Creation-time – John Conway, Provost – 8th September 2019

(Deuteronomy 30.15-20; Philemon; Luke 14.25-33)

See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.

Those opening words from our Old Testament reading this morning resonate through our celebration of Creation-time. A season instituted by churches in recent years to focus our worship of God the Creator, and to aid our collective response to the climate emergency that imperils that creation. Creation-time helps us to reflect on what faith in a Creator God actually means, what it might demand of us – not just to believe, but to feelthe earth as God’s creation.

See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.

That stark choice, offered by Moses to the people of Israel as they enter the Promised Land, are there to remind them what is at stake. In our own time, in this season of Creation-time, they focus our thinking about the choices that lie before us. Such  choices are more fundamental, I would suggest, than those we appear to have before us with Brexit. In the face of the sobering and increasing warnings of scientists that we are imperilling life on earth, we have stark choices about whether the ways we respond to the current climate emergency will bring life and prosperity or death and adversity.

Our Gospel reading is also stark, and in ways that, to our ears, are hard to take. Jesus speaks, in the context of following him, of ‘hating’ father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself. It’s one of those passages where commentaries attempt, not always convincingly, to persuade you that Jesus didn’t mean what he appears to say: so it is argued, we need to understand such language as ‘hyperbole’ – over the top language to make a point. Or that we really need to understand the verb translated as ‘hate’ as being a way of describing the practise of detachment: a putting into proper perspective the things that bind you most closely, such as family. The call of Jesus to discipleship overrides all else, puts everything into that proper perspective. So all our relationships, including those that often bind us most closely, have to be understood and worked out in the context of responding to that creative activity of God encountered in Christ, and in the costly love he evokes. It’s also suggested that this language is Jesus attempting to shake out of apathy the large crowd that is travelling with him – to wake them up and ask: are you listening, do you know what this is all about? See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.

Those ways of reading our gospel all seem to me to raise as many questions as answers. But there is something in the stark language about being clear eyed. That is what connects Jesus’ words to the short parables which follow, about the tower builder being honest about the costs involved; and the king plotting to wage war being clear-eyed about his chances. There is a demand for refreshing honesty which runs through our Gospel. In the context of our climate emergency, what we are doing to our planet, our home, the good creation we have been gifted, it is easy to be constantly in denial, or at least to think we will deal with it at some future point. The International Panel on Climate Change could not be clearer about the risks and consequences of climate change, a rise in average global temperature which seems inexorable, unstoppable, without concerted action. And yet, unlike the tower builder, or the king, we are not willing to be realistic, to be honest about the likely future and its cost – we appear to prefer to rush on blindly.

Perhaps some of the rhetoric around our climate emergency seems over the top to us, unnecessarily gloomy and doom laden. But perhaps that is because we refuse to be clear eyed, to be honest about the future. And there is no point celebrating the gift of God’s creation, and worshipping a Creator God, if at the same moment we are desecrating that creation.

It is perhaps the last sentence of our Gospel which is the key to enable us to re-read the rest: none of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Possessions as we usually understand them have not been mentioned up until now. The talk has been about relationships, family and close relationships. So why do possessions suddenly get mentioned?

In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we infer from the text that this is a letter that accompanies a returning slave. A slave that has escaped his master, and that Paul has now decided to send back. Crucially not on the same terms, but asking Philemon to recognise that the fellowship of God overrides all that history. That something new is re-created here. The language of faith is being relied on here, to do the work of re-creating; of turning another human from a possession into a gift, a brother, in the true and proper sense.

And perhaps that takes us to heart of what Jesus is addressing: our propensity to treat others as our possessions. Possessions are what we own, what are at our disposal; they are things that are useful to us. It is all to easy, when we are centered on self, rather than in Christ, for others to become like possessions, things useful to us. People are not, or should not be, however, our possessions, a source of utility. And neither is our good earth.

In Creation-time, we recognise God as our Creator, the giver of all good things. To worship God is to recognise life – in all its fullness – as gift. Gifts are not earned, but celebrated; they are evidence of a living relationship; you enjoy a gift, and our reminded of the giver by it. And gifts encourage us to be gift-givers, to hand on that generosity and joy that a gift brings.

Our climate emergency will not be solved by technological change alone; or by government action divorced from a growing realisation from all of us that life as we have known it is unsustainable. It requires a costly conversion from seeing the earth, and our neighbours not simply as utilities for our benefit, but also, like us, as gifts of the good Creator. To worship God the Creator demands us to be clear-eyed and to act. I’m delighted that within the life of the Cathedral, the Eco-congregation are helping us find the ways to respond. This week the Cathedral Board took the decision that the Cathedral’s investments should be divested from companies that support the fossil fuel industry. But worship of God the Creator leads us all to re-examine how we respond.

See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. To know how to recognise what that stark choice might mean, requires, our Gospel suggests, a re-orientation of so much of our understanding of what a good life, of what prosperity means. For prosperity is not about the accumulation of more and more possessions – our climate emergency reveals that that way has more to do with death and adversity, for our neighbours and our selves. Life and prosperity is found rather in the recognition and worship of the God who gives life to all. Amen.

Pentecost 11 (Proper 16) – John Conway, Provost – 25th August 2019

Jeremiah 1.4-10; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17

Words from our reading from the letter to the Hebrews this morning:

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.

A central religious category is ‘the holy’, the sacred: religion might be characterised as where that which is other, not of this world, the transcendent and holy, is encountered, in all its ability to provoke fear, obedience, awe, fascination. Where that which is not ordinary, not run-of-the-mill, breaks in and makes a claim upon us, demanding change in us.

In our Gospel reading, people have gathered in worship when something happens to disturb and upset the proper ordering of things. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue – he is obviously held in goodstanding there, invited to address them. But then that teaching is interrupted – Jesus sees something that he considers to be more important than whatever he happens to be talking about. A woman crippled for 18 years, crippled by a spirit that causes her to bend double, comes into view. Our instinctive response to those who are afflicted is often, at some level, to think that they are to blame for their predicament. But Jesus sees a woman whose binding has prevented her from her true vocation, the vocation of that whole community: to stand tall and praise God. So that moment when the sermon is interrupted, is not a moment when the teaching stops, but when its focus shifts, to this woman: the one who, rather than being cut off from the community because of her ailment, is the one who is enabled to express the vocation of the whole community. She is brought centre-stage, and released by words from Jesus that liberate her: ‘Woman, you are set free.’ Released to stand tall and praise God.

