Pentecost 8. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley. 18th July 2021

Ephesians 2: 11-22; Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.

In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul – or whoever was writing in his name – is naming the divisions that existed between those who were circumcised, that is those of Jewish heritage, and those who weren’t. It’s a good reminder to us that divisions between people – whatever their basis, are nothing new. From the earliest days of the church, people formed tribal groupings, made something of their differences.

I’m interested this morning in exploring that metaphor about a dividing wall. A wall creates a substantial barrier. You can’t see through a wall. You may not be able to see over it. It muffles sound so that what you hear through it can easily be misinterpreted. You can’t be sure what’s happening on the other side of a wall. People might be happy or sad; angry or relaxed; frightened or frightening. So when we can’t see people who are the other side of the wall, we are left to imagine who they are and what they are like – and that gives plenty opportunity for our imaginations to run away with us.  In the imagination of certain people in power, a wall offers protection. We see that in Israel and in the last president of the United States. Walls that were erected to keep some people out, to pick off those who aren’t like us. And do those walls offer safety or do they threaten safety?

We know, and are constantly reminded, that people can be very wary of anyone who appears to be different from them. I don’t know whether we are hard wired in some way to look for difference, as a tool for self-protection. I guess that at a time in human evolution when people lived within their tribes with limited access to travel, anyone who arrived from elsewhere was potentially a threat. We now live in multi-cultural communities, with -at least in normal times – easy access to anywhere within our world. Is there perhaps some kind of an evolutionary hangover that we need to manage?

In the letter to the Ephesians, the divisions aren’t between people who look different, or who come from different places; they are divisions between the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. The epistle puts it this way: you are no longer strangers and aliens…
No longer strangers and aliens. No longer people who we can imagine are different from us. No longer people on the other side of a brick wall but people whose faces we can see; people who walk the same roads, have the same concerns and worship the same God. Once we begin to notice what we have in common, what is not in common becomes less significant, less dominant. Once we’re on the same side of the wall, we can hear one another; see one another; begin to understand one another.

That’s true within our society and it’s true of the churches – when we stop to listen to one another, to respect one another – we discover that there is little that divides us and much that unites us. And what about within our communities, and within our church communities. What is it that causes us to create divisions, to look for what we don’t recognise, rather than what is very familiar? This isn’t about popularity, or being friends with everyone; it’s about seeing the Christ in other people, recognising that which is sacred within them and hoping that they can recognise and encounter the sacred within us.

Our Gospel reading touches on that same theme – the disciples found that they were in demand not because of who they were, but because of the hope for transformation that they brought. So can we think for a moment about the walls that we erect, the barriers that we create that allow us to hide and prevent us from taking the risk of sharing that message of hope for transformation. Taking the risk is infinitely easier if we can see the person in front of us, can read their body language and gauge their response. We find it easier to reach out to the people who are in front of us, to take a tentative step towards them in the hope that they won’t step away.

We could all rehearse the excuses we use to maintain barriers – there are probably as many as there are people within this building. We all know what we ourselves do, the behaviours that we excuse in ourselves when we might not be quite so generous to others. And we also know that we are called to follow the Christ who not only made no differences between people, but in whom we are promised that place of reconciliation and healing and hope.

There is actually nothing we can do that changes the behaviour and attitudes of other people. Change can only begin with us. Reconciliation and healing begin with us. Risk taking begins with us. But what we discover is that when we can find ways to reach out; when we can find ways to be open to Christ in our lives, working with and through us, then there is the space for something to shift. The wall may not be down, but there may be a couple of missing bricks through which we can see and communicate. There may be some loose stones that we can remove in order to better make contact and listen. And listening is at the heart of what will eventually make a difference. When we listen to other people’s stories, when we hear about their journeys, when we honour them for who they are and how they are, then we are beginning to live that life of discipleship. Then we are beginning to lay the ground for mutual respect and sharing, for everyone concerned to learn and to grow.

 

As we listen to people’s stories, recognising the resonance with our own and perhaps finding ourselves fascinated by the differences, we begin to see that what each of us brings strengthens and enhances what the other brings. We begin to really see that collectively we are more than the sum of our parts. And then, and only then, can we honestly begin to be the Body of Christ. As the Body of Christ, we are able to move beyond hoping for transformation to acting on our longing for transformation. We are able to support one another to make small changes that collectively are noticeable. We are able to suggest and encourage and to dare to dream.

We might dream that one day the walls between us will be smashed; that one day we will have no need for places to hide, for artificial ways to imagine we are keeping ourselves safe – because we will let go of our fear. Our fear of the other. Fear of the stranger. Fear of the alien. In God there is no room for fear – God is love and we who know God know love. And love is the way, and the only way, to secure a future within which there are no strangers or aliens.

Pentecost 7. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley.

Ephesians 1: 3-14; Mark 6: 14-29

Egged on by her mother, Herodias, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist. And it was delivered to her on a plate. It really is a bit of an unsavoury story – personally, I would prefer not to conjure up too detailed an image of the head on the silver platter, it’s very easy to make oneself feel quite queasy. And the reward was given as a result of a young girl dancing for a group of men – our safeguarding team might have something to say about that. But the basic story appears not to be disputed – either within the Gospels or from contemporaneous writing. Josephus records as a matter of fact that John the Baptist was beheaded. Even for the bloodthirsty Roman society of the time, this isn’t an everyday story.

What was it about John that caused him to inspire such extreme emotions? Let’s try to unpick a little about who he was and how he managed to generate those reactions. This was about something more than a man who was a bit of a nuisance, or who was annoying, this was about someone who, for whatever reasons had become a threat; someone who had become a thorn in the flesh and who, at the same time, couldn’t just be dismissed out of hand.
We read today that Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man. Herod liked to listen to him. So Herod’s relationship with John was complex. He liked to listen to him, but he didn’t always like what he heard. The early Gospel reports of John describe him as rather an unkempt and unappealing character – sharing his truth regardless of what people thought.

