Advent 2 – John Conway, Provost – 8th December 2019

Isaiah 11.1-10; Matthew 3.1-12

A poem by Edmund Banyard

He stood before the court in nondescript clothes,
no papers, no fixed address.
The judge cleared his throat,
“Have you anything to say
before I pass sentence?”
What might have been his answer
had the prisoner the gift of speech
and the court the gift of hearing?

“I am condemned because your law
allows no place for me.
My crimes I freely admit:
I am homeless, seeking shelter
where I may rear my family in modest decency.
I am stateless, seeking a country
where I may belong by right to God’s good earth.
I am destitute, claiming a share of the wealth
that is our common heritage.
I am a sinner, needing aid from fellow sinners.

“You will dispose of me according to your law,
but you will not so easily dispose of him
who owns me citizen in his kingdom.
He frowns on crimes your law condones;
pride, selfishness and greed,
the worship of all things material
and the refusal to acknowledge me as brother

“By your law I stand condemned;
but one day you must answer
to the master of us all
for the havoc caused by your law
in his realm.”

We need to talk about judgement. Advent is a traditional time to address the subject. But we need to talk about judgement also because this week, we are told, we, the people, will pass judgement on those seeking office in our land. Our politicians will receive the judgement of the people. And where will that leave us, I wonder?

Of course, from the perspective of history, of future generations, the decisions we collectively make will help form the judgement on us. We will be judged, and found – wanting? Misguided, confused, surprising?

Judgement is one of those words – seemingly straight-forward, yet heavy with history and reference – that becomes more complicated when examined. And all too slippery, and difficult to work out, in the messy realities of our present. How do we form a judgement on our present time, on ways forward, on ourselves?

Isaiah, just as he did for Matthew when he was writing his gospel, articulates our hope for God’s Chosen One, the Prince of Peace by whom and through whom all that we long for will come to be: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord,” says Isaiah. And then, “The wolf shall live with the lamb … the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

When we turn to our gospel reading, we are confronted by a more disturbing articulation of what is to come. John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair clothing, chewing on a locust, perhaps, is abroad in the wilderness, proclaiming the need for repentance in the face of God’s approaching kingdom. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he exhorts the crowd. In Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist is an uncomfortable figure: raging – “you brood of vipers,” he accuses the local leadership – and solitary; yet charismatic in drawing the crowds; and always pointing beyond himself to the One who is to come, to come with the Holy Spirit and fire, with salvation and judgement.

John the Baptist can seem a harsh and jarring interruption into our longings for peace, so beautifully articulated by Isaiah. And yet, judgement is inevitably bound up with such longing. If our longing is anything more than generalised feel-good fodder for Christmas, it must find expression in action. As we are drawn by the articulation of Advent hope into God’s longing for the world, so we realise that such longing involves us, disturbs us. If we look again at Isaiah, we find there a very concrete sense of how God’s promised peace and justice will come: “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” In its original context this was a passage directed at Israel’s king: this was the standards by which his rule was to be judged. It became in Christian understanding a passage that looked forward into the future, to the coming of Christ, but originally it was a concrete prophetic blast at the leadership of his time. Our longing for God’s future asks questions of our present, of our concrete relationship with the poor and the meek of the earth – those excluded from society, disregarded in the pursuit of wealth and status. The longing for something more than we currently possess asks questions of what we do possess. To speak of judgement means that we approach Christmas not just in anticipation, but also in apprehension: what might that Prince of Peace, born anew in our hearts and minds, lead us into and toward? For that Prince of Peace, as Isaiah puts it, shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear. Instead, unswayed by the rich and powerful, he will get to the heart of things, to the truth beyond our lazy half-truths and evasions. That ability, to get to the truth of us and our world, is disturbing, and yet, in our current confusion, also healing.

Last week, the campaigning housing charity, Shelter, released a report about the current extent of homelessness in the UK. It estimated that at least 135,000 children will be homeless and living in temporary accommodation across Britain on Christmas day – the highest number for 12 years. It further estimates that a child in the United Kingdom loses their home every eight minutes – 183 children per day. “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

When speaking of judgement it is all too tempting to slide into ourselves becoming arbiter and judge, the occupier of the moral high ground over others. Our readings today point to the opposite conclusion: that if our longings are taken seriously, then they make demands upon us; to enter into Advent hope is to find ourselves judged. But that is not to point the finger, it is to deepen our realisation of our need of God’s grace and mercy; as John the Baptist reminds us, of our need for repentance and God’s grace for the disturbing task of incarnating, of living out the more peaceful and just relationships we long for. We are judged by what we long for; or more accurately, we are judged by God’s longing found in us.

