Pentecost 12. Sermon preached by Andrew Falconer (ordinand in training) – 28th August 2022

Alison Cockburn must have been incredibly charismatic and intelligent. Having lived for several years with her father-in-law, a strict Presbyterian who disapproved of drink, cards and dancing, she moved up to Bristo Street, where these pastimes soon became integral to her life. This was 1753. Her modest house and, later, her less modest residence in St Andrew’s Square, was to become the centre of the Enlightenment in Edinburgh.

At her salons Mrs. Cockburn brought together the intellectual and cultural minds of the day: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, David Hume, Robert Adam, Adam Smith – do you want me to go on? Her circle demonstrates why French philosopher Voltaire said “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation”.

We don’t have a salon culture these days. At most dinner parties a good host will actively avoid controversial topics and debates. And there is much to have opinions on – we are still trying to understand ourselves post-Brexit, aware that many see independence as the future for Scotland, others challenging the economic structures that see growth in foodbanks rather than salaries, different views on how to address the climate emergency. Such conversations are either polemical on social media or considered in depth by academics writing behind journal paywalls. Our world isn’t short of opinions but unlike our Enlightenment predecessors, there can be an absence of intellectual debate and rigour. We could learn much from Mrs. Cockburn.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is at a meal on the Sabbath, the guest of a leader of the Pharisees.

We are told the pharisees are “watching him closely”. Sounds a bit sinister doesn’t it? One biblical commentator suggests that the Pharisees aren’t viewing him with hostility, more curiosity. As Enlightenment intellectuals were willing to learn from each other, the Pharisees may also have been genuinely interested in the new radical perspectives taught by Jesus.

You may notice that our Gospel reading leaves out some verses. In the missing text Jesus heals a man with dropsy – despite it being the Sabbath – asking the Pharisees whether they would have done the same given it was against the law. Luke says they were unable to respond to this. It may be easy to presume the Pharisees complicit in their silence. But I wonder if Jesus was asking them questions they had just not encountered before. These are intelligent, educated men who may embrace being challenged. Perhaps they are curious about the one getting them to think differently. Maybe they wanted to be, shall we say, enlightened.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus eats with Pharisees three times. He tells us in chapter 11 about a time when a Pharisee invited Jesus to dine and, during that meal, Jesus rebukes both the Pharisees and…. dare I say it…. the lawyers. The Pharisees then became hostile and questioned Jesus, trying to trap him.

Think about that. You’ve invited somebody into your home and given hospitality – perhaps your best Macallan single malt has made an appearance. Yet before the After Eights have gone round a second time, your guest denounces you and your friends for their professions, your family for the way it behaves, and questions your whole outlook on life. I mean, this goes beyond a faux pas doesn’t it? Was Jesus a terrible guest with no social skills or is the Gospel writer drawing us into a deeper narrative?

There are more references to eating and drinking in Luke’s Gospel than in any other. For Luke, it is often through table fellowship that Jesus reveals himself, his mission and the grace of God. Jesus enters people’s lives at the most mundane, sitting and eating with them. Some meals are large banquets where men, and only men, would have reclined on cushions around the food; others were simple gatherings of families and friends. Think to the intimacy of that meal with Mary and Martha we heard a few weeks ago. Sometimes the host, but most of the time a guest, Jesus is always there on his own terms.

So can you see them? A group of men, dressed in their Sabbath finery, recline on plush cushions around a spread of meats, dates, olives, braided breads, fruit and wine. Their guest has already shocked them by working on the sabbath and healing a man, what will he do next? What are we witnessing? Is this fashionable society craving the latest novelty or an expectant gathering wanting to be taught something new and different?

As the meal continues, Jesus comments on how other guests chose the places of honour. But what he says isn’t new or revolutionary. As Pharisees they would be familiar with aphorisms around table etiquette from the Book of Proverbs. They also would have known about humility, even if they didn’t always practice it.

And then things become more challenging: “When you give a banquet invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind”.

Jesus is giving us an insight into the Kingdom of Heaven. And the Kingdom of Heaven is not an all-male club with members jostling for status and position. God’s grace is all-inclusive, an open invitation to all. The Pharisees may have thought Jesus their guest, but Luke suggests it is Jesus who welcomes us to the feast instead. In curing the man of dropsy, Jesus physically cleanses and makes him new. It’s the Pharisees, in their exclusiveness, who remain spiritually unclean.

What does it mean for us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind today? Who are the unclean, the forgotten, the ones we can’t bring ourselves to accept? Who is on the outside, looking in?

Some of you may have attended the creative workshops by Mousa AlNana a couple of weeks ago. The “Outside In” installation from those workshops is on display in the Charles I chapel. Art has long been a brilliant way of articulating the difficulties faced by those on the outside. And in the joyful diversity of Edinburgh today, we like to think ourselves as inclusive, outward-looking progressive people. But does art just mask our human failings?

Once the veneer of festival branding comes down, the tourists, performers and artists leave, there will still be outsiders. The drug addicts, the homeless, transient workers, hidden modern slaves, those not receiving the mental health support they need, people living isolated lives even behind big grand West End doors, those who sell themselves, the nomadic gypsy and traveller groups camping on private ground.

Do we suddenly seem less inclusive, less welcoming? Like the Pharisees, we want others to obey our rules, our way of life, to conform. And that doesn’t fit everyone. And it doesn’t fit Jesus. Jesus didn’t dine because he was looking for acceptance, he shared a meal because he wanted to save.
“And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Today we welcome two new members as they are baptised into our church family. The fountain of Living Water that Jeremiah spoke about is ready to cleanse and embrace. Parents, Godparents and we, as a fellowship of believers, will make a commitment to them and must remember our duty to lead by example.

So what church family are they being welcomed into? Are we as enlightened as we like to think? Our Epistle from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Jesus challenges us now as much as he did the Pharisees two thousand years ago.

The Christian family is one with a troubled past, and often a difficult present. We’re a family that can do better. Our origins are as outsiders and that should, I believe, make us a genuinely loving family: one brought about not by accident of birth but by commitment to Jesus and each other. One that seeks the outsiders and is willing to learn and grow – to be enlightened.

And finally, we are a family that comes together to share in fellowship over a meal. As Jesus gathered the twelve, so we gather and share in the bread and the wine, remembering that sacrifice made for us. We are imperfect, humbling ourselves as Jesus instructed the Pharisees, waiting for sustenance and to meet Christ himself, present for us in the Eucharistic feast.

