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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epiphany 8. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley – 28th February 2022

Exodus 34: 29-35; 2 Corinthians 3: 12-4.2; Luke 9: 28-36

 

This already feels like it’s been a long year. Unprecendented times have been surpassed by even more unprecedented times and it’s still only February.
A later Easter has given us a few weeks post-Christmas when life, at least in church, has felt relatively settled and there’s been a bit of time to breathe and plan ahead. There’s a kind of balance within these weeks of Epiphany that allows us to hold onto our reflections on the miracle of the Incarnation for a little longer before our gaze turns towards the final chapters of the story.

So this morning we find ourselves transported up a mountain, with Jesus and three of his disciples, where we witness the Transfiguration – that moment when the fully human Jesus bridges the gap between heaven and earth and we’re reminded that he is also fully God.

Transfiguration is defined in a dictionary as a ‘complete change of form or appearance’; a change of form or appearance but, importantly, not of substance.

The story of the Transfiguration is the perfect illustration of the place we find ourselves in at this moment in the liturgical year. We may have moved on from the child in the manger, the infant Jesus with his parents who are trying to make sense of what has happened. We perhaps feel that we’ve not had quite long enough to engage with the stories about the adult Jesus, the word made flesh who has come to dwell among us. And yet, our liturgical year moves on, just as the lives of Mary and Joseph and their baby son moved on. The moving on forces us to hold in tension the fully human child with the emerging revelation of the divinity of the man.

And today, this reading, this moment in the story, allows us to glimpse that liminal place that the three disciples found themselves inhabiting. This was the man who they were living with and learning from and giving their loyalty and commitment to. They knew him as a fully functioning human friend and teacher and mentor. They knew that he was special, they knew that he was unlike any prophet they had encountered, and now, in this moment they were confronted with the absolute truth of his being.
This is my Son. The story takes us to the heart of our faith – draws us into a picture that makes a direct connection between heaven and earth, a picture that is simultaneously shocking and exhilarating.

So let’s take a moment to imagine ourselves to be there, to be first hand observers of this extraordinary scene. Let’s think about the high place taking us into the clouds, towards the heavens above. And let’s imagine those three disciples, perhaps a bit out of breath after the climb, perhaps wondering what was about to happen now. And then their senses were assaulted.

If we now imagine ourselves into the picture, imagine that we had scrambled our way up the mountain, imagine our senses being overwhelmed – can we then take just a moment to pause, to catch our breath and to allow ourselves to respond. Not to tell or to share or to question but to respond from somewhere within ourselves. To allow our embodied selves to respond to the embodied God who is there on that mountain, showing himself to his disciples, and showing himself to us.

Encountering and engaging with the embodied God who reaches out to us is, hopefully, life changing for us – but what God asks of us doesn’t stop there. We may be transformed and transfixed but we’re also called, as Christians, to respond. The disciples had their breath taken away, and then they started to look around to find something to do, some way to indicate the enormity of what they were seeing, to make a response, however inadequate.

However we find ourselves encountering God – whether that encounter is high up a mountain or in the embodied lives we journey alongside, whether we find that our senses are assaulted or we glimpse a fleeting presence out of the corner of our eye, we are called to respond. As twenty first century disciples, our response must be contextual, must be a response to the world within which we live and work and have our being.

And we find ourselves in a world that challenges every fibre of our being. This is not what any one of us would wish for our world – we weep with and for the people of Ukraine, and we hold them in prayer.  As a church, we’re in that place of balance between the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. We hold the tension of the story of our faith in the frame of the rich imagery of the Transfiguration. As a Cathedral, we inhabit a building that draws our eyes towards that place that is beyond our comprehension whilst at the same time offering a moment of sanctuary and peace, an opportunity to pause, to light a candle, to pray. And that is what numerous people have done over recent days. Our prayer station for Ukraine has burned bright and strong, reflecting the prayers of the people who have found their way into this building.

Faced with the unimaginable, those who believe and those who want to believe find themselves doing the one thing that seems to make sense, we pray. We pray to and with the transcendent God whom we might picture at the top of the high mountains, shrouded by cloud, but powerfully present. We turn our eyes towards the heavens, reminding ourselves that the unfurling situation in Europe is not all that is – that our God is bigger and brighter and stronger – and that our hope is grounded in and with the Divine.