Yesterday, at Brian Hardy’s funeral, I was told of his response to the challenge of summing up the gospel in one sentence. Well, Brian said, it might be summed up thus: Jesus comes along and says: ‘We can’t keep going on like this you know.’ That is God’s word of judgement – not of condemnation, but of disturbing companionship; for the Word is coming among us. And we can’t keep going on like this, you know. “He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

God our healer,
whose mercy is like a refining fire,
touch us with your judgement,
and confront us with your tenderness;
that, being comforted by you,
we may reach out to a troubled world,
through Jesus Christ, Amen.


Pentecost 23 – John Conway, Provost – 17th November 2019

2Thess 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19

We are nearing the end of the church’s year; next week the year reaches it’s end and climax in the Feast of Christ the King. Today’s readings do not, however, suggest the best has been saved until last. They are hard, even harsh, readings. ‘We command you,’ says Paul, ‘keep away from believers who are living in idleness.’ And Jesus is not any more comforting: ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ Many of you last week will have received a letter from me outlining some of the challenges, financial and otherwise, to this place of beautiful stones, and transcendent music. Perhaps, in the light of Jesus’ words, we should just give up. Is this place of adorned beautiful stones the proper response to Christ, and our gospel?

We’ll come back to that vital question shortly, but let’s look at our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians first. Paul is addressing a young Christian community, only recently founded; a community among whom Paul himself laboured with all the passion and zeal of a fresh convert. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians are among the earliest literature we have in the New Testament, probably written in the early 50s AD. Paul’s experience of having been grasped, overturned by, the radical, surprising, gratuitous love he encountered on the Damascus Road is still fresh for him, the driver of his relentless journeying to convey to others that love met in a crucified and risen Lord. He seeks to draw others in to that revelatory experience, to have their lives changed, turned around as his was. But he is discovering that people, that communities, are not as amenable to shaping, to breaking through to new patterns of mutuality, as he might imagine. It’s a bit like a new Provost arriving and thinking that a few well chosen sermons and exhortations will sort everything out. You discover it’s not that simple. Paul hasn’t stayed, however; he has by now left Thessalonika, moving on to new places. Reports reach him of idlers; people who participate in the agapes, the love-feasts, of the early Christian community; the communal sharings that are a precursor to our own Eucharist, but who are not ‘pulling their weight.’

‘Brothers and sisters,’ writes Paul, ‘do not be weary in doing what is right.’ You can almost hear the weariness in his own voice. 2 Thessalonians is a letter that is coming to terms with disappointment. Paul’s more mature theology, centred as it is on human community, in his letters to the Corinthians and Romans, still speaks in passionate terms of the need for mutuality, a sharing of one another’s burdens, and of the diversity present in community; but it is also more forgiving, recognising that community is never an ideal, but a reality to work with. Paul’s passion always remains, that meeting with the crucified and risen Lord, but what that means: the long labour, the lack of instant results, the need for forgiveness within community, these become more evident to him.

Luke’s gospel also addresses a community whose initial idealism is being tested. Not simply by the difficulty of human beings moving beyond the selfishness and self-interest which comes naturally to all of us; but by the external forces of history and persecution. Luke’s gospel was probably written about 20 years after the letters of Paul to the Thessalonians, in the early 70s. The Christian community for whom Luke writes will have seen the collapse of the Temple in Jerusalem – the throwing down of those stones by the Romans in response to the Jewish revolt of the 60s; they will have heard of Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome; suddenly the eschatological expectation of the early followers of Jesus – the sense that the resurrection of Jesus presaged a new age – that hope and expectation is fading. What might the heart of the gospel be in these uncertain times? That question is what Luke’s gospel addresses. And what it offers, is a re-telling of that life of Christ which animated the church from the start: the life of a man, utterly reliant on the gracious love of his Father, walking the way of the cross.

David Tracy, an American Catholic theologian, writes this: The memory of the Christian is, above all, the memory of the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is that dangerous memory which is most dangerous for all those who presume to make his memory their own.

