Creation-time 2 – Sermon preached by Rt Rev Brian Smith – Sunday 12th September

MARK 8:27-38

 

  1. A lot is going on in a few words in our gospel reading – I shall initially focus on just three points.
  2. These points are:
  • Peter’s ‘confession’ of Jesus as the ‘Messiah
  • Jesus’s command to his disciples to keep quiet
  • Peter being rebuked with the words “Get behind me, Satan.”

    Many commentators see these verses as a turning point in the narrative in Mark’ Gospel.

    [It is an open question whether they should be seen as end of the first part or the start of the next part of the Gospel…… But all see them as important verses.]

  1. Putting it crudely, Jesus begins by asking the disciples how they understand who he is. It is not an easy question, for in Jesus something really new is going on, and it is going to be difficult to describe it in vocabulary that was devised from the older traditions.
  1. Clearly many people had been trying to describe who Jesus was using old traditional terms and ideas: “John the Baptist; Elijah; and, one of the prophets.”
  2. Peter enters and continues the conversation, and has a go, again using traditional ideas. He says “You are the Messiah, the anointed one…….” [Or in Greek, The Christos.]
  3. From our standpoint this is a bit closer, but in Mark’s Gospel Jesus does not say “Well done Peter”. He tells him to keep quiet.
  4. It is as if Jesus is saying That is close, but don’t go repeating it ….  The old words don’t quite capture what I am really about. If you simply repeat what you have just said here, people will misunderstand, and my mission will be frustrated. “
  1. And of course as the conversation goes on it soon becomes apparent that Peter has not fully understood what Jesus is about.
  2. [ Scholars will often call this feature of Mark’s Gospel ‘The Messianic Secret” – that Jesus wants to keep a proper understanding of himself ‘secret”. Much has been written on this, I have neither the time not ability to elaborate it here.]
  3. For the time being we can simply note that Jesus is evincing two concerns.
  4. a) He wants to be understood by his disciples – hence the teaching that he gives to them.
  5. b) But equally he does not want to be misunderstood by the population in general – hence his urging his disciples not to talk about him using ideas which they don’t fully grasp, and that may all too easily lead to a misunderstanding.
  6. But what sort of “misunderstanding” are we thinking about?
  1. Let us pause together on that word that Peter used when he said to Jesus “You are the Messiah”,
  2. [“Messiah” is a Hebrew term meaning “anointed one”, usually translated as “Christ” in Greek.]
  3. Originally the word “Messiah” was simply a term referring to the anointed King, but the title “Messiah” took on slightly different overtones at different stages in the history of Israel.
  4. In times of political hardship people might entertain the hope that a king, like their great King David, would arise and make them great as a nation again. [You can almost hear the growing shouts of the activists: ‘Lets Make Israel great again!”]
  5. However as their political situation got worse and worse, they could not longer see such a figure rising up from among them by natural means. Thus some people began to place their hope in the coming to them, from outside, of some form of supernatural deliverer. Many different ideas either of a messiah figure arising naturally or one coming supernaturally jostled for attention among the people.
  6. The core of such a belief in a messiah is that it gives hope in a world of confusion, and most of these ideas were characterised by the notion that God will intervene in history by sending someone who by political or other (possibly supernatural) means will rescue his people from oppression.
  1. It was against this sort of view that we see Jesus beginning to develop a different understanding of Messiah
  2. Hope is not to be grounded in a cosmic intervention from outside history, for which the people must simply wait and pray
    But it is to be grounded in a willingness to walk a way of suffering and rejection.