And at the same time we turn our eyes towards our sisters and brothers – here, in Ukraine and in the most affected parts of our world. We turn our eyes towards the unspeakable events; we try to find ways to continue to look, because however painful it is for us to look from this distance, we can only imagine the pain of looking from within the conflict zones.   We turn our eyes and we ask God for the strength and the courage to continue to face the outworking of evil that confronts us. And as we do so, we remind ourselves that the Incarnate Christ is there in the midst of that suffering and pain. That the incarnation is about the fully human God getting alongside – alongside those who flee to a place of safety; alongside those who pick up arms to fight for their land; alongside those learning how to make Molotov cocktails; alongside those who can only watch and weep.

With the Incarnate Christ; with our transcendent God, with the people of Ukraine and those who pray across our world, we do the thing we can do. We pray.

Let us pray- with people across Scotland, using words written by the Scottish Churches Leaders’ Forum:

Living God,
Creator and giver of life to all people:
We ask that you would hear our prayer for peace amongst the nations
And for ending of conflict in Ukraine.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Living God,
Who shall judge between the nations:
We ask that that you would lead the nations in the paths of peace
And that the dividing wall of hostility would be broken down.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Living God,
Who has inspired faith across the ages:
Grant peace in the midst of war
And bring harmony to the commonwealth of nations.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Living God,
Who gave his only Son that we might have life:
We ask that you would pour out your Holy Spirit
And inspire in us hope that peace will be renewed.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

 

Epiphany 6. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley on 13th February 2022

This morning’s Gospel is St Luke’s version of what we know as the Beatitudes – usually known as the sermon on the Plain. Matthew, in his version, has Jesus up high on a mountain whereas Luke places Jesus on level ground. Some scholars suggest that this is the earlier version – I’m not qualified to explore that idea, but I am interested in the fact that these Beatitudes are delivered on that level ground. Level ground, a level playing field; is there something in there about how we see one another and pointers around the ways that we are connected to other people?

The reading gives us a list of the kinds of people who are blessed; they may be in difficult circumstances now, but the promise is for change. And for those who may be sitting back and enjoying their privilege, a warning that nothing is for ever. Change is likely to be somewhere around the corner.

St Ignatius, in his spiritual exercises, picked up and developed this thinking. Ignatius’ focus is on spiritual experience, and what he says is that when you have a meaningful experience, savour it and bank it.  Store up the memories of how that made you feel because you can be absolutely sure that at some stage things will feel different. One way to manage the more difficult times when they come is to draw on the stored memories from better times. So Ignatius says that we should anticipate cycling through encouraging and challenging experiences and use the good times to help us get through the less good times. If we have a powerful experience of God’s presence, or a moment when we’re touched by the presence of the Spirit, those are the moments to savour. And when, inevitably, we have moments when we wonder where God has gone, moments when we feel alone, drawing on those stored memories might just be enough to help us to navigate through the more desolate times.

Our lived experience, in all areas of our lives, can help us to hold onto the knowledge that transformation isn’t just possible, but part of what it is to journey through our lives. Let’s hold that thought as we go back to the Beatitudes.

The hungry will be filled; those who weep will laugh. You may be reviled today but you will be rejoicing tomorrow. You may be well filled today, but there are no promises for tomorrow. Whatever this day has brought – or indeed this season in your life – don’t go forward on the assumption that there is no alternative. Sometimes rich people lose all their money and become poor people. Sometimes those who have nothing find their fortunes have changed and they have more than they could imagine.

I guess this is a description of levelling up, a good reminder that while some of us have more than others at the moment, those differences can’t be taken for granted. For a whole lot of reasons, fortunes can change. This morning we’re being reminded in very stark terms that there isn’t really a them and us – that there is just us. Those people whose lives are more challenging than ours today, may well be our neighbours tomorrow. Those who are in a position to reach out and help others today may need to be the recipients of help tomorrow.

Having money in the bank doesn’t give insurance against unexpected disaster – having nothing doesn’t equate with being unhappy. How then should we respond? Both as individuals and as a worshipping community? Clearly doing nothing, supporting business as usual, isn’t any kind of response to the challenge that we’re hearing. Business as usual means that we burrow into our silos – whether they are places of encouragement or places of challenge – and we hang onto whatever feels familiar. And don’t imagine that people only hold onto the positive places they find themselves; the familiarity of feeling bleak, the internalised feelings of despair and lack of hope, can also offer a kind of comfort because people learn how to manage them.

We are being called out of those silos and onto the plain. We’re being called to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts and to find a way to soften the boundaries we see between people in different situations. We’re being called not just to reach out to people in need, but to see them as people first and then to respond in whatever way we can to their needs.

