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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Matthew 20.1-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pentecost 10 – sermon preached online by the Moderator, Rt Rev Dr Martin Fair – 9th August 2020

Romans 10.5-15; Matthew 14.22-33

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. AMEN.

It had to be Peter, didn’t it?

Of all the disciples, it was going to be Peter who would ask of Jesus, ‘Tell me to come that I too might walk on the water.’

Peter was among those first disciples called from their nets on the shores of Galilee. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus had said to them ‘and I will teach you to fish for people.’ And there’s nothing that happened in the subsequent years of Jesus’ ministry that Peter wasn’t front and central to. It was Peter who in response to Jesus’ question: ’Who do you say I am?’ declared, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ And right at the end, it was Peter who was commissioned to ‘feed my lambs.’

And yet bold and faithful as he was, Peter was as flawed as any human being – might I say as thoroughly flawed as any of us. It was Peter who blundered and boasted, Peter who denied and doubted.

But maybe because of all of that, Peter had learnt to call out, from the deepest place, ‘Lord, save me.’ Yes, from drowning on that particular occasion we’ve just read of – but in every sense in which ‘being saved’ matters.

This week I bought a new book, it’s called ‘Broken.’ The writer is Jacqui Reid. I first got to know Jacqui when she came to the project that my congregation runs to support men and women who find themselves trapped in the hell of serious drug addiction. Jacqui struggled on for years through drink and drugs, through and any number of broken relationships and broken hearts, before reaching rock bottom and crying out, ‘Lord, save me’ to a God she didn’t know – nor did she know if that God even existed.

Here’s how Jacqui describes what her life had become:

‘It was Christmas 2008 and I was alone in my flat. That year I received no Christmas cards and had no invites to Christmas dinner. My family had disowned me and who could blame them? Truth was, I was an addict. I had been stuck in addiction for fifteen years. It started with alcohol which led to amphetamines and prescription pills. Now aged thirty-three, I was at my worst; dependent on heroin, methadone, painkillers and street valium. The thief had come to steal and kill and destroy. That’s what had happened to me.

But in his grace God pulled her up from the ruins of her life, set her feet upon a rock and gave her new life. Now she is reunited with her children. Now she is herself a minister to those who are broken and marginalised. Now she knows life in all its fulness. Now she is a published author, for goodness sake!

She has come up from ashes to beauty. Her tears have turned to songs of joy. From long nights of unspeakable horror to dancing in the light of a new day.

We might say The Lord saved her – as surely as he saved Peter from the watery deep in those hours before the dawn on Lake Galilee two millennia ago. The Lord is still in the business of saving.

Maybe you know that in one way or another God has saved you. Maybe dramatically as in Jacqui’s case or quietly and without fuss or fanfare. Maybe you too were drowning beneath the storms of life or maybe you know yourself saved today though back then you hardly knew that you needed saving.

Talk of being saved is hardly fashionable these days. We choose softer language; we’re not all together comfortable with the concept of needing to be saved. ‘Saved from what?’ many would ask, not at all sure of their need of salvation or that there might be a situation out of which they weren’t perfectly capable of saving themselves. ‘Fine for those who were addicts but it doesn’t apply to me.’

And on top of that, the language of ‘being saved’ is too closely associated with parts of the Church which, for other reasons, we’re perhaps less than keen to associate with.

So we’ve backed off from talk of being saved. Which, were it just a question of language, would hardly matter. But it’s more than that. Of course it’s more than that. And it does matter.

Our need is to be saved from being apart from God, our maker. And whether the gap between us and God is an inch or a mile, it amounts to the same thing – that we are distanced from the One who made us. Not at one with God. Not at peace with God. Not in step with God.

All of us, the apostle Paul makes clear, fall short of the glory of God. We know not the primary relationship for which we exist and therefore there is a fundamental problem with our existing.

This ‘being apart’ manifests itself in every conceivable way. It’s more than a theological idea; it works itself out every day in the living of our lives, almost as some kind of syndrome or condition that affects our thinking and feeling and doing – and causes our lack of thinking and lack of feeling and lack of doing.