But the story doesn’t end there of course. The leader of the synagogue does not see a moment of liberation, but a polluting of the holy, a moment where that which is impure invades the purity of this moment; the Sabbath is desecrated – de-sacralised. The congregation have been invited to identify with the outcast and the shunned – to see their liberation and vocation in her. The place of holiness, where it might be found, suddenly shifts to this woman – and the guardian of holiness, the leader of the synagogue, who interprets the rules for where it is usually found, for who has access to holiness, is disturbed. ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days and be cured’ – the leader inists to the crowd. Don’t disturb the peace and holines of this moment – this doesn’t belong here.

Jesus response is one we hear elsewhere: ‘You hypocrites,’ he says.

We are perhaps used to Jesus using that word – as well as its popularity in certain sections of our own press. That familiarity may blind us to the fact that it is not a common word in scripture. It literally means, from the Greek, those ‘under (hypo) crisis.’ Outside the Synoptic Gospels it is only used in the book of Job. There, Elihu, the last of those to address Job, talks about him being bound in fetters and afflicted, much like Jesus sees this woman. Elihu is assuring Job that God answers the righteous who are afflicted, those who are bound in fetters and caught in the cords of the afflicted. But there are those who don’t seek God’s help, who hold onto their anger and do not cry for help when bound: these are the godless, the hypocrites in heart, says Elihu.

So when Jesus calls the synagogue leader a hypocrite he is accusing him of being like the godless who no longer cry out and long for help, but sit gnawing away at their own resentment (as Elihu accuses Job of doing). The leader of the synagogue has become so wrapped up in doing what he believes to be right, and wedded to resentment when that is not happening, that he has lost touch with the true vocation of the people of God. The real vocation is to cry out to God for delivery, and through that crying out, to know something of the bonds that bind us, and to also discover that which liberates us into standing tall and praising. Hypocrisy diminishes us, leaves us trapped in our resentments, means we no longer see God at work; no longer enter into the realm of the holy, the holy which moves us from being bound, into the freedom of standing tall and praising.

Into our midst, in the place to which this building directs our gaze, in front of the High Altar, during these Festival weeks, has come a disruptive presence. No doubt some of us have found Vanishing Point, the video installation hanging there, a desecrating presence, an invasion into that which is holy and sacred. On Sunday mornings we’ve lessened the disruption by muting its soundscape, and freezing it on one image. That has allowed you, I hope, to appreciate some of the beautiful images that the piece contains. But if you’ve not had the opportunity to sit in the Cathedral when it is running, then I would invite you to do so, to be caught up in its world. But that does mean being disrupted, put under crisis. For Vanishing Point invites us to spend time with, to contemplate seagulls, and further, to imagine sharing a table, and food with them. What can that teach us about holiness, if our gaze is re-directed there?

I’ve come to appreciate Vanishing Point as a rich work of art, with a whole host of suggestive themes to respond to if we let it work on us. Let me briefly draw out two: first it asks us to reimagine our relationship to creation, to the world out there. That’s a theme, at this time of climate emergency, that has taken on a sharp urgency. It’s a theme we will be exploring further in the season of Creation-time next month. It’s easy to think of creation in terms of beautiful sunsets, or mountainscapes, to think of it in romantic terms. Vanishing Point brings us face to face with the natural world as it is; as it is in our cities, as animals adapt and create a home alongside ours. The artists are interested in those parts of nature which disturb or irritate us, whose insistent presence remind us that this is not just our world to do with as we like. What does it mean for all creation to stand tall and praise God – as that seagull fixes you and your food with its beady eye?

And second, hanging there, in front of the high altar, the Eucharistic resonances of the piece become obvious. At the heart of Vanishing Point is the sharing of food around a table – just as it is for us this morning. We are not the company of the perfect; just like the seagulls we gather around the table as the dishevelled, the wary, the uncertain. We are both proudly beautiful and strangely unlovable. Have we come here this morning to raid the altar table for our little piece of holiness, or does something else happen as we gather round? The shift in holiness that Christ enacts and effects, draws us together into a new community, a festal gathering, as the letter to the Hebrews describes it, a place of joyful gathering, where we encounter Christ, the one whose self-giving blood speaks a better word than the blood of sibling rivalry and violence, the blood of Abel. Christ’s coming has shifted the understanding of holiness from something fearful, to be guarded, to something joyous and saving; a kingdom that cannot be shaken by anything in this world. We are liberated, as part of all creation, seagulls and all, the lovable and the unlovable, to stand tall and praise God, as we are.

It was all too easy for the leader of the synagogue for the Sabbath to become about rest, the ceasation of activity. The equivalent for us might be about thinking of church as where we come to get away from it all, recharge our batteries, find some peace. But that sells us, and more importantly the holiness encountered in Christ, short. Holiness is more disruptove than that – Christ re-directs our gaze to the cords that bind us, that leave us bent double; Christ challenges us to move beyond hypocrisy, and reconnect to our primary vocation: to cry out, move beyond our resentments, look for our release; to stand tall, and with all creation, praise God. Amen.

Pentecost 6 (Proper 11) – John Conway, Provost – 21st July 2019

Genesis 18.1-10a; Colossians 1.15-28; Luke 10.38-42

I’ve been lucky enough to do some travelling in countries where I have spent time in local households – I’m thinking in particular of India and Poland – where I have experienced that culture of hospitality which can be almost overwhelming, certainly humbling in the efforts made by those, who sometimes have very little, to make the guest feel welcome and valued. I’ve known that, as guest, I will not be leaving without an extremely full stomach, and a share in the best that the household has to offer. I’m not sure we quite have that same culture in Scotland – many people are of course extremely hospitable, but we don’t have the sense of the almost sacred duty of hospitality, the dropping of everything to make a guest feel welcome, the priority of such welcome.