John seems to have been one of those characters who simultaneously attracts and repels. And we can recognise those traits – there are people whom we have all come across who draw us into their message, who have a magnetic presence and yet who at the same time cause us to look for the nearest route to escape. Those complex responses may be because we would prefer not to hear whatever it is that the person has to say – either to us or to the wider world; perhaps because their method of delivery makes it difficult for us to accept what they are telling; perhaps because they are just someone who seems so different from us that we find it difficult to relate their message to our own day to day living and decision making.

And then there are those charismatic characters who draw us in but leave us feeling uncertain about whether or not to really trust what they are saying. Those people who have an attractive and compelling personality, who seem to be talking a lot of sense – at least in the beginning – but who somehow have a dangerous edge.

Today is St Benedict’s Day and that first century monk can perhaps help us to navigate a way through these tensions. Right at the beginning of his Rule, Benedict says: listen with the ear of your heart. He’s suggesting to his monks and followers that they listen in a holistic way. If we just listen with our ears and process in our heads, we have a partial engagement with what we’re hearing. If we listen with the ears of our hearts, we’re engaging with a process of deeper discernment, allowing ourselves to respond intellectually and emotionally and spiritually to whatever we come across.

So rather than having an immediate and perhaps impulsive response to being told that something is good – or not good – Benedict is encouraging us to pause, to take the time to consider what we’ve heard and to check out whether or not it is of God.  And that is really the test. Is this something from God, and therefore, even if it’s something that doesn’t appeal to me, something that it would be right to do or explore? Or is this something that appeals to me and might make me feel good, at least for a short time, but is contra to what I understand to be God’s will? And how on earth do we discern the difference between these things?

Herod did know something about discernment- we’ve noted that he knew that John was righteous and holy. I wonder how he knew that. We gather that kind of information from a wide lens kind of observation. We will often have a gut instinct about someone – for instance if we encounter someone whom we feel that we might not be able to trust. We might have a physical response to that person, maybe raised hairs or an increased heart rate, and we are likely to attend to those feelings, at the very least to be a bit wary.

One of the ways we discern the nature of other people is by observing their motivation for engaging, or not engaging, with other people. We might notice those people who appear to give selflessly.  People who put themselves out for neighbours or friends; people who, when we are having a rough time, are the ones who stick around and offer to help in ways that make a difference. People who are generous in their offers of hospitality, who are flexible and accommodating. These are traits that we find attractive and which resonate with our understanding of what God might be asking of us.

If we see people in action, if we experience their way of being in the world, then we are much more likely to be in a position to see – and to hear them – with the eyes and ears of our hearts. To be able to take that rounded view, to consider a range of information.

So coming back to John. He was a rather unusual character, but he doesn’t appear to have had any self centred or selfish ambition. He endured all sorts of hardship, didn’t make himself popular, spoke truth regardless of the response.
Herod was right to see him as a man of God. And when we encounter charismatic people – either in the flesh, or even on some kind of a screen, they may at first sight be a little unusual or even intimidating. They may dress differently or have unusual ideas about diet. What they have to say might be inspired by God – and we owe it to them and to ourselves to check that out.

Benedict might offer some help here – towards the end of his Rule he says this: No monastics are to pursue what they judge better for themselves but, instead, what they judge better for someone else. I think that it’s much easier for us to discern what might be better for someone else, simply because our personal desires don’t get in the way. So when we hear those challenging and potentially prophetic voices, let’s allow ourselves to measure their words and ideas against what might be better for other people. What might be better on a bigger stage. What might be better from a holistic perspective, trying to get past the clever words that can be so seductive and potentially destructive and finding ways to listen with the ears of our hearts.

We all sometimes need to be challenged; we all need to be encouraged to check out our decision making; we need to be reminded that we have a responsibility to others in all that we do. That’s an element of our Christian calling – that’s how we take seriously our promise to follow Jesus.

 

 

Pentecost 4 – Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley. 20th June 2021

Mark 4: 35-41

On that day, he said to them ‘Let us go across to the other side.’

Let us go across to the other side. The invitation is to set off on a journey to another place. That place may be somewhere we know, or it may be somewhere completely new. This morning’s story isn’t about the destination, or about what happens on arrival, it’s about making the journey. As communities around our world, we’re now making journeys – out of lockdowns and restricted living and towards a place that is the other side of pandemic. Not the other side of Covid 19, we now know that we will be living with the virus for the foreseeable future, but the other side of the pandemic situation that has enveloped our world for the past year and a half.

So what does the journey towards the other side of the pandemic look like for us as a church? If we can hear that invitation to get into the boat and go to the other side, what do we need to consider? What do we need to resource us? What can we anticipate? What kind of storms might we encounter?

Let’s think to begin with about where we’re setting off from. We find ourselves in a place that is simultaneously familiar and unsettling. The physical surroundings are more or less as we remember them, but things are different. For those of us who are within the Cathedral building, there are cameras on the pillars, reminding us that there is another part of our worshipping community that joins us in a different kind of way. For those joining us online – over the months what you have seen and heard has changed and developed. There are some obvious changes: we now have a full choir – albeit socially distanced. We are able to give communion to those who are in the building. We are also able to meet outside without our masks and see one another’s faces.

There are some changes we made a while ago that haven’t shifted. We’ve got used to staying in our seats when we share the Peace. We’re used to receiving bread only at Communion time – and for those online to watch as the celebrant receives on our behalf. We keep our distance from one another – shaking hands is a thing of the past.

As we reflect on today’s reality, we can see that we’re already in the boat, because it’s clear that we’re already journeying. We can’t have any certainty about what our destination will be like, although we might have some idea of what might be there. We might guess that it will be a space where we find ways to continue to worship together, to develop our community life together. My own view is that online worship is here to stay – interestingly I read this week that theological training colleges are going to add online worship into their curricula. So our destination will likely be a place where blended worship, forming a worshipping community when we’re not necessarily all in the same physical space, will be a feature.

One of the noticeable developments here over the past 18 months has been the use of our grounds by people within the local community. On sunny days, there are groups of people sitting and socialising – or just enjoying the opportunity to be outdoors in the warmth. Even on less inviting days, the lawns are used – not just by dog walkers, but also by people doing various forms of exercise.
We’re talking to choirs and dance classes about whether we can offer safe space for them to resume their activities. That increasing use of our outdoor space is an illustration of the way that we can be a resource within our city, and not just for those who come inside the building and engage with the acts of worship. From the beginning of next month, there will be a pop-up café on the south lawn. Another way to offer something, a way to invite people into the space that we have stewardship of; an invitation to come and share and use and enjoy that space. An invitation offered freely – an invitation offered out of our understanding of God’s freely given invitation to us.