Amen

Andrew Falconer
St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh
28 August 2022

Pentecost 10. Sermon preached by Bishop John Armes. 14th August 2022

14th August 2022. St Mary’s Cathedral – Lifting up the Lowly (The Assumption)
Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 1.46-55

Three weeks ago, Clare and I were sent off, from this Cathedral church, with prayers and blessings for the experience that lay ahead of us. We were to attend the Lambeth Conference, a gathering of bishops and spouses from the Anglican Communion, which stretches across 165 countries and speaks many many languages. There were about 1000 people in all, gathered at the University of Kent in Canterbury. It had been 14 years since the Conference had last taken place.
We left Edinburgh with some trepidation, not sure what was in store for us, we return enlarged by an experience in which God really was magnified, ‘bigged-up’, given glory – sharing more completely Mary’s great vision of God’s purposes for this world, in which the lowly are lifted up and the hungry filled with good things.
Before we left, I met with some younger members of this congregation and I asked them what I should bear in mind as I attended the conference. One young man wished that we could make worship less boring. Perhaps the crucifer might throw the cross high in the air and catch it during the procession, or perhaps we might introduce interval entertainment during our services. There was none of that in Canterbury, I confess, but I think he might have enjoyed the quality of the music on offer, including a group of Zimbabwean singers chanting, dancing and drumming as they led us in praise.
Other young members underlined the need for our church to take the climate crisis more seriously, to address racial injustices and the consequences of British colonialism, to find ways of resolving economic inequalities, reconciling conflicts and embracing diversity, not least around sexuality. I’m pleased to say that we made progress in all these areas and whilst words are not the same as actions, I really believe that everyone returned home with a clearer sense of how they and their churches might work with God to transform this world.
But change can be costly, even within a Christian communion celebrating its oneness in Christ. What some might embrace as a sign of God’s new creation, others may see as betokening a church led astray from the true gospel. The majority of churches in the Anglican Communion, for example, hold that only a man and a woman may marry in God’s sight. But some provinces, including the Scottish Episcopal Church, contain those convinced that God has led us to discover that a covenanted, faithful, lifelong marriage between people of the same gender may also be holy and God-given. Several countries were absent from Lambeth because they took exception to this, and the bishops of South Sudan, whilst very much present, refused to take communion at the daily Eucharist.
Costly. At the concluding Eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral, I returned to my seat and found one bishop who had resolutely remained in his place. I reached out my hand. Our hands clasped, our eyes met, ‘Peace be with you,’ I said. It was a deeply emotional moment, certainly for me and I imagine for him too. He had felt excluded (or excluded himself, it doesn’t matter which) because of something I (and my part of God’s church) had done. We who should have been united in Christ, who over 10 days had enjoyed so much together, were unable to approach the table of Christ side by side. We who so longed to be faithful to Christ had divided Christ. That God holds us still in unity is not in doubt, but we can’t pretend that such unity is easily won; it is costly to Christ and, therefore, costly to Christ’s people.
Mary’s song was sung in joy that God had chosen her, a lowly and obscure young woman, to give birth to hope for the world. But she soon learned that such hope can pierce one’s soul, and thirty years later, or so, she discovered that God’s promise to turn the world upside down can demand everything of us. At Lambeth, surrounded by our sisters and brothers of the ‘two-thirds world’, where faith somehow flourishes in the face of daily persecution, grinding poverty, almost unimaginable hardship, rejection and exile we found ourselves called to account by Mary and her Magnificat.
It is true, you know, God does lift up the lowly. I think of Daniel, one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan, stolen from his family and never returned, escaping to refuge in Ethiopia only to be exiled again, finding his way after much hardship to a refugee camp in Kenya. In all this, God was very present to him. He was ordained in that camp, met Rachael, herself separated from her family by the civil war, and they married. Further exile to Australia, where Rachael earns a living as a cleaner to care for their seven children, and now Daniel is a bishop in his home country, South Sudan, a land of terror and political corruption, and thankful to be reunited with Rachael for a while at a university campus in Kent.
At Lambeth every day we celebrated such stories of fortitude, faithfulness, Godly blessings showered on the lowly, and we Westerners, so secure in our wealth, found ourselves wondering where we fitted into Mary’s song – amongst the lowly, or the rich who are sent empty away. There is an unavoidable poignancy to St Paul’s words (in our first reading), telling us that we are no longer slaves but children, redeemed by God’s Son, born of a woman, when those words are heard in company with people whose countries still suffer the economic consequences of the slave trade.
This isn’t about wallowing in guilt. Guilt, important though it is as a moral barometer, is most often an unproductive emotion. We are who we are, and we are faced with living faithfully in the culture we have inherited. I suppose what I’m saying is that two weeks in a global gathering has taught me all over again what it means to be connected, to be part of one human race. And whilst we, certainly, have monetary riches and these riches can be transformative when shared with those living in abject poverty, in the end it is only money. And the riches we receive in return from our brothers and sisters serving God in the church, in our church, in places far distant from us, are immeasurable – riches stored up in heaven where moth and rust, inflation and interest rates cannot destroy.
This feast of St Mary is often described as the Assumption. Some parts of the church hold that Mary was lifted up body and soul into heaven at her departure from this world. We don’t need to believe that, however, to recognize that in the mother of our Lord we see the lowly lifted up, we see the intimations of the glory that awaits us all. Glory that even now we glimpse, even in this broken and breaking world, even in our disunity and our negligence of God’s gifts. Glory Clare and I were privileged to encounter at the Lambeth Conference, in meal queues and bible studies, and in the touch and the glance of those with whom we disagreed. Glory all of us encounter every day, if our eyes are open to see, glory in our gathering here, glory in the bread we share, glory in the music and laughter, the art and drama of this festival city, glory in the exuberance of a child, glory in the slow passing of life in the dying.
Hard won glory sometimes, costly glory, but glory nonetheless for, as Mary understood, in all this we may discern and proclaim the greatness of God.

Pentecost 9 – 7th August 2022. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20; Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16; Luke 12: 32-40

 

The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It’s a well-loved verse because it expresses something that we want to be true – something that we want to be true for us, today. We hope and we dream, our aspiration is often for things to be different – and eventually they will be – but not always in the ways we had imagined or in the timescales we had hoped for.

This week we have seen a number of examples in the sporting world of hopes and dreams that were realised. Who could have watched Eilish McColgan finding that spurt of energy as she made her way to the finish line in the women’s 10,000 and not felt the emotion of an ambition realised? The Lionesses have clearly changed the face of women’s football, perhaps even of women’s sport, and we’ve witnessed extraordinary responses to that achievement. Those, and all the rest of this week’s sporting achievements, whether or not the participants were medal winners, are examples of hopes and dreams translated into reality by hard work and determination and belief that it is possible.