Our selfishness, our unkindness, our intolerance, our lack of grace, our lack of love, our arrogance, our willingness to walk by on the other side and our unwillingness to turn the other cheek, our impatience… the list goes on.

The fact that we aren’t truly angered by injustice, by the inequalities in our world, that black lives haven’t mattered…

That children dying in Yemen isn’t a cause for daily concern, that Palestinian people being forcibly and illegally driven off their land has ceased to bother us…

That our caring for creation is something that we tend to when firstly we’ve tended to ourselves…

Whether it be the lack of good moral choices on our own part or the corporate chaos of our society and of the world, it’s what happens – it’s what is – when we are apart from God. And it’s what we need saving from.

So too that deep down insecurity – that we aren’t entirely sure of who we are or why we’re here. That we struggle with both our identity and our purpose and with assurance concerning our destiny. That there’s often an emptiness within, a bleakness of spirit. That we build walls around our hearts and our emotions, that we’re suspicious and guarded and closed…

It’s what happens – it’s what is when we are apart from God. It’s a state of being that brings with it a catalogue of implications.

From all of that, Lord, save me. Lord, save us. We’re drowning as surely as Peter was.

And yet there is good news. The Saviour saves. The One who reached out his hand and pulled Peter from the foaming waters is still reaching out. The One who pulled Jacqui Reid from the pit and broke the chains of her brokenness is still reaching out.

And to all who, as Paul put it, would call on the name of the Lord – believing in their hearts and professing with their mouths – God, in his grace, will come and come quickly. And they shall be saved. And they shall be free. And they shall know life in its fulness. And they shall know healing and wholeness in the deepest parts.

This God is near.

So let the Church own this good news and let the Church of Jesus Christ proclaim this good news. For how shall they believe if they have not heard and how shall they hear if this word of life is not made known.

How beautiful are the feet of those who will bring this good news to a world crying out for good news – a world that knows what it has been and groans and cries out to be more.

Lord, save us.

Come, Lord, and make all things new.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Pentecost 9 – sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 2nd August 2020

Genesis 32.22-31, Matthew 14.13-21

Our Gospel story this morning is the familiar story of feeding of the five thousand. I wonder if we have heard that tale a little differently in these anxious times? Even if it is not the case for all of us, there is a growing awareness of the extent of food poverty in Britain. A report out this last week described the epidemic of hunger particularly among children, and we saw the importance of the extending of free-school meals and the campaign around that earlier in the summer. The extent too, to which the future is uncertain and anxious, gives us a sense of what it is like to be truly hungry, to not know where the next meal is coming from, to live utterly dependent on the next harvest flourishing for there to be food on the table. It might still take an act of imagination, but our own uncertain times, I would suggest, help us feel closer to the context of that feeding of the 5,000 from unpromising scraps: many of those coming to hear Jesus would have known the pangs of hunger, lived daily with the trust that God would provide, and with the fear of what would be if God did not. In that world the question of the available resources, and who owns them, how they are shared, matters. In times of scarcity, relations with your neighbour, with those who have, and those who have not, are heightened, and polarization threatens.

Our reading from the book of Genesis, initially at least, may seem to be dealing with very different themes. From 5000 hungry people gathered on the lakeside to one man’s lonely night-time wrestling with a man, or an angel, or perhaps with God. This strange tale of Jacob by the ford of Jabbok has inspired many different interpretations, by people who recognise for themselves that night-time wrestling, a wrestling that leaves them, like Jacob, both wounded – in his case limping from a thigh joint put out of its socket – and blessed. We just sang one such interpretation, in that hymn by Charles Wesley: for him this was a story that spoke to his own dark night of the soul – mirrored his own wrestling with his doubts and anxieties, before eventually laying them to rest in the discovery of God’s name as ‘love’. The original poem has 12 verses that explore the different facets of the story – our hymn reduces that to 5, you may be glad to hear. But they still convey that immediate connection Wesley felt with this story – his interpretation both goes beyond the text, but also makes it his own.

