Easter 6 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 9th May

Acts 10.44-48; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17

Jesus said:

‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. … I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. … I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.’

I have called you friends.

Last week the Vice Provost movingly reflected on what it might mean for each of us, and the Cathedral, to abide in God’s love. This week I want us to think about what it might mean to find ourselves as friends of Christ, and in that friendship, friends of one another. I have called you friends.

In the farewell discourse that we heard in our Gospel today, Jesus places this image of friendship at the heart of the new community made possible in him. We often concentrate on the words ‘no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ That moving testimony of the power of friendship is of course important, and many in the course of history have borne witness to it, but it’s also true that we may find it hard to relate to that statement ourselves, as the calling to lay down one’s life comes rarely, or rarely that starkly or literally. And yet, as friends is how Jesus characterises all who follow him.

When thinking about friendship, we might use the word love, but I suspect more often we would talk about liking someone, we’re friends because we like them. One of the most interesting theologians writing today, James Alison, in his book, On Being Liked, reflects on the difference between loving and liking, particularly in the context where the word love can be over-used, or actually end up meaning something else:

The word ‘like’, he writes, is rather more difficult to twist into a lie than the word ‘love’, because we know when someone likes us. We can tell because they enjoy being with us, alongside us, want to share our time and company. What I would like to suggest is that if our understanding of being loved does not include being liked, or at least being prepared to learn to be liked, then there’s a good chance that we’re talking about the sort of love that can slip a double bind over us, that is really saying to us ‘My love for you means that I will like you if you become someone else.’

Alison suggests that seeing ourselves as friends of Christ, as being liked by Christ, helps avoid the danger of thinking that the love God has for us, is love conditional on us becoming someone other than who we are. But, Jesus says, I have called you friends.

C. S. Lewis wrote this about friendship: Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself … The point that Lewis is making is that friendship is a relationship rooted in freedom, not one bound by duty, or office, or function. We choose to be friends with someone. Friends allow you ‘to be’; friendship is based on affection and respect; it is joyful, at its best calling forth a mutual delight. It is also rooted in trust: the worst thing to happen in friendship is betrayal.

Friendship is about reciprocity. It’s another reason why it’s helpful to imagine ourselves as being friends of Christ, liked by God, rather than simply loved by God. Because, unlike love, there is no sense of charity about friendship; it’s not about being done to, but about something created together, and that is its strength.

Aristotle said, ‘Without friends no one would choose to live even though he possessed all other goods.’ That’s a statement that has echoes of the pearl of great price: friendship as something allied to the kingdom, which puts everything else into perspective, something nothing material can bring you.

And the church has at its heart that most basic activity of friends: a meal shared  together. On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples do not recognise the Risen Christ, but find themselves making friends with him, inviting him to share a meal with him, and then recognising him in the moment when their new-found friend and guest suddenly becomes the host and breaks the bread.

In that moment the disciples learn anew that they are indeed friends of Christ. But this is not something to hold to themselves, instead that friendship forms a new community, the Church. And we are called into that same friendship too.

Now that can be testing, because we also think of friendship as being spontaneous – like attracts like. Friendship can be about the clique of the insiders. Our reading from Acts this morning concerns that pivotal moment in the early Church, where Peter realises the circle of Christ’s friendship, given in the gift of the Holy Spirit, is much wider than he had realised. And that that calls him into new friendships, new relationships in that gift of the Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is crucial – the spirit of freedom that takes away our fear (the fear of those who are unlike us), and open us up to others. And so the early Church grows, and we grow, as, in our joyful life together, we offer friendship, discover friendship, with the unloved, the unlikely.

That placing of friendship at the heart of who we are may seem naïve, or of little consequence. And yet, if we take it seriously, even as we relish the joy of it, we also realise the centrality of relationships of trust and mutuality to human joy and flourishing.  And that is not just true personally, but in the ways we structure society. The friendship found here needs to transcend and overcome the divisions which are all too obvious; it needs to challenge the story that we all basically out for ourselves and what we can get. For Christ has called us friends, and in that friendship is our life. Amen.

Easter 4 – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 25th April

Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18

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

The Good Shepherd – not an image many of us are particularly familiar with in our day to day life. I’m not aware of many shepherds, or sheep for that matter, here in the West End of Edinburgh. It is, however, a well-known image from the bible, no doubt because it emerges among an agrarian people, for whom the skills involved in tending and guarding sheep would have been much more familiar. The Good Shepherd is the one who protects, guides and cares for sheep he knows intimately; he is the source of authority too, the one in whom the sheep trust, and so feel safe.