The emotions that come with these achievements show us that it’s not just about physical strength or the ability to dig a bit deeper. This is about a whole person commitment and engagement with something that is often just on the edge of what’s achievable. And the author of this Epistle seems to understand something about that when they say: ‘what is seen was made from things that are not visible’. We see the achievements of the runners on the track; we don’t see the hours of slog in the wind and rain as they train day after day. We don’t see the blistered feet or the injured legs. We don’t see the moments of despair when someone can’t beat their personal best.

The sportsperson has much to teach us as we grapple with the challenges of living out our faith, of trusting that what we hope and pray for will, one day, be realised. The training regime for us is prayer. Regular prayer requires discipline and commitment. Dare I say that it can sometimes be quite boring or uninspiring. But we know, and are reminded by the example of those athletes, that the challenge is to stick with it, to persevere.

On those days when it feels too much like hard work; on those days when we feel as though nothing will ever change; on those days when we feel as though we are in a vacuum, those are the days when we most need to stick with it. Those are actually the moments when we are most likely to make a breakthrough, to find ourselves in a place we hadn’t known about, hadn’t imagined we could find, hadn’t thought God would take us to.

And like the athletes, this is a whole person engagement and experience. Prayer isn’t about telling God what is wrong with the world; it’s not about desperately trying to remember the name of every person whom we know to be in some kind of trouble. It’s fundamentally about stopping and engaging. It’s about engaging with God and opening our whole selves to the possibility that God might use us or put some task before us that will eventually lead to something that we may know nothing about today.

It’s about getting ourselves out of the way in order to make the space for God to point us in the direction that we need to go. Going back to the athletics analogy, it’s about trusting the process and recognising that we won’t all end up on a podium, but we will all achieve some kind of change.

Don’t be deceived into thinking that prayer is something we can just squeeze in between a trip to the supermarket and an evening in front of the TV. There are indeed moments when a fleeting prayer is offered – and heard. But the heart of prayer, the foundation of prayer, has to be that regular and consistent and faithful returning to God time and time again. We return, often using familiar words and phrases, prayers that have been passed down, even from Jesus himself. And we do well to remember that all of Jesus’ ministry was punctuated by prayer. He set aside time; he took himself off to quiet places; the fully human Jesus showed us how crucial prayer is to our ability to navigate through our lives.

Our Gospel reading teases out just that point. It makes it clear that we’re not expected to just sit back and wait for things to happen round about us. We are the ones who have the resources to make things happen and we choose whether we do so or not. The Gospel writer is quite directive – there are things that we can, perhaps should do that create the environment and the opportunity for moving forward.

That movement is about journeying through our lives and towards God, but it’s also about journeying deeper. It’s about finding those places where we didn’t know God to be. About finding the places within ourselves that are precious and sacred; those places within ourselves that thrive when we nurture and tend them, that enable us to turn our faces outward and to share something of the God we discover. In the same way that the athlete speaks about digging deep, finding that inner resource that is almost elusive, so we too need to learn how to do that digging, how to find the places that are a source of change.

The Gospel writer catches it by saying: where your treasure is there your heart will be also. Your real treasure isn’t in your jewellery drawer or in your bank account. It’s not in those beautiful things that we all like to accumulate. It’s in that place within each one of us where we encounter the living God. That place where words are often superfluous; that place that is touched by music and art, by beauty and creativity.

It’s a place that we often call our heart. And by that we don’t mean the large muscle that pumps blood around our bodies. We mean the core of each one of us; that which makes us who we are; that place which is the source of all that gives us life in all of its diversity. It’s that part of us that responds to love and life; that part that dictates how we respond to the influences that we encounter. It’s the part of us that is active when we pray deeply – when we allow our prayer to travel from our heads into our very beings. It’s the place where the risen Christ resides; it’s the way that resurrection life is enacted within and through us.

If we can find ways to stick with the routine of prayer; if we can find ways to stick with God whether or not that feels fruitful; if we can find ways to focus in and on our prayer, then we can begin to create an environment within which there is space for hope, within which we can really believe in transformation.

However tough the challenges, God always offers us hope. That was expressed in a prayer that was found on the wall of a basement in Cologne where Jewish people had been hiding from the Nazis:

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love even when feeling it not.
I believe in God even when he is silent.

 

 

 

 

 

Pentecost 8. Sermon preached by Dr Esther Elliott, Lay Reader. 31st July 2022

Pentecost 8 Year C/2 Luke 12:13-21 St Mary’s Cathedral

 

Last week Bishop John, the Bishop of Edinburgh was here. During the service we prayed for him and Clare his wife, as they prepared to go to the Lambeth Conference; a big gathering of Anglican Bishops from all over the world. And Bishop John asked us to keep praying, for, and I quote “…prayers for courage and prayers for humility. Courage to offer of our best when we’re there, but also the humility to receive of the best of others”. I don’t know if he had prepared himself to say that, or if it was a spur of the moment sentence. He certainly thought it was worth remembering because after the service he asked if it could go as a request on the diocesan social media channels. It’s a phrase that has intrigued me all week. Why chose those two particular things? Why courage and humility, why not, say patience or energy, or empathy or confidence? And my mind was mulling that over as I started to look at the gospel reading for something to say today. A story of another man involved in an act of gathering, of a different sort, but nevertheless a gathering.

Jesus tells a story. A man who is already rich, gets lucky and his land produces a bumper crop. He ends up with so much and he gets so rich, he doesn’t know what to do with it all. So, he talks himself into tearing down the barns he already has, building bigger ones, and gathering all his possessions together and putting them in storage. Knowing that he is absolutely loaded, and it’s all stored away securely he intends to live a lavish, worry-free, happy life. Elon Musk eat your heart out.

Courage and humility as we gather. Courage to offer our best and the humility to receive the best of others. Actually, that’s probably exactly what the rich man in Jesus’ story could have done with. It seems to me his problem wasn’t in being rich, or in fact in being a successful landowner and farmer. His problem was that he acts as a completely independent, autonomous, and self-reliant person. So much so that he didn’t even talk to anyone else when he was trying to work out what to do when faced with a problem. He did all his thinking, all his strategizing and all his planning in his own head. He did all of his gathering on his own in fear and in pride. And in Jesus’ telling of the story, God gets straight to the point; you idiot, you fool, what happens if tonight you die, all these things that you’ve gathered and stocked up for yourself, whose will they be then?