Like Wesley, many interpretations are fairly uninterested in the context of the story. While that is understandable, we have reached this story after a number of Sundays reading through the great tales of Genesis. Many of those stories focus on the stresses and strains of familial and sibling relationships – Cain and Abel; Sarah and Hagar, both bearing offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael; Rachel and Leah, sisters and rivals for the affections of Jacob; and, of course, Jacob himself and his brother Esau. Those tales have often focused on hidden tensions as they bubble to the surface; and in the context of scarce resources, the question of which sibling comes out on top is crucial. As Jacob cunningly displayed, in obtaining his father’s blessing that should have gone to his brother Esau, when it comes to the hard work of surviving, such blessing, and the material goods handed on with it, become all important.

That is the context for this story. After stealing the blessing, Jacob fled: both to avoid his brother but also to establish a new life. He has indeed prospered at the home of his kinsman Laban, and is now returning – with his two wives and abundant wealth. And yet he is fearful of the reception he will receive from his brother Esau. As our reading today begins we hear him sending presents on ahead to appease Esau; and finally his whole family, and ‘everything that he had.’ He is left alone to wrestle. With his conscience? With his fears? We are not explicitly told what the man with whom he wrestles represents – the man refuses, in fact, to yield up his name. Instead he offers, having extracted Jacob’s name and put his thigh out of joint, to give Jacob a new name – Israel, and to bless him. The night’s wrestling leaves Jacob wounded, re-named and yet blessed. And so he rises, blessed and limping, to go and meet his brother. What follows is one of the most extraordinary moments in the Old Testament:

Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

It is a moment of utter and surprising grace. It is the model, surely, for the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son: Esau ignoring the presents sent on ahead, the women and children lined up to form a human barrier, even the figure of his long-lost brother kneeling in obeisance – Esau runs to meet him, and Jacob, and the reader, is overwhelmed, brought to tears, by the warmth of embrace. The template of Cain and Abel, of all the other bickering and the power games, is for a moment laid aside in this embrace, and those tears.

Jacob then explicitly links this moment to the strange events of the night before:

“truly to see your face, he says, is like seeing the face of God–since you have received me with such favour.” Once again, Jacob is blessed, in this moment when fears are revealed to be unfounded, when barriers are broken down, when what unites these brothers is known and celebrated. What unites, not what gives one power over the other – therein lies the blessing. For blessing is a gift, not an obligation; it is about grace, and not power.

In our Gospel, it is Jesus who, when confronted by the disciples fears and anxieties, takes the initiative and orders the people to sit down on the grass and prepare for a meal. Sharing a meal together is his idea, an enactment of the table fellowship that he constantly practices; the fellowship that breaks down religious and social barriers, and unites those usually kept apart. Jesus then prays a blessing over the food that is available. And in the pattern that we repeat week after week in communion, the speaking of that blessing opens hearts and minds so that something miraculous occurs. Jesus preaches and enacts a God of love and forgiveness and then invites those who have seen and heard to sit down together and live for a moment in that kingdom about which he has preached. The blessing of that kingdom changes human hearts and creates the miracle of a new kind of community, one generated by prayer and grace and blessing, and characterized by sharing and enough for all.

Many of us for long months have been starved of that blessing of being together and in communion. That may help us to hear afresh, and once again re-join those at the lakeside, hungry not just for bread but for the reconfiguration of relationships that the kingdom announces and enacts. Hungry enough to hear, and receive, the blessing that changes hearts and minds; that re-creates true human community in the sharing of what we have, so that we discover there is enough for all. Amen.

 

Questions to consider

What are the ways in which you connect to Jacob’s night-time wrestling? Does the outcome – both wounded and blessed – resonate?

Does the wider context of the story, and in particular Jacob’s relationship with Esau, and the welcome offered by Esau to his brother, change your view of that night of wrestling?

What is the ‘miracle’ of the feeding of the 5,000?

Pentecost 6 – sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 12th July 2020

Genesis 25.19-34; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

Who are you?