We get a glimpse of that same culture in the story from Genesis we heard in our first reading: the visit of three men to Abraham and Sarah. The visitors are never named as angels, messengers from God, but they have been widely understood in that way – Rublev, of course, took this story as the basis for his famous icon of the Trinity. God is glimpsed in these three visitors gathering around a table in a moment of shared hospitality and visitation. Certainly Abraham and Sarah understand these unknown visitors to be important, as they quickly prepare a feast and set it before them. These messengers of God are royally welcomed, and Abraham and Sarah’s reward is the promise of a son – even if, initially at least, Sarah, at her advanced age, finds such a promise somewhat laughable.

I mention the centrality of hospitality to our first reading, because it plays a role in our Gospel too. Here Jesus is welcomed in to a house – the home of Martha and Mary – and Martha, at least, is taking the duty and privilege of hospitality seriously.

Martha is busy preparing the dinner, making sure everyone is well looked after. She becomes understandably annoyed with her sister, who rather than sharing the load, simply sits at the feet of Jesus to listen. Many of us, when reading this story, feel that Martha has a point. Whilst we recognise the truth of Jesus’ words that Martha is worried and distracted by her many tasks – and we’ve all been there I suspect – well, the food is not going to cook itself is it? Is this not a typical religious move – privileging contemplation over action; sitting around over actually getting on and making a difference, making things happen.

If we read our gospel passage in isolation then taking the side of Martha is certainly an understandable reaction. But that is not the whole picture. Our reading follows straight on from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, itself preceded by the great commandment to love God and love neighbour. We heard all that last week. In the parable, Jesus answers the question, who is my neighbour, by holding up and commending the action of the Samaritan, the one who doesn’t stick to his allotted role, but responds in compassion to the need of another human, his neighbour, in front of him. The conventionally religious, the priest and Levite are condemned for not seeing, for being so wrapped up in the religious rights and wrongs, and their own standing, that they don’t recognise their neighbour. Action, responding in compassion to get things done, is here very much privileged over religious piety. It is in that context that we hear of Martha: like the Samaritan she is responding to the needs of others.

The difference is, I suspect, that Jesus reacts to the resentment in Martha’s tone and question: Martha is trying to recruit Jesus to take sides in her annoyance with her sister. That is something that Jesus refuses to do, instead he asks Martha a question about her commitments in the midst of this frenetic activity. What are her motives? Martha is being asked to bring her activism into dialogue with contemplation, so that each may feed the other. Just like the Samaritan, Martha is not expected by Jesus, to stick to an allotted, in this case archetypal feminine role – the care of the household. She is invited to bring that task and calling, to the feet of Jesus, to his words and practise of compassionate care. Jesus invites Martha to see herself not in competition with her sister, but to ask what enables the mutual flourishing of each.

We gather here, week by week, around a table, at the feet of Jesus, to listen and learn. If we think that we are here to recruit Jesus to help us with our projects, as an ally to command others to do what we think should be done, then we miss the point. We need to be directed toward Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet to listen. That is the necessary moment, as we receive Christ’s hospitality, his offering of himself. It isn’t a matter of being active or contemplative or prioritising one over the other; it’s a matter of being focused on Jesus without resentment because Jesus has no resentment.

And when we have gathered around Christ, so we will be sent out: ‘To go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.’ Our faith demands action, the generous hospitality and welcome shown to others. For loving God and loving neighbour are never separate but each feeds and needs the other. Amen.

 

Pentecost 3 (Proper 8) – John Conway, Provost – 30/06/19

(1Kings 19.15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62)

He gave answers to questions they didn’t ask

sometimes they didn’t dare

open their mouths anymore

not because they hadn’t understood

he was taking from them

everything sacred and safe

he offered no guarantees

Fire was not sacred to him or neon

not singing or silence

not fornication or chastity

in his speech foxes bread leaven

and much mended nets became sacred

the down and out were his proof

and actually he had as much assurance

of victory as we in these parts do

None

That poem by Dorothee Solle, a wonderful post-war German theologian and mystic, from her set of poems, When He came, captures something of the uncompromising, urgent Jesus that we encounter in today’s Gospel reading. A Jesus on the move: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Follow me.’ Are you attracted? Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, we are told, and an urgency now characterizes him – almost shocking in its brusqueness: ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ – ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, he journeys towards the pain, the conflict, the disturbance that await him there. And he seems only to invite others to join him in that single-mindedness

That stark invitation may seem at first to be at odds with our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free,’ Paul declares. ‘Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.’ That call to freedom might seem in contrast to Jesus’ insistence that ‘no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Are we not free to do as we like?

To see Paul’s evocation of freedom as being in tension with Jesus’ call to discipleship is, however, to misunderstand the nature of the freedom in which Paul believes we stand.

To understand that crucial notion of freedom – such a loaded word for us in the West of course – I think the writings of a French anthropologist, Renee Girard, are immensely helpful. Girard’s writings are complex, but at the heart of his understanding of human society, and religion, lies what he calls mimetic desire. Girard argues that our desires, what we find ourselves longing for, what we imagine we want out of life, such desires do not come out of nowhere. Nor are they simply the expression of a free heart. Rather there is something about how human beings are, that makes us desire what we see our neighbour’ s desiring. We learn what we desire through imitating those around us. That is what Girard means by Mimetic desire, from the Greek word mimesis, meaning reflection. What we long for is a reflection of, learnt from, the longings and desires of the society we find ourselves within. The most obvious example of this, with which many of us will be familiar is when you observe two children playing. One child rediscovers a long forgotten toy, buried deep in some toy box. As she gets the toy out to begin to play with it, the other child notices – suddenly the toy, which a moment before had been of no significance to either child, becomes the must-have plaything. The second child cannot, all of a sudden, live without it – and he will swear blind that he’s been longing to find it for weeks. We learn what we desire from the desire of those around us – and the belief that that only happens in childhood, is quickly dispelled if you observe the power exerted by keeping up with the Joneses, or the pull of celebrity culture, or the way that the latest technology exerts a strange fascination for us. Our desires, the longings of our heart, what we imagine we need to be free, is actually a reflection, is shaped by those around us. Our expressions of individuality, our cherished freedom, is far more a product of group-think than we care to admit.

