. Peter has returned to fishing, to what he knew before he started to follow Jesus. We have returned to the start of our Gospels: here is Peter fishing, and Jesus by a lakeside. The story will once again finish with Jesus saying to Peter, ‘Follow me.’ But it’s not simply a repeat – a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that initial encounter by the lakeside. Peter has already enthusiastically followed, and failed. He has followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, and then deserted him at that most desperate time of arrest, and trial and crucifixion. And not just deserted Jesus, but, when threatened by association, he has denied him three times. And so this encounter on the lakeside is heavy with that history, that memory. Peter has gone back fishing, to his old life, but the old innocence is not available.

And then, at the lakeside, this stranger persuades them to fish on the other side of the boat, and they are suddenly overwhelmed by the catch. And Peter finds the echoes of the last few years rising within him. The other disciple says to him, ‘It is the Lord!’ And then John’s Gospel includes a very odd detail: ‘When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake.’ I’m sorry – he put on some clothes and then jumped into the lake? Does that not strike you as odd? I can only make sense of that little phrase by imagining that Peter is not only literally naked, but feels naked in the presence of this returning man – a man who the last he knew had died an agonizing death a few hours after he had betrayed his friendship and everything that he thought mattered, by denying that he ever knew him. That is the memory which haunts him, which defines the first thing he does on hearing that it is Jesus – he clothes himself to cover the nakedness and vulnerability he feels. And yet it is that memory that Jesus will probe; he will metaphorically strip Peter naked, as he asks him three times, ‘Do you love me?’ Peter’s reply becomes ever more affronted and defensive, until he realizes, under that loving gaze, that Jesus is not evoking the memory to accuse, but to heal; not in judgement, but to free Peter of the burden. The crucified and risen one, comes not with a pointing finger but with the forgiveness that restores Peter, that brings new life in place of simply the return of the old; that re-clothes Peter. And it is in that new life, that Peter is asked once again, to – ‘follow me’, by feeding the lambs, tending the sheep; being that compassionate presence that Peter is encountering for himself in the Risen Jesus.

Now I’m delighted that you’ve all come fully clothed to our encounter today with the Risen Christ. Many of you in your Sunday best; some of us get to put on very fancy clothes indeed. But that shouldn’t hide the fact that we might be called into a similar encounter in the vulnerable places of our souls; we bring to our encounter with the Risen Christ today our own memories of desertion and denial, our own sense of failure and inadequacy; and we may find ourselves stripped bare. But there, in that honesty and nakedness, we hear words of forgiveness and healing, and new life.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
such a joy as none can move;
such a love as none can part;
such a heart as joys in love.

The story of Saul on the road to Damascus involves a very different encounter. The man of violence is thrown off his horse, as the voice of those he persecutes echoes around him. This moment is often described as the conversion of Saul, the moment that sees a dramatic turnaround in this man who has been ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus.’  But actually the encounter on the Damascus Road simply blinds Saul, so that he has to be led by the hand into Damascus. And he is in that state of darkness, unable to eat or drink, for 3 days – surely no accidental detail, but an echo of Good Friday to Easter. And what brings him into new life, what completes the encounter begun on the Damascus Road, is the courage of a disciple, of Ananias.  Ananias is asked in a dream to go to a street named Straight, and make what has been crooked straight; to reach out and touch and heal the man of Tarsus. Ananias is understandably wary; but he does go, overcomes his fear and loathing, and reaches out, and touches Saul; and it is at that moment that ‘the scales drop from Saul’s eyes’. The moment of conversion, of new life, might have begun on the Damascus Road, but it is here, in this moment of connection, that Saul recognises that beyond his newly found vulnerability, there is a different calling mapped out for him – one in which Christ and the community represented by Ananias, are central.

Come my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath;
such a truth as ends all strife:
such a life as conquers death.

Ivy, today, in her baptism, is invited to begin the journey of new life in the Risen Christ. Parents, godparents, you today make promises that will allow that new life to take shape. Each of us, in our baptism, was invited into that journey into new life that is Christ’s gift. Sometimes that will take the shape of Peter – we will journey quietly and intimately with Christ to the vulnerable places within to hear there words of forgiveness and healing; sometimes that new life will be like that given to Paul, overthrowing us, turning us around, revealing our dependency and need of those we previously looked down on. And sometimes, that new life will be like that given to Ananias, to reach out and welcome, offer words of healing. In our baptism service today, we, the congregation gathered here, will all perform that task as we welcome Ivy into the new life of Christ, promise to share our faith with her; so that together we walk in the new life of Christ.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
such a light as shows a feast;
such a feast as mends in length;
such a strength as makes a guest.

Maundy Thursday – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway

Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 116; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35

Jesus answered Peter: ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

Last Saturday evening I was privileged to attend the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. A packed Cathedral sat spellbound as Bach’s re-telling and meditation on the Passion played out before us; the varying emotions captured so beautifully. On Sunday morning, after the entry into Jerusalem accompanied by waving palms, we participated in a simple and direct telling of the Passion, with music by Victoria. And on Sunday afternoon, our choir performed another telling of, and reflection upon, the Passion story – this time the Victorian masterpiece that is Stainer’s Crucifixion. All very different, reflecting different times and theologies, yet all engaging with, and engaging us in, the Passion.