The question is perhaps rarely put as baldly as that. More politely perhaps, at a party or work meeting, we get asked to say something about ourselves, reveal something of who we are. If you are anything like me then there are perhaps stock answers that we offer – something about work, family, where I am from. If the conversation progresses we might talk about our sense of identity, nationality, faith, what we get up to outside of work and family. And then as the conversation goes deeper we might talk about the kind of person we are – our characteristics and personality – and we begin to tell stories that exemplify that or show how we come to be that way. Stories that help make sense of ourselves, to ourselves as well as to others. Stories that display and reveal something of the depth of each of us. Any conversation about who we are that lasts for very long moves beyond a succession of facts about me, into stories. Because stories are how we understand ourselves and each other.

One of the reasons I love the Old Testament – and wish perhaps that we read it, and preached on it, more – is that large parts of it are stories. Stories that reveal in the telling something of who the people of Israel, the people of God, are. Today we began the story of Jacob, the last of the three great founding forebears: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob it is who will later be named Israel, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. So his story is one that will be picked up and woven into many people’s story – he will become a fundamental part of how the whole people of God understand themselves. And so it’s a story worth attending to, for the clues it reveals about who this people are, what has shaped them. The story of Jacob is deep in the DNA, we might say, of the people of Israel, and therefore of us too. The bible invites us always to see our story in the light of this story, our own stories both reflected and revealed.

Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, finds herself pregnant with twins, struggling within her. ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ she enquires of God. Rebekah already has a sense that life with twins will never be easy. God’s answer invites us to see the twins as fathers of rival nations: Edom (which means red, ruddy) and Israel. Esau, red and hairy, is born first; Jacob swiftly follows, his hand already gripping Esau’s heel – a telling detail of the story. And then, as the boys grow up, we are invited to see other contrasts: the hunter and the gatherer; the man of action and the quieter reflective one; the one loved by the father, the other preferred by the mother – Daddy’s boy, and Mummy’s boy? The final vignette reveals Esau as governed by his belly – willing to sell his birthright, the right belonging to the elder, for a bowl of lentils that meet the immediate need of hunger; and Jacob, we gather, is altogether different – clever, a trickster who is happy to exploit his brother’s need to reverse the usual power relations. And yet that hand gripping the heel of the other echoes through the story – these two, a study in contrasts, are nevertheless intertwined.

The question, ‘Who are you?’ swiftly, in conversation, becomes a story intertwined with the story of others. In conversation we make points of connection, and difference, with the story of our conversation partner. Taking the cue of this story, of the birth of two nations in these brothers – and here I begin to tread warily – we might find echoes of the story of Scotland and England. National identity, and how that connects for each of us with our own personal sense of identity is complicated, but at the most basic level the story of Scotland, of what it is to be Scottish, is intertwined with the story of England. It’s a story often of contrast, but also about that intertwining, a rivalry and a need of each other. Our Old Testament story, told principally from the perspective of Jacob and his descendants, is both a laughing at their neighbour – the Edomite, so named for their forebear who sold his birth right for a pot of red stew – but also an admission that they are indeed bound together.

The story delights in Jacob’s cunning, and it doesn’t stop here; the story goes on to tell of his tricking of his now old blind and needy father, Isaac, to further rob Esau of their father’s blessing. Jacob’s cunning has a dark, uncomfortable side, even as he dances through life. He too will be tricked in his turn (but that’s the story for a future week), and this is not the last we hear of Esau either. Jacob and Esau’s intertwined stories continue, toward one of the most devastating and moving moments of reconciliation in the bible. Through it all we are invited both to recognise and rejoice in Jacob’s cunning, but also sense that things are more complicated that we like to admit. That there is both dark and light to Jacob, and to us.