    ***********************************************************

  3. With these two notions in our mind, let me pause for a moment, for the Provost, in inviting me to preach, suggested that I might put an ecological spin upon what I might say.
  4. Obedient to the Provost, I gladly do this, for one question that animates us all today is “What can we do about climate change?”
  5. I have spoken on this before in this Cathedral, and I recall in my address then telling of an incident I saw when I was watching the television, which in its simple way expresses in iconic form, the issue we face..
  1. The programme was on the work of the Chemist Joseph Priestly.
  2. The presenter was discussing aspects of Priestley’s thought, and was doing this by illustrating his seminal experiments.
  3. You will recall that Priestly was a person involved with the discovery of the significance of the Oxygen in the air for the preservation of life, and also of the power of plants to take in Carbon Dioxide and give out Oxygen again into the atmosphere.
  4. The presenter illustrated one of Priestley’s experiments whereby Priestley put a mouse under a bell jar, and left it in that sealed container. Priestly saw that the mouse used up the oxygen and swiftly died.
  5. Priestley did another experiment, which the presenter also illustrated, Here a mouse and a green plant were together placed under a similar sealed bell jar. Here, as the mouse used up the oxygen, the plant took in the carbon dioxide and gave oxygen back into the atmosphere. And so the mouse and plant together continued to live and survive in the bell jar.
  6. The two were thus set for a happy if constrained life together in their simple little universe.
  7. However, just as the presenter was moving away from his demonstration, which sought to reproduce Priestley’s apparatus, we saw (behind his back) the little mouse in the bell jar walk gently across to the plant and start to eat it.
  8. The picture captures the danger we are in. We are consuming he elements on our planet which enable it to sustain our life together. And we return to the question; What can we do about climate change?”
  9. There are two ways we can go.
  10. We can sit and simply wait, hoping for some solution simply to turn u Just as some of Jesus friends and disciples might have been hoping for a saviour to turn up and whisk them out of their current political difficulties.
  11. Or we work at it, in ways that will be difficult, involving hardship, and opposition, akin to the path that Jesus chose to walk, and about which he taught his disciples.
  12. Sadly the problem of the ecology of our planet is not simply going to go away if we simply wait for something to change or to turn up. It needs to be addressed, and to address it involves us all in walking a path of discomfort.
  13. Hope comes into the world not from simply waiting, but from a willingness to walk a difficult and uncomfortable path. And to work for such a hope is our calling – it is to follow the path of Jesus
  14. We recall how the passage which we had as our gospel goes on:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, , and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

  1. The challenge is there.
  2. To be willing to give up some of the enhancements of our current life, in order to save everything. And it does mean “everything”.
  3. It is the path walked by Jesus.
    It is the path we are called to follow.

    AMEN

Creation Sunday – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 5th September 2021

Isaiah 35.4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2.1-17; Mark 7.24-37

In the name of God, Creating, Redeeming and Regenerating. Amen.

One of the more unusual pictures to hang in our Cathedral is a depiction of the second half of our Gospel reading this morning, of the healing of the deaf man who has an impediment in his speech. The picture hangs there in the North Aisle. It is an unusual subject matter, depicting a strange story. The man has been taken aside in private, by Jesus, away from the crowd; the picture depicts the intense encounter that occurs, as Jesus reaches out to touch his tongue and bid it to be opened. This is the moment when the man is about to be liberated into speech. A man who has been living in silence, who has been silenced, is about to burst forth in speech. The picture depicts that moment of regeneration, of rebirth.

In the picture, the man has not been taken very far away from the crowd, they are there in the margins of the painting, hanging about, wondering what is about to happen. They are clearly part of the drama of this moment too. The regeneration, the rebirth that is about to happen will ask questions of them too.

As you arrived this morning, you were given a leaflet to mark this Creation Sunday, the start of Creation-time. For those of you online, it can be found on our website, in the section devoted to Creation-time under worship. The leaflet describes St Mary’s as a Regenerative Cathedral – a place of rebirth, through our encounter with Christ. At the end of our service today, in our post-communion prayer, we will pray: We thank you for these gifts in which we are made one in Christ, and drawn into that new creation which is your will for all.

The language of re-birth into a new creation has deep roots in the Christian tradition, but today that regeneration, that finding of a new voice, is in the context of our climate crisis, of the need to find new ways of living that sustain, nourish and enliven the earth.

“​​It is unequivocal.” Those stark three words are the first in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report. The climate crisis is unequivocally caused by human activities and is unequivocally affecting every corner of the planet’s land, air and sea. The report, produced by hundreds of the world’s top scientists and signed off by all the world’s governments, concludes that it could get far worse if the slim chance remaining to avert heating above 1.5C is not immediately grasped. This is the report that forms the background, the stark and urgent agenda to COP26, the Intergovernmental meeting to be held in Glasgow in November.

