Lent 4 – sermon preached by the Chaplain Janet Spence – Sunday 19th March 2023

May I speak in the name of God, Creating, Redeeming, Sustaining.

As a boy in Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson was fascinated by lamplighters, exclaiming one night ‘Look!  That man is punching holes in the darkness!’ Light punching holes in darkness!  A striking image.

Paul’s words to the community in Ephesus – ‘You were formerly in darkness but now in the Lord you are light.’ Not, be like light, but ‘you are light’ are similarly striking.  Light enables us to see, to connect, to understand, to encounter the other. And in today’s gospel we read of someone becoming light.

The gospel words we heard were exactly as we would have heard had the Gospel been read as normal.  But this passage works like a one act play, with a large cast and great drama. It’s noticeable that the confidence and articulacy of the different characters alter during this episode and worth noticing also where the ‘light’, or the life, lies.

One person is present throughout – the man born blind.  Jesus is present at the beginning, with his disciples, and in his cure of the blind man, but then not throughout all the heated debate about the healing, his longest absence in the gospels. On his return, he and the man – who can now see – connect, understand, see one another – they encounter one another in the light.

The passage is a beautiful illustration of a movement from darkness to light.  Prior to this event the man born blind has lived without rights, marginalised.  But when we interrogate the text we discover that this man who seems to have nothing has something essential; he has clarity about what is true.

Seeing the man begging, the disciples ask Jesus whose sin has caused his suffering.  The belief that sin causes suffering was common, and is still seen today.  Responses to suffering though not using the word sin, frequently ask why an individual or a community suffers for example following illness, death, natural disaster, as though suffering is, in some way, God’s punishment.  Jesus refutes any suggestion that God causes suffering, but shows that God does act to relieve suffering.

Seeing the man, the disciples see a theological question; by contrast Jesus, God incarnate, sees a person in need. His response? To ‘punch a hole in the darkness’, to act out of love to bring wholeness.  He makes a paste with his saliva and some earth, rubs it onto the man’s eyes, and tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam.  In doing so the man receives the gift of sight.

Word gets out, and the neighbours wade in.  They interrogate him, and he tells his story, but when asked where this man is, he can only answer ‘I do not know’. And so the interrogations continue; he is taken to the religious leaders, interrogated again, and repeats his story.

The story of this miracle is heard four times – the man born blind, who was previously invisible to those around him other than as a sign of sin, is now in everyone’s line of vision.  He becomes a source of light himself shining throughout this passage with truth. But the truth, the miracle of his cure, which we might think would be cause for celebration, makes others insecure.

When we are so certain about something that we become rigid about what is true and false, we become closed off to the potential truth of challenges to these ‘immovable certainties’. Events or ideas that don’t fit with what we know become threatening, and new understandings are prevented by our stagnant certitude.

Pope Francis, in his 2020 Encyclical Fratelli Tutti writes very powerfully about human connection and disconnection, and of what he calls a ‘cool, comfortable and globalised indifference’, which leads to a cynicism of isolation and withdrawal.

We can recognise this attitude of closedness, blindness even, leading to clashes rather than encounter, in the religious leaders’ dialogue with the man born blind.  Twice they confront the man; becoming increasingly determined that Jesus is a sinner, asking repeatedly what Jesus did, how he opened his eyes, in order to prove that this could not be of God. Their rigidity and fear had made them closed to hearing or seeing the good news of the miracle.

Pope Francis writes “there is a problem when doubts and fears condition our way of thinking and acting to the point of making us intolerant, closed … In this way, fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other”.

We can see this tendency in social, political and media debate today.  It seems that healthy encounters where ideas and beliefs are challenged and teased out to enable mutual growth in understanding is avoided. Instead the main aim becomes discreditation of the other to ‘win’ the argument.

Pope Francis continues, ‘In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.’

We become ever more distant from one another, leading to fragmentation, lack of connection, and loss of the ability to empathise.

Everyone in this central part of today’s gospel – the religious leaders, the parents of the now-sighted man, and the man himself – speak without encountering one another.

The man remains focused on the truth of the miracle and the more he is questioned, the greater his confidence in this transformative event.  At first he simply affirms that he is the man born blind, that a man called Jesus put mud on his eyes and told him to wash, and now he sees. He does not know where Jesus is. He repeats his story again, this time indentifying Jesus as a prophet. For his third telling, he has grown in depth of understanding to be able to say that Jesus is a man from God who did the work of God. His transformation from a person in darkness to a person of light grows through this passage, and ultimately this is too threatening, so he is driven out.

Finally, Jesus and the man born blind meet, and an encounter takes place.  The man is driven out, and Jesus, also excluded, comes to find him.  The man does not immediately know Jesus for though he rubbed paste on his eyes, and told him to go and wash at the pool of Siloam, he’d gone when the man’s eyes were opened.  But when Jesus speaks the man knows him.

Jesus asks the man whether he trusts in the Son of Man, and in this question we have not an interrogation but an invitation, a reaching out in order to build trust and relationship.  The response ‘Lord I believe’ expresses his trust, and he immediately worships Jesus.

His physical cure has been transformed, through encounter and relationship, into healing and wholeness.  He has become a child of light.

Jesus is revealed in this passage as the light of the world, the bringer of wholeness and flourishing, a revelation on this Mothering Sunday of the mothering nature of God – nurturing relationships founded on encounter, on love, and on desire for wholeness and wellbeing. God, Jesus, acts as one who, in the imagery of Robert Louis Stevenson, punches holes in the darkness, spreading light and truth.  And this, our epistle tells us is also our calling today – to bring goodness, righteousness and truth; to … be … light.  Amen

Epiphany 6. Sermon preached by Chaplain Janet Spence. 12th February 2023

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.  Amen.

In his book, Mere Christianity, CS Lewis writes: ‘God is not a static thing…but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.’

Hold that image in your mind this morning, allow it to be the background music to what I’m saying.

‘God is not a static thing, but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life … a kind of dance.’

In Deuteronomy a message rings out – Choose life, that you may live. How we might choose life is set out for us, almost like it’s a simple choice.

Love God, walk in God’s ways, obey God’s commandments.  The person who does this, we read, will prosper and be blessed.

Alternatively turn one’s heart away from God, allow something other than God to become most important in life.  The person who does this will not prosper but be deadened.