Girard’s further, and crucial point, however, is that because what we desire is shaped by the desire of those around us, we necessarily find ourselves competing for the same thing. Just like the two children will end up in an almighty squabble over the newly-discovered toy, so we end up thinking that, in a world of finite resources, we need to guard what we have, guard what will inevitably be the object of others’ desire. Our mimetic desires inevitably lead, argues Girard, to repressed, or sometimes open, violence: competition over the shared objects of desire. Societies find ways, says Girard, to unite us in the midst of that violent competition: usually by turning that repressed violence outwards onto a scapegoat; we avoid fighting with our neighbours by turning on those identified as outsiders. We become united by turning on them, thus avoiding the conflict which our mimetic desire provokes with our neighbour.

There is not time in a sermon to do full justice to Girard’s complex and suggestive thinking, but I hope I have indicated enough to put all our usual ideas of freedom into question. Freedom is so often characterized as about our liberation, about being able to express ourselves however we want. Girard’s point is that once we are aware of how such desire is shaped by others, and of the competing violence that that gives rise to, it no longer looks much like freedom. And the one who makes us aware of all that, says Girard, is the one who refused to unite people by playing ‘us’ off against ‘them’: is this Jesus, who steadfastly walks into the heart of our violence, and takes the place of the scapegoat, bears on himself the violence we usually unleash on the marginal, the outsider, the foreigner; on ‘them,’ who are not like ‘us.’ Jesus, in his crucifixion, reveals the scapegoat mechanism even as, in his resurrection, he reveals the deeper reality of forgiving love. For it is in that forgiving love, in a desire shaped by his abiding in the Father, as the Father abides in him, in that forgiving love that Jesus walks toward Jerusalem. It is in that forgiving, non-competitive love that he is free, free from mimetic desire and its competitive violence. And it is into that freedom that we are invited. Not, as Paul says, a freedom that sets us apart from one another, an opportunity for self-indulgence; but through love, says Paul, become slaves to one another.

And he then hammers home the point: that it is two accounts of freedom that are in view here. The first is freedom that gratifies the desires of the flesh, desires shaped by what the world values around us: a freedom, as it is so often characterized, to do what we want, to live without limits or constraints, with the pleasure-seeking self at its heart. Such ‘freedom’, Paul argues, results in enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy – as well as the more usual suspects listed as sins of the flesh. Against that understanding of freedom is the freedom given as gift, given in the abiding of God in the human heart, so that we begin to be shaped by that reality of God’s abiding presence rather than by mimetic desire. Such freedom is not found in endless choice, or liberation to be whatever we want, but in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity – in those things that make us slaves to one another, bound together rather than competing; freedom in commitment, in engagement, in the laying down and the picking up of mantles. Freedom not, as it is so often characterised, with a certain wistfulness, found in un-commitment, in not being tied, but the freedom of finding a ‘home’ on the way, a task to do, a self discovered not through the relentless acquisition of ‘experiences’ or possessions, but known in relationships, in all their give and take, their laying down and picking up. Freedom found as Paul paradoxically puts it in the bondage of love.

Our Eucharistic prayer will shortly declare that Jesus ‘broke the bonds of evil and set your people free to be his Body in the world.’ We are freed in our common sharing to be Christ’s body in our world; learning in community that new freedom to which all are called.

As St Augustine put it:  Eternal God, the light of the minds that know you, the joy of the hearts that love you, and the strength of the wills that serve you: grant us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whose service is perfect freedom in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Easter VII – John Conway – Sunday 2nd June

(Acts 16.16-34; Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17.20-26)

‘One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl.’ So starts the strange extraordinary story from the book of Acts that was our first reading this week. As we were going to the place of prayer. As ever, it’s the small details that reveal much. This is a story framed by prayer; on their way to pray, Paul and Silas encounter a slave-girl, a woman defined by her bondage, her imprisonment by the men who make money out of her. This is a story about prayer, and about freedom, or the lack of it.

Last Sunday, as the Cathedral embarked on a Festival of prayer, joining with Christians across the world in praying, Thy Kingdom Come, we were encouraged by John, our Vice-Provost, to discover, through prayer, our heart as the meeting place with God; the place of God’s abiding, overcoming our fear and kindling us into love. As our Gospel put it this morning: ‘I in them, and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’

Our reading from Acts is a vivid illustration of what that abiding in God as God abides in us looks like; how prayer might shape our living. One day, as they are going to the place of prayer, Paul and Silas meet a slave girl, a woman who makes a great deal of money for others through fortune telling. Such fortune telling relies on a belief that the future is fixed, determined – it is the antithesis to a faith in the possibility of freedom, faith that the future is open, to be shaped by our collective response. This woman, herself not free, owned and a money maker for others, offering fake news to gullible people desperate for certainty about the future; this woman becomes fascinated by Paul and his friends, and begins to follow them everywhere. You sense that she is perturbed: abused by her owners, she sees in these men of prayer something different at work. Paul, somewhat exasperated by her haunting of them, orders the spirit of divination, of fortune telling, out of her.

However we might understand that exchange, something shifts. The woman herself disappears from the story – wahtever Paul has accomplished, to her previous owners, her liberation from fortune telling, means a fall in their fortune making. Their hope of making money from her is gone, and they are furious.

And so, even as she is set free (we hope), the money men force a role reversal: Paul and Silas are themselves imprisoned, thrown in to jail by magistrates in cahoots with the money men, and there they are stripped naked, beaten, put in the innermost cell, their feet fastened in the stocks. And there, at midnight, at the darkest hour, we find them ‘praying and singing hymns to God.’ Who is bound? Who is free?

And at this darkest hour, ‘suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chanins unfastened.’ This is a story of dramatic reversals – where those we think are bound and chanied are suddenly free, and those who think themselves free are suddenly revealed as imprisoned. It might be tempting to think the earthquake is some sort of divine intervention – it certainly has a miraculous quality to it. And yet the text is silent on the cause of the earthquake. It just is; it’s the circumstance that helps reveal what the text is really interested in – who is bound, who is free?