And of course, this Holy Week is the week of the passion: our daily readings, telling of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his confrontations and provocations of authority there, ratcheting up the tension as we approach the events of this night and tomorrow. And through all this, and awfully, we have a sense of the passion being played out in Ukraine: in unimaginable and needless suffering; in yet more evidence of the cruelty and violence of which we are capable, that is our tragedy.

And tonight we reach the Upper Room, as Jesus celebrates the Feast of the Passover with his disciples and friends.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

That series of Passions, performed, read, experienced, all too real; those passions have revealed yet again the depths, the many dimensions of this story, of this walk to the cross. Those depths are not just in the figure of Christ, as he negotiates that rising tension and cauldron – I realize that ‘negotiates’ is the wrong verb here; inadequate to the task of describing his implacable, defiant, steadfast walk in faith toward cross and death; it is a walk that reveals depths to the man. But the depths are not just of his humanity, but are seen in the varied response of the disciples too: Judas’ betrayal – from misplaced, disappointed idealism perhaps?; Peter’s violent defiance at Jesus’ arrest, giving way to his heart-breaking denial that he has ever known the man; the other disciples’ desertion in the night; the faithful, powerless wait of the women who will stand at the foot of the cross, and watch. And so the Passion catches us up in that human drama once again; we find ourselves revealed there, as well as hearing the echoes with what happens elsewhere in our world.

And in the midst of that Passion we reach tonight the Upper Room, and sit down to a meal with Jesus and his disciples.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

In the midst of this broiling drama, Jesus offers two acts which will shape our response to these events.

First, Jesus offers himself in bread and wine. Just as he will shortly and forcibly be given into the hands of others, to be broken, so he first, freely, gives himself over into the hands of the disciples in broken bread and poured out wine, his body and his blood.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

And in John’s account of that Last Supper which we just heard, Jesus also gets up from the table and washes his disciples’ feet, the actions of a servant, the prelude to hospitality, the moment that welcomes and creates a guest. ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’ he tells Peter and the others. Just as in bread and wine he hands himself over to the disciples, so that they might be the body and blood of Christ, so in washing their feet, he incarnates what that becoming Christ looks like, that we might have a share in him.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

It is this moment, the memory of this Last Supper, that the disciples will return to, when after Sunday’s resurrection they realize that this week is not just a story of human extremes, of the depths of human passion, love, betrayal, denial and forgiveness. It is all that, but it is also the divine story, of God coming to share our human suffering and love, and in the midst of it, to offer God’s self.

In Christ your Son our life and yours are brought together in a wonderful exchange. He made his home among us that we might for ever dwell in you.

This Last Supper, the giving by Christ of himself into the hands of the disciples, is what creates the church, what creates us; it is the moment that we return to, re-member, week by week, to be re-made as Christ’s body. For it is how the divine coming, the divine arc of redemption at the heart of this most holy week, continues on. The passion we inhabit this week does not merely reflect the heights and depths of our humanity; through it, the divine evokes a response, to re-create us and our world anew.

And so alongside the bread and wine we receive as Christ’s body; tonight we re-member the footwashing, perform it amongst us as a window onto the way that God would have us be: an icon of the creation of hospitality and service which incarnates Christ’s way, and gives us a share in that divine life. We are called to do likewise; and not just us, but the whole world – for here, in these acts of hospitality, love and service, we find our humanity and therefore our freedom.

In a world of rampant egos; where anything is permissible to justify the ascent to highest office or position of power; where brute force is said to determine what matters, to bend history to its will; in a world where humans are swept aside in unimaginable suffering; in the midst of the Passion, God offers another way that re-creates a new humanity, the church, us: a story of service and footwashing, of hospitality and love. And in that way, that divine life, is our freedom and our life.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

Amen.

A Victorian Cathedral – The Song School

The Song School

The definitive authority on Phoebe Anna Traquair, the artist who decorated the walls of the Song School with some of the finest murals in Scotland, is Dr. Elizabeth Cumming whose book on the artist was published in 2012.  I am, however, looking at the Song School from a different perspective, that of the various articles about the Song School that were published in the Monthly Paper up to 1901. Interestingly the Monthly Paper uses Song School, Choir School and Music School interchangeably.

Initially the only choir led services were those held on a Sunday but from January 1880 daily choral evensong were added. It soon became clear, however, that this arrangement simply would not work without a school being set up for the choristers.  Consequently in May 1880 the choir school opened in Old Coates House with Mr. Albert Howard appointed as schoolmaster.  Up to this time the number of regular boys had not exceed twenty but the hardship of requiring the boys to attend matins, two evensongs every Sunday as well as daily evensong during the week made it desirable to increase the number of choristers to forty.  The idea was that for the Sunday services all boys should attend matins at 11:00 am, twenty the afternoon service at 3:30 pm and the other twenty the evening service at 7:00 pm.   The difficulty, however, was that the school room in Old Coates House could only accommodate twenty, so the increase in the number of boys had to be limited to ten.

To add to the problems the Cathedral Library, where the choristers practiced, was extremely badly ventilated, excessively hot and, due to the sighting of the heating boilers directly underneath, prone to gas fumes.  It was, therefore, essential, both to increase the number of boys and for their continuing good health, to find a larger and healthy building for the choir school.

These problems were raised at the Congregational Meeting held in the Freemasons’ Hall on 22 December 1881 but as reported in the April 1882 Monthly Paper, lack of money prevented the project going forward. Two members of the congregation had donated £1,200 but a further £800 was required.  By January 1883 there were 36 boys in the choir but only accommodation in Old Coates House for 30, the other 6 boys being educated in local schools. There may have been some resistance within the congregation to the idea of a new choir school building as this extract from the January 1883 Monthly hints.