The people originally hearing this story would, I think, have understood this. The crowd around Jesus would not just have reacted to this man out of prejudice against the rich, but would have seen his behaviour and his choices as very odd, as mismanagement and probably as evil. Because he has so much and is so rich, his decision to hold back his produce would have a huge impact on the other local farmers and the regional economy. Because he has so much and is so rich he would also be enormously powerful, and his decisions would have made others in the locality even more dependent on him. They would also, probably be highly critical of a farmer who seemingly didn’t realise he was going to get a bumper crop and take some action well before he had actually harvested. This was a man who was not behaving as a member of a community. He was arrogant, independent, and completely self-reliant. He didn’t have the courage to offer anything, let alone his best, or the humility to receive from others of what they had to give including their best.

And if we were allowed to read just a little bit further in the Biblical text from where we stopped today there’s some further confirmation of this being the rich man’s actual problem. Jesus says as a sort of climax to this bit of teaching to the crowds “do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying” (verse 29). Well, we translate the last word as “worrying” in English. In the original Greek it’s a word that is only used here in the whole of the New Testament and can mean “to be arrogant”. As a lifelong worrier who gets cross when people say “oh don’t worry” as though you can just flip a switch and turn it off, I was extremely grateful when I realised that. So, the big precis of this bit of Jesus’ teaching can easily read “do not strive for what you are to eat and what you are to drink and do not be arrogant or self-sufficient”.

Wise advice indeed. Jesus, the great teacher, instructs us that a good way to live is not as autonomous, self-sufficient individuals but as people who are part of a community in all that we do and say, including how we use good fortune and wealth should that come our way. Well, yes, and. Jesus always tells stories, speaks, behaves, and acts to teach us something about God. God, says Jesus, if you keep reading, feeds even the nasty unclean ravens, God has made ordinary fields beautiful with flowers and lilies. God is overwhelming generous and caring. God gives because that is in God’s nature. God is generous to all, regardless of whether they are considered to be the nastiest thing or the most beautiful thing on the planet. That’s just God. In the face of that fact, the rich man trying to be completely self-sufficient and all our attempts to be autonomous and arrogant, do all become foolish.

And it’s that picture of God, out of all the other things we can understand from this story, that at this moment in our lives I think, might just be the most helpful and useful thing to mull over. Some of the other ideas and concepts don’t quite work. The major issue of our current context is arguably the fact that we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. The cost of everything is going up and we are told is going to continue to go up, not least the cost of energy and fuel. The vast majority of us are not chatting away to ourselves wondering what to do with all the riches we’ve just amassed, we’re terrified that the bit we’ve got coming in isn’t stretching enough. In this context, trying to be self-sufficient isn’t arrogant and being dependant on others doesn’t always feel virtuous and good.

Or, to take another example of the big things in life at the moment, we are on the cusp of festival time in this city after a couple of years of that not happening. Our streets and venues, including this church will soon be packed with people relaxing, enjoying events, eating, drinking, being merry and entertaining each other. And that’s a joy, a celebration of culture and creativity and art and relationships, not something to condemn.

So, let’s take that from this bit of teaching of Jesus and let it seep into our souls and our bones. God is overwhelming generous and caring and gives, and gives, and gives again without judgment or prejudice. The knowledge of that can give us a very deep confidence to put one foot in front of the other with, amongst other things, courage, and humility. Courage to offer our best and the humility to receive the best of others.

 

 

Trinity Sunday. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley – 12th June 2020

Welcome to Trinity Sunday – the week when we explore how we think about  the names we use to speak about the mystery that is God. For those who grew up with the Prayer Book, Father Son and Holy Ghost was, perhaps is, the default. Like any default position, it does no harm to revisit, to check out whether it still serves us.

We know that language evolves and changes over time. Dictionaries are constantly being updated to reflect that evolution; there are times when we realise that a particular phrase no longer serves us because its meaning has changed in daily use. We can be confused by an unexpected use of language. Some obvious recent examples are woke; wicked; gay… all of which have different meanings for different generations.

Language points us towards something, helps us to understand the nature of that thing, but it isn’t the object itself. For women of a certain age and outlook, Spare Rib magazine was a radical feminist publication that really pushed at boundaries. I learned this week that the name was chosen at a Chinese Restaurant. It’s perfect – it says enough but not too much. It encourages the reader to think beyond what’s immediately in front of them. Language used creatively but not aggressively.

Thinking then about the language we use for God and how it helps – or hinders – our understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to our God. There is a range of contemporary attempts at a more inclusive version of Father Son and Holy Ghost. But is it just wokeness wriggling its way into the church or is there a reason why we might move in that direction?

Let’s take the 3 persons of the Trinity and think about who they are and how we might name them. I think it’s fairly easy to see that Father is the most contentious of the titles. By no stretch of the imagination could Father be argued to really mean Father and Mother. The traditional image of the old white man in the sky is very definitely a cultural norm in some contexts as an image of Father God.  And for some people, Father God is a safe and comforting and helpful way in.  But for others, father is someone who is anything but safe. For some, father may be someone who they never knew, or a very distant figure who it wasn’t possible to have a relationship with. There was a move a while ago to address God as mother – if not instead, then alongside. But I don’t think that solves the problem. Clearly, there are the same issues for those whose relationship with their mother isn’t great. But more importantly, limiting God to some kind of parental role, limits God.

Our Christian teaching tells us that we are made in the image of God; that each one of us uniquely reflects in some small way something of the nature of God.
If something of who we understand God to be is reflected in our shared humanity, then our language for God needs to encompass that. Our language needs to express something of the diversity that is held within the image of God. Some of us are Fathers and mothers – and many aren’t. And yet all are made in that same image of God that is bigger and more inclusive than we can ever imagine. So why would we even try to limit our language for God to one or two terms?  What stops us from experimenting, from checking out how we hear and feel about very different ways of talking about God? They may not all work for all of us – and that’s fine; they make help us to understand more about who we know God not to be as we grow in our experience of who God can be.

The second person of the Trinity is Jesus, the son. Now there is no disputing that the incarnate Christ was born into a male body and lived his life as a first century man. But who, for us, is this Christ?  Son of God, sure. But that doesn’t tell us anything about who he is for us – how we might relate to him and find ways to invite him into our lives.  Words that are used for Jesus are often things like friend; companion; mentor; role model; redeemer; saviour. Son may encompass some of those, but what does it leave out?

There is undoubtedly a parent/child aspect to how we are and who we are with God, but if we’re not careful that leads us into a place of dependence and an abdication of personal responsibility.  Good parenting is about resourcing our children to take responsibility, about helping them to take risks and make mistakes. If that is what we wish for our children, surely it’s also what God wishes for us – and choosing to follow Jesus means that we are choosing to follow a man who models the best of human interaction. If Jesus is my companion and my guide; my inspiration and my role model, then the person I am in relation to him, and to God, can’t be summed up in one or two words. If I give myself permission to use a wider vocabulary about Jesus, I give myself permission to explore more of who God wants me to be. As we gain a deeper understanding of that, we perhaps become more confident in the ways that we speak about our faith and its complexities. We perhaps give ourselves permission to be more courageous, more exploratory in the language we use – and by so doing might we just find that we have found a new way to resonate with other people?