This is about reaching out, but it’s about reaching out from an understanding of our commonality, rather than from a sense of our differences. I may have more money in my pocket than the person I see begging on the street, but I may or may not have a better understanding of what it is to be empathetic. We’ve all read stories of people in the most challenging circumstances who find ways to make a difference within their communities. Their motivation may be, in part, to feel better about themselves, but it may also be because they understand better than many of us what actually makes a difference.

If we are able to peep over the edges of our silos, we may see other people doing the same thing, wondering about who we are and what we’re about. That may be especially true of us as a community. As we emerge from the pandemic, as people begin to evaluate what they have learned, what has changed for them, we know that many people have found themselves wondering about what goes on within places of worship. The experience of taking services online has allowed people to take a look, to observe from a place of safety.

A building like this can look, and feel, like an enormous silo. We talk about ways to make this a safe space, a place for peace and reflection. And that, of course, is some of what we seek to offer. But it can only be on offer if we can help people to engage with us, to risk walking into a space that they may perceive to be ours not theirs.

And that is the challenge. It’s too easy for us to make this space ours, to want it to be just as it is – cold and all – because we know how to be in this space. We have unwritten norms that we don’t even notice, because that’s what we do and who we are. We may not truthfully want change.

For the person who isn’t yet one of us, that’s a whole agenda that is almost impossible to penetrate. But, of course, we as a community are much more than this imposing building. We are the living stones that inhabit this building – and its grounds. Our space is both inside and outside, through the doors and on the grass. There shouldn’t be a distinction between the sacred space inside the walls and the sacred space out there.

We do have a responsibility for our space; we happily take on that responsibility because the space makes a difference for us, allows us to manage the cycles of hope and despair, of joy and sorrow. We will have taken a significant step toward levelling up when we find ways to make this a space where everyone can belong – when we can find ways to break down those artificial ideas of us and them and to simply open our doors and our grounds to all who are seeking something that transforms; when we can find ways to say ‘this place helps us to live through life’s cycles, please bring your experiences into our shared space and let us support and reach out to one another.’

Epiphany 5. Sermon preached by Revd Professor Paul Foster on 6th February 2022

Isaiah 6.1-8 and Luke 5.1-11

I don’t know if you follow any of the same news channels, or website that I do. If you do, then there is a chance that recently you may have picked up on a certain theme, or maybe it has passed you by. Have you by any chance noticed that there has been a lot of talk recently about – leadership? For the life of me, I cannot think what might possibly have generated all this interest of late. You can tell me afterwards, or maybe you consider that to be a grey area concerning which we should not speak until all the facts are known. However, leaving aside specific cases, there are some meta-level questions to be raised. Those questions relate to what qualifies somebody to hold, or even to hold onto a leadership role, when should such a hypothetical individual relinquish that role, and when does personal behaviour act as a barrier to leadership. For some, personal failings should debar people from office, while for others it is just a matter of toughing it out and refusing to link personal actions to the role that is held no matter the degree of inconsistency that might be perceived.

Perhaps correctly, religious leaders are often held to a higher standard than others. The reasons for that are fairly clear. If one speaks about ethical practices and moral behaviours and then is found to be acting in a way that is inconsistent with what is being said to others, then that hypocrisy is more keenly recognized. The well-known challenge to “practice what you preach” is not just an easy slogan to throw around. More fundamentally, it is call and a self-check to ensure that one’s actions align with one’s words – especially when those words are spoken from the pulpit or other places of authority.

We know little of Isaiah’s background or upbringing, apart from the fact that he was the son of a man called Amoz. This Isaiah, who perhaps in some way stands behind the first thirty-nine chapters of the biblical book that bears his name, appears to have commenced his prophetic ministry around the end of the period of leadership of a long reigning king of Judah. Our reading today records events that the text dates to ‘in the year that king Uzziah’s died’ (Isa 6.1). Dating in this period is not exact, but Uzziah appears to have reigned for approximately fifty-two years. For part of that period he was co-regent with his father, a time when he was mentored and trained for leadership, prior to becoming sole ruler. His death appears to have occurred around the year 740 BC, and this may coincide with the beginning of Isaiah’s prophetic career.