It is in the midst of our now old ways of doing things, our forms of life that are crippling our planet, that a re-birth, a new creation, is needed. A re-generation.

I think that language of new creation is important because, as I’ve argued before, this is a spiritual crisis. It’s a crisis because of the urgency needed now to respond, and it’s a spiritual crisis because all the evidence suggests that we are not going to ‘solve’ the crisis simply by instrumental means: that the response can’t simply be about technological fixes. We will certainly need all the powers of human ingenuity and scientific know-how to help move us beyond our carbon- based economy, but that alone is not enough, particularly if we imagine  our lifestyle and way of structuring society can remain untouched. I don’t want to be alarmist, but read the predictions of climate scientists on how our weather systems, and ocean levels, and agriculture might be affected as the average temperature rises. And the knock on effects that will have in different parts of the world, and the potential for conflict, and mass migration, and water shortage, that that might lead to. The challenges are huge, and if we are going to rise to them, we are going to need deep resources of courage and wisdom to respond.

And so this is going to ask a lot of us, individually and corporately. The pandemic has shown – and let us not forget this in the drift back to business as before – that that collective will is possible. And we need to learn the habits of self-discipline, wisdom, concern for others, simplicity of life, generosity of spirit; the gifts that faith seeks to cultivate, and nurture and grow.

Now that may make it all sound a bit earnest. I hope that the season of Creation-time that begins today reminds us that faith begins in something far more simple, and joyful; that faith is rooted in daily thanksgiving for the gift of creation. The gift of life given this day, this moment. Thanksgiving liberates us to recognise the joy of this moment, and the giftedness of it. We often talk about the gift of creation as something for us to look after – the model depicted is that God creates, and then hands over creation to us, that we then steward it. I’m not convinced that that language and way of understanding our role is up to the task of this present moment: it sets us up as managers of something outside (beneath?) us. An instrumental relationship is established from the start. Thanksgiving recognises rather that we are within creation, the daily gift includes and sustains us. We need to feel and imagine the world as God’s gift, the possibility of new creation born ever again in the midst of the old.

If you get the chance, go and look at the picture that hangs in the North Aisle sometime. And ask yourself what you imagine are the first words the man utters? Words of praise, surely, or at least words that tell of his re-birth, of the moment when his tongue was loosened and his speech came back, and he could communicate directly. And look too at the figures who lurk on the margins of the painting, the remnants of the crowd, from whom Jesus has removed the man. They are wondering what is going on; no doubt some are cynical, doubting, wanting the man to be kept in his place, things to remain as they are; others are wondering what is about to happen, are intrigued. How will they react to the moment when he suddenly speaks and addresses them, and the world is changed?

Our gospel this morning, the painting, this season of Creation-time, invite us into imagining and inhabiting the moment when something new is happening. Where do we place ourselves – in the crowd, looking on? Interested perhaps, but unconvinced, uncommitted? Or in the shoes of the man about to be re-born, to discover his voice, to praise his maker, his liberator, the one who draws him into that new creation, which is your will for all? Amen.

 

Pentecost 10 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 1st August 2021

Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15; John 6.24-35

Jesus said, ‘The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’

Our Gospel reading from John’s Gospel this morning follows on from his telling of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 that we heard last week. The crowd have gone looking for Jesus, this provider of bread, and, in the very characteristic style of John’s Gospel, Jesus reflects, and invites his hearers, then and now, to reflect, on what just happened.