Which opens up questions …

What does loving God look like?

What are God’s commandments?

How do I know that I am following them?

Throughout history people have created rules that give us clear definitive boundaries between what is acceptable, and what is not. And of course, across different times and cultures, what is acceptable and what is not is interpreted in different and contradictory ways. Because life is never as simple as we might want to try and make it.

It’s into this perennial problem that Jesus speaks in Matthew’s gospel today.

I think we have a propensity to understand God’s commandments about loving God and choosing life as a kind of rule book.  That’s ok for most of us if that rule book is composed of rules such as ‘You shall not murder’ – if this is the demand of the law then for most of us we’ll be all right!

But here Jesus seems to be calling us to recalibrate our moral compass.

Immediately before today’s reading Jesus states explicitly that he has come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it.

He uses a rhetorical technique … naming an accepted rule ‘You have heard it said …’  and through his repeated phrase ‘but I say to you …’ he supplants the accepted rule with far more rigorous and demanding requirements that seem almost ludicrous if we read them as we might a rule book.

So, we read that being angry with our sister or brother will, on a par with murder, bring us to judgement; that if we call someone a fool, we will be liable to the fires of hell.

It feels a bit harsh doesn’t it? Who among us hasn’t felt angry or judgemental towards others or ourselves?  What could be more human.  If we interpret Jesus’ words as laws, as rules never to be broken, then this is a burden too heavy for any of us to carry.

But that isn’t the Gospel of Jesus Christ, nor has it ever been God’s way of relating to humanity.

Instead of being people who live by a rule book Jesus calls us to live according to the spirit of the commandments; to love God, and to love our neighbour.

It is interesting to realise that all the scenarios Jesus describes – being angry with others, lusting after others, marital breakdown, promising that which is beyond our control – all these have the potential to lead to relationship breakdown.

How I live impacts others’ ability to live. So, I carry responsibility for the wellbeing of others.  Loving God means that my primary occupation in life, running through ALL aspects of my life, is to build and maintain good relationships with others, working for reconciliation where relationship is damaged.

In response I say ‘Thank God’.  I would rather live in pursuit and in hope of reconciliation than seeking personal unattainable perfection where being angry will cast me into hell.

But, at the same time I know that what Jesus IS asking of me is hard personal work:

  • being honest with myself,
  • being humble enough to recognise MY role in places and times of relationship breakdown,
  • having the courage and tenacity to work tirelessly for reconciliation (including the damaged relationship between humanity and creation).

Jesus is saying, look to yourselves, know yourselves, consider how you live and the impact this has on others, and work to be in good relationship with the other.  Jesus is saying that God’s commandments are so much more than human law books … God’s commandments are written in our hearts.

In a moment, Charlotte will be baptised.  She is already, of course, loved entirely by God, but in this act of baptism her parents and Godparents commit to turning to Christ, to helping Charlotte to grow in her knowledge and love of God.

She will be made new and sealed by the Holy Spirit living within her, guiding, protecting and bringing her into freedom; shining through her to bring joy to the world.

God’s commandments are written in our very beings. They are dynamic, pulsing through us, bringing life, calling us to dance with God. And in baptism we enter into the beautiful lifelong dance with God.

Dance partners can sometimes be a bit out of step, the rhythm is lost, they seem to be working against one another rather than in harmony. We can become too focused on the steps rather than the dance … or in relation to today’s readings, we focus on the Law rather than the commandment written on our hearts.

God desires is to dance with us, to take us by surprise as we live in God’s dance of love, and God’s desire is that we shine with that love in the world.

Baptism – what a joyous event – the beginning of this dance for Charlotte.  As we respond with words of welcome, of care and of sharing of faith we are all called to be participants in Charlotte’s beautiful lifelong dance.  Thanks be to God.


Epiphany 1 (8th January 2023) – Janet Spence, Chaplain

Today’s gospel opens with what we might call a disagreement between Jesus and John the Baptist. John has been baptising many people. His message has been a call to turn around your life, and be baptised, because the kingdom of heaven is near. Jesus comes from Galilee and today’s gospel tells us that John is reluctant to baptise him. And we could say, with good reason!

As I pondered today’s gospel this disagreement niggled at me. My niggle seemed to have two different aspects:

What was John the Baptist’s baptism offering that drew so many crowds? What was he preaching? And how did that fit in with Jewish practices and teaching of the time?

And secondly, what was Jesus drawn to in John’s baptism? What was his intention in going to be baptised by John? What was he hoping for? And what on earth happened when he was baptised?!

From well before the 1st Century of the Common Era and indeed up to the present, a significant Jewish practice is that of ritual immersion in order to be cleansed of ‘ritual impurity’. Such impurity is simply a consequence of living embodied physical lives and is not in any way shameful, nor does it impede daily life.

Nevertheless, in Jewish law it is necessary to be ritually purified before any interaction with the sacred, and so the practice of ritual immersion provides the necessary purification.

But John’s teaching around baptism was concerned with moral impurity which is something quite different, requiring a different response – a response of repentance and then atonement. Moral impurity results from what are considered to be immoral acts, many of them stipulated in Jewish books of the law.

This is why John does not welcome the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism. They are not interested in inner change not recognising themselves as morally impure. But John insists that ancestry is not sufficient; they (as with all people) must first repent – turn to God – in order to receive forgiveness. Moral impurity required a change of heart, and the baptism John offered was an outward public sign of this inner change.

There was also an eschatological dimension to John’s teaching; the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven was imminent, heralding God’s judgement in which , in v.12, ‘the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire’.

And so, the crowds came, and John baptised many.

Until Jesus also arrived, seeking baptism.

Why? What was Jesus seeking? Did Jesus need to ‘Repent’? Did Jesus need to be morally cleansed? Did Jesus need to prepare for judgement day? John clearly didn’t think so, and, in Matthew’s gospel, tries to prevent him, arguing that he, John, needed to be baptised by Jesus rather than the other way round.

How does this ‘conflict situation’ become resolved? Jesus does not get drawn into the argument with John about their relative positions hierarchically or before God. Instead through Jesus’ reply ‘Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness’ – John’s reluctance to baptise Jesus, and his argument are dispersed.

Jesus doesn’t really argue against John, but acknowledges John’s position, reassuring him, this is ok for now. Until this point the focus of John’s teaching has been sin, repentance, and judgement. Jesus turns this around, yes, shining a light on these issues, but reframing so that the focus is ‘righteousness’. So, what does he mean by this?