It’s an image with a long history. Jesus’ use of it surely has Psalm 23 in the background – that beloved psalm we just heard sung, that was no doubt just as beloved in Jesus’ day. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul. Here is a basic, central, image for imagining God and how God is toward us – God who provides every want that we genuinely need, who leads us in good paths and revives the soul, seeks out the good pasture and is our support and comfort in troubling times and the shadow of death.

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

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

Jesus’ meditation from John’s Gospel that we heard this morning, draws on that long tradition and understanding of what a Good Shepherd looks like and is. When Jesus says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’, John is making an explicit claim about the divinity of Jesus – here is the one in whom the Good Shepherd that is God is known, in whom the Father is met and seen. And that claim to divinity is made even more explicit by the use of the I am form. The most holy name for God, heard by Moses in the Burning Bush, is “I am who I am”. That elusive name, I am, is given content by the sayings of Jesus that punctuate John’s Gospel – I am the light, the way, the truth and the life, the bread of heaven, I am the Good Shepherd.

And that image of the Good Shepherd, drawing on its deep roots and connections to the agrarian lifestyle of many, became a vital image too in the early church. The earliest pictorial representations of Jesus that we have – in fourth century mosaics – are of Christ as the shepherd with the lamb slung across his shoulders, the lamb who has strayed but is now brought home rejoicing. From the Old Testament through the New and into the early history of the church, the Good Shepherd is a central image for knowing who God, and then Jesus, is, and therefore what the church is all about, how we are called to live. It may well be, in our more urban settings, where the pastoral is either little known or at least distanced; or is romanticised, so that the sharp edges – the real times of trouble and fear that call forth the skill and care of the Shepherd – are lost; it may well be that it feels a distant image, no longer central.

As we stand on the brink of a Scottish Parliamentary election, however, the questions posed by Ezekiel’s use of the image are bound to strike us. How do those who now seek political office, whose calling is the welfare, the wellbeing and the wholeness of the people – how do they measure up to the image of the Shepherd? If we thought that despair at politicians was a modern phenomenon we have only to listen to Ezekiel.

But to explore the image of the Good Shepherd is not simply about castigating politicians; I fear that is all too easy in our cynical age. The image of the Good Shepherd certainly asks questions about the motive and desire of those who seek to lead and gain our trust: are they more like the hired hand; seeking high office simply for personal gain and egotistical ambition, in it for themselves? Or are they able to articulate, and more importantly display, a sense of calling, so that leadership is offered in the public service, from a motive of wanting to make a genuine contribution to the common good and because they care. Those are important and legitimate questions to bring to our consideration of who we might vote for. Today, as well as the Good Shepherd, the church invites us to mark Vocations Sunday: the language of vocation suggests that life of service, of losing oneself to find oneself, of the possibility that every life might find meaning in service of others. That sense of vocation has been re-discovered in this past year in the stresses and strains of the pandemic, in the re-valuing of meaningful life; but it is also in danger of constantly being lost in the stories we hear and tell of cynical self-interest. Whilst we shouldn’t be naïve about personal ambition – and the warnings of Ezekiel may well ring in our ears – we also need to recognise that public service does still drive much politics, however cynical a reading we might be usually offered.

But perhaps the even more vital question posed by the image of the Good Shepherd, is one that is addressed to all of us. It is the question of where we draw the boundaries of the flock. Who is it that the shepherd is called to serve, and who will learn to trust; in the service of whom, does the Shepherd lay down their life? That question, of how we create and serve a cohesive society, a flock, who have sense of themselves as a whole, as well as as individuals – that is a crucial question for our own times. Do we do that by drawing the boundaries tighter, being clearer about who is in and who is out? And yet, Jesus the Good Shepherd lived out that care of the Father by meeting and dining and healing those thought to be beyond the walls of the flock – the sinners and outcasts. He lays down his life because that refusal to limit God’s love has drawn him into conflict with a leadership who constantly want to draw the boundaries tighter. Jesus the Good Shepherd asks awkward questions of the ways we limit God’s love. As 1 John puts it: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?