And then we come to the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.  As general usage and understanding of the term ghost changed, so the shift within our churches was generally made towards using Holy Spirit, which wasn’t actually an updated version, although it maybe felt that way; it had always been an alternative. The move away from using ghost was a deliberate attempt not to limit what people heard.

The Spirit who brings and breathes new life, new perspectives, new ways of being. We often use the word transforming to speak about the impact of the Spirit. We speak about the comfort that the Spirit might bring; about the movement of the Spirit in our world and our lives. This language isn’t dismissing the previous one, it’s adding to and enhancing. Language allows us to explore and stretch and challenge ourselves. Clearly it also allows us to tell other people something about who we are as a community and how we experience God within our community. The best language speaks not just to us, but also to people who wouldn’t describe themselves as us.

The best choice of language is probably one that none of us fully embraces but that has enough breadth and depth that it speaks to each of us where we are, and allows room for growth and new insights.

None of our language is adequate to describe the nature of God. But in the same way that a Trinitarian understanding of the nature of God goes a little way towards helping us engage with God, so a broader and more nuanced range of language goes a little way towards opening up our communication with and about God. As our language evolves, we evolve. As we evolve, our engagement with God evolves – and so one supports and enables the other. May that evolution always be filled with surprise.

 

Easter 4. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley – 8th May 2022

This week we meet Dorcas. Dorcas is one of my favourite New Testament characters. She’s the first woman to be described as a disciple – although she was clearly not the first woman to be a disciple. One of the things we learn about her is that she has a talent for dressmaking – and is clearly skilled at that – the women around her were very keen to show off the garments that she had made. As someone who aspires to be better at sewing than I am, I greatly admire Dorcas and her gift.

Let’s think about the Scripture, about why Dorcas appears in the Acts of the Apostles and what she has to teach us. The reading opens with a couple of facts about Dorcas. We’re not told where she’s from, or what she does or even much about who she is. What we learn is that she was a disciple and she was devoted to good works and acts of charity. We are meeting a woman who is known for living her faith. The fact that we don’t learn till later in the reading that she had particular practical gifts gives an even heavier weight to this information.

The story of the healing of Dorcas comes immediately after the healing of Aeneas. Peter was in and around Joppa and performed both of these healing miracles – the story would suggest pretty well back-to-back. Many theologians would suggest that the story’s primary purpose is to tell us something about Peter and the movement of the Holy Spirit in his life. I can’t argue with that big picture perspective, but I want to focus first on the smaller more detailed picture, and not to lose sight of a rare story about a named woman.

Devoted to good works and acts of charity. Let’s unpick that a bit. Not just interested, but devoted to good works, to making a difference in the world. Seeing need and responding. But remember, this isn’t actually the first thing we’re told. The very first piece of information we get is that she is a disciple of Jesus Christ. The information about her passion for good works is secondary. One follows from the other, her activities are linked with, perhaps an expression of, her discipleship.

As twenty first century disciples, the choices we make about how and where to direct our energies follow on from our commitment to turn to Jesus and to follow him. We’re reminded of that in our Gospel reading: I know my sheep and they follow me.

The worldwide church keeps this week as Vocations Sunday – taking that imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd to inspire and encourage those who are called, in particular, to ordained ministries. We’re asked to pray for those who are exploring such a call.
Vocations Sunday was first designated in 1964 by the Roman Catholic Church and has been adopted by other denominations over the years.

Some of you were perhaps worshipping in this Cathedral in 1964 – I imagine it was a very different set up from the one we have now. There was a time when our Dioceses were staffed with many more clergy than we have now. A time when the only voices you would hear on a Sunday morning would be those of male clergy. A time when clergy did, and lay people were done to.
That was neither right nor wrong; it wasn’t necessarily better or worse than the situation we live with today – it was different. For many reasons, there are fewer clergy; fewer people called into full time ministry. The church is resourced in a different way. It can be easy to assume that different way is inferior, or an unfortunate response to a changing world.

But just as the healing stories in the chapter of Acts that we read today tell us something about the movement of the Spirit in Peter’s life, so the changing situation in the church may be telling us something about the movement of the Spirit in our lives. If this Cathedral was in a different financial position, would our first priority be to increase our clergy resource? If the Diocese had more clergy than churches, would deployment be different? Perhaps not.

One of the massive changes in relatively recent years has been the increasing involvement of lay people and the recognition and valuing of the gifts of people who are not in authorised ministries but who bring something distinctive.
Those of us who are privileged to exercise a full-time ministry depend on the support and input of those who freely give their time and their energies.

Vocations Sunday has its roots in a church that was clergy focussed and clergy dependent. I would like to think that we are now rooting ourselves in a church that honours and supports the ministry of all its people, a church that recognises that there are complementary and interdependent roles, a church that seeks to become something that is more than the sum of its parts, that seeks to be the body of Christ in this place and time. I hope that we are moving towards becoming a church that sees its primary mission as outward facing and inclusive. A church that has a commitment both to those within its walls and those without and that recognises that the work of mission is the work of the whole church, not a task for the clergy alone.

We are all disciples, and as disciples of Jesus Christ we are all called to follow him. Dorcas rooted her exemplary care for others in her discipleship. She found a way to make it not about her, but about people who were more vulnerable and amongst whom she was able to make a difference.

One of the tasks for those who are in ordained ministries is to support others to fulfil their potential as disciples. That means recognising the giftedness of others, it means encouraging people to use those gifts, it may mean supporting people to discover gifts that have so far been hidden. It means honouring those who have gifts that are very different from our own.

One of the tasks for those who are lay members of the church is to recognise that some disciples have a particular calling, a calling to leadership and service within the church, a calling that flourishes when it is affirmed and supported.

The task of discerning who might be called to be the next generation of clergy is one for all of us. Clergy are called by the whole church to serve the whole church. They are called into a distinctive role, but that role is only fulfilled when they have the support and trust of the people they serve.

Vocations Sunday is a day that makes a particular demand of each one of us. Vocations, whether ordained or lay, only serve the community well when they are affirmed and owned by that community. Vocations Sunday demands that we take our discipleship seriously as a first step and then, and only then, discern the expression of discipleship to which we are called. Vocations Sunday also requires us to honour and respect the expressions of discipleship to which others are called. We are called to different kinds of good works and acts of charity, but each one is a call from God. By honouring every call, we enable the formation of the Body of Christ in this space and the lived expression of our collective calling.