And I guess some might say: that’s all very well and good, but what’s happening within the Cathedral – are we inviting people to join us, to worship with us, to become an active part of our community. We’re a church, not a public park. I think that the answer to that and similar questions lies in the question the disciples asked in that boat: who then is this? That’s the question that I would like the people who use our grounds and who wander into our buildings to ask.
Who then is this that inspires this community to behave in a generous and gracious way? Who then is this that people seek to follow? What are his ways and his truths? What might he be saying today?

We share the answers to those questions in a range of ways. We share the answers in what people experience when they encounter us – both as individuals and as spaces to encounter God. The film company that was in the Cathedral at the beginning of this month commented on more than one occasion on how well cared for they found this building. They understood that it matters to us to ensure that our buildings are properly maintained – not just because that’s a prudent thing to do, but because in doing so we say something about what they mean to us, what they say about the God in whose name they exist.

And that care and attention extends to the whole environment for which we have responsibility. It matters that the outside of our buildings says something about who we are. It matters that we have plants at the West End and grounds that are maintained.  We might think about our buildings – and the boat in this morning’s Gospel – as places of safety. Places to find security and comfort in the presence of Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t call us into safe and comfortable places for long. The journey of faith is a journey of challenge and exploration. It can be a journey that is risky. Our particular boat, this post-pandemic boat, has set sail but we don’t yet know what the other side is going to look like. What we do know is that we are being called into a space that is not quite the one we’re leaving. It may be very similar, it may be shockingly different – that’s not for us to know today. For today, we need to know that the boat is the place for us to be, that Jesus has asked us to go with him to the other side, and that there is no need to be afraid.

If we can find ways to see this as an adventure that we’ve embarked upon together, an opportunity to grow as individuals and as a community, an opportunity to respond to Jesus’ invitation to journey with him – who knows where we will find ourselves. And in making the journey, perhaps we can witness to the incarnate God who invites us to take a risk and to respond to his call.

Easter 5 – sermon preached online by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

From the first letter of John: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

Those who abide in love… not those who know love or who express love or who share love, but those who abide in love. To abide in love, to live in accordance with; perhaps to immerse oneself in; to shape and frame life and its decisions within. This isn’t about an expression of love as and when an emotion arises within us, it’s about making love central to who and how we are, making the outworking of our love for God central to the ways that we engage with other people.

And we do that in a whole range of ways. We express love for other people on an individual basis. That may be for a partner or children; our parents or siblings; our closest friends or extended family. I tend to think about a kind of spider’s web of connections and some of those bonds are very close and very tight and some of them are a bit looser and more distanced, but there is a collective forming of almost a bubble of care and support that is an expression of love and compassion.

There is almost nothing we wouldn’t do for the people we love most. When children are sick, parents will often express that they would willingly swap places and experience suffering themselves rather than finding themselves watching a child deal with pain and the challenges of ill health. People find that they are able to achieve things they never thought they could manage if the alternative is that a loved one is harmed in some way. So there are stories about people finding herculean strength for instance, or bravery that they had no idea they could access.

Moving out from that innermost circle of people whom we could name and with whom we tend to have reciprocal relationships, there are the many people we know a little, or perhaps don’t know at all but to whom we can offer a moment of kindness, a working out of God’s love, whether it’s named as such or not. We may express those acts of care on a 1:1 basis – helping out a neighbour, speaking to someone at the bus stop – or to a group of people. Listening with the Samaritans; cooking for homeless people; helping at the Food Bank. All are expressions of our love for God’s people, attempts to make a difference in the lives of people whom we don’t know.

The next step away from our inner circle of love is when we join with other people to express love and care. That may be a practical expression – working with a team to collect for Christian Aid week for instance or it may be at the level of trying to make a difference at a governmental or strategic level. Supporting campaigns for prisoners of conscience; taking the time to join with others to have a collective voice about something that matters. All ways of expressing our love for other people and our love for our Creator.

Within the Cathedral, we’ve been trying to develop ways of expressing something important about God’s love as we build partnerships with external agencies. One good example of that is Edinburgh Street Assist who are working out of the Walpole Hall two nights a week. They are teams of volunteers, some of whom are medics and paramedics; all of whom are trained in first aid and mental health first aid, and who take care of people in the city centre who have become incapacitated. They work with the police and the city council to offer non-judgemental and appropriate care and support to people who’ve got into difficulties.  They’ve told me that it’s important to them to be supported by us in prayer; it’s important for us that our space is used by groups that are seeking to make a difference for other people.

On a personal level, we know what makes a difference – whether or not we always do it – and we recognise expressions of love and care when they come our way. But our Cathedral isn’t just our gathered community, it’s also our buildings and land and the space that we occupy within our city. We occupy a large and imposing building and we’re blessed to have a considerable amount of land that surrounds it. Lots of people love and care for the building and the grounds in a range of ways. People volunteer to help look after our building; they see things that need to be done and just get on and do them. Volunteers ensure that are grounds are maintained and developed. And the building itself experiences random acts of kindness. Over the past few weeks, someone has been bringing in vases of fresh flowers. I’ve never seen the donor so far, but I have seen the gift they have left – and the colour and pleasure that those flowers bring.

A Cathedral, a building that is open every day of the week has a particular role within its wider community. We have a calling within our city, to offer space and hospitality, to witness to the love of God, and we evidence that in who we welcome and how we are able to offer that welcome. So a building that is obviously cared for; grounds that have been tended and thoughtfully planted; notices that give some idea of our ideals and direction of travel – all of that tells people that we have something here that matters to us, that is loved and cherished – and that we want to share. Because love isn’t something to hold to ourselves; it doesn’t flourish if we hide it away and try to protect it from the world out there. Love for one another, love for the places that are important to us, love for the risen Christ, love for the Creator God – love grows and flourishes when it’s given oxygen.