The immediate effect is that the jailer whose job it is to ensure that the prisoners remain locked up, is beside himself, and draws a sword to kill himself, supposing his prisoners have escaped. Because if you were the fortunate beneficiaries of an earthquake, why wouldn’t you? And he, the enforcer of the magistrates rule of fear, has failed. But his prisoners, who he imagines have leapt to their freedom, instead call out to their jailer: ‘Do not harm yourself for we are all here.’ Here is freedom; here is the abiding presence of God, in this act of selflessness and relationship forming. It brings the jailer to his knees, and then to faith. ‘He brought them outside’, out of the prison that they were never in, and he then asks: ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved.’ And so this jailer is brought too to the place of freedom; into the company of those who can sing and pray even when the world is at its darkest. And in their company he forges new bonds of friendship and love: ‘he took them and washed their wounds, brought them up into the house and set food before them. And he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.’

‘Christians are formed by the way in which they pray.’ This Cathedral is fundamentally a place of prayer, we are a people of prayer. This week, this Festival of prayer is an opportunity to journey deeper into that reality and truth. In a world so often defined by who makes money from whom, by a culture of imprisonment and fear; where we can be tempted to think the future is fixed and determined and we know who the winners are; prayer is about the journey into a different kind of freedom. The freedom that sings songs in the darkness, that acts in selfless, surprising ways, that forges bonds of faith, that knows the abiding presence of God in each human heart. Who is bound? Who is free?

Amen.

Easter III – John Conway – 5th May 2019

(Acts 9.1-20; John 21.1-19)

In the name of God, creating, redeeming and sustaining. Amen.

‘The greatness of the great Christian saints lies in their readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked and left speechless by that which lies at the centre of their faith.’ That is a quote from Rowan William’s wonderful exploration of the Christian mystics – The Wound of Knowledge. It sums up what links our two readings this morning – the conversion of Saul, soon to be Paul; and the re-conversion, the resurrection of Peter.

You may remember that back in January I offered you an imagining, from Peter’s point of view, of his first meeting with Jesus – his initial call by the lakeside after a night’s fishing. Today’s gospel returns us to that same place – Peter, after the events of Holy Week is back fishing. Let us too return and imagine what that encounter might feel like.

Peter said:

In my case there was no flash of light. No voices from the sky. It’s typical of Paul that his encounter should be dramatic, flinging him to the ground, blinding him. Me, my life was changed on a quiet, calm morning, after I thought all the fuss was over, when I had run away to hide and forget.

The seven of us had gone fishing. Back to what we knew best, what came easily. We worked through the night, the darkness enveloping us, smothering the need to talk, to make sense of what had happened. We could just be together, coping in our separate ways. The memory of Jerusalem, of that extraordinary week of conflict and death, and, and of, well, something more, could recede here among the familiar nets, the easy swing of them overboard, the fruitless search for fish. Here, I could almost ignore the uneasy voice that told me everything was different now, that the familiar could now no longer be enough, the be all and end all. That something more did rankle, even here, amongst the smells of rotting fish and faded dreams.

Early morning is a strange time when you’ve been fishing all night: of course you’re exhausted – particularly when you’ve caught nothing – and yet the dawn light can hardly fail to move you. The inexorable cycle of light breaking up the darkness, to be swallowed up again in turn in darkness. But at dawn, mystery is near, the world is hopeful. It was at daybreak the stranger appeared and told us to try fishing on the other side of the boat – told us, who had fished all our lives – but it was dawn, and the sky was painting the lake with fresh colour and warmth, so, because it was dawn and to humour the man as much as anything, we cast the nets once more, tired shoulders heaving. When the nets bulged and pulled, that’s when the familiar suddenly began to be invaded with other memories, other questions and longings. All that I had struggled to forget, in my shame and confusion, suddenly began to return, to haunt and disturb me. ‘It is the Lord’ someone shouted in my ear, and my heart leapt. Love triumphed at that moment – I knew that to be with him once more was my heart’s desire. But not naked. The events of the previous weeks had stripped me bare, left me without protection. I had betrayed him, when I had vehemently said I would not; I had deserted him when he was most at need. To be with him again was joy indeed, but not naked, not unprotected. So I pulled on my clothes, and then dived overboard – I had to be the first to reach him.

We came in with nets bulging – every species known to us seemed to be there, glistening in the rising sun. But Jesus had already got a fire going, with fish and bread to eat on it; the kind of meal we would have had shortly, gathering round the fire to assess the night’s fishing, make plans for the coming days, pass time in small talk. But it was different now. Memories stirred: us, and him, eating together once more, like that time in the Upper Room. But that was in Jerusalem, the holy city, when all was supercharged, when we had no idea what the future held, but the world seemed to be our oyster even with the rumours of the plotting of the authorities and Jesus’ own reluctance to evade them. Now we were gathered around a small fire, by the lake, amongst the familiar debris of fishing. This was not Jerusalem where the important things happen. And yet, once more he was breaking bread, bringing us together, stilling the small talk, sharing himself.

And then it happened. No blinding light; simply, after breakfast, he took me off by myself as the sun rose, the heat of the day beginning.

‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Once the answer would have been automatic. I took pride in being the most loyal, the eager one. But now, how could I boast, take pride? And yet, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’

And again, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Again, he addressed me with my old name, Simon. Not the new name of Peter, the Rock, the name that he had gifted me – of that I had proved unworthy – the rock had turned to quicksand. I was back to being Simon, all else was delusion, pride before the fall. ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ How else could I answer?

And again, and by now my pulse was beating hard – no need to remind me of the significance of that third question, I who had betrayed him not once, nor twice, but three times. ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Now I was stripped bare, no hiding place left. ‘Lord you know everything’ – you know that I betrayed you and deserted you, and that I don’t know how to cope with you coming back from the dead. I thought you were buried and gone, and that I would have to deal with my hurt and anger at myself as best I could – probably by taking refuge in this fishing, hoping that that would numb the pain and the ache – but now it’s not so simple. For you are not dead and buried, but amongst us, sharing yourself again in bread broken. So yes Lord, you know everything, and despite it all, in the midst of the hurt and brokenness – ‘you know that I love you.’

And then I finally heard it – not the repeated question but the repeated response and instruction. Not words of condemnation or reproach, of blame or inquest. He was not wanting my guilt or remorse, but to offer the gift of new life: ‘Feed my lambs – tend my sheep – feed my sheep.’ And something in me died, for the familiar rhythms of fishing could no longer comfort me, and my cherished ideal of being proved the hero also finally withered under that three times repeated question, but at the same moment something burst into life. I did not have to be someone else; I did not have to forget and bury the past. My broken, betraying humanity was enough, a crucible fit for that gift of new life, new calling. I loved him, and that was enough, and would take me where he needed me to go. And so he left me, with simply the whispered instruction, ‘follow me’, going as quietly as he had arrived. The heat of the day soon passed; night drew in again enveloping all. But the fire within me burned on, unquenched.

