Epiphany 4. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley – 29th January 2023

Micah 6: 1-8; 1 Cor 1: 18-31; Matthew 5: 1-12

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…

This section of the first letter to the Corinthians gives us an extraordinary insight into Paul’s courage. He has no hesitation in telling it as he sees it. As we know, once he embraced the Gospel message, he did so wholeheartedly, leaving no room for doubt in the minds of his readers and listeners. He lives out the zeal of one whose mind, and life, has been changed. We often think of Paul as a convert to Christianity – we even mark a day in our calendar for the conversion of Paul, and yet, he wasn’t a convert in the way that we now understand that word. Throughout his writings, Paul continues to describe himself as Jewish – and he certainly hadn’t converted to Christianity because there was no such religion at that time. His conversion, if we want to use that language, was to turn away from his previous activities, the focus of which was to stop the Jesus narrative, to get in the way of people hearing Jesus’ teaching or trusting in the gift of his disciples, to challenge the narrative that he was the long-awaited Messiah.

After his experience on the Damascus Road, Paul took on a new mission – to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. He was convinced, and he then set out to convince others. He became the most significant commentator on the life and teaching of Jesus, a person whose own voice carried authority and changed lives. This morning we hear him telling the people of Corinth that central to his faith is the truth of Christ crucified.

The people of Corinth weren’t the easiest to convince. Corinth was a very rich city, and its people had a reputation for a degree of arrogance, a confidence in their own place within the wider society and the self- assured opinions that can accompany that. I guess they had the kind of self-confidence we often see in in people of privilege within our own communities. And this morning, Paul takes them on.

He takes them on with a very serious challenge – the crucified is the one who we proclaim. The crucified is the one for whom we have been waiting. The crucified is the one who has the capacity to bring real transformation into your lives and into our world.

He is essentially saying to the people of Corinth: you might think that what is most important in the world mirrors the values you hold dear, but I’m here to show you a different way of thinking and seeing. The value you place on status is an artificial construct. People have value whoever they are. Your ideas need to be shaken up – because at the heart of Christ’s message is a deep compassion for the people who are most vulnerable, for the people who find themselves pushed to the edges. Christ’s voice is a voice for the voiceless. Christ’s values are not the values of the society that you have created, they are the values of the God’s Kingdom.

Paul singles out two groups of people who have a particular perspective – Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom. A significant percentage of the population would have been Jewish or Greek, and Paul makes a particular challenge to them. You spend your time looking for signs, seeking greater wisdom – you’re looking in the wrong places. Perhaps it’s time to stop looking and to start listening. Because the light of the world has been revealed, if only you were able to allow yourselves to recognize him.

This is in some ways an uncomfortable passage to read in contemporary Scotland. We know that in our communities naming people in such a distinctive way would be a crime against a protected characteristic. But in this context calling out the Jews and the Greeks may not have the undertone that we could easily read into it. What if Paul is actually using that language in order to appeal to the people – to say I know what is most important to you, and I am still able to say that there is a different way. He understands them – but still wants them to know that the message of the cross is that they could look and live through a different lens.

That different lens gives us the parameters for the fundamentals of our faith. That is the faith, that post crucifixion, post resurrection, post Paul’s writing faith, that Hector is about to be baptized into. In a few minutes Janet will mark Hector’s forehead with the sign of the cross. That anointing is a reminder to all of us of the baptismal promises we make – and the nature of the Messiah whom we follow. That anointing is our reminder that we are called to follow the Christ who was not impressed by human wealth or self-importance.
This is the Messiah who came to turn our values on their head. This is the Messiah who asks us to make ourselves vulnerable and to respond to the vulnerabilities of other people. The Messiah who asks us to be aware of the people who find themselves on the edges of our communities, those who become the voiceless, almost by default.

And those of us who are more privileged have a responsibility. We have a responsibility to speak out. To be a voice for those who are more marginalized; to recognise the gifts given to all of God’s people.

Hector, as you grow in years, so you will grow into yourself – into being the person who God made you to be; the person God longs for you to be. Your parents, grandparents and godparents will have a role in supporting you to be your best self. We honour God most when we allow ourselves to fully be the people whom he calls us to be.