That verse from the letter of John: those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. As that is true for individuals and the important people in their lives, it is also true for significant places in our lives. People talk about loving their homes; loving particular holiday destinations; loving favourite places to walk or picnic or whatever.  And many people love this Cathedral. As we find ways to point towards the love that is bestowed upon our building, we are pointing towards the love that we experience for and from God. This isn’t an optional extra, it’s a fundamental responsibility. We come into this place knowing that we are loved by God. Week by week we say, ‘we love because God loved us first’. God loved us first and we then have a responsibility to create an environment within which that love can flourish, an environment within which our wider community can know that each one of God’s people is loved equally.

Love is at the heart of our story and our witness. Love abides within our Cathedral and its external space, love that is of God and points to God. As we were reminded at the end of our reading: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.  Our mission as a Cathedral community and building is to witness to that love and in so doing to witness to the love of God in our midst.

 

Easter 3 sermon preached online by the Vice Provost. 18th April 2021

1 John 3: 1-7; Luke 24: 13-35

We catch up this morning with those two disciples as they trudge along on the road to Emmaus. It seems easy to relate to how they are feeling – perhaps especially this year which does feel like a year that we’ve trudged through, waiting for something to emerge that will be a gamechanger. And for us, that is happening; we’re seeing the signs of new life. Life is beginning to open up and we can begin to look a little bit further ahead than the very immediate future.

The disciples though weren’t looking ahead to better times, they were completely caught up in the moment. In many ways they were blinkered; their ability to see what was going on around them was limited by the fact that their focus was turned inward, on their own pain and confusion. Many of us know that feeling too – we know that recent bereavement leaves us feeling that our world has narrowed; leaves us with the feeling that whatever is going on out there is little to do with us today, because today all we can manage is to keep breathing and to struggle our way through the essential tasks, put one foot in front of the other in the hope that we will be able to just keep going.  But we also know that however overwhelming those feelings are, they will pass. We know that bereavement is a process and a journey that has to be travelled.

And then their eyes were opened and they saw. Their eyes were opened, the energy shifted and their focus switched from that place of confusion and darkness to somewhere that had light and hope and gave them a focussed direction of travel.

There have been two reasons this week for my gaze to have shifted. The first happened in this building. The playwright, Jo Clifford, wrote and acted 5 chapters of material that were offered under the heading ‘a space to bless’. She took us over the course of the week on a journey through the story of this Cathedral and into a theology of inclusion that didn’t shy away from addressing questions such as oppression and discrimination, personal greed and political power.
Jo explored the journey from darkness into light – the darkness of the 19th century world that surrounded this land when this extraordinary and life giving building was constructed.

Jo helped me to see parts of this building in a new way. Helped me to see her struggles and challenges in a new way. Helped me to see my own struggles and challenges in a new way.
And that means that her material was good theology. It challenged and disturbed; it said something profound that, as soon as I heard it, I knew to be true. It made me laugh and cry; and it left me with something to ponder. If you missed the livestream, the link is in the weekly notices and also on our FaceBook page and I thoroughly recommend watching them.

The second reason for my gaze to shift this week came in the form of a conference, links to which you’ll also find in the notices and on our FaceBook page.

The provincial liturgy committee gave its support to an online conference, Responding to the Sacred, that opened up some of the conversations about language and liturgy, conversations about gender and inclusion about the nature of humanity and the nature of God.

The conference organisers started out with an idea that they wanted to explore questions to do with gendered language. It quickly became apparent that to have a focus on male/ female language was too narrow. It became clear, even in the planning stages, that as soon as we talk about inclusion, as soon as we begin to talk about pushing the boundaries of what we might understand of the nature of God, we’re talking about something that is very much more than a male/female binary. What happens is that we are taken into that territory that Jo Clifford explored during the course of the week; territory that allows us to name some of the injustice, to look at internalised prejudice, to begin to name the sources of darkness.

And naming the sources of our darkness is a necessary step on the journey towards recognising the sources of light. Those disciples on the Emmaus Road were locked into their place of deep darkness. They were experiencing the despair and despondency that was inevitable after what they had witnessed and lived through. They were on that journey through grief that helped to shape them and enabled them to grow into the people they eventually became.
Darkness and light isn’t a binary any more than male female, gay straight or whatever. There is a continuum from absolute darkness to overwhelming light. Going directly from one to the other can be disorientating or even painful. There’s a need for a time of transition. A process of movement from one place to another.

The journey that those disciples took allowed them to go on a transitional journey. They were in one place and it took them a little time to recognise that there was a different place to inhabit, a different way to perceive.

As our church begins to think more deeply about how we share our faith and our experiences of God; how we convey, in words and music and imagery and texture and light, that we want to be more overtly inclusive, that we want to welcome people as they are and regardless of who they are, that we want to participate in the discourse about climate change and stewardship of land, that we want to be relevant, then we need to journey.
All of the evidence would suggest that we’re not there yet. We have intentions and aspirations, but we don’t always know how to communicate all of that very well. We can be rather good within the church at imagining people know what we mean, when we haven’t found a way to tell that they can hear.

One of the gifts of liturgy and of the creative arts is that they resonate for us in more ways than what we hear. They use all of our senses – open up the space within which we might encounter God. That opening up of space allows us to be a little bit like those disciples, to go on a transitional journey towards a place where we perceive differently.

I want to end with the words of blessing that Jo Clifford used each day:

Bless us in our confusion and distress.
Bless us as we try to make sense of things.
Bless everyone trying to shine their light.
Everyone trying to make this world a better place….
Bless us when we’re happy
Bless us when we’re sad
Bless us when we’re frozen in terror
Remind us we are not alone
We never were
We never are
We never shall be
For he is she
And she is he
And we are they
And they are we
And shall be for ever and ever
Amen.

 

 

Lent 3. Sermon preached online by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley.

 

Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25; John 2: 13-22

Last week, the Provost explored the question of who is this Jesus who calls us to take up our Cross and follow him. Who is this character whom Peter identifies as the Messiah? Today, I want to explore a complementary question: who is the man Jesus? What can we learn about the flesh and blood person who walked the streets of Jerusalem in the first century?