As Paul in his sermon invited us to see last week, this feeding of the 5,000 – where Jesus took bread, gave thanks and shared it so that all were fed – this feeding is the Gospel of John’s Communion meal. In John’s account of the Last Supper on the night before Jesus died, we are told about the foot-washing of the disciples, but there is no sharing of bread or wine. This feeding, much earlier in John’s Gospel, is where Jesus takes bread, and blesses it and shares it. And if we were in any doubt about the significance of that, then today’s Gospel reading, this reflection on what just happened, makes it abundantly clear: ‘The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,’ says Jesus. Sir, give us this bread always, say the crowd. ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’

If today’s Gospel offers a reflection on the significance and meaning of the feeding of the 5,000, on John’s Communion meal, then we might best respond to that Gospel by reflecting together too, on what we think is going on when we gather to be fed, week by week. For it is surely the case that our prayer and practice is changed by seeing our communion meal not just as a re-presentation of Jesus’ Last Supper, but of this unlikely feeding of 5,000.

The most radical change is that it immediately places our communion in the context of scarcity. As we heard last week, the feeding happens as the disciples question the availability of food, and express their fear that they will never have enough to feed everyone. In the midst of that anxiety and fear about a scarcity of resources, the disciples, and the crowd, suddenly experience an abundance: that there is more than enough. And in today’s gospel, the crowd and Jesus reflect together on the feeding of the people of Israel in the desert, with bread from heaven. In the desert, the place of scarcity and anxiety, the people have to learn to trust in what will be provided each day. And that will be enough.

And so this meal, and the abundance it offers in place of scarcity, is not about being given something to be hoarded for a future date: it is about encountering what is enough for today, what feeds us today, what we need for today. It is why that moment when Jesus takes the bread, and give thanks for it, is central. The Greek word for that action of giving thanks is of course, Eucharisto, from which we get Eucharist. This is not simply about giving thanks, as a polite response to a gift. It is about recognising that this sharing, this meal, is what transforms our scarcity into abundance; that thanksgiving is what re-orients our world, so where we thought there is never enough for everyone, we suddenly recognise that actually, there is – if we learn to live, not by hoarding, but by faith and thanksgiving in God’s daily bread. Around this table, scarcity is transformed into abundance, not because there is suddenly masses of food, but because we recognise that what we need, God’s good gift for the life of the world, is available here for all. In a world where it is all too easy to be anxious about how there is going to be enough for everyone, particularly in a world where the climate is in crisis, this meal asks us to look again; if we live in thanksgiving for the provision of what we truly need, then we are transformed, and there is enough, more than enough.

For the gift given is, of course, Christ himself. Over my years of Christian faith, I’ve received communion in many different ways: as oatcakes and orange juice; in a loaf of bread and a common cup; as cubes of processed white bread and thimblefuls of grape juice; on a beach, up a mountain, in houses and churches, by a hospital bed. In large crowds, and in the intimacy of 2 people; gathered around an altar, processing in a long line. Even in recent months, we’ve had to get used to receiving it here in one kind only, or simply visually, online. And looking back over 2,000 years of Christian tradition that variety only increases. The point is not a sterile argument about which communion is valid, but about the fact that in each act of communion and thanksgiving, Christ comes to give himself for the life of the world; to transform our scarcity into his abundance. Whenever Christians have gathered, they have taken bread, and blessed it, and shared it – Christ broken and shared for the life of the world. And we do that because he did that – by a lakeside, in an upper room, with an intimate few, and in a massive heaving, pressing crowd. And each time Christ gives of himself, and the new creation that is seen in him comes into being.

And so we give thanks, and break and share the bread, not simply for ourselves, but, as he did, for the life of our world. The transformation we celebrate in every act of communion, in every abundant meal, is not simply of the bread and wine becoming Christ’s body and blood; it is of that transformation also being ours.

Hear us most merciful Father, we pray, and send your Holy Spirit upon us, and upon this bread and this wine, that, overshadowed by your Spirit’s life-giving power, they may be the Body and Blood of your Son, and we may be kindled with the fire of your love and renewed for the service of your kingdom.

That prayer deliberately intertwines the transformation of bread and wine with our transformation; Christ’s giving of himself, with our becoming his body; the sharing of this meal with the kindling of love and the service of Christ’s kingdom. The kingdom where scarcity becomes abundance. It is into that transformation that we are invited by the power of the Spirit each time we gather to share communion.