Easter 2. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley – 24th April 2022

The shorthand for this week’s Gospel is that this is the Thomas week – doubting Thomas who needed to see with his own eyes before he was able to believe. But Thomas isn’t the only character in this morning’s story – in fact he only appears in the second half. The story begins with a frightened group of disciples huddled together behind locked doors because they were afraid. This year, perhaps for the first time, I feel that I have a different kind of insight into what it might be like to be hiding from people who wish you harm. None of us could fail to be moved as we watch people emerging from basements in Ukraine; their fear is palpable, their eyes tell us almost more than we can bear to witness. We’re looking into the face of fear.

So to that locked room, that place of relative safety, where our story unfurls. In the first section, the disciples who are present are immediately certain that this is Jesus. We’re told that they rejoiced. Their mood shifted, their lives were changed. The second part of the story recounts the encounter with Thomas who finds that he isn’t convinced by what his colleagues tell him.
So Jesus appears for a second time and has a physical encounter with Thomas – reach out your hand and put it in my side – and he then finds himself convinced and able to believe.

We can be very quick to identify, perhaps to over-identify, with Thomas. We are all too aware of our own times of doubt and questioning – whether we have the courage to voice them or not. I’d like to suggest this morning that we are at times like Thomas and at other times like the other disciples – and that our journey towards God requires us to embrace both of those ways of responding.

Let’s think first about the frightened group of disciples. A group of people who were confused, unable to make any sense of what they had just lived through. They were people who had journeyed with Jesus, who had witnessed his healing miracles, who had heard his prophetic voice first hand. They knew who he was. And then everything was turned on its head. They found themselves without leadership or purpose. What on earth would they do now.
Were they simply going to split up as a group and return to wherever they had come from? Would they go back to catching fish or working with wood or taking care of household responsibilities?

It’s not difficult to imagine how they felt. We know in our own lives times when we have no idea which way to turn, times when we feel rudderless, as though we could drift one way or another – and perhaps don’t even care which way that is. Major life events leave us in a position where we need to readjust, to reassess our options and to find a new focus. That’s true of positive events in our lives as well as the negative ones. Marriage, the birth of a baby, the responsibility of becoming a homeowner, the shift from student to being in the workplace – all of these require adjustment, not just of the shape of our days but in how we approach them. And of course, the same applies to traumatic events, death, redundancy, serious illness and so on.

What made and continues to make the difference though, is the presence of the Risen Christ. We’re reminded today that, like those disciples, we’re not alone in any of what life throws at us. Our Resurrection faith tells us that the risen Christ lives and moves and has his being with us and amongst us. The risen Christ breathed the Holy Spirit upon those first disciples, he gave them a gift, they were changed.

At each and every celebration of the Eucharist we pray: send your Holy Spirit upon us. Send your Holy Spirit upon us. Presumably we pray those words because we trust that God will hear and respond – if not, why would we bother? Our lives are transformed, our fears are allayed, our focus is helped when we allow ourselves to accept the gift that God bestows upon us, when we allow ourselves to be changed.

Lived experience would suggest that those moments of deep connection are often followed by moments of doubt and self-questioning and uncertainty. St Ignatius writes about this in his spiritual exercises, telling us that times of consolation will inevitably be followed by times of desolation – that our journeys of faith are cyclical.

So let’s move from the rejoicing of the first part of our story to the questioning that defines the second section. One moment we are in that place of confident truth and the next we are looking for signs and certainties. Our human nature perhaps encourages us to berate ourselves for being in that second space, the space where we are more insecure and needing to be reassured, to be pointed towards the evidence that it’s all true. But this morning’s Gospel story has something important to teach us about the complementary nature of those two positions. We journey from one to the other, and back again, and each of those places is a place of learning. A place of learning about self and a place of learning about the nature of God.

The times when we are desperately seeking something from God are often times of significant spiritual growth. They are times when we find ourselves digging deep, times when even a glimmer of light and grace makes a significant difference. The move out of doubt towards belief, is a profound journey and one that we travel time and again. It’s a journey that can bring us to the place where we find ourselves declaring: my Lord and my God.

This morning’s Gospel holds in balance those two sides of our human nature, the internal journeying that draws us towards and away from the source of truth and life. And as we journey there will inevitably be sticking points and more fluid points; there will be moments when it all seems rather clear and moments when we can’t manage to discern anything at all. We’re not asked by God to have blind, unexamined faith. Rather, we are asked to recognise and respond to our God whom we encounter in the risen Christ.

Augustine said that the divine nature is within each one of us. We encounter that divine nature when we allow ourselves to honour and respect that which is of God within each and every person we meet. It is only in so doing that we are able to honour and respect that which is of God within ourselves. Faith isn’t something out there that we simply need to go out and seek, and bring home when we find it. Faith is that place within each one of us where the encounter with the divine becomes real and engaging. That place where we can fully be ourselves and God can be God.

Whether we are in a place of fear, a place of surprise and joy or a place of uncertainty and questioning, the resurrection Christ is there with us – reaching out and seeking to engage. Our task is simply to recognise his presence and to give ourselves permission to accept the gift that allows us to be transformed.

 

Good Friday – sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley. 15th April 2022

This has been a Holy Week like none other that I have lived through. As we’ve journeyed through the events and emotions of those last days of Jesus’ life, we’ve seen the story mirrored in real time in our news media. We hear on a daily basis reports about condemnation and humiliation; about degradation and lack of agency. And yet at the same time we’re hearing about kindness and courage and compassion. The unfolding of the tragic situation in Ukraine, and – let’s not forget – in other parts of the world, is serving as a good reminder that whatever the potential for evil in the lives and minds of human beings, that potential sits alongside the potential for acts of love and grace in even the bleakest of situations.

Holy Week is always an emotional roller coaster, and this year more than ever. We respond to it in different ways, depending on what else is having an impact for us. For most of us, there have been days when we’ve felt completely overloaded; days when watching yet another news report from a conflict zone was more than we could manage. Our 24/7 news world means that we can easily be bombarded with tragedy.  And allowing ourselves to sink into a place of despair doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help the people who are living in the midst of conflict and, actually, it doesn’t help us – it just reminds us how little we can do to change the situation.