Our lectionary takes us to John’s Gospel, to Jesus travelling up to Jerusalem for the Passover. This story comes at a different place in John’s Gospel from the other three where it is much later in the story. But note that the reason for the journey is to celebrate the Passover – a festival that will be celebrated again during Holy Week, with a different context and outcome.

So the first point to note about the man we’re concerned with is that he is an observant Jew. He’s travelling to Jerusalem to observe the festival – and we know that at Passover, one of the most important festivals in the Jewish calendar, the population of Jerusalem exploded.
It was the place to be if that was at all possible. I guess it was a bit like Edinburgh at the height of the Festival – streets so busy that it’s difficult to get anywhere; umpteen languages being spoken; every possible place to stay filled, if not over filled. So Jesus was part of that throng. But he wasn’t just along for the social contact. He may have been going somewhere particular for the Seder meal, but that wasn’t his first destination. He got to Jerusalem and headed for the temple. The first thing we learn is that this man is serious about the practice of his religion. There are requirements for those making Passover preparations, and he’s on his way to carry them out.

Jesus arrives at the Temple and is shocked and angry by the scene that he encounters. Things aren’t as they should be – the merchants and money changers have gradually taken over the space in a way that suits them, rather than the environment they’re in – and they’ve made it into a market place for their own ends. It’s a scene of exploitation and greed that Jesus is very quick to challenge.

So the next thing we learn about Jesus is that he is on the side of justice. He sees that there is a very particular set up here, that the most devout people in the community are being financially abused by people out to make a quick buck. I always imagine that the Temple marketplace has become a magnet for vendors – that they travel from all sorts of places to sell their wares, or to act as money changers; that it’s a haven for people who want to make money and don’t have too many scruples about how they do that. We don’t know who these traders are or how far they have travelled. We know nothing about their religious affiliation. What we do know is that they have seen an opportunity to line their own pockets and that Jesus has called them out on it.

And how he called them out. This wasn’t a time for gentle negotiation or the art of persuasion. This was a full on challenge made with authority. How dare you? No ifs, no buts, just stop right now.

So who is this Jesus? He’s someone who takes his religion seriously and, as a result, is willing to speak out for the sake of justice.
A religiously observant man. Note that we’re not talking here about piety – in fact Jesus routinely challenges false piety. We’re talking about religious observance, about engaging with the major festivals, recognising those markers within the year. Doing what is required in order to be in a right relationship with God. This is the embodied Jesus, living as we live, faced with decisions and challenges as we are, setting priorities and living by example.

And his starting place is his life of prayer. This is the man whose way of being in the world is our model for how we might live our lives. And if we are to take seriously the Lenten injunction to ‘take up your cross and follow’, this is the fully human Jesus whom we’re called to follow.

I was reading a Twitter thread the other day that began by noting that people outwith the churches are inclined to describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. And the question was, what does it mean to be religious but not spiritual. In other words, what does it mean to be observant of religious practices without actively engaging in a relationship with God? It’s perfectly possible to keep the outward manifestations of religious life without any of the accompanying internal movement towards living differently. And I wonder how much of the tension within our churches emerges from just such behaviours. It’s easy to focus on ‘doing it right’ and to shy away from ‘living it right’.

We can see that for Jesus, being religiously observant was about much more than keeping the rules. His religious observance and spiritual engagement led directly to his challenge to the traders and money changers; his anger came from an understanding of the injustice of their practices. His actions were integrated – evidencing that he was showing how to be both religious and spiritual; that it is both possible and highly desirable to embrace both.

What then does that mean for those of us who want to respond to the command to take up your cross and follow? Can we find ways to ensure that we are both religious and spiritual, and in so doing find ways to integrate the two so that our actions are informed by our prayer, and our prayer is informed by our action.
One starting place might be to allow ourselves to get angry. We’re bombarded with imagery of injustice in all sorts of places within our world. We know that there are serious inequalities; that some people are exploited and others reap the rewards. These are matters that we regularly bring to God in prayer. And that is half of the equation. The other side is to work out how and where we might channel that anger. How and where we might put our energies in order to begin to have an impact.

None of us can take on every injustice or worthy cause within our world. But each of us will recognise that there are some issues that, for us, are more important or more distressing or more urgent. There isn’t necessarily a hierarchy of things that it would be good to concern oneself with. There is however, a Gospel imperative to concern ourselves with something.
There’s a reminder of that in the reading from the letter to the Corinthians: we proclaim Christ crucified. In so proclaiming, we are making an implicit commitment to respond to that crucifixion, to count ourselves amongst those who have been changed by the incarnate Jesus and the crucified Christ.
There are plenty of opportunities in our lives to challenge what we see and know to be wrong, to be abusive, to be exploitative. It takes courage and it takes energy – and it may not make us popular. But it is one way to evidence that we have indeed sought and picked up a cross.

 

 

 

 

Lent 1. Sermon preached online by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

God said to Noah, I am establishing my covenant with you and with every living creature that is with you.

We all know the fundamentals of the story of Noah and the ark. Most of us know children’s songs about the animals happily trotting along, 2 by 2. We know that most major civilisations have a flood story as part of their shared history. There are lots of artistic depictions of the ark and its inhabitants – mostly quite clean and sanitised and attractive. There are a few paintings that depict the ferocity of the winds and the storm and the chaos that was caused, but you have to look for them. What we tend to focus on is the safety of the ark; the commandment to Noah that ensured the future of life on the planet – and then the sign of hope in the form of the rainbow.

This year, in particular, we are desperate to find signs of hope. We’re not needing any more bad news stories; we’re not needing to be reminded that all is not right in our world. People are feeling that this isn’t the year to actively seek out Lenten penance – we’ve all done penance for many months and what we need more than anything is some respite.
We need to find our ark, to find a place that feels safe and secure and where we can trust, really trust, that there is a better future ahead. You don’t need me to rehearse the signs of hope that are around, but I wonder whether together we can move on from just observing those signs of hope to acting out of a place of hope, finding the ways that each one of us can make a difference.