We have no idea what you will be called into in later years, but we do know that you will be called to compassion and care; to concern and generosity. Those are fundamental Christian characteristics.
They may not be protected characteristics, but they are the foundation stones that set us apart as people who have been transformed because we know Christ crucified.

We know Christ crucified every time we hear someone challenge the established ways that benefit only one small section of society; we know Christ crucified when we are the recipients of random acts of kindness; we know Christ crucified when we experience the unconditional love of the people around us, a love that is but a reflection of God’s love for us.

Hector, you already know what it is to be loved. You know what it is to be unconditionally cared for. As you journey through life, that knowledge will grow and will help to form the person you are becoming. My prayer for you is that as you grow into the person you will be, your compassion, care and love for others will grow and will be known by all who meet you.

Don’t be afraid to proclaim Christ crucified – it is through him and with him that we truly find ourselves.

 

Epiphany 2. 15th January 2023. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

Isaiah 49: 1-7; 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9; John 1: 29-42

This morning’s Gospel reading includes a fascinating and perhaps unexpected exchange between Jesus and the two disciples of John. Jesus asks them: What are you looking for? And rather than giving a straight answer, they respond with a question: Where are you staying? And the response to that is: Come and see.

What are you looking for? – these are the first words that John records Jesus as saying. We’re at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and his starting place is to reach out to the people he meets and to ask them to set the agenda. He’s asking them to offer some definition and clarity about what is most important to them; about what they think would make a difference in their lives. It’s worth noting that the model is one of responding to their statement of need or desire rather than setting out a programme of plans and assuming that people will fall in with it. This response turns on its head the usual experience of engaging with charismatic leaders where they are often quick to say what they have to offer, perhaps even to tell people what they need. It’s a model that empowers people to take responsibility, to make their own decisions about a hierarchy of importance. It’s a model that we might aspire to in all areas of our lives.

Let’s think for a moment about how we might respond if Jesus were to ask us: what are you looking for? I wonder where your mind is taking you. Are you thinking about what you are looking for when you come to church? What you are looking for when you receive Communion? What you are looking for when you read the bible? What you are looking for when you pray? Maybe you’re drawn to thinking about what you are looking for when you listen to music or read poetry; when you go for a walk or spend time in the garden. What are you looking for?

The quick and easy response is probably: answers. Answers to existential questions; answers to the trickiest problems in our world; answers to the Why questions that niggle away when we least anticipate them. A lot of the time we are looking for certainty – and that’s the one thing that isn’t on offer within our lives of faith. However deep or strong our faith, we eventually reach a place where we have to choose to live our lives as though it were true, knowing that the absolute truth will only be revealed in the next life.

Answering any ‘big’ question is a bit like contemplating an essay question. The answer is actually dependent on your understanding of the question. What are you looking for could elicit the simplest of answers – or the most complex. Maybe we answer differently at different times in our lives.

In response to Jesus’ question, John’s disciples ask their own question. At first sight it seems like a simple request for information, but I think that they are actually asking something very different. Where are you staying? It seems to me that they are wanting to find a way to spend time with Jesus, to go deeper in their interactions with him; to learn from him, perhaps to learn more about him. And he is open to their question – come and see. They may not be directly asking to spend more time with him, but that seems to be the likely outcome of the interaction.

I want to think for a moment about how we tell Jesus what we are looking for and how we ask for time with him. One way is in prayer – our intercessory prayers; our petitions; our pleas for help and support. Often at those times we are looking for something very specific.  So we turn our attention both inward and outward. We may have a very specific request – for healing; for comfort; for peace of mind. Or we may have something more general in mind – stability in the world; praying for refugees or homeless people. Praying for a particular situation in the world. So often, when we pray in these ways, we are actually looking for answers, perhaps even for solutions.

When we shift into a solution focussed mode, we are actually looking for God to fix things – we name them in prayer and then we want to hand over responsibility. It’s a model that’s akin to the idea of the charismatic leader who has all of the answers and will direct us in what we ought to be doing. But that’s not the model that we’ve observed this morning. From those very first words, Jesus was asking not telling. He was inviting people to journey alongside him, to learn about his ways and his powers, to observe and to experience.  This isn’t about handing over our concerns or our desires and waiting for some magic to happen. This is about getting alongside, perhaps even taking shared responsibility for the possibility of change.