“To some it may appear that a school is unnecessary.  But it is quite indispensable.  The daily service prevents them from attending ordinary schools; and in order to have a good Choir, the boys require special supervision.  A Choir boy should have a naturally good voice.  This voice must be carefully trained.  The boy must be well fed and clothed, and he must be in good health and spirits.  With all this, time must be found for his education, and at service than other boys of his age.  He therefore requires special provision for the arrangement of his teaching and healthy recreation.  Hence a good school-room and good play-ground are of great importance.”

However, by June 1884 only a further two contributions had been received taking the money available to £1,400 although the overall cost had reduced to £1,800.  In view of the shortfall an appeal was printed in that July’s Monthly Paper.

Music School.

We are requested to publish the following Statement which is now being circulated amongst the members of the Congregation: –

“Ever since the opening of the Cathedral, the want has been felt of a suitable room in which to hold the Choir practices.  The only room at present available for this purpose is the Library of the Cathedral, which has to serve also as Vestry for both clergy and Choir.  This room is not only too small, but is also ill ventilated, and from its structural details is quite unsuitable for a music room, while the large number of cassocks and surplices hung round the room render it still more unfit for good vocal work.  It is felt that the time has now come when a strenuous effort should be made to have a properly constructed and equipped “Music School” erected within the Cathedral precincts, to give the requisite facilities for the due development of the Musical Services of the Church.  Plans of such a building have been obtained from Mr John Oldrid Scott, Architect to the Cathedral.  The site proposed is at the north end of Coates House, and the style of architecture is intended to harmonise with that of the Cathedral, and at the same time not to dwarf the old house.  The estimated cost is about £1800, towards which sum £1400 has already been promised by a few members of the congregation and other friends.  It is most desirable that the building should be commenced at once in order that it may be finished before winter sets in.  The want is so pressing that it would be most unfortunate should it be necessary to postpone the commencement of the building operations for another year.”

In July 1885 it was announced that “the Music School, which has been in course of erection for the last few months, is now approaching completion.” There was still a shortfall of £150 and those in the congregation who had not so far contributed were urged to do so.  The formal opening of the Song School was announced in the January 1886 magazine and the outstanding money must have been raised as reference is made to the purchase of an organ “which will be used for practice, so that the Cathedral will soon be more quiet for those who have been desirous to come in for private devotion.”  The organ (which was built by Messrs Willis and was water powered) was formally inaugurated by a recital on Christmas Eve 1887.  The building was insured in 1886 for the sum of £1,900 – roughly £262,000 today.

The first mention of the murals appeared in the November 1888 Monthly Paper.

“The Song School Frescoes.

These most beautiful pictures are now rapidly growing under the skilful hand of the lady who is so willingly spending time upon this great work.  Already the Eastern wall is glowing with colour, the central group being well-nigh completed, the subject being “three Angels at the Sepulchre, and the visit of the three Marys.” The work is exceedingly beautiful, and faces being perfect in purity of expression and character; and it is surprising, how, even now, in their unfinished state, the pictures arrest the attention and claim the interest of everyone that enters the Song School.”

It was reported in the February 1890 magazine that the east wall was now finished and work was to start on the north wall.  By January 1892 the wooden panelling beneath paintings had been finished but the cost had not been met, a balance of £7, 15s. 9d still outstanding.  The July 1892 Monthly Paper reports that the murals were finished and “the room is open to visitors daily from 10.30 to 12.30 and 2.30 to 3.30.  There is no charge for admission, but visitors are requested to inscribe their names in the “Visitors’’ book”, and to drop a contribution into the Box, towards defraying the expense of the panelling, gilding of the roof, varnishing of the walls, etc.; there being still a considerable deficit remaining to be met.”  Almost three years later in May 1895 there was still a debt of £20 and “it was necessary to obtain an advance from the bank, and on this a high rate of interest is payable.”

The last mention of the Song School in the Victorian period was an article printed in August 1900.

“Song School.

During last month the interior walls of this building have been carefully cleaned and varnished, with the result that Mrs. Traquair’s beautiful fresco paintings, which had the appearance of having faded, but were only coated over by smoke and dirt from the now abolished gas [lighting] and stoves, stand out in all their original freshness.  The Board of Management have been obliged, with great reluctance, to forego the painting of the roof, which Mrs. Traquair wished to be undertaken with the object of bringing it into harmony with the walls, and improving the light.  The estimate for painting the roof amounted to £30.  It is most desirable that it should be done, as it has the effect at present of a heavy dark pall hanging over delicately ornamental walls.  But it must remain as it is unless some generous friend should volunteer to bear the cost of painting and decorating it.”

It was reported at the December 1900 Cathedral Board Meeting that the ceiling had been painted at a cost of £43 which was partly covered by an anonymous gift of £30.

 

Deviating from my aim to only use information from the Monthly Paper, I have found some interesting choir related items from this period in the archive.

I mentioned above that Mr Albert Howard was appointed as the first schoolmaster of the Choir School in 1880, however, he resigned this position in 1886.  In his resignation letter he states “The principal cause of my resignation is that I consider that the person who has charge, as I have, of the boys both inside and outside the Cathedral ought to have an ‘absolute veto’ against any boy being kept in the Choir,  whom he considers to be an unfit companion for the others, or who commits any grave breach of discipline; and this the Cathedral authorities do not see fit to grant, although no reason has been given for the refusal.”