Luke’s gospel is a re-presentation of that memory. Alexandrina is today baptised into that dangerous memory, into the passion and resurrection of Jesus. It is that memory that we are undone by, are remade by, that we live out. This Cathedral has no right to exist in and of itself. Its beautiful stones may one day too be thrown down. Who knows. But it finds its life as it points us, and all who walk through its doors, toward that memory, that undoing and remaking. In the eucharist, above all, we participate in that memory: the passion and resurrection of Christ in bread broken, bread shared; community re-formed as the Body of Christ by the gratuitous gift of Christ himself in that bread broken, bread shared.

Who knows what the future years will hold for Alexandrina, who we baptise in hope and joy today? The world feels a far more uncertain place than it has for some time. The language of Luke’s gospel may become all too frighteningly real and fearful; we may find that it doesn’t have to be mythologized away – who knows. Luke’s gospel was written, and has sustained Christian community for 2,000 years, however, in the faith that what will remain, whatever happens, is the hope and faith that is not weary in doing what is right; the faith that knows itself to have been grasped by the memory of the passion and resurrection of Christ, by a grace beyond this world, a grace re-made afresh in community. For by our endurance, we will gain our souls. Amen.

All Saints Sunday – John Conway, Provost – 3rd November 2019

Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18; Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31

Paul Robeson, the African-American singer, who amongst other things, introduced the songs of his forebears, the African American Spirituals, to a wider audience, was famous also for his political activism. He lived for a time in the late 1920s and early 30s in London, and struck up a perhaps unlikely friendship with Welsh mining communities.

Later, after the war he was investigated during the era of McCarthyism for un-American activities, and for a number of years had his passport removed so that he was unable to travel and meet with the friends he had made across the world. In defiance of this ban, Canadian Labour Unions organised, several times across a few years in the early 1950s, a concert at the border of the USA and Canada – at the Peace Arch, as it’s known no less, north of Seattle. Paul Robeson, unable to leave the USA, stood on that side of the border, as he sang, his deep bass voice carried across to his audience sat on the other. It is not recorded what the border crossing officials made of it. I discovered this little moment of history through a poem, by Naomi Shibab Nye, which reflects on the event. It’s called Cross That Line.

Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border
of the USA
and sang into Canada
where a vast audience
sat on folding chairs
waiting to hear him.
He sang into Canada.
His voice left the USA
when his body was
not allowed to cross
that line.
Remind us again,
brave friend.
What countries may we
sing into?
What lines should we all
be crossing?
What songs travel toward us
from far away
to deepen our days?

That last line provided the link for me with this All Saints Sunday, when we celebrate, open ourselves, to those whose songs travel towards us from far away to deepen our days.

That song that travels toward us is not a straightforward melody: God’s company is a strange and wonderful collection of people – if you’re in any doubt of that, then just take a look around you! God’s company, those who, in their following of Christ, have helped the Church to be Christ: offer to the world Christ’s continuing transforming presence. In our Gospel reading today, we heard Jesus offer the blessings of God in surprising places. In blessing, Jesus crosses the lines of poverty, hunger, grief, and persecution: blesses those who find themselves cut off, excluded. Jesus names God as present with those thought to be bereft. To the self-satisfied, those who see no need to cross any border, he offers only woe. Jesus comes in Luke’s beatitudes with both blessing and judgement.

And the saints, rooted in that desire to follow Christ, to be Christ, sing that same surprising, irreligious, compassionate, unafraid, trusting song that crosses our lines.

I was struck, however, by an earlier line in the poem too: His voice left the USA when his body was not allowed to cross that line. His breath, his spirit, left, when his body was not allowed to cross that line. Today we also celebrate All Souls, remember those we have known and loved, whose spirit has crossed that line, that line of death, even as their bodies have not. And we celebrate their song. To remember and celebrate All Souls today is to affirm that God is stronger than death. We are surrounded by and celebrate that great company of saints, whose music, in George Eliot’s wonderful phrase, is the gladness of the world. What songs travel toward us from far away to deepen our days?

But the resonances of the poem go deeper. For the coming weeks will see us facing a number of lines, and the question of whether we have the spirit, the breath, the song to cross those lines, will I suggest become urgent; as well as the question the poem asks us – are we open to the songs that travel toward us, across the lines that might otherwise define us?