Another way that we might find to take time with Jesus is when we find ourselves immersed in something that is outside ourselves. That could be music or art; it might be while we’re walking or swimming; maybe it’s in those moments between one task and another when we just stop to pause and be. I guess those are all times when we get beyond our ego and allow ourselves to be ourselves. At those moments, we are probably nearest to being the people God longs for us to be. At those moments we are engaged not with our heads but with our hearts and our souls. And it’s from that place deep within that we really respond to Jesus; it’s from that place that we are really able to hear and understand that question: what are you looking for?

What are you looking for? The question, as we explore, seems to be much less about what would you like to have fixed, and more akin to: What is your deepest desire? What is going to facilitate transformation within you? And that is actually where the story, or at least this chapter of the story ends. Jesus fixed his gaze on Simon and said to him: you are to be called Kephas.
Jesus picks out Simon Peter and names his significant role in the unfolding of what will become the Christian story. With that change of name, comes a change in Simon Peter’s place within the narrative. With that change of name comes his transformation which, in turn, encourages transformation within others.

We may not be given new names, but we may be given new tasks and challenges. We may be given new roles and responsibilities. We may be given new opportunities to respond to Jesus, to come and see.

And having seen, we then are invited to take on our part in the responsibility for sharing the message of hope that is at the heart of all we believe and all that we are.

Advent 2. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley. 4th December 2022

John the Baptist is our main character this morning. Matthew’s account makes sure that we experience John as powerful, strong, fierce, dramatic. He’s not someone to be passed over or ignored – he may only appear as an adult in one brief passage of Scripture, but it’s certainly not a passage to be skipped over. He was a person who commanded interest and engagement from the people who encountered him. And I guess that people trusted him – they were coming to confess their sins and to be baptised with John’s baptism of repentance. They clearly valued what he was able to offer.

So people came to John at the banks of the Jordan and they ‘fessed up. They held up their hands and admitted to the wrongs they had done – or the good they had not done. And the baptism washed away their sins and they understood themselves to be good as new. They could start again, and again.

We know that John recognised the limitations of his baptism – he was clear with people that something far more significant was just around the corner. A different kind of baptism was just out of sight, just out of reach, but was God’s promise for all people.
John’s baptism of repentance feels like something that resonates in our contemporary world. In fact, I might suggest that it feels like something that twenty-first century self-help has reinvented. There are many sources that will tell you how good it is to unburden yourself from the weight of guilt that you carry. Sources that encourage truth telling, public self- shaming, and sometimes even tracking down people who you wronged many years ago. And there is no doubt that telling all can help people to feel better about themselves. The problem is that it often stops right there. It’s one thing to bare your soul; to own up to some home truths and to even dare to speak all of that out loud. But it’s quite another thing to do something to change our own patterns of behaviour.

It’s relatively easy to say sorry, to be sorry, at any given moment, but that’s not enough. We need the baptism of Jesus to help us towards fundamental change. Our prayer book absolution spells out the theology of our church: May the Almighty and Merciful Lord grant unto you (pardon and remission of all your sins), time for true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit.

The theology of our church is rooted in our Baptism into the Body of Christ. The absolution that is offered each time we come before God to own up to our own sinfulness spells out what is required: true repentance and amendment of life.

And that is where it all gets a bit more challenging – not just for those who commit crimes or easily recognised bad behaviour towards others, but for each and every one of us. We can all look around – at those who commit acts of violence; those who undermine or intimidate; those who abuse their power – and identify the need for change. How much harder we find it to identify the ways that we need to make fundamental change.

Most of our sinful behaviours are habitual; we don’t even always notice that we do them, or we haven’t worked out ways to manage them. We’re not good at noticing the things we could have changed, but don’t. And I would suggest that many of those behaviours are rooted in our own insecurities and the damage that has been inflicted upon us by others. Those hurts and the ways that we hide them are all too familiar to us, and all too difficult to let go.
We don’t always realise that we choose not to take responsibility for making changes. We can be quick to excuse ourselves and slow to recognise the challenges that others live with. We might like the idea of amendment of life rather more than we like the reality.