In September 1888, the new Schoolmaster, Mr. Keith, was given such authority in a letter from the Precentor, Rev Alfred Griffiths which states:

“Mr Keith has the power of temporary suspension of Choir boys for offences which come under his notice until my further order.  He should, however, give notice in such cases to the Precentor and Organist.”

Even more intriguing is a letter from Mr. Keith dated May 30th, 1887.  We don’t know to whom it was sent.

“Rev Sir,

Allow me to suggest the following: –

  1. That the Gentlemen (Regular and Voluntary) of the Choir do not talk after coming out of the vestry.
  2. That they do not speak in the stalls.
  3. That the Voluntary Gentlemen do not break through the boys when in line in order to get to their places in the vestibule.

The task of maintaining a highly efficient discipline will be greatly increased if the above are allowed to continue.  The most powerful of all the means of discipline is example not from one or two adult members of the Choir but from all.”

However, ending on a positive note I have found a catalogue, dated 1888, listing all the books in the Chorister’s Library. All 310 books are listed, divided into subject area such as biography, botany, fiction, history, science, zoology and even a collect of annuals.

A Victorian Cathedral – The Building

A VICTORIAN CATHEDRAL
Words by Iain Morrison, Hon. Archivist

Introduction and the Building

Introduction
During the Covid lockdown I was looking for something to keep me busy and fortunately I had copies of all the Cathedral magazines from 1879 to 1902 at home.  The magazine was initially called the “Monthly Paper of Church Information for the Congregation of St. Mary’s” but from the beginning of 1880 the name was thankfully simplified to the “Monthly Paper” and cost 1d.  These magazines were the public face of the Cathedral and, as they were edited by a member of the clergy team, they also give us an idea into the thinking of the clergy at the time.  Reading through the magazines I realised that they contained much interesting material that highlighted all aspects of Cathedral life in the late Victorian period.

I thought that the best way to bring these matters to wider attention would be by a series of articles covering one aspect of the Cathedral at a time.  Even so, there was so much to choose from that it has been difficult to keep the size of these articles to manageable proportions.

Here is the first article on the Cathedral Building.

The Cathedral Building
This first article is about the Cathedral building from the opening of the nave in January 1879 to the installation of electricity in 1900 as viewed through the Monthly Paper.  First of all, however, a few words about the period immediately before the building was opened for worship.

The foundation stone was laid on 21st May 1874 by the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry and, according to The Pictorial History of St. Mary’s Cathedral published by Pitkin Books in 1969, “in the presence of a vast congregation, estimated at seven thousand people”.  The stone is under the north east pier of the central tower and contains a copy of the Trust Deed in a glass bottle, the Edinburgh Post Office Directory, Oliver & Boyd’s Almanac, newspapers and coins. A temporary Iron Church, known as St. Mary’s in the Precincts, was opened on 28th May 1876.  This building, which was erected on the site of the present Song School, cost about £1,170 towards which the Dean give a loan of £800.  The very first service, an early celebration of communion at 8.00 am, was attended by 53 communicants with larger congregations at both the 11.00 am Matins and 3.00 pm afternoon services.  The choir consisted of members of the congregation and assisted during part of the year by students from the Episcopal Training College in Dalry.

In the Cathedral’s archive there is a drawing of the Iron Church made by Reginald Campbell who was a chorister at the Cathedral from 1886 to 1890.  Also shown below is a picture of the interior of the Cathedral under construction which was taken in 1877.

The nave was opened on Saturday 25th January 1879 with services of Morning Prayer at 11.30 am and Evening Prayer at 4.00 pm.  The morning service was attended by the Bishop, Dean and Canons of the Cathedral and clergy from other churches in the diocese. Although both services attracted large congregations, the total collection amounted to about £40 [roughly £5,000 in today’s terms] which was described in the February Monthly Paper as “a sum utterly inadequate to defray the preliminary expenses for which they were required”.  This illustrates the recurring concern the Victorian Cathedral had, and still has, with the lack of money; it started with the very first service!

The next major event was the completion of the main spire on 6th June 1879 when the chaplains, Rev. R. Mitchell-Innes and Rev. W. M. Meredith, ascended the spire to lay the top stone and cross with appropriate prayers being offered. This was watched from below by a large crowd consisting of members of the congregation, clergy and choir. When the cross was finally cemented into place the attending choir sang the hymn “Praise the Lord, ye heavens adore Him” followed by short service in the Cathedral.

The lengthy Consecration Service, lasting well over four hours, was held on Thursday 30th October 1879 and, according to the December Monthly Paper, included all the Scottish Bishops as well as the bishops of Durham, Peterborough, Oxford, Bangor, Down and Connor and Madagascar, a total of 14 in all.  Also present were the representatives of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.  A large number of clergy were also in attendance from all parts of the British Isles and the Colonies including, rather interestingly under this heading, The Rev. Dr. Nevin of the American Episcopal Church.

The Cathedral choir was reinforced by singers from around the diocese and from York, Durham, Ripon and Leeds.

The details of the Dedication Service given in the December magazine are rather sparse but do give a lengthy summary of the sermon preached by the Bishop of Peterborough and a detailed description of the building.

After the service the bishops, representatives of the English Archbishops and the Dean planted sycamore trees on the south side of the Cathedral which from that time onwards has been called Bishops’ Walk.