It is at this time that Isaiah received a visionary experience. The vision is of a throne room. Such settings were at one level a reality in the ancient world. Potentates in the ancient near east projected their own image of power through their lavish throne rooms with elevated seats, bejewelled furniture, and displays of heavily armed body-guards. It was advisable to pay obeisance and to cause no offence – unless one want that to be the last thing he or she did. However, Isaiah’s vision is different. He sees a vision of God sitting above the temple in Jerusalem, and the hem of God’s robe completely fills that large temple space. In this vision, there are mythic creatures – flying six-winged serpents called Seraphim. Unlike the guards in an earthly throne room these Seraphim are unarmed. Their function is not to project power or to defend the one sitting one the throne, for the Lord of hosts requires no external protection. Instead, these Seraphim with unceasing cry affirm the holiness of the one enthroned. This throne room is not designed to give the impression of power, for it is the locus of true, holy, divine power.

Isaiah’s response is perhaps a little unexpected. He is not simply confused or discombobulated. Rather, maybe surprisingly, he seems to understand the implications of this vision. His first response is that should not be in this place. Isaiah cries out, ‘woe is me, I am lost’ (Isa 6.5). He is aware of his status as a sinful person, and he knows that he should not be in the presence of the one whose very nature is absolute holiness. His fear stems from the fact that he, Isaiah, has seen the Lord of hosts. Any Israelite worth their salt knew that it was not possible to look upon the face of God. Even when Moses, the lawgiver, had asked to see the glory of the Lord the response he received from God was this, ‘you cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live’ (Exod 33.20). In a moment of prescient clarity, Isaiah has put two and two together. The logic is irresistible, as an impure person he has just looked upon the face of the thrice holy one, the Lord – it can only mean one thing, he is lost, he is about to die.

Then something amazing happens. Isaiah is not eradicated, rather he is purified. One of the seraphim, who had be praising God for his holiness, takes a cauterizing hot coal from the altar and with it purifies Isaiah’s unclean lips, and his sin is forgiven. The cauterizing coal, the cleansing waters of baptism, the purifying fire of the Spirit – are all instruments of God for the healing of God’s people so that they might stand in the divine presence. Then in what I image was quite an uncomfortable moment, the Lord in his throne room asks, ‘whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ (Isa 6.8). I always wonder if at that moment Isaiah had a look around to see if there was anybody else in the throne room. The news was not good, that question was addressed only to one person – and moreover, there was only one possible answer. Isaiah responds, ‘here am I, send me.’ Thus Isaiah was called and commissioned to be a prophetic leader for the people of Judah. It was not an office he had sought, and he certainly knew that as a person of unclean lips he was not qualified for that role. Yet, the compelling call of God was absolute and could not be resisted.

An apparently much more ordinary scene was taking place nearly eight hundred years later, beside lake Gennesaret – which is Luke’s preferred name for the Sea of Galilee. Fishermen were cleaning their boats and equipment after the kind of fishing trip that you and I have probably been on – long hours and not a single fish to show for one’s efforts. Yet something strange was happening a crowd was swelling, keen to listen to the popular preacher from Nazareth. Then without permission, to avoid the press of the crowd, this teacher climbed into one of the boats, ask for it to be put out a little off shore, and adopting the standard rabbinic posture for teaching, he sat down. The owner of the boat, Simon Peter, probably thought, “a bit cheeky, but why not – nothing else is happening today, there are no fish to get ready for market.” On this occasion, we are not told what Jesus said. However, at the end of the teaching session he asked Simon Peter to put out in the deep water and to let down his nets again. Peter’s response is along the lines of – well this is pointless, we have been fishing all night and we have just cleaned the nets, but hey, why not humour the preacher. On this occasion Peter’s cynicism did not last long. As soon as the nets were dropped the catch was so large that the nets began to break, and the boats were so full of fish that they were at the point of sinking.