Christ gives himself, so that we learn that that is enough. What we most truly need is here. And what is here transforms us. Bread is taken, and blessed and broken and shared; and we are gathered, and blessed, and broken and shared. The transformation of bread is both the new creation in Christ and the ongoing transformation of us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Pentecost 6 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 4th July 2021

2 Corinthians 12.2-10; Mark 6.1-13

The opening of Mark’s gospel is something of a whirlwind – Jesus is constantly on the move, calling disciples, who immediately drop everything and follow him; healing those who come to him, often in desperation; his fame and renown is spreading. And now, as we heard in our Gospel reading, Jesus returns to his home town. It’s worth noting in passing, the comparison with Luke’s Gospel, where the equivalent moment in Nazareth happens immediately after Jesus’ baptism. In Luke, Jesus is seen preaching in the synagogue; using the prophet Isaiah as almost a manifesto of what is to come. This moment in Nazareth is the launchpad of his ministry. But in Mark, Jesus returns to Nazareth having already established himself, almost as the conquering hero, the local celebrity, returning to a ticker tape welcome. As we’re in Scotland, I shall resist any reference to football, and coming home. But we certainly might expect a warm welcome. Nazareth is after all a small village – everyone knows everyone else. And this son of the village has made a name for himself.

And yet that isn’t how things work out: ‘Where did this man get these things?” they ask after hearing him in the synagogue. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they take offence at him, we’re told. Is this a case of familiarity breeding contempt?

Jesus’ response is curt: “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour,” he says. And perhaps most surprisingly we are then told that Jesus could not do any miracles there, except to lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them, as you do. He is amazed at his hometown’s unbelief – it is almost because they see him simply as the carpenter, the boy next door, that they do not trust him, have no faith in the possibility and potential found here. And Jesus is left impotent. It is an amazing image of co-operation – of the need of the hero for the people, as much as we all need a hero.

Except that Jesus, particularly in Mark’s Gospel has no interest in being the hero. Jesus has an extraordinary ability to (literally) move people – follow me, and they do; he attracts people’s desire for change, for healing – and then enacts that, as we saw last week, by establishing relationship, connection: the previously unclean, are revealed as loved by God, and restored to relationship with one another. What is at the heart of Jesus’ action, life, is the kingdom that he declares is already in your midst: it is in the kingdom that we are established in relationship, that we are connected, through the breaking down of mistrust, and the building up of the faith that overcomes fear. But we also see in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ seemingly strange desire for secrecy, for what is happening around him not to be broadcast: this is not just about me, he seems to be saying. He has no interest in celebrity status, in being the hero, but instead to point beyond himself, to that in-breaking kingdom, and so involve others in that.

And I suspect that’s where the people of Nazareth refused to play ball. They wanted to bask in the reflected glory of their local celebrity, and Jesus isn’t interested – this is not about how wonderful I am, this is about you and the kingdom in your midst. And to that challenge, they take offence – in place of faith, cynicism, and the cheap shot.

And so we are told he could do little there.

Paul cuts a very different figure: you don’t have to read much of his epistles to guess that there is a strong ambition and personal drive at the heart of Paul. But what redeems that drive is that the need to wrestle with his own ego, to subvert it, is also always present, Our Epistle this morning was a classic example of that wrestling: he is both desperate to prove himself, his visionary encounter with Christ is the equal of any body’s; and yet he knows that that is not what finally matters: at the heart of his faith is the encounter with God’s grace, a ‘grace that is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’

The Christian tradition has often placed pride as the archetypal sin; pride is the valuing and vaulting of self above all else, above God. The need that we feel for affirmation, for power over others, drives our propensity to place our security and comfort, our selves, at the centre of our world. That is a powerful critique of what makes us humans tick. But the danger is that the opposite of pride is often understood to be self-abasement, the total loss of self. But our Gospel points to another way, between pride and the abasement of self, which is too open to abuse. And that middle way is found in a proper understanding of humility.