Those are hard questions to negotiate and work out in the political realm, I have no doubt. And they are not simply questions to put politicians on the spot, but questions for all of us, in our own vocation and building up of the common good. For the Good Shepherd is an image of the Risen Christ – and something we are all called therefore to embody and live out, a way of living into which we are formed by the act of sharing a meal together around this table. The Good Shepherd is not something simply to castigate or despair or judge our politicians by; but a vision we are called to enact and live out in our time and place, our own vocation. Amen.

Easter Sunday Evensong – sermon preached by John Conway, Provost – April 4th 2021

Song of Songs 3.2-5 & 8.6-7; John 20.11-18

What’s in a name?

I suspect most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our own name. Our parents may, or may not, have agonised over the choice, but for most of us it’s a given that we live with, fairly unthinkingly. If people do change their name, it is usually the indicator of a profound transition that they are going through, a marker of significant change in life generally. But for most of us, we simply live with the name we were given. If I stop to contemplate my own name, I suppose I think John is a little boring – I used to wonder why my parents chose such a, at the time, common name – it’s now out of the top 100 favourite names, so perhaps there’s hope for me yet! And yet, I am still put out if someone gets my name wrong; and I know that for others John fits me – that’s who I am. We carry our names by and large unthinkingly, and yet they have an ability to get to our core. They do, literally, name us; and to get someone’s name wrong, feels like handing out an insult.

In our gospel this afternoon, it is as Mary hears her name, that the reality of resurrection breaks in.

Mary has gone in her grief to the tomb of Jesus, to find it disturbed, ransacked perhaps. She has fetched Peter and the beloved disciple, but is eventually left by them standing alone in the garden, weeping. And it is there that she has mysterious encounters; first with angels and then with a man she supposes to be the gardener. And each time she is asked, ‘Why are you weeping?’

Mary’s world has of course fallen apart, violence has been loosed on the man she followed and loved, and he is dead. Like women throughout the ages, she is left trying to pick up the pieces, and hold it together. She has come to tend the body of her beloved, anoint and care for it, offer the rituals of comfort to ease her grief and pain.

Perhaps that is why we too are here, doing something familiar, responding to fearful times with comforting rituals, with expressions of tenderness towards those we know. It’s a way of coping with the grief we feel as we lament the state of the world.

But that is not what resurrection is. Mary meets an absence – the body she seeks is not there, the comfort she seeks to bring and to find is denied her. Instead angels, strange figures mark the place of this absence – one at the head, the other at the feet. Woman why are you weeping? they ask. She is weeping because the one thing she thought she could do in her grief is not possible – he is not there, his body is gone.

And then Jesus himself, no corpse to tend, but a living person, stands unrecognised before her, and he too asks her, Woman , why are you weeping?

Why are you weeping? Because the times are fearful and we are troubled. The familiar, the expected, has been taken from us – and all is strange.

And then this stranger names her, “Mary”, and everything changes. I find that moment unbearably poignant. It is as she is given her name, that her eyes are opened. The ability of that name to get to the core of her being calls forth a response, a recognition, a moment of overwhelming, surprising, joy and grace. It is as if she hears her name for the first time, and yet knows it is absolutely her, and that there is only one person who could name her in this way. In knowing herself named, she knows that the man before her is Christ, is the one she came to weep over. She recognises him as alive, and is lifted into resurrection. In place of her fear and grief, here is the presence of him whom Mary had thought gone.

In the story of creation, God brings into being things by naming them: God said: ‘Be light’, and there was light. God subsequently asks Adam to name all the animals as they are brought into being. It is a primordial power – to name. And without doubt, the same happens for Mary: this naming re-creates her. No longer a woman of grief, but of resurrection, with good news to proclaim. ‘Mary’ – it is both her old self, and yet uttered by the risen Christ, her new self. Nothing has changed – Mary still names the same flesh and bone, and yet all is changed. Such is the power of naming.

In his Easter Sermon in 1620, the Anglican theologian Lancelot Andrewes said:

You thought you should have come to Christ’s resurrection today, and so you do. But not to his alone, but even to Mary Magdalene’s resurrection too. For in very deed a kind of resurrection it was, was wrought in her; revived as it were, and raised from the dead and drooping, to lively cheerful estate. The gardener had done his part, made her all green on the sudden.