There was a further service (this time of Choral Evensong) at 4:00 pm at which the sermon was given by the Bishop of St. Andrews.  His sermon was so long that despite the choir cutting out two anthems the service still lasted well over two hours.

In the evening the laity of the diocese entertained the clergy and visitors to dinner at the Waterloo Rooms.  This included several speeches from among others the Primus, the Bishops of Peterborough and Edinburgh, the Marquis of Lothian and the Lord Provost.

There is an interesting notice in the October Monthly Paper which seems to indicate a degree of unhappiness among regular members of the congregation with the arrangements for the Dedication Service.

‘NOTICE – From the fact that until legally made over, the property of the Cathedral is vested in the Walker Trustees, the Clergy have not the full right of management. This must be accepted as a reason, if in any instance the interest of members of the congregation may seem to have been over-looked in regard to admission to the opening service.  It may be well to mention that the afternoon service will be free to all.  Notice will be duly given of all the arrangements finally made.’

The cost of the shell of the Cathedral was £86,000 with a further £14,00 for fittings, heating and bells, a total of £100,000 [over £13.2 million today].

This is a copy from an engraving showing members of the congregation arriving at the south door for the Service of Consecration on 30 October 1879.

The High Altar and Reredos, designed by John Oldrid Scott, were based on sketches left by his father Sir George Gilbert Scott and the mouldings and figures were executed by Miss Mary Grant of Kilgraston.  The cost of the Reredos caused some concern and the October 1879 Monthly Paper tells us that out of the estimated cost of £1,074 [about £142,000 today], £96 was still outstanding.

The east window was the next large project.  The wish to fill this window “with coloured glass as a memorial of the Misses Walker” was first mentioned in the November 1880 Monthly Paper and at a Congregational Meeting held in January 1881, a committee was set up to take this project forward.  However, it was not until May 1882 that an update on progress was published. The contract was awarded to Messrs Clayton & Bell of London with a total cost of £900 [roughly £115,000 in today’s terms] of which £180 was still outstanding.  Until this sum was forthcoming “the Committee would not feel themselves justified in ordering the actual execution of the work; but it does not appear to be beyond the reach of a vigorous effort on the part of the Congregation.”  The March 1883 Monthly Paper reported that the outstanding money had now been collected and the window was completed by May that year.  The May magazine contains a long article which fully describes the window.  Although the main theme of the window was originally envisaged to be the Te Deum, in the May 1883 Monthly Paper the subject was stated as “The rest of the Saints of God”.

In 1883 the Cathedral was struck by lightning during a storm on Easter Day but, due to the three lightning conductors on the building, there were no injuries or damage sustained. The April Monthly Paper commented ‘Some people little notice how we pray in the Litany to be delivered “from lightning and tempest”.  The more the Book of Common Prayer is studied, the more beautiful and wonderfully comprehensive it will seem.’

At the beginning of 1890 Mr. Hugh Rollo left money to the Cathedral for the building of a Chapter House.  This was announced to the congregation in the April Monthly Paper with more details being given in the July edition.  The chosen contractor was Mr. Morgan who was the Clerk of Works during the building of the Cathedral and whose company would also build the two western spires over twenty years later.  It was expected that the new building would be completed by the end of 1890 but it was not actually finished until June 1891.

In the same article in the July 1890 magazine that covered the building of the Chapter House, mention was made of other building operations being undertaken to the north side of the Cathedral.  A large chamber for the storage of coke with an outside staircase, and with direct access to the furnace, was built near the north-west tower, the existing coke storage facility being too small.  This also ended the necessity of taking the coke and ashes from the furnaces through the Cathedral itself.  A new furnace was also installed with the hope that ‘this will help to cure the “draughts” – about which the clergy and officials have heard so much of late.’

Drafts and the heating of the Cathedral were problems in Victorian times and, some would say, little has changed since then!  By the summer of 1898 it was recognised that the furnace was no longer fit for purpose and the Cathedral Board decided to install two powerful “convoluted stoves” to provide both heat and, in due course, electric light.  To accommodate the stoves, the floor of the furnace rooms would have to be lowered and the supply of fresh air improved. The cost would be in excess of £700 [approximately £96,000 today] but this would be covered by a legacy of £1,000 from the estate of the late Lady Jane Dundas.  It was estimated that there would be an annual saving in the cost of fuel of about £25.

Despite Lady Jane Dundas’s legacy, more money was required to cover the cost of installing electric light and the congregation was encouraged to contribute towards this project.  By the following summer work was well underway with installation of the required wiring and it was reported in the August 1899 Monthly Paper that this phase had almost been completed.  There was, however, a problem in obtaining the light fittings.  These had been specially designed by Mr. H. J. Blanc and were being executed in bronze by Messrs Singer of Frome-Selwood.  (I believe Mr. H. J. Blanc is Hippolyte J. Blanc a well-known Edinburgh architect and pioneer photographer.)

To install these lights, scaffolding had to be erected in the Cathedral.  This was both greatly inconvenient and unsightly, so it was arranged for temporary lights to be fitted to the pendant chains set up to hold the new lighting while waiting for these fittings to be manufactured.  The scaffolding would then be taken down but not before the stonework was cleaned to remove the dust and deposits left by the gas lights.  It was reported in the January 1900 Monthly Paper that except for the standard lights in the choir stalls, the installation had been completed. The total cost was £1,188 – about £155,000 in today’s terms.