Righteousness in Scripture is commonly about being in right relation with God (and indeed with one another). It seems significant that Jesus’ baptism is an act that fulfills righteousness in a very public way extending beyond Jesus’ relationship with God, and embracing all people.

How? Well, through his baptism Jesus enters into the waters of the River Jordan with the people … in other words, with us. He literally steps into the river of life with us.

Jesus is a physical incarnate being … with us. Jesus enters into the sorrow of repentance, AND into the joy of new life … with us.

And then, the absolute surprise (perhaps a surprise to Jesus as well as to all the others who were witnesses, we don’t know) is what happens next.

‘Suddenly the heavens were opened to Jesus and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In this extraordinary event:

God’s voice is heard; and

the dove, the symbol of peace, of new life, of the Holy Spirit, descends.

This event happens in Matthew’s gospel before Jesus’ public ministry has begun. This is Jesus’ first appearance after the birth and flight to Egypt narratives. And what is proclaimed?

He is God’s son (he belongs).

He is beloved (he is precious and desirable). And

God is well pleased in him (he is delightful to God).

What has Jesus achieved at this point that might have earned God’s pronouncement?

Jesus has been born – well … that’s a good start!

Mary and Joseph, with Jesus, have fled Herod, and have lived as refugees in Egypt.

They then returned to Nazareth, and now at this point Jesus seeks out John the Baptist.

His public ministry has not yet begun.

We could say, if we wanted to be provocative, that he’s just been hanging about, not doing anything worthy of mention so far because … well … Matthew doesn’t bother to mention it.

And yet… and yet … what does God say? ‘I am very pleased with him’, ‘I delight in him’, ‘Look at him – he is the apple of my eye’.

Don’t we all long for such a pronouncement to be made about us? To know that about ourselves? And even if we are told it by those who love us, are we really able to believe it?

I think that this struggle to believe that God might call us ‘beloved child’; might say of us ‘with you I am well pleased’ is the meaning of sin. That sin is…

Our inability to truly believe we have a place as a child of God.

Our struggle to really believe ourselves precious to God.

The challenge to believe that God delights in us.

Sin – our inability to accept this truth – is what makes right relationship, or righteousness, with God so difficult; and thereby what makes right relationship with others difficult.

Yet our Scriptures tell us repeatedly, that God gazes at every one of us, as though nothing else was as important, and whispers to each of us ‘You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.’

And what can happen when we begin to believe this? Then we are nurturing right relationship with God.

When we begin to believe this, then we are nurturing right relationship with one another (because we suddenly are able unequivocally to recognise that others too are beloved children of God, and to delight with God in that).

When we begin to believe this, then we come a little closer to being the child of God that the Holy Spirit calls us to be in all parts of our lives – with ourselves, with God, with one another, and with all creation.

Let us celebrate that, and maybe today hear God’s voice – for you are a beloved child of God, in whom God is well pleased.




27th November 2022 – Advent I – Janet Spence (Chaplain)

God of hope, take these words and open our minds and hearts to hear your Word.  Amen

Happy Advent!

The festive lights around the city are gradually being turned on, the shops filling up with signs that tell us to ‘get ready!’, usually by spending lots of money (that we may not have) or going out celebrating, and by singing the round of Christmas songs that greet us everywhere we turn (even in here last week for those who joined in the filming for the Watchnight service!).

In Isaiah we hear the call, ‘Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!’ where this time of walking in the light of the Lord is described as a time when ‘swords will be beaten into ploughshares, when spears will become pruning hooks, and when nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war any more’… This is surely reason to celebrate!

But wait …  Today we are living with the desperate fact of war in Europe.  Young Ukrainians and Russians are having to ‘learn war’. Tens – some estimates say hundreds – of thousands of people have already been killed in this war that is just one amongst many across the world.

The theme running through our lectionary readings on this first Sunday of Advent is not Jesus’ first advent – the arrival of Jesus as a baby born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph.

Today’s readings are about how we are to prepare for the second Advent, the second coming, the Apocalypse or the Revelation, which is not yet completed and is to come at a time known to no one.  Matthew’s gospel tells us, ‘Stay awake! Be ready! But about that day and hour no-one knows: neither the angels of heaven; nor the Son; but only the Father’.

So what might preparing and being ready for this second coming look like?

I watched a film recently, called The Wonder, in which a young girl, in a desperate attempt to make amends for her late brother’s troubled life and early death, and to guarantee for them both a place in the heavenly Kingdom at the second coming, becomes so fixated on the afterlife that she chooses a life of extreme denial likely to lead to her death. She believed that this was how she must prepare for God’s judgement.

Such extreme religiously driven life choices may be uncommon, but nevertheless behind her extreme choice lies a tendency that is to be found in some religious circles to read passages such as today’s as an instruction to us to focus on the life hereafter rather than the life here-and-now. Is this really what the Scriptures instruct us to do?

The first part of chapter twenty-four of Matthew’s Gospel describes signs of the second Advent but it moves from this imaginative vision of what is to come, to the more practical message of how to live in order to be ready for that time, even though no-one can know when it might be.

In the verses of this chapter after today’s gospel, we find very practical words about how we are to live in these waiting days.  In verse forty-five we read of a servant who does no more (or less) than give food to the other servants at the correct time. This servant cares for others to ensure they are not in need, are not hungry, are not without their daily bread.

Jesus’ teaching on how to ‘be ready’ is that ‘being ready’ is about being faithful in the ordinary; that this is what demonstrates holy watchfulness… being faithful in the ordinary.

In today’s gospel we have the puzzling metaphor for the Second Advent as being like a thief who breaks in at night.  A thief represents a threat – is this who God will be – a threat who breaks in when we are at our most vulnerable?

I don’t think so.  This ‘thief God’ I believe is a thief only with regard to their unexpected arrival, and comes not to steal from this deepest vulnerable me, but rather to encounter this deepest vulnerable me.  I think Jesus is instructing us to be true to our deepest personhood – to be true to that private person we are when asleep in our beds at night, away from the eyes and judgements of the world, away from the persona that we prepare before we leave our homes and go into the world.