In contrast, the story, the parable of the sower, told by Jesus in our Gospel can seem remarkably straightforward. I have to admit that I often find it a bit flat, predictable, ponderous even compared to other parables. The story of the sower who goes out to sow, with the seed falling on very different ground and soil, feels very direct, but it doesn’t have that element of surprise seen in the best parables or a twist to draw us in. I realise that much of that reaction is due to the somewhat crude tagged on explanation of the meaning of the parable given to the disciples. Many scholars argue that this explanation reflects the interpretation that the story gained in the early days of the church. For me the best stories are those that, like people, resist easy explanation. The explanation given tends to emphasise the seed that does not reach full harvest and the different ground it falls on. We become tempted, in this telling, to identify ourselves, or others with inhabiting a particular ground – well-trodden or rocky or thorny. One way to restore the surprise to the story is to remember that the first agrarian hearers of the story would have been astonished at the profligate practice of the farmer, throwing his seed around, willy-nilly. Any good subsistence farmer would have been much more careful than that, and ensured that the seed landed in good soil. And so the parable, on that telling, becomes also about the mysterious activity of God’s grace, dispersing seed in all directions, rather than through careful planting. God’s purposes of an abundant harvest are achieved through waste and destruction and indiscriminate sowing, so that the good soil might be also be seeded. That’s a surprising and very different way of imagining the activity of God in our lives and world.

I find that a more helpful way to understand the parable as, like Jacob, I know that within all of us is both dark and light; we all have within us a mixture of rocky, well trodden, thorny and fruitful ground. Our more honest stories reflect that. Maturity of faith and life comes when that ambiguity is admitted – when we move beyond painting ourselves, and others, as all good or all bad; when we admit the truth that we and others are more complicated than that, but that God’s abundant grace keeps being given out in expectation that the harvest will come.

Who are you? Who are we? As we navigate our way out of this time of crisis and re-evaluation, who are we called to become, where within us and between us might the seed be growing, waiting to be harvested? We will discover that as we tell our stories, stories of rivalry and intertwining, and as we recognise our need for each other, as we recognise God’s abundant grace at work in ourselves and each other. Amen.

 

Questions to consider

How are stories a unique way to understand ourselves and others?

Who do you sympathise and identify with in the story of Jacob and Esau?

In what ways do you find the categories of ground identified by Jesus in the parable of the sower – trodden down, rocky, thorny and good – helpful?

What does the action of the sower, and by extension, God, in distributing seed in such a liberal and indiscriminate fashion, suggest to you about the activity of God in the world?

Pentecost 3 – Sermon preached online by John Conway, Provost – 21st June 2020

Genesis 21.8-21; Matthew 10.24-39

On the face of it, our first reading this morning is a troubling story. It is the story of Hagar and her young son Ishmael being cast out into the wilderness, cast out following a fit of jealousy on the part of Sarah and Abraham, as they protect Abraham’s other son Isaac and his inheritance. Hagar and Ishmael are forced out to wander in the wilderness, there to come close to death, before finding, even in the desert, with God’s prompting, a well of water from which they are replenished, and so wander out of the pages of our bible. The troubling aspects of the story only increase as we examine the background, the preceding chapters of Genesis which have laid out this story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar.

The story begins with God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants, more in number than the stars, will fill the earth and bless it. That promise appears frustrated as Sarah and Abraham remain childless, until they have the idea to ‘use’ Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, as a surrogate mother. It’s a suggestion that initially at least Abraham appears to have little difficulty with, but in the course of time perhaps unsurprisingly it ends in mutual recrimination, as the now pregnant Hagar is cast out for the first time. Prompted by God she returns to the household, and ‘submits’ to Sarah, even as Ishmael is then born to her. To Sarah’s astonishment – she had laughed at the prospect – the seemingly impossible happens and Sarah herself becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. And so we reach this morning’s story; when at a great feast to celebrate Isaac’s weaning, his older half-brother Ishmael is spotted playing with him, and Sarah and Abraham respond to the blessing of this child by turfing out the potential rival, banishing Hagar and her son Ishmael. This story of the blessing of all the families of the earth through the progeny of Abraham starts unpromisingly.