Amending our lives is hard. It means actively choosing to behave and respond differently from the ingrained patterns that shape our lives and that are pretty well instinctive. Amending our lives usually means facing up to the darker parts of ourselves, taking stock and not shying away from what we find.

And Advent is an ideal time to grapple with all of this. It’s a time to watch and wait, a time to prepare to welcome the Christ child, the one who came to offer us unconditional forgiveness and the opportunity for real and lasting change.

Listen to what John told his followers about the baptism that Jesus would offer: He will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

This new baptism will be a dynamic baptism. A baptism that will bring the energy of fire into your life alongside the support and comfort of the Holy Spirit. This new baptism brings with it a new confidence that fundamental change might be both possible and manageable.

Speaking about bringing fire into our lives suggests something that is alive, something that we keep alive when we give it oxygen and fuel. We talk about having fire in our belly; being fired up; being on fire – all of those phrases carry a suggestion of active engagement. There’s nothing passive about this baptism into the ways of the Christ. It’s a demanding and active commitment to a distinctive way of life.

It’s not just about putting aside today’s sin and finding ways to be and do good; it’s about committing to repeating that pattern day after day – and re-committing when, inevitably, we fail. It’s about firing up our commitment to the promises we make – in baptism, in confession, when we receive absolution. It’s about giving oxygen and fuel to those promises so that they have life and become life giving.

One of the things people experience when they actively repent, is that they make room in their heads and their lives. If you’re not carrying a burden of guilt, you create a space to carry something else. You create a space for the Holy Spirit to be an active part of your life. A space for the Incarnate Christ to have access to oxygen and fuel, to grow and deepen and transform.

Our Baptism commits us to active engagement with the ways of God. To taking seriously the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. Taking seriously the promise that we are forgiven, and setting that promise of God’s forgiveness alongside a promise to ourselves to find different ways of being and responding and living.

John’s baptism of repentance shows us the direction of travel, helps us to begin that journey towards true repentance and genuine amendment of life.

 

Remembrance Sunday, 13th November 2022. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

We remember them. We remember that the impact of war is on individuals – women and men and children. Young and old. War doesn’t discriminate. We remember the needless destruction of people and places. We remember the trauma that war inflicts. We remember.

Some of us who are gathered here this morning lived through part or all of the second world war. Many of us didn’t. Our knowledge of both world wars has mostly been learned – through listening to the stories of loved ones; through reading histories and historic fiction; through films and TV documentaries; through visiting museums and dedicated sites. Some of us want to know as much as we can, want to understand the psychology of those who make war. Some of us want to understand the technologies that are used in warfare, want to understand the advances in learning that came about as a result of the war effort. Some will be fascinated by stories of the courage of those who were part of resistance movements or those who smuggled children to a place of safety. And some of us will find it all too painful and will find ways to know enough without knowing more than we can bear.

But we remember.

We remember personally and we remember collectively. Some of my earliest memories are of playing on spaces that we called the bomb sites. I lived in a city that had been very heavily bombed and many years after the end of the war, there were still areas of the city that carried the scars. I don’t think, as children, that we made a connection between the dusty uneven surfaces that were our bike track and football pitch and the thing called war that adults spoke about – often in hushed tones. We didn’t make the connection between those spaces and the numbers tattooed onto the arms of some of the people within our community. And yet, those experiences form part of my personal and collective memories of the impact of war.

There were adult conversations about people who were broken. Whisperings about women who weren’t coping with their memories, men who had regular nightmares and unexpected panic attacks. And yes, I think we knew somehow that there was a connection with this thing called war – but it was pretty hard to fathom it out.

Many of you will have memories that are more vivid than mine, memories that are more traumatic than mine. Many of you will carry stories of loved ones, stories that should not be forgotten. And that, for me, is why I think it is still important to mark Remembrance Day. We can’t afford to forget.