I believe the Second Advent will offer life in all its fullness to each one of us; to the person that God knows, the person that God treasures, and the person that reveals who I truly am.  I think that being ready, means seeking to be true to this deepest me, and that when this happens I become faithful in the ordinary, and we are reminded of this every time we join together in the Eucharist.

Soon, in our Eucharistic prayer we will hear the words of Jesus: ‘Take, eat, drink … do this in remembrance of me.’ – we are invited to the table.

Then we say together ‘we recall his blessed passion and death, his glorious resurrection and ascension, and we look for the coming of his Kingdom.’  – we commit ourselves to looking for the second Advent – following which we gather round the altar table and are fed in the Eucharistic feast.

And finally as we prepare to leave we are instructed to ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’, and we reply ‘In the name of Christ, Amen’. We commit ourselves to living this life of love and service in our daily lives.

To be ready is to continue to root ourselves in God, to respond to God’s invitation to be nourished, in order to live in faithfulness and love each and every day, and to continue to be hope-filled; for we are called to keep watch with hopeful hearts for the Second Advent.

And how do we keep that hope alive, in our own and others’ hearts? By offering simple acts day after day after day: caring for one another; serving food to the hungry; loving the unloved; welcoming the homeless and the refugee; offering comfort to the afflicted.  And noticing the signs of God’s presence in this world today. We don’t know when it will be completed, but the second coming will come in the midst of ordinary life.  Maybe it is already happening …

Today we have lit the first Advent Candle which is, the candle of hope.  Its flame is already piercing the darkness.  And it may be small, but may we work to keep it alight throughout this season, and always in our hearts.  With that hope kindled in our hearts I return to where we began – Happy Advent!

22nd Sunday after Pentecost – 6th November 2023 – Janet Spence

In today’s gospel a group called the Sadducees – a small elite Jerusalem-based group, conservative both in religious and political outlook – challenge Jesus.   The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection and would have rejected entirely Jesus’ teaching about resurrection, and so from this opposing position they enter into a potentially confrontational encounter with Jesus.  They have come with a prepared dilemma, aiming to demonstrate how ridiculous the idea of physical resurrection is.

The question of the Sadducees is in essence not a question but a trap.  By presenting this absurd situation of a woman having been married to seven brothers their hope is that they will show that Jesus is not the Messiah but a false prophet, and that resurrection is an absurdity that can only be endorsed by fools.

Jesus, however, doesn’t dismiss the Sadducees quickly, or hurtfully, instead going towards them, and meeting them where they are.  He listens to their question, engages with it and with them, and acknowledges the importance of marriage on earth, not dismissing the law as written in Leviticus, to which they refer.

He then seems to engage with them in exploring the law, using the traditional Jewish approach to this known as Midrash. The Berakhot (an early written record of these explorations which were not permitted to be written down before the 1st century CE) asserts that ‘in the world to come there is not eating or drinking or marrying or envy or hate’.

Jesus seems to echo this by asserting that, whilst the laws governing conventions of marriage (or other parts of life) may be valid in this life, they are not really applicable in relation to life after death, where we will have bodies fitted to heaven; they will be heavenly bodies.

The Jewish oral tradition of midrash was a way of responding in community, and in safety, to questions that arose from Jewish scriptures.  Jesus would have grown up surrounded by debates and conferences seeking to explore more deeply the laws, ethics and theology presented in Jewish scripture, placing the unchanging holy scriptures alongside new lived realities and experiences, and seeking understanding.

There’s almost a feeling when reading this passage that Jesus is teasing out his arguments as he speaks.  He is learning, discovering, and gaining understanding through the encounter with the Sadducees.  We could almost say that this is a passage that demonstrates midrash, and in keeping with this tradition, Jesus turns to other Scripture to help understanding; in this case the book of Exodus, one of the five Mosaic books in which the Sadducees were firmly rooted. Jesus speaks of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as continuing to be alive to God.  He is not saying they are already resurrected, but that they are alive in God’s presence, awaiting their final bodily resurrection.

The Sadducees’ question is unanswerable.  Such questions are, of course, never straightforward, and so by definition there cannot be a straightforward answer.  Jesus, the man who lived in Galilee in the 1st century, had no human experience of life beyond earthly life.  And being fully human, and fully divine, it is hard to understand to what extent (if any?) he had knowledge beyond that available to humanity.  (Another unanswerable question!)

Nonetheless, we do ask these questions about what happens when we die, as we all surely will: is there an afterlife?; what will it mean to be ‘me’ if there is?; and what will my relationship actually be to those I love here and now?

These are universal human questions that continue to be pondered over academically by philosophers, neuroscientists, and theologians, as well as those of us simply trying to live our lives as best we can. Perhaps they are particularly acute at this time of the year, a time of remembrance through the church festivals of All Saints and All Souls, and in our commemorations on Remembrance Sunday next week.

Indeed, I noticed yesterday in the window of The Next Chapter, a social enterprise therapy centre and bookshop on William Street, that every one of the books on display relates to death, dying, grief, and how we live with the questions around these concerns.

What do we do with such mysteries; what do we do with unanswerable questions?  Doctrine, faith and tradition can help inform us as we debate unanswerable questions, but can such questions ever be answered?

As a society, I sense that we have lost touch a bit with the idea that engaging in discussion and debate together, with others, helps us as we strive towards understanding that we do not yet possess  I wonder whether new understandings become more possible when our intention is changed from seeking to reach a final definitive answer, and instead becomes a willingness to engage in creative thought and some risk-taking?

Jesus often taught not what to see, but how to see; sought not indisputable, unchanging answers, but ongoing discoveries of depths of meaning that may change with time and place. He often responded to questioning not with answers but with reflection and invitations to new questions.

This is a gospel passage of courageous conversation.  In fact it is the only episode in the gospels describing a meeting between the Sadducees and Jesus.  Courageous conversation can be scary, and threatening for all parties, and we often avoid it, because we might discover that we haven’t got all the answers, and that those with whom we would normally disagree just might have something worth hearing.

We might discover that there isn’t an answer to be got!  But one thing we can be sure of is that there is, always, more to be discovered.

As the Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letter to a Young Poet

‘Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

Pentecost 18, Janet Spence – 9th October 2022

Pentecost 18
Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7 & 2 Timothy 2.8-15

May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

Our readings today all speak of a universal human truth, that we live lives in which we suffer. Every person in here today, every person we pass in the street, every person we love, has experienced suffering. Some of you may be in the midst of a time of significant suffering. It is part of the human condition, and though we work hard to avoid it, to reduce it, to relieve it, nevertheless suffering remains part of our lives.