God made a covenant with Noah that was for every living creature that was with him on the ark. God didn’t single out humankind to be saved from the flood – we’re told that God took care of the whole of the creation, that every kind of living thing – mammals, fish, insects, reptiles – every living thing was included in that covenant.

Tomorrow marks the start of Fairtrade Fortnight, a time in the year when we would normally have an exhibition and an extended fair trade stall and an input to act as a reminder that by buying fair trade goods, we’re supporting some of the poorest communities in our world, and that in doing so, we’re supporting all that lives within our world.

One impact of both the pandemic and, indeed, of Brexit is that we’ve become more aware of the source of what we buy. We’ve perhaps become more aware of the goods that are imported, often air freighted in to satisfy the demands of the Western shopper. We’ve also become more aware of the pressures on more local food producers, the impact of regulations, not just on the fishing industry in Scotland but on other food producers.

The fact that more or less the only thing we’re allowed to do is to go for a walk, has perhaps meant that we’ve become more attuned to the changes in our natural world, more aware of the changing of the seasons and the cycles of life that surround us. These past couple of weeks where it was difficult to go out at all have reminded us that our climate isn’t stable or unchanging, that across the world people are living with unusual meteorological activity. In some places, the changes in weather patterns have led to loss of life, in others loss of livelihoods.

In the most unstable parts of our world, the impact has been on whole communities and tribes that have been forced off their ancestral lands because they’re no longer able to sustain them, with the result that more people are trying to live on smaller areas of fertile land – with the inevitable conflicts that result.

So in the midst of all of that depressing knowledge, in the midst of the reminders that we all need to make changes in order to make a difference; in the midst of all of that – with which we are frankly often bombarded – where can we find that place of safety, where is the ladder that will take us onto the ark, take us to that place of shelter where we can rest, even for a moment, and be reminded of God’s covenant with Noah.

The Gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent sees Jesus driven into the wilderness for 40 days. Mark tells us that he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.

We might think of the wilderness as a scary place, somewhere that isn’t a natural habitat for human beings, somewhere to be cautious, where we might not survive. But there is no hint of that. In fact, quite the opposite – Mark tells us that the angels waited on Jesus. I read that to mean that his needs were met; that he knew himself to be safe and secure. That this was a breathing space before he went out and began his public ministry.

In contrast to our thinking about the wilderness, we may think of the ark as a safe space, a place of refuge, but just remember the environment that it was within – how safe would any seafaring vessel feel in those circumstances? The sanitised children’s story doesn’t do justice to the frightening picture that the whole story portrays.

Within big pictures that are terrifying, both the wilderness and the ark are portrayed this week as safe havens, places where it’s possible to get away from whatever is scary in the world around us. And how desperate we all are to get away from that which has frightened us for so many months.
We might not be able to think of an ark that we can readily clamber aboard, but we may well be able to think about a wilderness place that offers a similar sense of sanctuary in the days and weeks ahead. A space to pause and to allow the angels to wait on us.

In normal times, I might have been suggesting that coming into the Cathedral on a weekday would offer just that space. But that’s not an option. However, that doesn’t mean that there are no options. One of the lessons of the pandemic has been that we have found new ways to encounter God wherever we are. We’re simply talking here about taking advantage of the safe spaces that already exist – the arks and the wilderness places that God offers to us.

Once there, perhaps we can take a little time to reflect on the good lessons of these months; to remember the shifts there have been in understanding of our global connectedness. And from that place to consider our intentions going forward; to be aware of the wild beasts and to be aware of the angels. To renew a covenant with our God, a covenant that honours you and me and all of God’s created world.

Epiphany 3. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost at Palmerston Place Church for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

A couple of days before Christmas I had an unwelcome phone call. It transpired that I’d been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid 19. The question was: are you at home? When I said yes, the response was: then stay there. No last trip to the supermarket; no last gasp of fresh air. Stay put for 10 days. We’re usually encouraged to plan ahead, to be prepared for at least the next few days, and to be self-sufficient wherever possible. And none of that was possible in that moment. With the answering of a phone call, everything changed.

This morning’s Gospel reading is about lives that were suddenly changed. There’s a simple word that’s repeated that is perhaps easy to overlook. Immediately. Jesus called Simon and Andrew and immediately they left their nets. And then he saw James and John and immediately he called them. We’re in Mark’s gospel which moves at a cracking pace and that movement is right at the heart of this reading. You can imagine an almost breathless reading of this passage – before we’ve processed one piece of information, the next is in front of us.
Jesus appears in people’s lives and there is an instant reaction, a response without hesitation. Whatever plans might have been around are simply yesterday’s news – and the focus and direction of travel have changed. That immediacy, that engagement without looking back to think, bypasses any cognitive reflection; there’s no time for that. This is the situation, and this is where your focus needs to be. There will be time to reflect and process later, but today’s task is just to act.

Over the past year all of our lives have changed more than once with very little notice. Lockdowns are understandably announced with almost no advance notice, no time for one last encounter that might be the vector for a new infection. The instructions are that we are asked to behave differently with immediate effect; to make sacrifices without any soul searching because that is what our society needs us to do.

We’re used to having more agency over our lives than that. I suspect that Simon and Andrew and James and John were used to having more agency over their lives, but the call was compelling, and they went. And, of course for us, the call to keep the rules, to make the necessary sacrifices is compelling. It’s the right thing to do.

The week of prayer for Christian Unity began in 1908 and is marked with varying degrees of enthusiasm by churches across the world. In our two congregations, it’s one of those dates that is in the diary as a standing item, a date that we don’t have to consider whether or not to engage with – we just do it. Not because it’s something we don’t want to think about, but because we know it’s the right thing to do; it’s one of the ways that we respond to the call of Jesus. And for us this week, that call centres on a reminder that we have far more in common than that which separates us. We may have different expressions of worship, different hymns and ways of praying – but they are all to the same end. They are all of no consequence in themselves but have a value because they are about our relationships with God, our desire to respond.

Many of us were very moved by the inauguration of Joe Biden and, in particular, by the poem that was written and read by Amanda Gorman. I want to quote just a few lines from that poem:

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.