For humility is the desire to be in relationship, not glory in self-sufficiency. Humility is not about knowing our proper place as it is sometimes characterised, but begins in an acknowledgement of our need beyond what our own self can provide:

‘The humility of Christ is not the moderation of keeping one’s exact place in the scale of being, but rather that of absolute dependence on God and absolute trust in him, with the consequent ability to move mountains.’ H. Richard Niebuhr

Humility seeks, therefore, community, relationship and it begins in trust, the trust that lies at the heart of faith, the trust and faith so sorely lacking in Nazareth. Humility springs from the sense of dependence upon God from which all else flows. It begins in the practice of prayer, and contemplation – the making space within ourselves for God to be God in your life and my life. That does not obliterate the self, but allows the self to trust again in God’s creative power: prayer puts us into a different relationship to God and to others.

For humility is the movement from desire for self-in-opposition-to-others, to desire for self-in-through-and-with-others. Humility does not therefore destroy selfhood but is the necessary underpinning for it to come into its own unique being. Humility is not about the neglect of self, a life-denying martyr complex, but about living the truth that we come to fulfilment in, through and with others.

Jesus responds to the unbelief he encounters in Nazareth by sending the raw, untrained vulnerable disciples out, two by two, to travel light, heal the sick, and proclaim God’s coming kingdom, a kingdom ruled by the power of forgiveness, not coercion. They are to establish connection, to live from trust, overcoming cynicism and fear with a faith in hospitality and the power of forgiveness. Don’t wait for the hero figure coming to rescue us. Get involved, see the kingdom breaking in, join the disciples in being sent out – however inadequate we feel, to heal, offer hope, reveal the power of forgiveness. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Pentecost 5 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday June 27th

Lamentations 3.22-33; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8.7-15; Mark 5.21-43

‘I do not mean,’ St Paul writes to the church in Corinth, ‘that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need.’

Our long Gospel reading recounts two intertwined healing stories: of the daughter of the leader of the synagogue, Jairus, and of an unnamed woman, who has been haemorrhaging blood for twelve years. I say they are intertwined, but apart from the way that the story of the woman interrupts the healing of Jairus’ daughter, there seems to be little connection between them. Why, when Mark came to write his gospel 30 odd years after the events he describes, putting together the collection of stories and events that have been told about Jesus; why are these two miracles still entwined together? There is nothing in common between them, apart from an act of healing and restoration at the heart of each. But such healing is seen elsewhere too, so why are they kept together, why is the woman’s moment of interruption retained in the way the story is told?

Perhaps because that is the point – it is the interruption that is remembered. At the heart of our gospel reading is that moment, after the woman, from within the pressing crowd, has reached out and touched Jesus’ cloak; and, despite the need to be somewhere else, he turns and surveys the crowd, and asks, ‘Who touched my cloak?’ I want us to spend a moment imagining what that moment, that interruption, is all about, and what that might mean for us, for us who are gathered in Christ’s company. Perhaps the best way into that interruption is to imagine it from the perspective of the woman herself:

I was desperate. Desperate.

Which is no surprise – twelve long years of blood flowing when it shouldn’t flow; of anxious searching and seeking for a cure, an explanation, an end to it. To lose blood is to feel your life draining away – and that’s how I was: an increasingly empty shell with life drained out.

And that wasn’t the half of it. The blood flowed and so did the chatter, the gossip, the cutting remarks and the cutting off. To bleed makes you unclean you see – not just dirty but polluting, dangerous. Not just my blood, but me – the whole of me, pitied, shunned, because I shouldn’t touch anyone. I got both the open hostility and the pitying look. I could see them thinking, ‘Poor woman’, but wondering why, too, and speculating. It felt almost too much to bear.

Too much because, of course, they were only thinking and speaking my own worst fears, my own dread and self-loathing. Why wouldn’t it stop – what had I done wrong? Why, for twelve years, did I contaminate everything I touched?

I searched for a cure of course. Sought out every doctor and quack I could; was prodded and argued over, offered various unpalatable remedies and dismissed as a hopeless case. But it all came back to the same thing: that I was lost, beyond help; that it was all somehow my fault. And so, I was desperate. And that desperation seemed to define me, til all I could think and hear was the voice of my lamentation and cry.