The gardener had done his part, made her all green on the sudden. And Mary we are told, rushed off to proclaim this good news. Lancelot Andrewes is surely right – we have come to Christ’s resurrection today, and yet it is Mary’s resurrection we celebrate also. And yours, and mine. The gardener does his part, makes us all green on the sudden.

The resurrection, the gift of life beyond death, is what lifts Mary and us out of the familiar, beyond the violence and griefs and betrayals of our world, into new life. “Do not cling to me”, says the Risen Jesus. And so the resurrection gives new purpose, new energy – as Mary runs to proclaim to the disciples – I have seen the Lord.

Mary, and we, are summoned by the Risen Christ into naming the world afresh, into that task of re-creation. Such naming needs to be truthful – it must get to the heart, restoring an identity that is recognisable. The pandemic of the last year has left us battered and bruised and weary. And yet new life comes, and its accent is hopeful, the hope that has the power to change things. Leave your weeping, and go into the world to name it anew; give it the gift of its self, named in hope not despair; for the gardener has done his part, and we proclaim resurrection. Amen.

 

Lent 4 – Sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 14th March 2021

Numbers 21.4-9; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21

This coming week sees the anniversary of the first Coronavirus lockdown – that moment when the full seriousness and far-reaching effect of the pandemic burst upon our consciousness, and we were plunged into a new unpredictability. No doubt there will be much written to help us reflect and assess where this year has left us, individually and collectively. It’s been a year where much has been stripped away: a process that has often exposed previous vulnerabilities and fault lines. That stripping away has left many anxious and facing huge challenges. For others, aspects of that stripping away have been strangely welcome: revealing in fresh ways what is essential and necessary to life. We have discovered the value of public service and the caring professions; the previously overlooked have found themselves, at times, clapped as heroes. And none of us has been left un-marked, un-touched by the isolation from others, and the fragmentation of our previous life.

Many years ago, as I tried to prepare myself to become a parent, I read a book by Melissa Benn about motherhood. She reflected on the strange paradoxes involved in leaving behind the world of work and being plunged into the new topsy-turvy world of looking after a child; how that was incredibly hard, not least in undermining self-confidence and a previous sense of identity given by work or achievements. As a society – certainly politicians, and in the church – we talk a lot about family and its importance; but that talk often doesn’t recognise the experience, in this new role, of suddenly becoming invisible, undervalued and unappreciated, whilst drowning under the weight of the repetitive, mind-draining cycle of caring. That loss of a previous identity is true of motherhood (and can be, though less often I think, of fatherhood) but is also true of those who suddenly have to drop everything and care for other relatives. Melissa Benn beautifully captured that move into a much less clear world, where our sense of self feels much less secure. She writes: “All that we held solidly dear from the old life melts into air; the ever-renewable sentence that begins with ‘I want’, ‘I plan’, ‘I intend’ now becomes hopelessly entangled with, lost within, the compass of this creature whose tiny hand opens and closes with all the slow definite beauty of a flower.”

I was reminded of that quote as I reflected on this past year, when all that we held solidly dear has melted into air; when the ever-renewable sentence that begins with ‘I want’ or ‘I plan’, or ‘I intend’ is no longer straightforward. Now of course, in the case of motherhood, the slow definite beauty of the tiny hand that Melissa Benn also talks about, provides some compensations: motherhood is not just about the loss of identity previously provided by work and the relationships and networks and sense of self found there. But that gift of the slow definite beauty of a child, needs nurturing, needs a community in which it can gain wider recognition and flower. The isolation of motherhood is often acute – the sense that others don’t understand that strange mixture of loss and gain. And the same is true for many of us in the journey we have taken in this past year – into an isolation where it is difficult to articulate the strange mixture of loss and gain we feel.

Losing one’s identity and finding it rebuilt, lies at the heart of the Christian journey. In today’s reading from John we were given the image of Moses setting up the serpent in the wilderness for the healing of the people bitten by snakes – they are healed by staring at that which threatens them. John suggests that Christ becomes the serpent upon whom we gaze for our healing. For John Christ is lifted up on the cross in glorification. It is from there – that place of crucifixion – that, paradoxically, the light shines. The cross is our salvation, the moment of revelation. In John’s Gospel the resurrection narratives aren’t the moment when all is revealed as being sorted; the focus of the resurrection narratives isn’t actually on Christ per se, on the surprising coming to life of the one who had been killed. The focus is on the giving of a new identity to the disciples who had been scattered and brought low by the events of the crucifixion. And so Mary is re-named in the garden; the frightened disciples cowering behind locked doors are given the gift of peace; Thomas is lifted out of doubt into faith; Peter by the seashore finds himself forgiven and given a new identity and calling. The disciples are undone by the cross, and remade in the grace of the resurrection.