So how do we reconcile the God of love, and God’s desire for our flourishing with this truth?

Our readings this morning do not, any of them, remain trapped in suffering. Instead, they are readings of hope, readings that instruct us on how to live WITH the truth that suffering is part of the human condition, AND that offer us hope within that reality.

Our first reading today from the Prophet Jeremiah was written to the Jewish people who had been exiled to a foreign land in the6th century BC. They had lost almost everything: their community had been scattered, they’d lost homes and livelihoods, and they were a people in crisis.

God’s desire is our flourishing, and this is nothing facile, or flimsy, but in this reading the prophetic voice is very practical …

  • Build houses
    • Which can then become your homes
  • Work to create gardens
    • Which can then be your nourishment.

And then the prophet speaks of the welfare of the city. In v.7 we read ‘seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’ This city was for them a place of suffering and exile, and yet God instructs them to seek its welfare.

One of the beautiful things I have discovered since my ordination here two weeks ago, is the tradition of the Bell Ringers’ prayer before they begin ringing the bells that sound out over the city of Edinburgh.

The bells in our tower are individually named after virtues, and the prayer is that these virtues will ring out and flourish in the city’s streets, including for example faith, humility, reverence, hope, peace, justice, love.

We are called to care not just for our own families, and for our Cathedral community, but for the place in which we live. Called to stop, and notice those who suffer. To stop, and consider those who find themselves in exile here. To stop, and ask, what might God’s desire for human flourishing in this place mean that God is asking of me? God’s desire is flourishing of all who are here; what is MY role in that?

Our Gospel today also spoke of human suffering. This Gospel passage is set in a borderland as Jesus travels between Samaria and Galilee. Jesus is approached, hesitantly, by a group of outcasts who have leprosy. They are a mixed group united only in their exclusion from society.

It is interesting to consider the difference made by the actions of the one who goes back to Jesus. It is clear that, in v.14, ‘all are made clean’. All are cured of leprosy. But God’s desire for human flourishing is not only about a physical cure, but about healing. And I think that in this man’s return to give thanks, the cure of his leprosy becomes healing which allows him to flourish.

When we are ill our bodies demand our attention, we may feel afraid, powerless, and we cry to God. In contrast, I think it is at least partially true that when we are well we take our health for granted, and perhaps forget to give thanks for our well being.

And yet, the one, the physically cured Samaritan, returns to Jesus and prostrates himself, and gives thanks.

Saying thank you changes us: we acknowledge our need of others; we recognise the giftedness of life, and name it; and in away, we are set free to go on our way. There is a spiritual practice which involves deliberately listing 10things each day for which one is thankful. The intention is that this is done daily for several weeks with a proviso that one can never repeat something for which thanks have been given any previous day.

Initially this may be helpful in terms of noticing things each day that we recognise as gift. But as the days and then weeks pass, it can lead us to a changed level of encounter with the world around us. We begin to notice the giftedness of life. And, I think, in this changed awareness and naming of thanks we flourish.

Accepting another’s thanks is also significant – how often do we reply with a dismissive ‘Don’t mention it’. But if someone has taken the bother to say ‘thank you’, might it be good to have the grace to receive those thanks?

So I invite you to notice 10 things every day in the next month for which you are thankful, and see what happens.

Or, perhaps, notice opportunities in the days ahead to both say thank you to another who has given you something (and I’m not talking about a bunch of flowers! But something that the giver might not even recognise as a gift) and on the other side of that, to hear the words when someone says thank you to you, and give that person the joy and setting free of having their thanks

The Samaritan who returns to Jesus to give thanks is gifted so
much more than the cure of a disease. He encounters God, and
Jesus’ words to him are powerful.

‘Get up’ – translated in the gospel into the Greek, Ἀναστὰς( Anastas), is the same used by Jesus when talking of resurrection. The Samaritan is called to rise and be made new. Jesus says, Rise, and go on your way. This man who was outcast, who was not free to go on his way, is set free.

Jesus’ last words to the man are to say ‘your faith has made you well’. And again the Greek translation of Jesus’ words is powerful– coming from the root word ‘sozos’ meaning salvation. God’s desire is this man’s salvation, his flourishing; a flourishing which in this case includes bodily healing and a rising and going forth into new life in community. He is made new.

16. He prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him. 17. Then Jesus said to him, “Rise up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Miscellaneous, Memorial Services and the End of the Victorian Era


This section covers unconnected matters some of which could arguably have warranted a section of their own.  One example of this is the Cathedral bells.

There were several long articles on the bells, bell-ringers and the belfry in the Victorian era Monthly Papers.  An article published in February 1880 informs the congregation that following the dedication of the bells in October 1879, the St. Mary’s Cathedral Amateur Bell-Ringers’ Society has now been formed.  The hope is “that members of the congregation and friends in the neighbourhood will be willing to assist in defraying the necessary expenses of providing furnishing for the belfry – ropes, lashings, mufflers, etc., etc. – for which about £40 will be required” [About £3,300 today.]   It was pointed out that the first full peal of ten bells was rung on New Year’s Day and they “hope that by next Christmas they may have made such progress in Campanology, that we may then hear a peal of Grandsire Triples ring forth from the spire of S. Mary’s.”

However in the May 1880 magazine it was reported that only 13 subscribers had come forward pledging from 1s to £2, well short of the £40 needed. The hope was “that if each family will give but 2s.6d., we shall have enough, though we hope some may give more to make up for those who possibly give nothing.”

It was also reported that alterations had been made to the tower which would deaden the sound of the bells in the ringing chamber, this would allow the ringers to ring by ear rather than by sight alone.

The Cathedral was not afraid to take a position on political issues which had a moral dimension.

In the February 1883 Monthly Paper the congregation was urged to sign a petition against the “Legalisation of Marriage with a Deceased Wife’s Sister”. It was pointed out that anyone over the age of 18, male or female, could sign this petition.   Maybe this petition had some effect as the enactment of the Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Act was delayed until 1907.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 was “An Act to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels and other purposes”.  The Bill had been heavily supported by the congregation in 1883 and again in March 1884 when the Earl of Aberdeen and the Edinburgh MP Samuel Waddy presented the Cathedral’s petition of 1,524 signatures to Parliament.