The situation in our world at the moment is reminder enough that we can’t afford to forget. One impact of the war in Ukraine is that it has brought the reality of war into our living rooms in a way that I don’t think we have seen before. We’ve been shown the bombed out apartment blocks and the remnants of shopping centres. Images not terribly different from those that were seen in most of our major cities during the last century. And this war, perhaps more than any since the second world war, has reminded us that war is not confined to places that are very different from the places we know. The bombed out streets in Kyiv and Kherson could have been the streets we walk through; the streets we live in. We have been reminded that nowhere is safe until everywhere is safe.

Our 24/7 news means that we have seen the ways that warfare is conducted. Particular cities and areas are targeted. Infrastructure is destroyed, making day to day life nigh on impossible. And we are now beginning to hear the horror of war crimes – rape and pillage; random shootings of innocent people, just because the person with the gun could wield some power.

War is about the abuse of power. And in our world we tend to value power. To give authority to people who wield power. To support those who we think might be the winners rather than the losers. And in so doing we show how readily we choose not to remember; how easily we can we swayed and persuaded and, before we know it, find ourselves colluding.

Ordinary people, good, honest citizens, often don’t know what to believe or who to trust. We’ve seen that as we observe the way that the people of Russia are fed a diet of misinformation. We’ve seen it as we observe the people of China having their access to international sources of information censored. Powerful people control not just what happens but what people know about what has happened.   And we can’t be complacent about our own access to honest and comprehensive information. We see and read what is fed to us – it may be less heavily censored and manipulated, but it’s rarely the whole story.

History tells us over and over again, that a lack of access to the whole story encourages people to turn aside, to make choices not to challenge, to go with the collective flow. The German people did not, could not, believe that their Government was simply evil. The Russian population is mostly still supportive of Putin. That may seem extraordinary to us – but we have learned that this is the way that societies function. There are voices that challenge; there are people who have the courage to stand up and be counted; they may be admired, but they rarely have the power that gives them the authority to bring about change.

And what are we to do? We could spend many hours bewailing the horrors of the situations that we observe. Not just in Ukraine, but in Tigray and South Sudan. In Afghanistan and Iran. In Israel and Palestine. On a daily basis, conflict continues.

There’s a line in this morning’s final hymn: Stand by the cross that bids all hatred cease, that gives me a prompt, a reminder that we are called not into passivity but to respond. The narrative of our faith is one of compassion and care and respect. We are called to honour our sisters and brothers whoever they are and whatever they have done. We are called to forgive but not to forget. To actively remember.

The Cross is the central symbol of our faith, a constant reminder of who we follow and why. And on that cross, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness. In this Cathedral, our Lorimer Rood cross is prominent. On that Cross hangs the body of Jesus; in the background is a field of Flanders poppies. We are being encouraged into that place of forgiveness and remembrance, called into a place of reconciliation and of hope. Into a place where remembrance is meaningful.

Christian teaching holds the pain of the past in tension with a focus on the promise of tomorrow. Remembrance holds the pain of the past in tension with the promise of a different kind of tomorrow.

We remember, we honour, we hope to learn. We try to forgive whilst committing never to forget.

We must remember them.

Pentecost 19. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley. 16th October 2022

Jeremiah 31: 27-34; Luke 18: 1-8

‘The days are surely coming…’

We live in turbulent and unprecedented times. Whatever your views on matters political, economic, environmental, or ecclesial – there is no denying that these are strange times. Change is in the air whichever way we turn. Much of what we considered to be stable and unchanging is suddenly the exact opposite of that. The institutions that for many years have provided a firm foundation for our lives are not as they once were. Many of us are pretty unsettled. It doesn’t matter where we focus our attention, things appear to be going from bad to worse. And for very many people within our communities and further around the world, that is their actual lived experience.

Those people who thought things were bad when they started to budget their weekly shopping more carefully; those same people who then made plans to limit their fuel use and who are now facing large increases in their mortgage or rent payments – for those people things are beyond bad. They are dire and the coming months will be a serious challenge.

Those people living in places where entire communities have disappeared under floodwaters or raging fire. Those communities where the land no longer sustains its people. Those communities where climate change has destroyed sources of income. For those people, the situation is, at best, bleak.