Next week, on Remembrance Sunday we mark a line, a chasm rent in our common fabric by the conflicts, the world wars of the last century. I say to you that listen, says Jesus, in our Gospel, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Our prayer for peace has to take up that challenge, that insistence that we be not be trapped by the line drawn between friend and enemy, that we may find the ways to cross that line, and make peace.

And through all the coming month, we will be caught up in the most potentially divisive and bitter election for a generation. Elections are there to provide clarity, to help us all work out what the way forward for our country might be. Conflict is part and parcel of them. But in a world where it is all too easy to stay in our own bubble of received opinion, where clarity is so often lost in a blizzard of untruths and half-truths, who will help us cross that line into truth and a way forward for our common life?

On this All Saints Sunday, as every Sunday, we gather around a table, to meet Christ, in broken bread shared out for all; in wine poured out. We gather with the great company of all who have longed to meet with Christ; the Christ, who, in the words of our epistle, is the fulness of all in all. The Christ who in our Gospel this morning comes with words both of blessing and judgement. The poor, and the hungry, those who weep, and the reviled who gather round this table hear words of blessing; the rich, the self-satisfied, those who simply laugh and bask in the adulation of others, hear words of judgement and woe. That great company, the invisible and the visible, us and all who gather through us are brought to words of blessing and judgement. And as we are, we realise the lines of blessing and judgement run right through each one of us. For we need both – to be blessed and broken. Blessed because we come in our need and carrying with us the needs of our world; and broken because we are not perfect, and our life is found in connecting more fully with others, in the courage to cross the lines that divide us one from another. Amen.

Pentecost 19 – John Conway, Provost – 20th October 2019

Genesis 32.22-31; 2 Timothy 3.14 – 4.5; Luke 18.1-8

Words from the second letter to Timothy, our first reading this morning:

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.’ All scripture is inspired by God.

Before we consider what that might mean, let’s approach it by looking at one of the other passages of scripture given to us this morning – the story from Genesis of Jacob’s wrestle with an angel, or is it with God? It’s a strange, but suggestive story – it has inspired many artists and writers, with its imagery of night-time wrestling to extract a blessing, even at the cost of a wounding.

The first thing to say is that the context of this story within the Book of Genesis is important. It is part of a series of tales that focus on sibling relationships (Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Rachel and Leah – who, of course, are the two wives of Jacob mentioned at the start of the reading – and then, not least, Jacob and his twin, but elder brother, Esau). We have already had the story of Jacob tricking his elderly father Isaac by pretending to be Esau, tricking him into giving Jacob the blessing usually reserved for the elder son. In an agrarian society, which sibling comes out on top is vital. In a context of scarcity, of the hard work of surviving, which one receives the father’s blessing, and the material goods handed on with that blessing, becomes all important.

Having stolen the blessing that should have been his brother’s, Jacob is packed off to find a wife, and having prospered with Laban, is now returning with two. But he is also returning fearful of the reception he will receive from his brother Esau. And so we are told, in the passage we heard, that he sends his wives and children, and all that he has, on ahead and is left alone, by the ford of Jabbok. Left alone to wrestle. With his conscience? With his fears? With an angel? We are not exactly told. But he emerges having been blessed, and so rises, blessed and limping, to meet his brother. The passage goes on:

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.

Jacob comes to meet his estranged brother, from whom he has been bitterly divided, and is met by an embrace, a moment of utter grace. The template of Cain and Abel, of all the other bickering and arguments between siblings in the context of scarcity and fear, is for a moment laid aside. And Jacob explicitly links this meeting to the strange events of the night before:

“truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God–since you have received me with such favour,” he says.

That breaking down of barriers, even when it inflicts wounds, is where the face of God is seen.

To read that story is to be immediately reminded of our own nights of wrestling; wrestling with our fears, in arguments with our brothers and sisters (both literal and metaphorical); seeking a blessing in the most trying of circumstances and arguments. And to read of Esau’s act of generosity and grace, is to be asked if we could do likewise – find the gesture and action that puts the ugly past behind, starts us again on a different footing. Even if, like Jacob, there may be a cost to that too – so that we are left limping and weeping, but blessed and reconciled.

Like all great stories, Jacob’s wrestling with an angel isn’t just about what happened by an obscure stream a long time ago. It provokes our own reflections and wonderings, our own stirrings and wrestlings.