This interesting article appeared in July 1896.

“Little Sisters of the Poor.

This Roman Catholic Society does, we feel quite sure, much good, but we are reluctantly obliged to warn those who have been in the habit of subscribing to its funds that they should exercise due caution with reference to the assurance sometimes given that perfect freedom of religious belief and practice is allowed in the Home for Incurables, Gilmore Place.  It is of course implied in this assurance that no attempt is made to bring over any Protestants who may enter it to the Roman Faith.”

In February 1881 a plea was made by the Rev. W. M. Meredith, one of the Cathedral Chaplains, for “any who would undertake as a labour of love, the education of working men, and sometimes of their wives.  He has found a few who are very desirous to become thoroughly good scholars, and surely there are many members of the congregation not only able but willing to take up this work.  It would have to be done regularly and heartily.”

 An article in the October 1894 magazine listed three items required by the Cathedral – a new Mission Hall at Dalry, an Alms-Dish for celebrating Holy Communion (apparently the Cathedral had been borrowing the Theological College’s Alms-Dish) and a magic-lantern.  The successful acquisition of an Alms-Dish was not recorded.  However, the Chapel of the Dalry Mission Hall was opened by the Bishop on 18th October 1898 with the rest of the building being opened by the end of the year. A magic-lantern was given to the Cathedral – it was mentioned in the February 1895 Monthly Paper when it was used for the Sunday School treat on the 3rd January where pictures of the Dean, views of the Cathedral, scenes from the Matabeleland war, fairy tales and comic pictures were shown. Although in March 1896, £5 was requested to purchase an oxygen cylinder, safety lamp and an oxygen gauge for the lantern.

A request was issued in October 1896 for “Church workers of all kinds”. Particularly needed were Sunday School teachers, District Visitors, somebody to manage the Dalry Band of Hope, helpers for the Boys’ Brigade and a temperance worker for Dalry.

This interesting idea was promulgated in the February 1881 magazine.

Family Fines

The Rev. W. M. Meredith acknowledges with many thanks the receipt of “Family Fines” to be devoted to some Mission purpose.  He ventures to suggest that such fines as these – i.e.for untidiness, getting up late, etc., might be collected and given as above.  It would materially assist the formation of good habits, and also be of some help to the Mission work of our District.”

I am not sure how successful this idea became as it was never mentioned again.

This rather sad article appeared in the October 1882 magazine.

Missionary News.

The children of the Catechising Class will hear with some sorry that Maria Kevit, the little girl for whose board and education a S. Marks Mission, Tombuland, South Africa, they have been subscribing for so long, died on the 17th of July, having gone to visit her parents at their home during the holiday time.  The sorrowing father and mother, in a letter to Archdeacon Waters dictated by them, tell of their grief at her loss, and in their broken language, – “Monday, 9 o’clock, when bell rings for school her last bell of her body into the grave rung.  We hope you shall have to send our return of thanks to friends who granted pay for her education and boarding in school.”

There is also a letter from the head schoolmistress of S. Mark’s Mission, from which we extract the following: – “I am very sorry to inform you that our little Maria Kevit is no more.  She died after a very painful illness of three weeks.  She died on the day we opened school.  Her last words were, ‘Tell them at S. Mark’s, that I shall never be able to attend school again.’  Her death has cast a gloom in our school, for Maria was a great favourite in the school.  She was a dear little girl, so gentle and obedient.”

Maria was confirmed at the last Confirmation held by the Bishop at S. Mark’s.  This short account of the good done to this dear child will no doubt encourage the children, who have been subscribers for her education, to interest themselves in some other poor little African child, and there are many from whom to choose.””

During Lent in 1883 it had been arranged for a series of sermons to be preached only to men with a separate series of sermons only for women “in the full hope that, with the blessing of God, something may be done to stay the fearful progress of immorality, and to lead men and women to take higher view of the “sanctification of the flesh” than is, alas! too often the case.  Fathers and mothers are specially invited.” However, due to the illness of the intended preacher, these sermons were never preached.

The Cathedral arranged a course of cookery lessons staring in May 1884.  There were twelve lessons given twice a week at a cost of 3d per lesson, or 2s for the whole course.  The article announcing them stated that “good cooking makes home more comfortable and tempts men to return to eat, instead of going to the public house to drink”.

On 5th September 1889 there was a disastrous fire at the Mauricewood Colliery at Penicuik in which 63 miners died.  The Bishop and Dean arranged for a special collection to be made in the Cathedral on the 6th October although it was made clear that this was a separate collection and should not reduce the amount given normally to Cathedral funds. The amount collected was not recorded.

In September 1899 it was reported that the Bishop of Likoma was in urgent need of “a thoroughly competent engineer, and also a shipwright, or ship’s carpenter.  The engineer should be able to do fitting, erecting, smithing, turning, all kinds of boiler work, riveting included.  A man with experience of work at sea would be very useful.”

Surprising as it may seem the Cathedral was one of the pioneers of the present coffee culture.   If matters had turned out differently the name of St Mary’s could now be rivalling that of Costa or Starbucks!   The following extracts from the St Mary’s Monthly Paper tell the tale of the Coffee Barrow.

November 1881

The Rev. W. M. Meredith proposes to make an attempt to start a Coffee Barrow, which will be easily wheeled about, and will be taken from place to place during the day.  The great advantage of this plan will be that men who cannot well go into a British Workman Public House, or even stop at a coffee stall (e.g. cabmen), will have food taken to them.

It will be desirable to have promises up to £15 before ordering the Barrow, as this would leave a good balance to cover the necessary first payments to the man in charge.  The Barrow itself costs from £8 to £9.  Promises have been received (the money is not needed yet) of £1 from one lady, and 10s. from another.  Mr Meredith will be thankful for further promises of help.

The movement has the full sanction of the Committee of Edinburgh Diocesan Temperance Society.

February 1882

The Rev. W. M. Meredith is glad to announce the arrival of the Coffee Barrow which will be soon set to work.  He begs to thank most heartily those whose donations have enabled this good work to be commenced.

March 1882

The Coffee Barrow has been set to work with varying success.  It is wheeled along Princes Street, George Street, etc, etc.  Any who take an interest in it are invited to inspect it, and hints will be gladly received by the Rev. W. M. Meredith.