The paradox at the heart of John’s gospel, at the heart of Christianity, is that when God comes, God does not come in displays of majesty and glory, but supremely in the ignominy, the isolation, the degradation of the cross. And in making that journey to the cross, like the first disciples we are judged: ‘This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil,’ says our Gospel. In our desire for security, for power, or even for a quiet life, this is what we do to love: we crucify it. And yet, ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ For John, salvation is about accepting that judgement, finding our sense of self undone so that it might be rebuilt on God’s grace, God’s desire to save. To journey to the cross means beginning no longer to rely on the habitual props our ego demands – the props of prestige or achievement, of being someone; but living from grace – from the sense that all life is gift, that the most basic reality that there is, is that God so loves the world, that God loves us and names each one of us. That is our security and our wellspring, what frees us from the drive simply for financial reward, or the adulation of others: that all of life, in all its tragedy and glory, can be received and lived as God-given, can be the place of grace, the meeting place of our God of love. And the church is a community of the re-named, those who celebrate their new identity, given to us in grace – celebrate each other, not because of what we do, or where we live, but because of our God-given life, the breath of God within each, and what each is then capable of.

So if you are, like me, celebrating mothers today, either your own experience of mothering, or that of the mother who bore you, I hope that isn’t just a simple eulogising of motherhood that leaves the difficult reality of it untouched. Motherhood often does mean a letting go, or more accurately a discovery that we are undone, our sense of self undermined. Motherhood, in Melissa Benn’s phrase, is about becoming hopelessly entangled with another, with others. That becoming hopelessly entangled undermines our sense of self, it is about our interdependency with others, rather than a cherished sense of independence. That is one of the most difficult aspects of the past year: that the language of freedom in responding to the pandemic has often been about reasserting our independence, our right to do whatever we like. And not only has that proved inadequate to the challenge of the pandemic, it misunderstands what it is to be human. In our most profound experiences we discover we are hopelessly entangled with one another. The church exists as the community who are learning to receive that entanglement as grace – as the meeting place with God, the place where we are re-named and given a new identity. We belong together, called to share the burdens and the joys of that entanglement. For that building of community, not a community of the like-minded, not a community of the successful and achieving, but a community of the faithful, even in the fragmentation of this past year, thanks be to God. Amen.

Lent 2 – sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 28th February

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38

It’s become routinely observed recently that what we need this Lent is a little different to previous years; that, in a context where hardships and deprivations are already upon us, we don’t need Lenten disciplines to pile on any more. That may be the case, but if so, we still come up against the hard rock of today’s gospel, with Jesus telling his disciples:  ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ What sense do we make of that injunction to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, in these times of pandemic, and anxiety?

The exchange recorded in Mark’s Gospel follows on from Jesus asking the disciples,  Who do you say that I am? That is the question that has rung out through two thousand years of Christian discipleship. And still today, particularly today, we all, individually and collectively, need to find, and live out, an answer to the question that Christ poses afresh again every time we hear this crucial gospel passage – ‘Who do you say that I am?’ It is a question that brings into focus what we hold dear, what we think life is for, what we should do, and what Christ and God have to do with that: Who do you say that I am?

If we think that is an easy question to answer, then our gospel reading should make us pause. Peter, after all, in his instinctive, initial response has got it right – has named Jesus as Messiah. In the passage we heard, however, Peter is now disputing with Jesus what that exactly means, Peter rebukes Jesus for the hard road he seems committed to. The vehemence of Jesus’ reply – ‘Get behind me Satan!’ – illustrates that Peter has touched a raw nerve, given voice to a real temptation that Jesus pushes aside. We heard last week Mark’s brief account of Jesus’ time in the desert; there is no full account in Mark of the temptations, and perhaps that’s because the temptations aren’t all confined to the desert but meet Jesus on the road, in his disciples’ expectations and desires. Peter’s initial answer to the question Jesus poses, has rejoiced in Jesus as the Messiah, as the one who will save them, make everything right, bring in the kingdom Jesus proclaims and lives out. Who do you say that I am? You’re the one who’s going to make everything alright. But to this naming, this expectation, Jesus’ response is blunt and to the point: he orders the disciples to keep silent and instead outlines the suffering and rejection that await him. Here is the scandal at the heart of Christianity and surely we find Jesus’ words as bewildering and perplexing as the first disciples. A bright horizon is suddenly darkened. We are confronted with the most disturbing fact of the gospels: that Jesus knows and accepts, even desires, the way that leads to the cross. From this moment on, Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem and toward the death that awaits him. Others may take his life, but he gives it.