That’s what took me to see him. He’d got quite a reputation – this wandering healer, who seemed to provoke and inspire in equal measure. They said that people had left everything to follow him. Folk were flocking to him – and I’d tried everything else. I wouldn’t be seen in a large crowd, I thought. And so I went, to see what the fuss was about. And because I was desperate.

And they were flocking alright. I wasn’t the only one desperate. The crowds surged around till you could barely breathe. And people crying out their pain and anguish, their hopes and fears – all seemed to be caught up in this one man. I didn’t have to pretend to be part of the crowd, I was part of that longing to be different, to hear a word of healing, a word of hope.

And then the crowds parted and walking through the midst of them was the leader of the synagogue, Jairus, I think he’s called. He walked tall, as befitted such a man, and the crowds parted. We wondered what he was doing there, but something about him seemed different – broken, or at least on the point of breaking. As he reached Jesus, the dam burst, and he flung himself at Jesus’ feet. I couldn’t hear him, I was too far away for that, but the crowd took up his words and passed them back. The murmurs reached me of a dying daughter, of a desperate man. And Jairus, the President of the Synagogue, never seemed more like me than in that moment.

And then Jesus brought him to his feet and they turned and walked, purpose in every step. And he was coming near to where I stood, and hope against hope suddenly swelled within me. Nothing seemed beyond this man – nothing defeated him. And he was coming near. If I could but touch his cloak, touch his cloak ….

And reaching out, and pushing aside, I did touch, the very fringe. And the bleeding stopped. Not just came to a temporary halt – that happened often enough – but stopped. I felt it in my body – a realignment, a knitting together of what had been apart.

I was rooted to the ground in shock – my arm still outstretched. I was barely aware of Jesus stopping and turning, stopping and looking, searching me out. And it didn’t take him long to find me, rooted as I was, while my body sang its new song. And then suddenly not only his eyes, but the whole crowds’, were on me. Me, who had avoided the inquisitive, angry, pitying stares for so long, now found myself at the centre of attention. And the murmuring began, ‘who does she think she is’, ‘come on, he’s in a hurry, Jairus’ daughter is dying’, ‘oh, it’s that woman again’, ‘she touched him.’ And for a moment I wished I’d never come – for nothing had changed. I was still the object of others’ anger and fear. And I felt myself curling up before their stare.

And then I found his eyes, his stare still on me – but not a stare – a look of … love, no other word will do. And in that love I found myself uncurling and speaking out, able to still the chatter, and tell him what he had done: that twelve years of bleeding were over.

And his eyes never left my face, but his words spoke to me and to them all: ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’

And then I was healed – and something profound happened in the crowd too. My faith? That was the difference – he saw me and not the bleeding, not the desperation and self-loathing. Before that moment, that’s all I was: desperation. But he changed all that. He restored me – to love and hope and relationship. ‘My daughter’ he called me, as no-one had done for so long. And the crowd, who for so long had shunned me, saw me with new eyes – celebrated what had been done in their midst.

I heard that he went on to restore Jairus’ daughter to life – silenced the mockers by bringing her back from the dead. I know something of what that feels like. And all I did was reach out and touch him, reach out and touch him …

‘It is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need.’ Amen.

Trinity Sunday – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 30th May

Isaiah 6.1-8; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17

A prayer of St Anselm of Canterbury:

Teach me, O God, to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you,
for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself.
Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking;
let me find you in love, and love you in finding. …
For I do not seek to understand that I may believe,
but I believe in order to understand.
For this also I believe, — that unless I believed, I should not understand.

It is wonderful to be gathering here in person together in worship. The last few weeks, since our choir returned at Easter, has been a strange, disembodied experience for us here at the Cathedral: to worship on Sunday mornings behind closed doors; joined, we knew, by people online – as we are today – but struggling, at this end anyway, to feel connected, joined with the Body of Christ, which is God’s faithful people, in worship, and in breaking the bread.

Today is Trinity Sunday, when the focus of our prayer and our thinking is on God, and that feels right as we begin to gather in person once again, after this interruption, this gash in our common life; this time of deep pain and anxiety and yet also of collective stock-taking; re-appraising of what matters. We gather once more in worship; and stand, like Isaiah, as we heard in our first reading, before the throne of God, lost in wonder, and preparing ourselves to be sent out.