And that matters, of course. For this is the story of Abraham – the father of faith. And yet it’s a pattern we have seen before: the blessing of the Garden of Eden is soon disturbed and Adam and Eve find themselves cast out; that first family finds itself undone by jealousy as Cain turns on, and murders, his brother, Abel. The Hebrew Scriptures are very clear eyed in their depiction of the jealousies and rivalries that threaten to undo the blessing of God that they also attest to. That is what makes this story troubling: Abraham and Sarah’s blessing – both the covenant that promises to bless the earth through them and their descendants, and the concrete blessing of this child, Isaac, given to them even in old age – Abraham and Sarah’s blessing does not unleash generosity of heart and action, but a casting out of the one who, they think, is no longer needed for this story, is indeed a potential rival. Hagar is superfluous. Nevermind that the story was supposed to be one of blessing, blessing for all people, the whole earth.

We are often not as clear-eyed as scripture about these things. We don’t always recognise the same jealousies and protectiveness in ourselves, or in the church, the proclaimer of God’s blessing. Any self-examination however, and any prolonged experience of the church, that community of flawed human beings like you and me, quickly disabuses us of the notion that living in an awareness of God’s blessing prevents us from selling that blessing short. It’s a pattern played out all too often in the name of religion – the blessing of God is narrowed, and becomes a possession for me and mine; the outsider and the other is superfluous to the blessing, their wellbeing and blessing somehow not part of the gift. We recognize ourselves in this account of Abraham and Sarah.

What redeems the story is its recognition that God is not limited to such behaviour. Abraham may be the centre of this story, the primary recipient and means of blessing, but his failures to see a different future for Hagar and Ishmael, do not determine their fate. The story recognises that God is bigger than that, that God’s promised blessing is faithful, and Hagar not forgotten. She may wander out of the pages of Genesis, but the hint is there that God does not desert her: ‘I will make a nation of him also’, says God before providing the well in the desert to replenish and renew.  Muslims trace their religious ancestry back through Ishmael and Hagar to Abraham. Hagar is the mother of the Islamic faith – the well in the desert where she finds water is traditionally thought to still spring in the desert, a short distance from the Kaaba at Mecca. When Muslims perform the Haj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, many will journey between the Kaaba and the well to replicate Hagar and Ishmael’s search for water. To drink from the well is to re-find blessing.

So our first reading explores the gap between God’s promised blessing, and our en-action and reaction to such blessing; it suggests too that God is always bigger than we had imagined, always at work to enlarge our flawed living out of the blessing.

Here at St Mary’s Cathedral this week we are busy planning the re-opening of our building for prayer as lockdown begin to ease. It’s proving quite an effort – to make sure we can do that safely. Ordering the hand sanitiser, finding volunteers to staff the rota, setting up the building for social distancing as well as prayer. But we do that because this building is one of the ways we seek to bless our city. Just as its doors were shut back in March, not out of fear, but out of love; so now the effort is important, is one expression of the blessing of God that we want to proclaim and deepen. Every church has it’s own ways of seeking to be a blessing, an expression of that gift of God given to each in the gift of life together.

‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ That is the dynamic of the gospel, words which end Jesus’ challenging speech to the disciples we heard in today’s gospel. Those words suggest that to be a blessing is not straightforward, and that it’s certainly not about hugging the blessing to ourselves.

Jesus has two fundamental messages to the disciples which underpin that insight that to gain life is about letting go. The first is the exhortation to the disciples: Do not be afraid; a exhortation found again and again in the gospels. Fear is what makes us hold the blessing tight to ourselves – fear of the potential rival, fear of the other. And second, the mission to widen the blessing is not easy – it may even bring us into conflict. Those hard words of Jesus, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,” are not easy to hear. They only make sense, it seems to me, in a world where family loyalty is everything; where the protection of me and mine is the over-riding loyalty. That is the loyalty which caused Sarah and Abraham to drive Hagar out. Family bonds, the bonds we share with those we love, or are familiar, or are like us, those bonds are important and a blessing, of course, but they can become oppressive of the outsider, and a limiter of the blessing. Jesus words are an exhortation to widen the circle of blessing, to include more than we would naturally, instinctively. And that is the task as we move out of lockdown. How might we live out, and offer that blessing, given to us so that all might be blessed? A blessing that we discover as we share it.

The doors of this Cathedral will, we hope, be once again thrown open this week – not just for our sake but to be a place of refuge, of transformation, of prayer, of community, of blessing for all. Amen.