Lent 4 – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 27th March 2022

Joshua 5.9-12; Psalm 32; 2Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32

The Kingdom by R. S. Thomas

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

Three weeks ago, on the first Sunday in Lent, as the full horror of the war in Ukraine became apparent, we read together of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. I offered the suggestion that, rather than describing that time as one of temptation, it might be better understood within the phrase in our modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer: Do not bring us into the time of trial, but deliver us from evil. Jesus’ time of testing, like any time of trial, is what reveals what we truly believe in, what our faith is, particularly in the face of evil. This week our Gospel reading – that most famous parable of the Prodigal Son – engages us with the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer immediately prior to that: Forgive us our sins, our trespasses, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Last week, Paul in his sermon reflected on what faith in a good God means in a world where evil and suffering seem so ever present and triumphant. This week our Gospel gives us Jesus’ sustained response to that persistent question: the response of faith in the power of forgiveness. For forgiveness lies, of course, at the heart of the parable: ‘while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.’

That moment, when the father sees his son far off, and runs towards him, remains profoundly moving with the power to shock us. The son who by demanding his share of the family inheritance early, and then squandering it, effectively cut off his father and treated him as dead, is greeted by that same father with an embrace of love and forgiveness that silences the son’s practised words of penitence. Here is Jesus’ picture of the presence of God among us – in the father’s overwhelming response to a child who had done the unthinkable.

And whether we identify with the son, as those who have in different ways made that journey into a far country and then found our way back home, to discover the warm embrace of forgiveness; or if we identify with the father, called to respond, beyond rationality and justice, to offer forgiveness to enable new life; this parable takes us to the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, the possibility of a different relationship being known to sustain and transform us.

And yet, in our continuing time of trial, and more particularly the time of trial for millions of people across Ukraine, and the surrounding countries, does the language and practice of forgiveness really offer much? It can seem a fragile and futile response to the depth of callousness evident in the destruction of Mariupol. What can talk of forgiveness really mean in a world of Vladimir Putins? The danger of this being cheap talk, forgiveness a cloak that simply covers over a multitude of sins, is surely all too real.

It’s a question and a perspective that the Parable gives voice to, of course, in the response of the older son – his aghast anger, and refusal to join the party, over the obvious injustice of his errant brother receiving the full fatted calf treatment: ‘When this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

It’s a response that makes perfect sense. And we would have to be naïve in the extreme, if we thought that there will be a moment when Putin and his henchmen make a journey from the far country of the brutality of war, and come seeking forgiveness. The demands of realpolitik, of compromise and the negotiations of troop strengths and battle realiites, are what will, we pray and hope, bring an end to the suffering of Ukraine. The father’s response to his elder son – “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” – that response doesn’t feel like it addresses the realities of war.

In the parable itself, we don’t hear how the older brother responds to the father; he may well remain unconvinced. The reconciliation with his brother may have taken a long time, if it happened at all. That question is left hanging. But the father’s response opens up the question – it offers the possibility of reconciliation, a new perspective to shift what had become hardened and embittered opinions.

And in the midst of the brutality of war – of the devastating callousness of the bombing and destruction of cities, the need to hang on to that possibility, to hold on to the faith that refuses to let such callousness and cynicism define us, becomes ever more urgent.

And this is how God’s mercy and forgiveness operate – as that unquenchable possibility ever held out, that we might be drawn into that practice of reconciliation and forgiveness. And our response is the faith that our humanity is best defined by moments of grace, of unmerited and unexpected forgiveness, rather than brute power. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
…. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

 

Lent 3 – sermon preached by Revd Canon Prof Paul Foster – Sunday 20th March

Luke 13.1-9; Isa 55.1-9

One of the perennial challenges that is levelled against the truth of Christianity is the so-called “problem of evil”. In a nutshell, the challenge is often framed something like this: If the God whom Christians proclaim is both all good and all powerful, how can that God allow evil to occur in the world? The premise that underlies the dilemma is that the Christian understanding of a God who is supposedly opposed to evil, but allows evil to exist in the world calls into question either the belief that God is all powerful and all good, or alternatively shows that God does not exist. This challenge to belief in an all powerful and all loving God is not new. In fact it predates Christianity. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, writing in the late fourth or early third century B.C. is our first known proponent of this dilemma. However, in the Enlightenment Age the problem of the presence of evil in the world was given fresh impetus as a significant challenge to the claims of Christianity.

In 1711, in a tenement in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket a boy was born named David Hume. He became one of the dazzling philosophical intellects the eighteenth century. In his work, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, first published three years after his death, Hume popularised and restated the problem of evil in the world as not being compatible with belief in an all powerful, benevolent God. Hume statement of the problem was more nuanced than that of some of his predecessors. In the somewhat archaic and gendered language of the eighteenth century, Hume stated the matter in the following form:

[God’s] power we allow [is] infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal are happy: Therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?

In essence, Hume demonstrated that what humans understand by benevolence and mercy cannot by attributed to God in a simple, anthropomorphizing manner. The other possibility that logically presented itself as a consequence of Hume’s argument was that one was left having to deny the existence of God.