But it’s not just individuals who are impacted. The months ahead will present a challenge for the charities that try to make a difference for the most vulnerable people in our communities – they can expect increased demand without an increase in resources.  And what about the many other agencies that do important work both here and in other parts of the world, charities that depend on the generosity of individuals, many of whom may no longer be in a position to give money or time.

And those observations don’t take account of the potential impact of the national and global situations on businesses, large and small, and the knock-on effect for all those whose livelihoods depend on their success.

Our reading from the prophet Jeremiah speaks into the situation that we are addressing. We’re told that things are broken down and destroyed and they are rebuilt and renewed. Jeremiah is reminding his readers that the promise of faith is something far beyond the immediate situation, however overwhelming that might be. The promise of faith is that God’s ways are the ways of new beginnings, the ways of respect and care and mutual flourishing.

Within our communities, we learned some significant lessons from the Covid pandemic. We learned something about what it is to create and live within healthy communities. Many people who were personally less at risk engaged with the public health measures in order to play their part in supporting people who were more at risk. Whether mask wearing was important for you, it might have been important for the person next to you. We met neighbours we’d never encountered when we were all on the daily work and commute treadmill; we discovered beautiful places right on our doorsteps that we had never visited.

During the months of lockdown, we began to see people’s values and priorities changing. We all found ourselves focussing on what mattered most – and discovered that much of what we had thought was essential for our lives was superfluous. Most people came to a recognition that interaction with people we love and care about is central to our mental and spiritual health. People found themselves looking for meaning, for some that resulted in a spiritual reawakening.

Many of us found ways to embrace new technology – grandparents learned to FaceTime. Churches learned about live streaming. Theatres found ways to put their work on-line. Musicians found new ways to work together virtually. Churches found that their congregations were gathered from all over the world. People took the opportunity to engage with activities that they may otherwise never have encountered or been brave enough to try.

And many of us came to realise that much of what we had taken for granted – the richness of the arts; the pleasure in just observing other people’s interactions; the connections we feel when we have face to face conversations in a situation where we can see the person’s face and body language – all of those things contribute to our own expression of our humanity. There was, I think, a reimagining of what we consider to have value.

For some people, the experience of that time allowed an opportunity to re-set. To make decisions about what shape the new life that was emerging from the challenges we’d all faced might look like. For some that meant making life changing decisions about where to live or what kind of work to do. For others it was about whether to continue working or to have a complete change of direction. I guess what people found was a freedom – they gave themselves permission to dream and what emerged from those dreams was often a complete surprise.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Because God uses whatever circumstances we’re in and creates new opportunities. This week I read an article about some of the smaller towns in Ukraine, places where almost no building remains standing and there is no basic infrastructure left. This article was telling how young people from neighbouring places were offering their time and skills to help rebuild for the few older people who had chosen not to leave their homes. The article illustrated a lovely connection between the generations – people who had never met before the war were now supporting one another. The young people rebuilt walls and the older people cooked on makeshift stoves. This was about physical rebuilding but also about the rebuilding of community, the rebuilding of the foundations that create healthy societies. Whatever has happened to the bricks and mortar in that place, the resilience of the people and their trust in the future has survived.

Looking back at our own communities, we are journeying into difficult times and uncharted waters. Make no mistake, I’m not suggesting that is OK – I am suggesting that, right now, you and I can’t change it.

Tragedy is staring us in the face. There will undoubtedly be unnecessary deaths; there will be increased incidence of trauma; there will be misery for many, many families. And that is wrong. And we are tasked as people of faith with calling out the injustice and the lack of care for the most vulnerable, the lack of respect for sisters and brothers in crisis.

At the same time, we are tasked as people of faith with looking out for the new shoots of hope. We are called to recognise and nurture and protect those new shoots – however delicate and precarious they may be. Because they are the signs that we’ve not been abandoned. They are the signs that there can be renewal and rebirth. There can be a different future. We can learn from today and make tomorrow different.

We have no option but to live within the circumstances that prevail today, but our God calls us to hold onto a vision for a more positive tomorrow, to hold onto the promise that it’s God’s love that transforms.

The days are surely coming…. Days that we won’t choose; days that will bring destruction and despair. But those days will not, cannot, be the end of the story, they will be followed by other days. In those new days lies our hope and the lived expression of our faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.