As I say for Paul it was all very different. And yet, and yet, don’t let the outward appearances deceive you. For both of us died in our encounter with the Risen Christ. Both of us were stripped of all that clothed and protected us, taken to a place we would rather not go – me to the prison of my memories, he – who had wielded the power of death over Christians – made blind and powerless, led like a child, waiting for a fearful, brave old man who would restore him, give him his new name and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was hardly painless – the gift of new life was born in the vulnerability of our old ways dying. And the new life we were gifted took us to places we would not have dared imagine. He said it to me himself before he left: ‘When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ And yet that final death, that final loss of control, will not defeat me. For I have already been crucified with him, and in his resurrection, I have already risen to new life in him. And that gift means I am no longer trapped in my past of betrayal and failure, nor dreaming of being the hero I will never become, but simply living for the sake of the world, not myself. And that is a gift none can take away, wherever I am led.

Amen.

Easter Sunday – John Conway – 21/04/19

(John 20.1-18)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Yeats’ famous lines from his poem The Second Coming, have apparently enjoyed a second wind themselves in recent years – often quoted as people have tried to describe and understand the times we live. They sprang to mind, as I thought about how to describe this moment, this Easter moment in which resurrection is encountered, and proclaimed.

It is perhaps no surprise that it is these words that resonate in our present, words written a century ago in 1919, in the exhausted, disillusioned and fearful aftermath of the 1stWorld War, when that awful clash of nations had burst the bubble of optimism felt in the early years of the century, and people feared that there was more violence to come, that a vacuum had been created into which the populist demagogues would step and whip up passion: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Words for our times indeed. Particularly as we hear today of acts of unspeakable violence and cruelty in churches and hotels across Sri Lanka. Whatever our sense of the particular reasons for the times we live in, we are familiar with the fear and dread that Yeats evokes – a sense that the old ways of ordering the world are coming apart, and we don’t know what is next. We lack conviction, and we fear and suspect that those full of passionate but shallow intensity are even now sweeping up and making the future.

And it is in that context that we also hear the question, twice addressed to Mary Magdalene in our Easter Gospel this morning: Woman, why are you weeping? Why are you weeping?

For Mary’s world has of course fallen apart, violence has been loosed on the ceremony of innocence that Jesus enacted. And 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 friend, anoint and care for it, offer the rituals of comfort to ease her grief and pain.

And we too are tempted to respond to anxious times with the comforting rituals of the familiar, with expressions of tenderness towards those we know. We lament the state of the world, but we often respond by doing what we can do, faithfully, tenderly even, like Mary coming to anoint the dead.

But that is not what resurrection is. In our Gospel Mary meets an absence – what 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 absence – one at the head, the other at the feet. In John’s account what greets Mary when she looks in the tomb is the space between two angels: one sitting where the head of Jesus should have been, one where his feet should have been. In Old Testament depictions of the throne of God, angels sit on either side of the presence of God. Here they sit on either side of a surprising absence, which overthrows Mary. Woman why are you weeping? The angels ask. She is weeping because her confusion is deepened, and the one thing she thought she could do in this situation is not possible – he is not there, his body is gone.

And then, as she stumbles out into the garden, 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. Even the familiar, the expected is not as it should be, is strange.

The gospels are full of markers of the way Jesus fulfils the Old Testament scriptures. His birth and ministry, his teaching and even his dying, are understood in patterns drawn from the scriptures – they are graspable through terms that are familiar. But in all the resurrection narratives that phrase, ‘to fulfill the scriptures’ is never used. The resurrection is surprising, initially ungraspable, radically new.

And we stand, on this Easter Day, in that tradition: the tradition of disciples who, like Mary, receive the gift of the radical, surprising, new thing God is doing in our midst. That is why, when Christians claim that tradition demands that you keep doing the same thing over and over, they are betraying their own tradition. The tradition we inhabit tells us that here is God’s presence known: in the surprising absence of what we thought would bring us comfort; in the surprising presence of a forgiving, wounded Saviour.

It cannot be said often enough that the resurrection does not right the wrong, undo the crucifixion. Rather it is the gift of surprising hope, the refusal of closure at the scene of crucifixion, at the scene of betrayal and dashed hopes.

For our Good News, our gospel, is not about neat endings, about tying up the loose ends of the story, about happily ever after and all that – no matter how much we long for that. The Gospel is not interested in closure, but in keeping the story going. The resurrection is the invitation to Mary and to you and to me, to us together, to take the story in new and surprising directions by seeing, and then being, that forgiving presence we meet in Jesus. Our gospels end not with closure, for the disciples or for us, but with invitation.

So, why are you weeping? As this stranger names her, “Mary”, so she recognises and is given the gift of resurrection. 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. Here is the presence of him who Mary had thought gone. Here is a centre to hold onto; where things had threatened to fall apart; here the fragments are knit together into a living presence that re-names her.

Why are you weeping? In this quiet garden, Mary and we receive the gift of resurrection to take away our tears – receive a living presence to ground us, a centre that re-gathers the scattered fragments of our lives together, a conviction to steer us through our times of inequality and need, of looming climate chaos and the challenge of different patterns of living. Here is life beyond death, beyond suffering and the violence and betrayals of our world. The resurrection, the gift of this day, is what lifts us out of our familiar routines, however tenderly we may enact them. “Do not cling to me”, says the Risen Jesus. The resurrection gives us new purpose, new energy – as Mary runs to proclaim to the disciples – I have seen the Lord. So, go, be not fearful, refuse to be simply comforted, for the Lord of love is not dead but alive and he re-names you here. Go and proclaim, in word and deed, that suffering and fear and violence have not won, and shall not win. In His presence, we are re-made and hope is born anew. For Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

 

Good Friday Reflection – John Conway – 19/04/19

They shall look on him whom they pierced. John 19.37

On Good Friday we have to reckon with the statement, that appears in all the Gospels in one way or another, that the death, the crucifixion, of Jesus is chosen, is anticipated by him and even necessary. The Gospels talk of Judas’ betrayal, and that might indicate that without the actions of Judas, another end for Jesus was possible, but to focus on that betrayal, as the cause and reason for Jesus’ death, is to contradict much else that is said – about Jesus deliberately setting his face toward Jerusalem, being clear about what awaited him there, and nevertheless choosing, it being God’s will that he should walk that road.