It has been suggested that those who are giving large parties (though this will not be the case just at present during Lent) should ask the man to bring the barrow to their house for the comfort of the cabmen waiting to take away the guests.

May 1882

The Rev. W. M. Meredith will be exceedingly obliged if anyone will recommend him a thoroughly honest, sober, active man, to take charge of the Barrow, as the first man employed has given it up.

January 1883

Those who most kindly assisted in getting the Coffee barrow started, will be glad to hear that it is paying its way.  The man in charge has only required 5s. to start with.  He has been able to live upon the earnings and pay his lodging. He has been able to establish a trade with the Cabmen, and regularly, twice a day, he goes round the cab stands at the West End.

February 1884

Those who kindly assisted in the purchase of the Coffee Barrow will be glad to know that it prospers.  Mr Fairbairn, to whose care it was committed, reports that it has been the means of rescuing one man from a dishonest life, and helping him to an honest livelihood, and that it is doing good in many other ways.

That is the last time the Coffee Barrow is mentioned in the Monthly Paper, so Costa and Starbucks are safe!

Memorial Services and the End of the Victorian Era

Several memorial services were held in the Cathedral during the Victorian period including, of course, that of Queen Victoria herself.  Two of the most well-known non-royals to be remembered were General Gordon in March 1885 and William Gladstone in May 1898.

On 14th January 1892 the eldest son of the Prince and Princess of Wales, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, died of pneumonia during an influenza pandemic at the age of 28.  The Cathedral held a memorial service on 20th January which according to the report in the February magazine was well attended.  “The Memorial Service in our Cathedral, on the day of the Prince’s funeral, was a striking proof of the loyalty of Edinburgh citizens; and the dense crowd which filled every part of the building to excess, showed, by their dress and demeanour, that they could, and did indeed, mourn with the Royal mourners.”  Prince Albert had been engaged to Princess Mary of Teck for only 6 weeks before his death.  The following year Princess Mary married Prince George, the future King George V.

The most important memorial service of the era was that of Queen Victoria herself.  The date and time of the service was announced in the February 1901 Monthly Paper – Saturday, 2nd February, at 3 o’clock.  The same day as the funeral service of the Queen in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.  As a large crowd was expected over 2,000 tickets were issued, which could be obtained on request. The article warned that ticket holders would only get preferential admission up to 2.45 “at which hour the gates will be thrown open to all.”

The March 1901 magazine thanked all those involved for ensuring “the arrangements were sufficient, and were carried out without the slightest hitch occurring.”  As well as the 2,000 ticket holders it was estimated by a police inspector on duty, that over 1,000 non-ticket holders were also admitted. Unfortunately, considerably more had to be refused entry after all the standing room inside the Cathedral had been filled.

Thus ended the Victorian era in St. Mary’s, certainly one of the most interesting periods of the Cathedral’s life and witness.

The Edwardian era did not start well.  An elaborate Coronation Service, including choirs and clergy from around the diocese, was planned to take place on the 26th June 1902 in the Cathedral at the same time as the actual coronation service in Westminster Abbey.  Much of the music, readings and prayers would mirror those to be sung and said in the Abbey.  However, due to the King’s illness the Coronation was postponed until the 9th August but as the Cathedral choir and the choirs from the other churches were then on holiday, “it has been reluctantly decided to abandon the intention of having a special musical service.”

Finally, here are copies of two photographs of the nave taken some time before the organ console was repositioned in 1897.



Paul Foster’s Harvest Festival sermon, 25th September 2022

Harvest – Deut 26.1-11 and Jn 6.25-35


In case you have suspected otherwise, when I was at University in Australia, my summers were not spent at the beach improving my tan, or perfecting my surfing technique. No, rather than that, I went to work to raise funds for the coming year of study. My jobs took me several hundreds of kilometres away from Perth, the city in which I lived, and into the rural areas of Western Australia. I was employed for a couple of months each summer as a weighbridge operator. This occurred during peak harvest season when wheat, barley, oats, lupins and other seed grains were gathered. My job was to operate the manual weighbridge my moving counter-weights along the large beam balance to weight in a truck full of grain. It would unload. Then I would weigh it again when it had emptied the grain into a bulkhead. Each truck would make several trips a day. A ticket had to be written up for each truck and its total delivery load was calculated at the end of a full day of deliveries. After the receival point closed for the evening, separate legers were updated for each grain type to calculate the total amount of grain received. By the end of the summer, many tens of thousands of tons of grain were collected ready for shipping overseas. This was an operation that was duplicated at hundreds of receival points across the state. One way to judge how good the harvest was in a given year was by keeping up to date with the running totals of grain deliveries across Western Australia published in the newspapers. However, I found there was another way to gauge whether or not it was turning out to be a bumper year. About half way through the season in a good year I noticed something else happened. All of a sudden, the farmers seemed to be driving around in shiny new cars! That was certainly one way to celebrate a good harvest. As an aside, I should add that I never saw any of the weighbridge operators driving new cars. Some wounds still run deep!!

The book of Deuteronomy also describes harvest celebrations. However, what it envisages in its ancient setting is on a smaller scale. Rather than truckloads of produce, the people are to bring a simple basket of their first fruits and to make an offering of thanks to the Lord God. As it is presented in the book of Deuteronomy, this was not an existing practice but one that was to take place when the people finally settled in the promise land. This section of Deuteronomy narrates a period towards the end of the forty years of Exodus wandering in the wilderness. Life is about to change from a nomadic existence when manna was provided for the people to eat, to a new time when they would grow crops and feed themselves. In anticipation of that agrarian life, the people are instructed that they should not wait until the end of the harvest season, but rather at the beginning they were to take some of the first fruits of the harvest and to present them to God. As they did so they were to say, “I declare this day to the Lord my God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give to us” (Deut 26.3). The act of thanksgiving was therefore not just for the harvest, but for the gift of the land and a settled and stable existence after forty years in the wilderness. Moreover, the text provides a liturgy for the service of thanksgiving that recalls the process by which a small family group became the nation of Israel enjoying the fruits of the promised land. The liturgy of the harvest required the individuals presenting the basket of first fruits to say, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there few in number, but there he became a great, mighty, and populous nation” (Deut 26.5). This liturgy of thanksgiving recalls the events during the life of Joseph when his father Jacob (who was renamed eponymously as Israel) went and lived in Egypt during a time of famine. However, despite the growth of the family group into a large nation, the events recalled were not all rosy.