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.’

That text is often produced to defend a certain account of biblical authority. I wanted to start by considering an actual scriptural text because the authority of the Bible should not be treated separately to its content. Authority is not something the bible possesses in the abstract, somehow inherent in being “The Bible”, but as something that its content evokes. The authority of the bible is not something evidenced by wheeling out 2Tim 3.16 – all scripture is inspired by God. Authority is arrived at through an engagement with the contents of the bible, what it actually is.

And when we do read it, live with the contents of this perplexing book, we discover that it is not a straightforward manual for living or a code of ethics, or a self-help book. It’s far more complicated and messy and joyous than that. Tales of sex and violence, for example, that would have self-appointed guardians of morals dashing off letters of outrage. Read the Book of Judges, but beware of its horrific violence; read the lyrical eroticism of the Song of Songs; or the many-layered vignette that is the Book of Ruth. These are not simple morality tales where good invariably wins out or virtue is finally rewarded. Often the biblical narrator seems to take no moral stand toward the events he or she describes. But the very mode of the story-telling – the sparseness of the language, the lack of psychological portraits of the characters – such devices draw us the reader in, force us to fill in the gaps, become involved, make moral judgements. And when we do so, when we become involved, we find that these expressions of human anguish, fear, passion, perplexity, eroticism, the search for wisdom and justice, the openness to the transcendent, these expressions of exultation speak to and unsettle us in our similar human predicaments and joys.

What we do here on a Sunday, as we gather around scripture, is not entertainment; it gives expression to our human need to seek meaning, and because the bible dares to speak of God, to seek what is ultimately meaningful. Above all, through worship, through open, engaged hearts and minds, what we do here on a Sunday is not to be entertained but is to dare to listen and to receive and be transformed.

These scriptural texts have been, and continue to be, at the heart of living communities of faith. Our reading occurs in the context of community – past and present. We need to listen to each other, and to our forebears in faith, as we listen to the bible. It is the quality of that listening, to each other, to the tradition, to the bible, that will determine the authority of scripture. That authority rests on the process of reading, learning, marking and inwardly digesting scripture by which we are nourished.

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.’

Inspiration is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that leads us into all truth. That inspiration, that work of the Holy Spirit, is in the present, in the interaction between the text and us, the readers. It is as we are drawn into the acts of reading and listening, of questioning the text and finding ourselves questioned, that the work of the Holy Spirit begins. Too often we treat the bible as a historical document, locating truth as the answer to the question, did that really happen? To read the bible as scripture liberates truth, and the work of the Holy Spirit, to be that illumination, that exasperation, that wonder, that shock, that yes to God, that the Bible can provoke.

When Jacob finds himself engaged in a fight in the middle of the night with a ‘man’ who is also ‘God’, he does not say to him, as he would in a fairy tale: ‘I will not let you go till you tell me your name.’ Instead, surprisingly, he says, ‘I will not let you go till you bless me’. Whereupon the ‘man’ asks Jacob his name, and, when told it, announces that henceforth Jacob will have a new name, Israel. Our task is to wrestle with this book as Jacob wrestled with the ‘man’, sometimes in the darkness of not understanding; not for the sake of the contest or in order to wrest the book’s secret from it, but so that we may hear it utter its blessing upon us, and name us anew. Amen.

Pentecost 15 & Baptism – John Conway, Provost – 22nd September 2019

Amos 8.4-7; Luke 16.1-13

Today is a good day. In a short while we will baptise Euan, a member of this congregation. He will declare his faith – a faith that he has explored and tested in conversation and prayer over this past year. He will, in the waters of baptism, like all Christians, enter the waters of Christ’s death, to be raised into Christ’s resurrection life. Today is a good day.

And Andy, our Chaplain, leads us in worship today as a priest amongst us. After spending his deacon year getting to know you and this Cathedral, sharing something of himself in preaching and conversation and care; after that year, on Thursday he was ordained priest, to gather us in worship and renew that resurrection life of Christ within us. Today is a good day.