To talk of it being God’s will brings us close to what many Christians down the centuries, although not all, have wanted to say – that the necessity for this act, this death, lies in God. God wills it because God’s justice demands it it is sometimes said. The death of Christ, the offering of himself on humanity’s behalf, is to satisfy the Father, make right a relationship that is broken – broken, for sure, by humanity’s fall, but in need of repair because God is God. And so the solution to the problem is God sending his Son to die in our place, to offer himself for us, and so make things right.

There are many reasons why I think that understanding of the cross needs to be questioned, pushed back against, but that is for another time. The aspect that has been nagging away at me during Lent, however, is that understanding, the clear articulation in our Gospels, that Jesus walks toward his death in uncompromising fashion – his face is set. And nothing, not even the understandable doubts and agonies of Gethsemane, or the pleadings of his disciples, will deflect him from this course. And that way of understanding Jesus’ walk to the cross has nagged away at me during Lent because I, like many others, have spent much of the last few months praying for those in positions of power in our divided and fractious country, to have the humility to compromise, to be flexible enough to appreciate that there are different ways of viewing things, to find new and creative ways through the political messes we find ourselves in. And so my prayer has been questioned, put in doubt, by the simultaneous seemingly implacable walk to the cross of Jesus. He appears little interested in compromise, or finding a middle way, or in reconciliation with the powers and authorities of his day.

They shall look on him whom they pierced.

Alongside the insistence that this death is chosen, is God’s will, however, lies another insight from our Gospels. In the first part of our Gospels, Jesus is the initiator, the maker of the story – he moves around the countryside in a blaze of healings, and insightful teaching, and generous, gratuitous, feeding. Here is the Word, the giver of life, coming among his people in all the creative energy that we might expect. But as he makes that turn toward Jerusalem, walks this way into the midst of the gathering storm – a storm provoked and focused by his action – so things change. Jesus ceases to be the initiator, the man of action, but becomes the still centre of that gathering storm, the silent recipient of all that is now thrown at him. It is not that this walk to the cross is the walk of an uncompromising idealist; refusing to give up his principles no matter the cost. Jesus is not uncompromising in his following of his Father’s will. Rather, walking that path, means that he is deeply compromised – willing to take upon himself, be compromised by, what others will do to him, will do to that expression of God’s love in action.

They shall look on him whom they pierced. We shall look on him whom we pierced.

The cross is a place of brokenness, of ultimate vulnerability to the world, of weakness in the face of sin and death.

Today, in the stark reality of this man on a wooden cross, we meet an image that penetrates our stony exteriors, penetrates the protective layers with which we guard ourselves. It is an image that embodies, shows us, our own experiences of being broken, experiences that are often denied, well-hidden buried deep, or sometimes all too painfully present. Good Friday is about a moment of recognition – yes. Yes, I know suffering: my own, my neighbour’s, the suffering of our fragile earth. And yes – I have lived within that meaninglessness, that bewilderment at God, or even that total absence of God, that sense of nothingness embodied in Jesus’ despairing cry: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’

But as well as recognition, an honesty about the reality and cost of suffering, the cross goes deeper as it names our betrayals, our collusion in, and causation of, the suffering of others; our place in the crowd, our standing alongside Peter in betraying all that we thought we held dear. To see this man compromised, put to death at our hands unmasks our pretensions of order, our desire to be in control and in the right: here is one who has lost control, who is utterly in the hands of others, who is done to; one who, even as his disciples flee and scatter, can only trust by placing his life in the hands of an absent God. And yet he is love, love incarnate, love embodied.

We shall look on him whom we pierced. And in that looking we are undone.

And as we are undone, so shall we be re-made. Our Easter faith is not simply a declaration that spring shall follow winter, not simply a celebration of light following darkness, Easter Sunday does not simply come after Good Friday like some unwritten law that good shall always come out of evil. 

It is as the cross uncovers our brokenness, our complicity, our weakness, our need for God, so we are healed. As we are drawn into that Christ-like movement of sacrificial self-offering, so we discover God at work within us and beyond us. This death of love incarnate, the Son walking that way of love in obedience to the Father who is love, asks us what is important, what is vital and true, where are we going and where have we come from. In becoming open to that insistent questioning of Good Friday, so we become the place of God’s redeeming work on Easter morn. Amen.

 

Lent 4 – John Conway – 31/03/19

2Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32

According to the Gospels (well, Mark, Luke and Matthew anyway), Jesus didn’t go in for sermons. It’s a fact that always puts a bit of a question mark next to this part of the service! Jesus did, however, tell stories. And we heard one of the most famous of them today.

So I could preach a sermon focusing on the prodigal son: the son who demands now, his share of the inheritance that belongs to him. He’s not prepared to wait, but then squanders that inheritance, is reduced to hiring himself out, a wreck of person, before coming to his senses, and traveling back home, expecting to beg for a servant’s lot, and then surprised by the welcome and forgiveness from his father. There are plenty of sermons that encourage us to identify with that journey – the journey to find ourselves back home, and not just home but greeted by the surprising welcome of our father – a feast thrown to welcome our return.

Or I could preach a sermon not so much focusing on the prodigal – for like the first hearers, isn’t the point that we aren’t always those who’ve wandered off and squandered everything. We perhaps more often identify with older son – looking askance at the behaviour of his brother, and the behaviour of his Father. That sermon might ask if the older son doesn’t have a point – articulating the truth that most parents know that spoiling a child is a potential path to ruin. It’s a sermon that might tease out the tension between justice (what is right and fair) and mercy, the act of gratuitous, unmerited forgiveness. That’s a real tension, and the story is open-ended, the reconciliation between the brothers (as well as the older son and the father) is incomplete – we’re left wondering how the older brother will react to the Father’s invitation to join the feast, and how we might react.