The people were also to remember their enslavement, their poverty, and their torment at the hands of the Egyptian overlords. That act of remembrance was not for the purpose of self-congratulation at their transformed status, or even to legitimate the purchase of a new chariot after a good harvest. Instead, rather than crass sentimentality or self-justification for wealth, it was intend to engender a true humility and sense of generosity. For those of you who read the book of Deuteronomy regularly, you will know that there is an ethical refrain that runs through the book. It is a compassionate and outward looking ethical vision. A couple of examples suffice. In the tenth chapter it is stated that the people of Israel are to “show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10.19). Furthermore, the Israelites were not to harvest the very corners of fields or to go back for a forgotten sheaf of wheat. Instead, they were to be left for the destitute and hungry (Deut 24.19). In the final verse of today’s reading, we see this compassionate concern again, when it is stated that resident aliens should be invited to join harvest celebration in remembrance that all blessings come ultimately from God, and that God’s people are to share those blessings for the benefit of others. If our reading had continued a couple of verses further we would have also heard that portions of the harvest were to be removed from each Israelite land-owner’s house and given to those who were foreigners, widows, and orphans. Whether the people of Israel ever practiced the generosity which this text demands is a debated question. However, there can be no doubt that what is imagined is that the bounty of harvest should call people to a higher standard of love and generosity.

Although it was difficult for any story apart from one to get space on the front pages of the newspapers this week, I noticed the following in a tiny corner. Several editors were outraged by a certain statistic. The statistic was presented in the following manner: “more than 30,000 migrants have crossed the channel in small boats this year.” I fully understand the issues with undocumented migrants, or the distinctions drawn between genuine refugees and economic migrants – although that binary might not quite as clearcut as some would have us believe. What saddened me most as I read those stories replete with bristling outrage, was that there was no sense of generosity, no sense that many of our own families have been migrants seeking a better life, and ultimately that there was no love for the foreigner, the widow, or the orphan. While I am uncertain about whether the people of Israel ever practiced the generosity required by the vision of our text from Deuteronomy, I can make a better assessment of whether our contemporary society is willing to practice such love and generosity – but I leave you to make your own assessment on that matter.

Our gospel reading takes us to another wilderness setting with a gathered group of people. Earlier in that chapter from John’s Gospel, Jesus had performed one of his miraculous feedings, and then immediately he withdrew from the people across the Sea of Galilee. The next day the people set off in pursuit of this miracle-worker who had fed them. Upon their arrival, Jesus challenges their true motives stating that the reason that the people followed him was because they had eaten and were satisfied, not because of his message. In the same way that the people of Israel were at a point of transformed existence from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle, Jesus also offers his hearers a transformed way of existing. Instead of pursuing perishable food, they are offered a type of sustenance that Jesus promises will endure to eternal life. I am not sure if at this point in the story whether John the evangelist goes out of his way to portray the people as intentionally thick and uncomprehending, but it feels like it to me. After having been miraculously fed in the wilderness by Jesus the people demand a sign from him. They seem to have forgotten the feeding. To make matters worse, they recall the miracle of the provision of manna from heaven, and basically challenge Jesus to perform a miracle like that. Surely here the story is dripping with irony. The people have just seen Jesus perform the very thing they are requesting, but they cannot recognize it. In response, Jesus has to spell it out for them – the true bread of God is that which gives life to the world. The people still seem to miss the point – they seem to want this bread so that they might never have to seek physical food again. Then Jesus makes it clear that he is not talking about physical bread, but spiritual food. In one of the seven famous “I am” sayings in John, he declares “I am the bread of life, he who comes to be shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6.35). This is the true sustenance that is offered to the people, eternal life through belief in Jesus himself.

There is much deserved concern around food at the moment. Due to war, due to climate change, the global harvest is likely is likely to be smaller this year than has been or several decades. We cannot avoid the uncomfortable truth that there will be more people who die this year due to malnutrition and starvation, due to lack of basic food staples. We may not be directly responsible for these shortages, but I do not believe that absolves us from responsibility. The lesson of the harvest instructions in Deuteronomy is to recognize that what we have is a divine gift and we are called upon to be equally generous towards those described as aliens, widows and orphans – in fact towards all in need who partake in our common humanity. Closer to home, as food prices spiral and energy costs rise, there will be many in our nation and in our own city for whom even a meal a day is a luxury and heating homes is no longer possible. As the people of Israel were told not to strip the land, but rather to leave provision for the destitute it is now more imperative that we provide more for the poor and needy. Here is one suggestion. This week it was announced that the National Insurance increase is being reversed – one suggestion is that rather than keep that increase for ourselves maybe it could benefit those in greater need. Deuteronomy indeed reminds us of our responsibilities to attend to the practical needs of fellow human beings. The reading from the Gospel of John reminds us that alongside that we also have other gifts to offer to our communities, the bread of life itself. The Christian message does not draw a distinction between provision of physical and spiritual need – giving bread that sustains this life and offering bread that leads to eternal life are unified and unambiguous priorities for people of faith like you and I. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest the gospel message has a preferential priority for those in need. The proud are brought down and the humble exalted, it is the hungry who are to be filled while the rich will be sent away empty (Lk 1.52-53). Harvest is not primarily to be a time of gathering, but one of generosity and giving.

When we reflect on our own lives, we see that in many ways we are like the wandering people of Israel who needed to be brought into a new mode of existence, we are like the crowds blinded in pursuing physical food instead of seeking the true bread of life. In a moment, when we gather around this table we will see set before us bread and wine. These remind us of a bounteous harvest, but they remind us of so much more than that. We will gaze on earthly elements, but the eyes of faith will see the bread of life that sustains even unto eternal life. That gift is not to be accrued or hidden away, it is to be shared abundantly for the life of the world. So as you go out of this place today think of the bounty of the harvest. Think not of how much you have, but instead of how much you can share – then give generously. Think also of the bread of life, given for the life of the world. Remember also the words of Jesus, ‘the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest” (Matt 9.37-38). I pray that I and you would each be one of those workers offering the first fruits, sharing the bread of life, this harvest festival and evermore. Amen.