In a world that has been fractured in many different ways and on different continents, the need for a clear message of hope, a message that emphasises common goals not divisions, has never been stronger.
That need for harmony was expressed visually at Biden’s inauguration. The significant women all wore purple as an expression of the coming together of red and blue, the need for discourse rather than disruption. Our communities need us to convey that message. Our local communities need us to witness to the new life that will surely emerge. Our communities need us to model a way of being church, a way of being active members of the community, a way of creating space to heal, space to grieve. And there is no better way to witness to that than to stand together; to speak together; to have a common message and invitation.

I was delighted during the last lockdown, during the time when we were able to have our building open for personal prayer, that some members of Palmerston Place Church volunteered to welcome visitors into the Cathedral. It became apparent that there was a real appetite for people to venture in and to take a moment in whatever way was best for them. Many people lit a candle; some wrote in the book of condolences; some added to our prayer tree and some prayed as they walked the labyrinth.

What was important was that together we were able to offer that hospitality, to be a place where ‘even as we hurt we hoped’. One day, our lives will change again. One day we will be allowed to mix with family and friends.
One day we will be allowed to meet in our church buildings, to see people’s faces, to go to the theatre or the cinema or on holiday. One day. However, I suspect that when that day comes, many of us will be cautious. Many of us will find it hard to revert to our previous patterns of life, to what we once called normal. And I guess that most of us will find a way to something that is a new normal. We’ll work out what is most important to us, where we want to spend our time and our energy.

Simon and Andrew, James and John, left their boats and stepped into a life that became their new normal. They trusted Jesus enough to choose to invest their time and energy in following him. As we live with hurt and look forward in hope, this morning is a reminder that we may not know the shape and form of the new normal, but that we do know that when the time is right, Jesus will call us there. And I hope that we won’t hesitate, that we will follow.
We know that by working together, journeying together, we are strengthened, our witness is more significant, our message is clearer.

We’re not the same, those disciples weren’t all the same, but they were able to come together and to model something new. That’s the opportunity that is available to us if we are only able to find ways to work together and to simply turn our faces in the direction of the call and respond.

Epiphany Sunday. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

How many Magi were there? Look at our Crib in front of the altar and there are 3. Look at some of the Christmas cards you received or sent and you’ll find 3. Go to a Syriac church and there may be as many as 12. The Magi only appear in Matthew’s Gospel and if you look carefully at the text you’ll see that he actually doesn’t tell us how many there are. The traditional 3 is based on the assumption that one person brought each of the three gifts. Look again at those cards or other depictions and you’ll see that they’re all men. But there’s no reason to make that assumption either. All that we’re actually told in the story is that some visitors came from the East bearing gifts.

So let’s think about who they were and why we’re hearing about them at all. This morning’s Gospel gives us the scene where Matthew begins to lay the groundwork for what is to come. The visitors arrive with their symbolic gifts and, in so doing, tell us something about the child in front of them. They tell us who he is and, in the manner of a good whodunnit, lay clues for the reader to unpack.
So when that sign is written over the Cross on Good Friday, there’s an echo of something that we came across right at the beginning of the story.

The Magi represent people who aren’t the primary audience for this Gospel. It’s generally assumed that Matthew was writing for a community of Jewish converts – people who would know the Hebrew Scriptures but who would now count themselves amongst those who followed Jesus Christ and knew him as Messiah. So, for those early readers of Matthew, the Magi are, first and foremost, people who are not like them. People who perhaps looked a bit different; maybe they had different cultural norms; different ways of dressing; different accents or turns of phrase. Right at the start of his Gospel, in the opening chapters, Matthew is forcing his readers to look at the stranger, at the person they may have made all sorts of assumptions about. And he puts that stranger right at the centre of the good news, right at the heart of the revelation that this baby was going to change the face of history, was going to change the story of humankind.

Last week we read Luke’s Gospel and the revelation to the faithful – to Anna and Simeon. Matthew doesn’t tell that story, his revelation is to those who hadn’t spent their lives waiting and praying, to those who were seen as other.

Let’s think a bit about who the Magi might represent for us, who they tell us something about in contemporary society. Think again about those Christmas cards and one of the things you might see is that the Magi aren’t all white skinned. There may well be black and brown faces, faces that don’t look like the Holy Family in most depictions of the nativity and don’t look like the shepherds and angels either. Look at their clothing – no everyday tunics for them but rich colourful robes, jewels and baubles. These are people who’ve journeyed, people who appear to be a bit exotic. They’re different from Matthew’s audience, but they’re also different from one another. If we were writing the story for a 21st century audience, how would we portray them? Would they be intrepid explorers or asylum seekers? Students on a gap year or members of a cult? Scientists or artists? Or all of these?
What they are actually representing for us is diversity. They tell us not just that the Good News is also for the Gentiles, they tell us that the Good News is for all people whatever they look like, however they sound, whatever they wear, whatever their education. The Good News doesn’t discriminate. The visit of the Magi is a clear indication that the Incarnation isn’t just for the existing members of a community, or for those who have dedicated their lives to seeking and waiting. The Incarnation is for all of humanity in all of its shapes and sizes. It’s for the people who look and behave like us – and for those who don’t. Not only is the Incarnation for those who are very different from us they’re not even required to become like us. They are simply required to be themselves.

Within the church, that’s something that can come as a bit of a shock. We understand the concept of being open and welcoming to everyone who comes through our doors, and we try very hard to manage that. We want people to feel comfortable. But whether we want some of those people to stay just the way they are is altogether a different question.

What most of us usually want is to feel comfortable and to feel that we fit in – one of the reasons we find people who are different from us difficult is because we ourselves want to fit in, want to feel that we belong. We make all sorts of judgements on a daily basis to help us achieve that goal. We choose where we shop, where we go on holiday, where we go for a night out (when that’s allowed) according to an internal compass that helps us work out where we will feel most comfortable, where we fit. Effectively, we create a comfort zone for ourselves.