And so, our answer to the question of who we say Christ is, has to make sense of that way of the cross, and of the fact that he calls us to do likewise: ‘”If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

Perhaps the story of Abraham and Sarah, our forbears in faith, that we heard a little of in our Old Testament reading, can shed some light.  Last week we heard of God’s covenant proclaimed to Noah, a covenant with all people, and all living things, the whole created earth. Now that covenant finds its focus in this elderly couple – Abram has been promised that his offspring will be blessed, and bring blessing to the whole world, and yet that promise seems under threat; Abram’s family line is dribbling out, the promise that has sustained his wanderings appears to be at an end. Abram does have Ishmael, the son born of a surrogate mother, and old, almost cynical Abram is preparing to let this Ishmael be his rightful and only heir, because there is no other on the horizon, or even possible: he is old, Sarai his wife is old. But God has more faith, more confidence, more resilience in the possible future – our OT reading is about the renewal of God’s promise. And inexplicably, the yearned for baby arrives – defying reason, common sense, explanation. The covenant is renewed in the miracle of new life, God’s creative action, in the the birth of Isaac. And at this moment of renewal, Abraham and Sarah are renamed and thrown into responses of wonder, astonishment, gratitude, praise, and even laughter. It is that response which defines Abraham and Sarah, and their family after them called to bless the earth – the covenant is renewed and faithfulness is understood as faith in God’s creative action, faith in God’s ability to do a surprising thing. And we can only respond in wonder, astonishment, gratitude, praise, and even laughter. That is the gift of faith bequeathed by Abraham to his descendants, including us – the gift of faith in God whose promise bursts anew in surprising ways, disrupting our jaded cynicism, world weariness, our anxiety about the future.

And in Jesus, we see the ultimate human response to the promise and power of that covenant – an obedience to the call of God when it seems to the outside world, and even to his disciples, to make no sense. In Jesus we see a complete and utter trust, faith, that that covenantal relationship will see him through suffering and even death. Reason and sense protests – we desire something more straightforward, a God who will simply remove our suffering – a providential doctor in the sky who can alleviate our pain, make everything better. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jesus is no sugar-daddy however: not a God who removes our pain and suffering, but one who shoulders it alongside us, heals and redeems it by acts of costly, creative love, and so transforms the world. God’s power is revealed not as the power to zap things right, coercing the world into happiness, but the vulnerable and yet unstoppable power of being, of continually bringing into existence, of life in the place of death, of resurrection life in the place of suffering and death.

So who is Jesus for us, in this time of pandemic, of weariness and anxiety? The answer to that question needs, as ever, to reckon with the cross, to walk the way of the cross, but we do so by trusting with our whole being in God’s promised covenantal relationship. A covenant renewed in Christ, a covenant with God whose surprising grace is inexhaustible. That renewed faith will make us, like Abraham and Sarah, start in wonder, astonishment, gratitude, praise, and even laughter – realities that subvert our cynical or world weary responses, responses that so often masquerade as common sense or ‘just the way the world is.’ Faith is felt more deeply when our world is under stress, but the truth is also revealed that faith in God begins to make sense of the senselessness of suffering. The root of the word ‘suffer’ means to bear, to carry. This pandemic reveals more sharply than ever that life is characterised by suffering in that sense, by the bearing and carrying of people and situations, of one another. To walk the way of the cross in faith is refuse the illusion that we can throw off that suffering, that bearing – that somehow the bearing of others is not at the heart of our human existence. To walk the way of the cross in faith is to face that suffering, that bearing of the world; trusting that through the power of God’s covenantal love, that ‘suffering’, that bearing of one another, becomes the place of surprising resurrection. Amen.

 

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.