The root of the word worship tells us that the object of our worship is that to which we give worth. If this last year and more has been a time of reappraisal, of re-connecting, often in their absence, with what truly matters, then worship takes us to the heart if it: for whether we are conscious of it or not, all humans are involved in worship, to the giving of worth to some thing, or things, to that which shapes our life. The sharp question that Trinity Sunday poses is, to what do you give ultimate worth, what shapes your life, my life? Family and loved ones, money, nation, the pursuit and wielding of power; the job we feel called to do or have to do; ourselves and our comfort and security – these are all possible shapers of the life we lead. And none, in and of themselves is necessarily wrong, quite the opposite in fact. To talk of God, however, in this context, is to place a question mark by each of these things; for the danger, our faith tradition insists, is that each of these things to which we give worth, can, all too easily, become idols – the recipients of ultimate worth, unquestionable, that to which anything and everything else can be sacrificed. Family is loved to the exclusion of others; money or power sought for their own sake, for the thrill that each brings; the self pampered because that is all that matters. To gather here in worship, to believe that God, in all God’s mystery and mercy, is the one to whom our worship is finally due, is to resist the pull of such idolatry. Or to put it more positively, it is to declare that our humanity is too precious to be offered to anything less than the mystery which gives shape to all that is. God is that to which our worship, and the shaping of our lives, is directed. The living of our life is the gift given back to the giver; it is the participation in the life of God who is in all, and through all, and transforms all.

And so the Trinity, a way of describing the God who creates us in love, comes alongside us in love, and connects and transforms us in love; the Trinity names how that shaping of our life might take place, the process which begins to work on us as we offer our worship to God. In our Gospel reading, Jesus offers the thought to Nicodemus that we need to be born from above. That analogy might make us look back –wonder at what point that birthing took place sometime in the past. There may well have been a significant moment for you when that birthing into the life of the Spirit became conscious, but surely it is also an ongoing process – a shaping, by the Spirit, in the midst of idols that forever claim too much, of that life we were given biologically in our mother’s womb.

I began with the famous prayer of St Anselm: a prayer that articulates the sense that faith and understanding are tied up together – are inseparable. Following the analogy of science, we often think that to believe in certain things, we must first be provided with the evidence for them and so understand them, and then we will believe in them. But Anselm’s prayer articulates that faith in God doesn’t operate like that. Faith and understanding, in the case of God, are the other way round. It is when we make the leap of faith, allow our worship of God to begin to shape us, that we begin to understand the depth of the mystery that is God.

And the reason for that is that God is no-thing. God is not a thing like everything else that we demand evidence for. God is no-thing, because God always eludes our conceptual grasp. So faith does not flow from proof, but rather is that within us which senses that God is. We trust: trust that life, despite all that it throws at us, has the possibility of making sense; that chaos and randomness and self assertion are not the final realities – that there is a reality which transcends them, stands over and beyond the will to power, reveals the things to which we are tempted to give ultimate worth, as idols. We trust that God is.

Again, it is very appropriate that we are invited to ponder these things on the Sunday when we gather back with our choir. Because music, in many ways, provides the best analogy for this process of faith preceding understanding. It is very hard to describe what music is in a way that does justice to the experience. You can talk about the process of producing a variety of sounds in the throat, or you can introduce people to the complicated notation of notes on staves that  and sets down that sound production. It’s also possible to sit and admire the technical skills involved in a piece of music being produced by others. But none of these is the experience of music, of music taking wing as we are caught up in it, swept up by the sounds made, the technical skills involved, but no longer focusing on those; instead we find it speaking to us, and for us, carrying us to a place beyond us.

And the journey of faith, of being shaped by offering our worship to God, is like that: learning to say ‘God is love’ is inseparable from the process by which we are taught what true love is by being loved truly, and so loving a little more fully ourselves.

Teach me, O God, to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you,
for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself.
Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking;
let me find you in love, and love you in finding. …  Amen.

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

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

Jesus said:

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

I have called you friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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