In normal times, Christmas is a comfort zone time of the year. We have our family routines and traditions that help us to celebrate the joy of the Incarnation. This year hasn’t been like that and I wonder how many of us have been able to find that comfort zone, to filter out, even for a few hours, the international crisis that is our context. In the midst of all of that, St Matthew’s Magi have a message that may be more important this year than in previous years. The Magi are a reminder that whoever we are, whatever our situation, our context, our challenges, the Incarnation is for us.
Wherever we’ve come from – either physically or metaphorically – and wherever we’re journeying to, the Christ child is here in our midst and sharing our lives. Whatever our spiritual lives have been like over the past year, whether we’ve worshipped in church or on-line; whether we’ve been faithful in prayer or distracted by anxiety; whether we’ve kept the good intentions that we had when we began the year… all of that is less important than the clear message that God knows us and accepts us just as we are.

That doesn’t mean that we can sit back and do nothing. What the Magi did was they turned up. And what God asks of us is that we turn up. Turn up for the quiet few minutes of prayer; turn up for the worship that is accessed through your computer; turn up for the time you allocated to read or listen to music or meditate or whatever you find most helpful. But do it – make the journey that you need to make. The Incarnate Christ is here for you and for me – for the people like us and the people we struggle to comprehend. Gift or no gift, all are welcome.

 

 

 

Advent 4 – Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee. Gabriel had been rather busy, he’s a pretty significant character in Luke’s telling of the story. In the previous section of this chapter of Luke, we read about Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah and Elizabeth, bringing them news about an impending birth and giving them an instruction about the naming of their child. And here he is again, bringing news about another, even more significant birth.

Traditionally, angels are messengers, messengers from God – arriving without any warning and often bringing unexpected news. Gabriel came with very personal messages – he wasn’t broadcasting to a community, or sharing general information. His messages were targeted and precise. And they took the recipients by complete surprise. The surprise doesn’t seem to have been about the physical being of Gabriel, however that manifested, but about what he had to say. We’re not told that Mary was perplexed by his presence, but by his words. She pondered what kind of greeting this might be. So Luke is clearly telling us that this is about listening, rather than about seeing.
It’s not for me to speculate, perhaps, but I suspect that most of us won’t experience a visit from Gabriel – but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have a message for us. So how do we hear what God has to say to each one of us? Where is that angelic voice for those of us who won’t go down in history, or Scripture, but who are still called by God to listen and to respond.

God communicates with us in all sorts of ways – through Holy Scripture, through the ordinary, everyday people we encounter, through the arts – poetry, painting, music. Thinking about the content that Gabriel communicated, he brought one clear message. It wasn’t complicated; it didn’t need preparation or anything to be worked out before something happened. He came and said: this is the situation – and this is what God requires of you. When we think about hearing God’s word for us, we can often be looking or hoping for a plan – for an idea of what might happen several steps down the road. We’re often hoping for a big word, a significant message. We want to look into the future, to imagine where we might be in a few years time.
But look back at Luke’s gospel and what we see is that all that was imparted was one single piece of information and, of course, what followed was life changing – and, indeed, world changing, but the future wasn’t laid out, just the next step was articulated. At the heart of the response to the angel is an ability to trust, to be obedient – and to have the courage to stick with that regardless of how improbable things appear to be.

God’s word for us may come in many forms. It seems obvious to say that might be in the context of worship and prayer. That could be during a service, whether in person or online, or in personal prayer time. There are things we can do to make it more likely, to create a space for ourselves that is more open, more receptive. For instance, if we’re in church, we stand for the Gospel reading. One of the reasons to do that is that we’re doing something different with our bodies – we make a movement that takes us into a different physical space, and by doing so we’re automatically shifting our attention. When we stand we breathe differently, our bodies are more open, and that may mean that our attention is also more open.
And what we’re standing to do is to listen. The words may be in front of you, but the core task is to listen. Listen for a word or a phrase that resonates. Listen for the moment when something internal shifts. Listen for what is sometimes called the movement of the Spirit.

Our liturgy, the framework within which the service is shaped and formed, includes very many words. Those words can wash over you – and sometimes that’s what we need them to do. At other times, there may be a word or a phrase that is just the thing you need to hear today. It may be a phrase you have heard hundreds of times; it may be a newly written prayer that suddenly catches your attention. The temptation is to rationalise and to see those moments as interesting, to catch them cognitively and then move on to the next thing. I’m suggesting that you allow yourself to see them as significant. As angel moments when a message is perhaps being brought to you.

Of course, angel moments don’t only happen in church. Angelic voices come to us in all sorts of situations – and almost always when we least expect them. I’m not thinking here about what we often describe as angelic acts, however important they are, but about messages. About the thing someone says – whether or not it’s someone you know – that just lodges in your mind and begins to bother you. That thought or suggestion or thing you read that doesn’t go away. The nudge that can feel a bit like a scab that demands attention.

We can have angelic message moments when we engage with the arts – one of the great losses for our world over the past 10 months has been the silencing of arts performances, and the limited access there has been to galleries and exhibitions. The line of a poem or the phrase in an aria; the emotional response to a piece of music or a painting. These are the moments that we rush from to our own detriment. These are the moments that have the potential to open things up, rather than shut them down. And they may well be moments that touch into something that we would rather not know or hear.
Making ourselves open to those angelic voices doesn’t necessarily come easily to us. Making ourselves more open is a bodily thing as well as a listening thing. We’re more receptive when we listen with our whole selves, when we pay attention with our whole selves.

We may well know that if we act on what we have heard or felt, something will shift. And that may feel scary; that may feel dangerous or counter cultural. We may wonder about how we would be perceived; whether people we know would think differently about us; whether we would suddenly be labelled in a way that was uncomfortable.

Look at how Zechariah and Mary responded. Neither of them took the easy option. They each had the confidence and the courage to say yes. To go with what was happening and to trust that wherever it took them, they were doing God’s will.

What does it then need for us to find the courage to say yes. Having recognised a message that could perhaps be from God, we’re still left with a choice.
That choice may be easier when we remind ourselves that we’re not breaking new ground; we’re simply following in the footsteps of those who have heard and responded in the past. And the two examples we have in Luke’s gospel are of very different people – an older man and a young woman. Those two examples perhaps give us the confidence to dare to believe that it could be us that God needs; it could be us who have been given a message and have the choice about whether or not to respond. It could be us who are called by God to have courage and to take a risk.

May we have the strength to make ourselves open to hearing and trusting – and then to acting.