So what are we doing here as we gather on Good Friday? It’s easy to turn all of our focus to the act of brutality that is central to today’s story. But that is reductionist. The journey to Calvary, the falls and the challenges serve to show us in very stark terms that Jesus shared in the whole range of human experience and emotion. When we are struggling to put one foot in front of the other, the Good Friday story reminds us that Jesus knew that pain. When we see humiliation and degradation of human beings, we know that Jesus lived through similar experiences. The Incarnate God whose presence we honour in each and every act of worship, experienced human behaviour at its best and at its worst. The Jesus we meet at Calvary modelled for us what it is to be resilient – to see the story through to its bitter and desperate end.

That end is central to the Christian story – but it’s not the whole story or the final page of the story. Good Friday is the day when we are starkly reminded of the capacity that we have – not just those people out there in Ukraine or at Calvary, but each one of us – the capacity within humanity for behaving in ways that we didn’t think was possible. To a large extent, people find themselves drawn into committing atrocities because of the situation they are in. There is a clear parallel between the Roman soldiers and the Russian conscripts – young men for whom the stark options are kill or be killed.

Today isn’t the end of the Jesus story. The destruction of Mariupol isn’t the end of the Ukraine story. Our Gospel story takes us through death to resurrection, to a place of hope and life; a place where brutality doesn’t have the final word, where human dignity re-emerges. We see dignity in the women and other disciples who find a way to remain at the foot of the cross until the bitter end – and then to take care of his body. They are evidencing the human ability for resilience that we, and they, have already witnessed in Jesus.
We see that same resilience in Volodymir Zelensky and in those who refuse to give up their land. We see it in the defiance of Afghan women and girls; in the bravery of truth-telling Russian journalists, in the lives of people who came to the UK as refugees.

Good Friday is a day to remind ourselves of our own capacity for resilience. Following the way of the cross isn’t easy or always straightforward. There will be times when we stumble; times when we encounter the worst examples of human behaviour. We are called to walk with Jesus – to find a way to keep going; to find a way to remind ourselves that God promises so much more than the tragedy that threatens to envelop us; to dig deep and trust that God will resource and sustain us through this chapter of our lives and beyond.

Lent 5 Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley. 3rd April 2022

There are some big characters in this morning’s Gospel reading. Lazarus, Martha, Mary, Judas Iscariot – and Jesus in the centre of it all. If you were responsible for staging the scene, I wonder what decisions you might make. Who would be in the spotlight and who could be relegated to the shadows? Whose lines should be given centre stage and who might discover that they were actually a supporting actor rather than one of the leading lights? Who has that apparently insignificant role without which the entire scene would lose some of its potency?

Let’s look first at the setting. We’re in the home of Lazarus, after he’d been raised from the dead. And in the text we read this morning is says: there they gave a dinner for him. There’s a suggestion in the way that’s worded that this wasn’t a spontaneous invitation to share whatever food had already been prepared for the evening meal; a demand on the kitchen to make food for 3 or 4 stretch to feed 5 or 6. Rather that this was a bit of an event – they gave a dinner, presumably with invited guests. Was it perhaps in the way of a thanksgiving celebration?

As I imagine myself into the role of set designer, I’m thinking about how the table might be laid; whether there would be flowers or candles to decorate the space. Were they using the best china and linen? However the stage was set, it would be important to convey the hospitality that was being offered – the gratitude felt by that family. So I think I would want the table to be a focal point, at least at the start of the scene. To ensure that the audience recognised the centrality of the shared meal.

And then we witness an act of kindness – Mary anointed Jesus’ feet. I imagine that to be a scene of care and compassion, of tenderness and love. It feels as though we might be in danger of intruding in a moment of connection between two people that is really precious. And just as we’re settling into that comfortable scene, the mood changes. Up until now there has been no obvious dialogue; perhaps there was some gentle music providing ambience, maybe a few quiet words were shared. Perhaps we could hear the clanking of cutlery and the rattle of crockery as plates were served and cleared.

Whatever the audio accompaniment has been up till now, we’re suddenly bombarded with words. Judas has plenty to say – his attempt at persuasive words shows that he’s wanting to get the audience on his side, making a point about the fairer or better use of resources, regardless of his actual agenda. We’re not entirely sure at this stage whether he is a goodie or a baddie. But he has demanded our attention. So we have a real dramatic contrast: the quiet self-giving of Mary alongside Judas’ rather assertive intervention.

And then Jesus gets involved. As soon as we hear Jesus speak, our responses to these two characters are given some parameters. Jesus directs us towards a sympathetic response to Mary and to a wariness towards Judas. As an audience, we are being encouraged in our responses and given a hint about the direction from which trouble might arise.

Let’s look a bit further around our stage. Central to the set and to the action is Martha. She may not have any lines, but her act of serving at table sets the entire scene. The core values are put in place as she goes about her business.
She acts out for us the welcome and the generosity; she enables the connections that come when people share food together. We’re encouraged to relax into the setting, to recognise something that is familiar and comfortable. Martha is a catalyst for our emotional connection with what we can see.

And now let’s move our gaze towards the shadow areas of the stage, towards all those unnamed extras who are lurking just at the edges of our vision.
This crowd is clearly not well intentioned – they’re not just after Jesus, but they have their sights on Lazarus as well. As soon as they begin to capture our attention, the complexities of the story start to be teased out. This isn’t a soap opera kind of tale with an easy feel-good message. This is, perhaps in common with all good drama, a tale of two parts; an exploration of both the light and the dark, a reminder that our experiences in life teach us that goodness and evil co-exist, often in the same places and, indeed, in the same people.

We’re seeing that co-existence of goodness and evil played out not just on this imaginary stage but on our TV screens on a daily basis. We witness the atrocities of war at the same time as we witness acts of generosity and kindness. And what can be tricky, of course, is to recognise the times when an act with evil intent is dressed up as an act of kindness. An example we see unfolding on the borders of Ukraine is in the reports of the arrival of sex traffickers. That’s nothing new – sexual exploitation has always been a tool of warfare, opportunistic chances will be taken by those who have their own agendas. And vulnerable people don’t always make good choices for themselves.

What is new is that we live in an age of 24 hour news where we can follow situations as they develop and escalate. We are better informed about the realities of what we observe. What is also new is that we can follow the acts of self-giving and quiet kindness. They may not commandeer the news headlines in the same ways, but we know that there are very many people who in a quiet and unassuming way are making a difference in whatever way they can.
The majority of people who are offering hospitality are kind and generous and wanting to help. Their actions can easily be overlooked because we find ourselves focussing on those whose actions appal us.

That reminder of the co-existence of goodness and evil is important for us as we enter into Passiontide. This morning marks a change of gear in our journey through Lent. Our faces are now firmly turned towards the events that we will engage with in Holy Week. And the headlines for that week make pretty grim reading. Condemnation and an unfair trial. Brutal physical challenge on the way to the place of death. Mocking and humiliation. A slow and painful death.