But perhaps the sermon would help us think more deeply about God (the Father). For surely the story implies that this is what God is like. God, the one whose mercy breaks down the walls of both our foolishness and our self-righteousness. The God whose overwhelming desire is to reconcile, to bring into the feast both the older and younger child, the foolhardy and the responsible. This is Jesus’ most sustained vision of what God is like.

And therefore the point is maybe that we are called to bethe father figure, enacting that reconciliation, which as Paul says is our epistle, is the ministry of us all. We need to find the strength to be vulnerable, like the Father who runs down the road to greet the younger son, and sweeps aside his apologies; find the strength to show the joy and mercy which breaks hearts and changes the patterns of our life together.

There so many ways to take this story. That’s without exploring how Jesus’ first hearers might have reacted to the parable, or the reading of this story by that great 20thcentury theologian, Karl Barth, for whom the Prodigal Son was Christ himself – making his journey into the far country; the journey of God into incarnated human living, in all its squalor and sinfulness; so that, as Christ becomes like us, so we may journey with him back into the arms of the welcoming Father: or as Paul puts: For our sake he made him sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. The point is not only that we are all like the Prodigal, but that God chooses to make that journey too.

So many readings of one story. And perhaps that today is the point worth drawing out. That humans are story tellers; we are a species formed and shaped by our story telling. It’s the reason we still gather to hear this familiar story, in all its multi-faceted depth; just as we will shortly enact other stories: as Alannah is baptised, brought through the waters of Christ’s death that she may live his resurrection life; and as bread and wine is taken and shared, and the re-telling, in our presence, enables it to become the presence of Christ among us and in us. Our gospel story continues to challenge us to think about why forgiveness and reconciliation and justice matter; in a world of estrangement and squalor, and dubious choices; just as our communion will remind us in a world of brokenness, of the possibility of transformation and wholeness and community. And so the stories form us, as we are invited to see the world and God as they suggest – to see the possibility for forgiveness and reconciliation and feasting, where we thought there was none.

For if it is not this story, this account of the world and the One who holds all things in life, then some other story, some other account of the way things are and might be, will be forming and shaping us. That’s true on a personal level – as Christians our baptism describes and enacts that fundamental shape of dying to self, dying to a life lived simply for ourselves, so that we may rise into Christ’s resurrection life, into his Body, a community of people living not for themselves, but to bring life for all, And it’s true on a corporate level. Hearing, once again, this most powerful of Jesus’ parables, should make us ask: what are the foundational stories that animate and shape our public debate? Do those stories invite us to cherish every human life, as Alannah is cherished and valued today? And do they re-open our eyes to others so that reconciliation in our divided society is imagined and invited? Too many of our ways of looking at the world, the stories which shape us, simply reinforce what we already think, our prejudices and fears, so that the challenge to be more human that the best stories pose and enable, is lost. For by our stories, how they shape us and what they provoke us to, shall we be known. Amen.

John Conway – Lent 2 – 17/03/19

(Genesis 15.1-12. 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35)

Our Old Testament reading today concerns our forebear in faith; that wellspring of all the faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that trace themselves back to this archetypal man, to Abraham’s faith. Whatever the hateful ideology of the perpetrators of violence might say – all Jews, Christians and Muslims share this common ancestry. In today’s reading, however, Abram – as he still is at this stage, before his re-naming – Abram is anxious about the future. He and Sarai are childless, unable to imagine how the promises of God might be fulfilled. The future looks grim, despite assurances from God not to be fearful. And then Abram is brought outside to gaze upon the stars: ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them,’ he is told. ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And so the faith of Abram is re-kindled.

On Ash Wednesday I offered those of you at our services a poem: Lent by Jean Watt

Lent is a tree without blossom, without leaf,
Barer than blackthorn in its winter sleep,
All unadorned. Unlike Christmas which decrees
The setting-up, the dressing-up of trees,
Lent is a taking down, a stripping bare,
A starkness after all has been withdrawn
Of surplus and superfluous,
Leaving no hiding-place, only an emptiness
Between black branches, a most precious space
Before the leaf, before the time of flowers;
Lest we should see only the leaf, the flower,
Lest we should miss the stars.

The poem invites us, in this season of stripping bare, taking down, to not forget that we do that in order to see the stars, the bigger picture, that which lies beyond the immediate, that which it is easy to miss. In this a week to make us all anxious, uncertain over the future, what might enable us to see the stars, enable the re-kindling of faith and hope?

Our epistle and Gospel offer some clues as to what that looking for the stars might mean, and that re-kindling of faith. For Paul, the contrast is with those whose ‘god is the belly’. Words which suggest the calling is about getting beyond our immediate desires and cravings and seeking to satisfy those; refusing also to fan the flames of those desires in anger and the insatiable need for more. Instead to see our citizenship, our final rootedness and identity, as in heaven, among the stars, the eternal.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus, like Abram, has every reason to be anxious. The ‘wise’ counsel him to leave, and avoid his pursuer, Herod. He is making a name for himself, and he would do better to lie low. Jesus, however, offers, in counter to Herod, the one he names as a fox, no desire to hide. He will continue to do what he is called to do, bring life and cures to those he meets. And not walk away from those centres of power which feel threatened and so threaten him, but walk ever toward Jerusalem. And he then offers this remarkable image to that city of power and broiling tension and death, where the fox resides.  Jesus offers himself, not as the Lion of Judah roaring a response, but as a mother hen, gathering her squabbling chicks into the shelter of her wings, if only they were willing. The hen has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill the hen first.

In Philippians, Paul urges his readers to imitate him – not in being Paul, but, in turn, in imitating Christ, our mother hen. Together, we are called into that imitation of Christ which opposes the fox not with bared fangs, but in the gesture of love that gathers to her bosom all the children of Jerusalem.

In the febrile atmosphere of this coming week, who is offering a glimpse of the stars? As we all woke to the terrible news from Christchurch, children across the globe were gathering in their thousands, striking from their studies, to ask the world to wake up to climate change and act. Those are the actions which re-kindle our faith in our future.

Abram, after staring at the stars, later still finds himself within a deep and terrifying darkness, standing amongst slaughter and death and destruction. But he holds on to the promise, arrives at an understanding of the promise given, moves forward with faith and hope. May we, in this season of Lent, and in the week ahead, do likewise. Amen.