The problem faced by Epicurus and Hume is not an issue that is avoided in the pages of scripture. The people of Israel cry out to God during their slavery in the land of Egypt, the Psalmist is heard weeping to God for justice by the waters of Babylon during a time of forced migration from homeland, and in today’s gospel reading Jesus is forced to confront the issue of the problem of innocent suffering. Members of the crowd inform Jesus of the current atrocities of his day. Pilate, the leading representative of the Roman invaders, had slaughtered some Galileans and perhaps as a mockery of their beliefs he had mingled their blood with that of the sacrifices they offered. We know of no further details of this story. In fact that is a lesson in itself. Age on age, humanity’s inhumanity to fellow human beings continues. Most of it passes unobserved. We are shocked at those times when we observe it, especially if it takes place on a grand scale. However, the reality is that there seems little limit to the ways in which fellow humans can cause suffering and pain to one another. Jesus’ response is striking. He does not engage in a rebuke of Pilate and the oppressive Roman overlords who had invaded the holy land. Instead, Jesus’ first concern is to defend the victims. There is no divine calculus in this situation. These slaughtered Galileans were no worse, or no more deserving of this fate than other Galileans. Here we do well to remember that Jesus was himself a Galilean. He seems to remind his dialogue partners that bad things sometimes happen to very normal people just because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jesus, the Galilean, expresses solidarity with these victims. They were no worse than those who had the good fortune not to suffer in this way. Then, in our reading, Jesus uses these tragic circumstances to issue his first call for repentance. The link is not entirely obvious, but in the face of such an almost random act of violence Jesus calls on people to turn to God as the only sure and certain safeguard.

Jesus’ next statement seems to make the discussion more difficult, rather than resolving it. Perhaps Pilate’s actions could be explained as human oppression stemming from free will rather than divine purpose. However, Jesus presents a more theologically troubling example. The random collapse of the tower of Siloam that resulted in the death of eighteen inhabitants in Jerusalem could not as easily be attributed to inhumane and rapacious invaders. Instead, it was a seemingly random event. We face the same explanatory conundrums today. As Christians we can perhaps give an account of the suffering experienced in war or famine as being due to oppressive or greedy individuals who put self-interest above care for fellow human beings. However, global pandemics or pacific islands devastated by tsunamis are not so easily explained away. Why does a supposedly all powerful deity permit these non-human events to cause so much pain and suffering? We all know that we would delude ourselves if we thought there are easy or formulaic answers to such questions.

It is at this point that our gospel reading appears to change topics with Jesus recounting the parable of the fig tree. However, I am not convinced that the parable is unrelated to the foregoing dialogue. The fig tree was often used as a horticultural image for Israel, which was called upon to be productive and fruitful. Here, Jesus depicts a barren and unproductive tree that should perhaps be cut down. The parable, however, speaks of a delay in judgment. It portrays a belief that things can be turned around. Maybe it enshrines a hope that given time people can recognize the barrenness of their own actions and make amends. However, there is also a note of realism here. The fig tree is given only one further year to produce fruit. After that intervention is necessary.

You do not need me to tell you that we live in a world that is now more uncertain than it was a month ago, let alone a year ago. Why does a good God, an all powerful God let events unfold in the manner they do? There are no easy answers. Perhaps part of the answer relates to the autonomy given to human beings to be good stewards, to act for the benefit of all and not just for the few. Those of you who know a little Greek will know the Greek word for ‘few’ is ὀλίγος, but I cannot for the life of me think why mentioning that at this point of the sermon was relevant. From the creation stories in Genesis we see that God entrusts creation to a humanity made in God’s own image, to care and steward it in a responsible manner. The failure to act in such a way is a failure to live up to the highest expression of being human and part of a wider human society. It is a failure to be an icon of the God who made humanity in the divine image.

Yet God’s provision for creation and humanity is not simply a handing over of creation into human hands, and letting matters take their own course. Our reading from the Old Testament is drawn from the latter part of Isaiah, maybe written a century or more after the first part of that prophetic text. The people of Judah had spent decades exiled from their homeland, and they were in the early stages of returning to the land. What encourages me in this text is not simply the sense of joy at the return, but that the experience of exile had created a new outlook. The passage is characterized by a spirit of invitation. The repeated use of the word ‘come’ is a call to people share freely in water without payment, to partake freely of food and wine and milk. Suffering has led to greater desire to share resources with equity. The people of Israel, through their experience of exile and displacement, have had their understanding enlarged of what it means to be God’s people. Their purpose is to serve other nations. They are told that they are to be both a witness to the peoples, and to call all the nations into relationship with God. Here there is a remarkable and transformative vision of the solidarity of humanity. One group is not to prosper at the expense of another, and any sense of privilege is to be replaced by a sense of service to all. Then in one of the most outward looking passages in the bible, all people are invited to ‘seek the Lord while he may found, call upon him while he is near’ (Isa 55.6). As Jesus recognised that the slaughter of innocent Galileans or the death of eighteen Jerusalemites in a building collapse could only be comprehended through a call to repentance, the text of Isaiah written after the trauma of exile issues its own open call to repentance. The wicked are to forsake their ways, unrighteous thoughts are to be set aside, people are to return to the Lord, and then pardon and mercy will be poured out abundantly.

It is not possible to answer the dilemma that the problem of evil poses in a way that is entirely satisfying. Isaiah appears to know this when proclaiming the words of God he writes, ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways says the Lord. For as the heaven are higher than the earth so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Isa 55.8-9). However, while we might not explain the problem of evil, we are called upon to respond to evil wherever it is found. Like the prophet Isaiah, our prophetic ministry is to call out evil wherever it is found. To call upon people to set aside inhumane acts that seek the good of the few over the wellbeing of all, and to call the people of all nations to seek the Lord.