Those are the headlines. But when we read some of the detail, we see evidence of humanity at its best. Simon of Cyrene who helps to carry the cross. Veronica who by tradition wipes the face of Jesus. The women who watch and weep, who find a way to stay there right to the bitter end. Women whose kindness continues to be expressed after death as they do what they can to show honour and respect.

At its heart, this morning’s Scripture is about honour and respect. Mary and Martha honour and show respect to their guests. Their kindness makes a difference. It doesn’t necessarily make headlines, it’s expressed in simple action and it’s not all about them.

Showing a sign of honour and respect is something that we can do – in the smallest of ways perhaps, in ways that certainly won’t make headlines but that might just collectively act as a reminder that the balance in our world is on the side of goodness. We probably have no lines or dramatic gestures, but we can play a role in setting the scene for the transforming change that is at the heart of our Holy Week story.

 

 

Lent 2. Sermon preached by Esther Elliott, Lay Reader – 13th March 2022

Luke 13:31-35 St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh. 13 March 2022.
Lent 2 Year C.

One of the things about being a chaplain for people at work is that you get to hear a lot of stories about how ordinary people deal with everyday conflict. The sort of conflict that often hums beneath the surface between colleagues, as well as in families, and occasionally pops up into a full-blown argument or situation. This week I also spent some time with some clergy from the Church of England who minister alongside other clergy who hold very different beliefs. They told stories of arguments, awkward situations, and the choices they were making about their own behaviour and responses to their colleagues. It is this human and common experience of everyday conflict that has been in the back of my mind while I’ve reflected on our gospel reading for today.

But first, I think I need to get a different sermon out of the way. As often happens, the gospel reading set for today has such obvious parallels with what is in the news it’s breath-taking. There’s panicked warnings to run from death threats from a paranoid leader. There’s a brave leader standing their ground. There’s a compassionate person weeping over the occupation of a city. Of course, it’s about the war in Ukraine. Of course, Jesus would stand up to Putin, just as He stood up to Herod. He may very well choose something other than fox to describe him, but still. Of course, Jesus would look at what is happening to the cities in Ukraine, weep deeply and long to look after the people being bombed and living underground. Of course. But to say that makes for an incredibly short sermon and I’m under a bit of pressure to do better than that today because it’s my first time preaching here. Far more importantly such a blunt and direct reading off from the text misses out on some crucial, and I think, essential details.

Whenever you read a sentence like “at that very hour..” in the Biblical text you know that the writer wants to ratchet up the energy in story. They want to add a sense of urgency, perhaps calamity. And our story starts right there – “at that very hour, some Pharisees came and said to him ‘get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you’”. You can feel the pace pick up and the adrenaline rush. And then I think, Luke wonderfully takes us through Jesus’ thought processes. At first, He responds with a very automatic reaction from His built-in system. Given the choice of responding to a threat with fight, flight, fawn or freeze, Jesus fights – “go and tell that fox for me, listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work”. You can almost hear the spit. And then He steps back just a little bit and grounds Himself in what He was doing before the threat happened. He was travelling within Galilee on His way to Jerusalem – “I must be on my way because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” he says. And then He steps back a little bit more and places Himself in a wider historical and social context “Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those that are sent to it”. The fizzy, urgent panicky energy is now gone.

Today is the two-year anniversary since the first recorded death in Scotland from Covid 19. I wonder if you can identify with some of how Jesus reacted to a threat to His life in your reactions during this pandemic. What was your initial automatic response from your built-in system – fight, flight, fawn, or freeze? Did you have a sense of an important task or purpose in your life that has grounded you over the last two years? Has being able to put your individual experience into a wider historical and social context helped any? Where are you now?

I think Luke, who wrote this story, wasn’t all that interested in giving us a step-by-step process we could use as a psychological tool to get through a pandemic, or any other threat to life, to be honest. I think the point of this part of the story is Jesus saying “in any conflict situation, even one where there’s a threat to your life, there’s stuff that isn’t going to ultimately useful to focus on”. You don’t need to focus on whatever your individual automatic reaction is, your feelings are going to happen, let them be and then gently move on. Persisting and carrying on with whatever your goal or intention was, is probably going to mean you burrow down into stubbornness and that’s just going to increase the conflict. Concentrating on similarities and comparisons with what has happened to you, or to others like you, in the past or the present, isn’t going to ultimately help turn this conflict around.

The fizzy, urgent panicky energy is now gone and Jesus moves on. “Jerusalem… how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”. It’s a statement of sheer and utter compassion. In many versions of the biblical text this story is labelled as Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem and you can see why. His heart totally goes out to Jerusalem. We are experiencing someone express intense compassion till it almost chokes us up too. Compassion, feeling another person’s suffering so much you just have to do whatever it takes to alleviate it, that’s what to focus on. That’s what’s going to be useful to resolve conflict situations; the ones that hum along, the moments when they erupt. Compassion is what Jesus models for us and suggests as a practice for as His followers.

There is one other tiny detail in this story that I want to draw your attention to. For me, this is the really crucial bit. Jesus’ compassion is for “the children of Jerusalem”. There are no exceptions or caveats. And Luke was clever enough as a writer to place right into the story the very people you assume would be the exceptions. The Pharisees, the religious leaders are children of Jerusalem because that’s where their temple is. For the early Christian community the Pharisees were a bunch of hypocrites and villains. Still part of the children of Jerusalem that Jesus has compassion for. For Luke, interestingly, they are ambiguous characters, they come into the story without any descriptions. We have no way of knowing their motivations for telling Jesus about Herod’s death threats. They are portrayed as the kind of people who are really hard to read in conflict situations, you don’t quite know where they stand, you don’t quite know if they are being truthful or spreading misinformation and so you can’t quite trust them. Still part of the children of Jerusalem that Jesus has compassion for. And then there’s Herod, who had a palace in Jerusalem, and investments in the city and plans to renovate it. Herod, who had decapitated Jesus own cousin, John the Baptist, (and rumour has it, served up his head on a plate). Herod who was the leader of an occupying force. Still part of the children of Jerusalem that Jesus has compassion for.

Wherever you are at the moment with the conflicts and threats to life and ways of life that swirl around us, I would like to suggest that the practice of compassion is the key. Whatever that shape that takes in the reality of your own life. Moreover, take heart and strength and grit from the fact that Jesus didn’t wait until the end of His journey, Easter Day and moments of resurrection to have utter, unreserved compassion for everyone. His all -compassion, pure, unbounded love is in the story, your story, my story, our story now.