Both Euan and Andy embody for us today a vocation, a lived out response to the call of God. Euan embodies and expresses the vocation of us all, the vocation of every human being, responding to the gift of life. That gift, of human life and breath, today in Euan’s baptism takes shape: the shape of Christ’s death and resurrection. That shape, that knows of suffering and death – that does not shy away from that, but through that knows of hope and new life – that shape is the most profound and engaged way to be human. Euan today expresses, commits himself to, the vocation of us all. And Andy, within that human vocation, embodies for us today the priestly vocation of gathering us around Christ, that Christ may be known in us. Andy, in bringing us to Christ, enables that wonderful exchange that our Eucharistic Prayer celebrates: In Christ, your Son, our life and yours are brought together in a wonderful exchange. He made his home among us that we might for ever dwell in you.

Today is a good day.

As the preacher I might have hoped, on this good day, for readings that celebrated those vocations, that lifted our hearts in prayer and praise. But just as we arrive at the deep hope of new life, only when tread the paths of suffering, so we need to do a bit of wrestling with our readings to arrive at good news. For this is how Jesus teaches; his parables work by overturning expectations, delivering a shock in the tail. They make you work. Often, because we are so familiar with these parables, it can be hard to recover that sense of shock that would have been there for the first hearers of these tales. But that is not so with this morning’s parable – the parable of the dishonest manager – the shock, I suggest, remains.

The parable introduces us to the dishonest manager of a rich man. His dodgy dealings are found out, and he is asked to give an account of himself. Rather than this being the moment of truth however, his craftiness continues – he devises a new scheme, and – you might say, squandering his master’s property further, he establishes the relationships that will see him through his sacking. And then the twist and the shock: rather than condemning his manager for such continued dishonesty, out of the blue the master commends his dishonest steward. And we then get a series of cryptic sayings of Jesus around the themes of friendship and money:

I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

It’s a difficult parable to makes sense of; what are we being shocked into thinking? First, it’s worth putting it in context. Follows immediately after the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Last week we heard the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin – and Paul drew out their connections to the Prodigal Son; but surprisingly the connections to this week’s parable are there too: both the prodigal son and the manager are described as squandering their property. Both of them conduct an internal dialogue with themselves to work out how to restore themselves to a home. And both receive surprising, greater mercy than they, or we, believe they deserve.

That connection alters the whole feel of this parable for me. Part of the shock is that we are being asked to identify with this dishonest steward, his sharp dealings and dishonesty. In the parable of the Prodigal Son we are used to the idea that we might see ourselves in the role of the older brother, and find that identification difficult. Identifying with the dishonest steward takes us a step further. But Jesus’ point is that this man finds a way to bring forgiveness into his relationships – it might be for dubious motives (although is the longing for a home, a place where one is welcomed, that dubious a motive?). But that forgiving practice is what earns him the surprising commendation of his master. For Jesus’ hearers – the poor, those who would have identified with the debtors in the story – the remission of debts is no small thing. The sums being written off are huge. For them the steward’s practice might be sharp, but exceedingly welcome. And the usual order of things is overturned when suddenly the rich master commends such behaviour! The one who was thought to be only interested in his estate, the power and money it could generate, is suddenly found to commend the establishing of relationships. Relationships are suddenly given priority over money.

And so the parable invites us into a world where that is what God is like: not an absentee master, preserving the status quo and hierarchical order, but one who delights in the practice of forgiveness.

The sayings that follow ram home the point – that we are all called to make that similar journey – the journey of the prodigal son and the dishonest steward. From squandering uselessly what we possess, to recognising that what we most long for is a home, a community, friendship, where the practice of compassionate forgiveness is paramount. And that home and that practice place money and possessions in their proper place. Not as a competing claim on our allegiance, but a means to serve our fundamental allegiance to God, the God who is love, who is the practice of compassionate forgiveness, our true home. For you cannot serve God and wealth. Our wealth, what we have been given in trust, is there to be used, just like that dishonest steward, for the building up of a home, a world, where all may live.

It is that home that Euan, I hope, has begun to find here. That journey, in compassionate forgiveness, that he promises in baptism, with all of us, for the sake of all, to make. Today is a good day. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

He gave answers to questions they didn’t ask

sometimes they didn’t dare

open their mouths anymore

not because they hadn’t understood

he was taking from them

everything sacred and safe

he offered no guarantees

Fire was not sacred to him or neon

not singing or silence

not fornication or chastity

in his speech foxes bread leaven

and much mended nets became sacred

the down and out were his proof

and actually he had as much assurance

of victory as we in these parts do


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Easter VII – John Conway – Sunday 2nd June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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