Responding to evil, rather than explaining it away is our calling as the body of Christ. At times Christians must confront evil by standing in harm’s way. In the end, at least for me the best response to the problem of evil is not theory, but action. The all good, all powerful God does not stand apart from human suffering. Instead it is that God who takes human form, who stands alongside not just fellow Galileans but all humanity, and ultimately goes to the cross as a victim of the cruelty of the same Roman governor who mingled human and sacrificial blood. The icon of the suffering and crucified Christ, with arms outstretched in welcome, is the same image we must present to the world at this moment of heart-breaking suffering and unexplainable evil. We need to call to the displaced and homeless to come; to come and share our hospitality without money without price. Maybe the problem of evil cannot be ultimately explained, but by such actions perhaps the power of evil can be defeated through the suffering love of Christ, who by his resurrection and incarnation joins all people to him in one shared humanity, both now and through unending ages, world without end, Amen.

Lent 1 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 6th March

Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16; Romans 10.8b-13; Luke 4.1-13

Like Christians throughout the ages, and as commanded by Jesus, we shall later in today’s service pray, Lead us not into temptation. It’s always struck me that that is an odd thing for Jesus to ask his followers to pray, given that at the start of his ministry, as we heard in today’s Gospel, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the place of temptation, into the wilderness where Jesus wrestles, or at least confronts the devil and his questions.

Lead us not into temptation. In the modern translation of the original Greek, a translation which explicitly wants to avoid the inference that God might be the one who tempts us, the line is rendered ‘Save us from the time of trial’ or as the Scottish Episcopal Church has in its modern version: ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial.’  I do think those modern translations are more adequate – I was planning to use the modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer in today’s service but, you may or may not pleased to hear, the service sheet had been printed before I had the chance to change it.

A reason for that change from temptation to trial might be that the word ‘temptation’ doesn’t get to the heart of the existential exchange in the wilderness described in Luke’s Gospel. We are no doubt tempted by all sorts of things: indulgence, lust, greed, gossip; and I have no doubt of the power of temptation within addiction. And those temptations do need often to be resisted. But temptations understood in this way are not really what Jesus faced. A time of trial feels like a better description. For here in the wilderness, Jesus in his time of trial, has to confront and refuse the hard consolations of power and status. Whether we pray about being spared from temptations or a time of trial, however, the issue remains. Is there one request for Jesus, and another for us? Why do we pray that we may not be brought to the time of trial, when it is in that trial that Jesus’ understanding of himself and God’s purpose is defined and honed?

Do not bring us to the time of trial. Those words have an immediate resonance when prayed in the context of current events in Ukraine. The population there are indeed in the midst of a time of trial that they would have fervently prayed not to be brought to. For many, for us sometimes, the time of trial is not something we choose. It is thrust upon us by external events – illness, bereavement, the need of others; the people of Ukraine are brought to this time of trial by the heartless, almost inexplicable actions of a neighbouring despot. We, they, are brought to the time of trial, despite our prayer. In our Gospel, however, following the Spirit’s promptings, Jesus enters the wilderness voluntarily. And that freedom certainly alters the dynamic of his time of trial. Jesus chooses to enter in, perhaps in solidarity with those who do not and cannot choose, to be brought to a time of trial.

And in the midst of that trial, the devil wears a number of faces: he quotes scripture; he pretends to have the power to hand over all things into Jesus’s hands; he offers both the miraculous (changing stones onto bread) and the reasonable (God will surely save you if you are that important) as solutions to the trial. Sometimes the choices we face are obvious, and evil is unmasked; but more often than not, the time of trial is about the hard work of discernment, the recognition of where the slippery slope begins, where one compromise leads to another and all suddenly becomes relative. You’re hungry, says the devil, just change the stones into bread and you’re sorted. Just leave God out of the picture, and I can give you it all – that’s not much to ask is it? Ok, so you insist upon this God, well then prove that God is real, show yourself that it is all true.

It’s tempting to think that Jesus had some superhuman power to resist these questions that are familiar to us all, in one guise or another. But at the heart of this time of trial Jesus resists the temptation to be something other than fully human – he refuses the miraculous by insisting that that is not what life is about; the idolatrous, by recognising his humility before God; the temptation to think himself special, by refusing to play that game. His answer to the temptations is to insist that he is a human like any other – hungry, but able to see that life is more than bread; not in charge, but living out faith in God, to whom our worship is directed; like every human, Jesus insists that he is vulnerable to accident and hurt, but still trusts in the good purposes of God. However we understand Jesus’ divinity, it does not short-circuit his humanity.

Rather, his time of trial reveals his humanity, his solidarity with us all, in stark terms. His time of trial reveals the depths of his humanity, and ours. Just as the people of Ukraine, in their time of trial, are revealing what really matters, what must be resisted with every fibre of being; unmasking the persistent perils of evil that seeks domination and the worship of power.

And we are called to do likewise, in this season of Lent and in time of trials, whether chosen or those that arrive unbidden. Lent is not some superhuman assault course, but a reorientation that places God at the centre, and reveals the depths of our humanity. It’s a stripping away, certainly, of our normal preoccupations; but a stripping away to insist, like Jesus, that there is more to being human than the fight for daily bread, that our humanity is in our humility before God, and that faith is faith when it is known in the time of trial, however much we might pray not to be brought there.

Let us pray:

Spirit of truth and judgement,
who alone can exorcise the powers that grip our world;
at the point of crisis give us your discernment,
that we may accurately name what is evil,
and know the way that leads to peace,
through Jesus Christ. Amen.