It is only at this point that the significance of what has happened strikes Peter. In a way reminiscent of our story from Isaiah, Peter falls at Jesus’ feet – presumably depicting an act of obeisance or maybe even worship. He then says, ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man’ (Lk 5.8). Peter recognizes this is not simply a very good fishing day. What has happened, should not have happened, perhaps could not have happened. This is not a normal human event. Something miraculous, something divine has intersected Peter’s everyday world. And that divine encounter makes Peter acknowledge his own inadequacies. Yet, such inadequacy is not a barrier, but a bridge to the divine if it is honestly acknowledged. This encounter is in many ways an epiphany, it shows Jesus to be a person with divine powers. In fact, Peter is the first person in Luke’s gospel to address Jesus as ‘Lord’, a title which Luke typically reserves to refer to the God of Israel. However, this story is not just about who Jesus is; it is about who Peter and his companions are to become. As in the case of Isaiah, encounter leads to call. Here, there is no question asked or invitation proffered, no ‘whom shall I send?’ Instead, Jesus simply informs Peter, James and John, that from now on they would be fishing for people – and they simply trust and follow. These were not people looking for leadership roles. Peter was aware of his shortcomings and lack of training for the task. However, the call of Jesus was compelling and it left no opportunity to be declined. Peter would fail many times. However, he redeeming strength was that he acknowledged his failings, and so was rehabilitated for the leadership of the early community of Jesus believers.
So what makes for a good leader. Is it unfailing self-belief, not acknowledging one’s failings and shortcomings, an ability not to be shamed by any set of circumstances? Some certainly regard those as the best traits possible. However, that is not the model that is displayed in the examples of Isaiah or of Peter. Neither was grasping after a position of power or leadership. In many ways, that is the thing I find most attractive about them. Further, they do not hide their faults. Instead, Isaiah acknowledges he is ‘a man of unclean lips’, and Peter even more directly states ‘I am a sinful man’. Neither one protests that he had broken no rules, or that he was not aware of the status of their activities. Both knew themselves to be unclean, lost, and sinful. Yet despite this, or better because of this, God’s call comes to people who are unqualified, broken, and who would fail again even when carrying out the task to which they are called.

Today, God’s call continues to comes to new Isaiahs and new Peters, to women and men who are broken, imperfect, and unworthy. Our qualifications are never good enough for the task, our failings are only too apparent, and yet only one answer is acceptable. We must respond to the one who calls each of us not because of what we have been, but because of what, by God ‘s grace, each of us shall become. In this place, at this time, as we will gather around broken bread and poured out wine. At that time, in your hearts look up, see the Lord of hosts high and lofty, hear the irresistible call, and respond, ‘here am I, send me.’ Amen.

Epiphany 2. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

Isaiah 62: 1-5; 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11; John 2: 1-11

I wonder what kind of response you have to receiving an invitation to a wedding or other big party event? Do you get excited and immediately get the date into your diary? Are you someone who goes through your wardrobe and begins to plan what to wear? Or are you one of those people whose anxiety levels are raised and who wonders whether it would be ok to decline the invitation? Perhaps you like the idea until it gets a bit nearer to the day when you start to look for excuses to change your mind. Do you need to know who else might be there? Or does it feel that there is no option but to accept?

And what about the guests at the wedding feast at Cana. Were they a mix of people who were up for a good night out and those who were checking the time, wondering how soon they could politely leave? We’re led to believe that there were plenty of the former – after all the wine had run out. Perhaps people were starting to think about going home – the wine was finished, maybe they were beginning to feel a bit weary. And then Jesus and his mother come into the story and the next thing we know is that the glasses were replenished with wine that was far superior – and the party was given a new lease of life.
If you’d been there and were thinking about leaving, perhaps you’d have stopped and thought again. Would you have been tempted by that glass of quality wine? Would the changed atmosphere have drawn you back into party mood? Would you have noticed the late arrivals whose actions changed the whole event?

We’ve spent a couple of years wondering when it’ll be time to leave the situation that we find ourselves embroiled in – when we can go home and sleep it all off and wake up in a world that feels a bit more familiar. It’s not felt much like a party, at least for most of us, and there wasn’t an option to decline the invitation, but we’ve certainly reached the point of weariness.

For some of us, there have been elements that we’ve enjoyed. Working from home has turned out to have a silver lining for a lot of people; there has been time and space to re-evaluate our priorities and many people are making different lifestyle choices as a result; societal views about what is important appear to have shifted to some extent.  Of course, for many people it has been a truly awful time – a time of isolation and fear; a time when life really has ground to a halt.

And that has all been true in a particular way within our church communities. There have been surprising benefits alongside the really difficult challenges. I’m not suggesting that we in the churches have been more impacted than other areas of life, but that the impact has perhaps been felt more acutely within our collective life. There are lots of places where people haven’t been able to gather in the usual way – theatres; cinemas; sports events – but those are places where the gathered community is different each time. In church, there is a core community that is the church – we are fundamentally about people not places. The focus is always on the gathering, on the formation of the Body of Christ in a particular place and time. Even when we are worshipping in this mixed mode of in person and online – our emphasis is on becoming community, becoming something more than the sum of our parts.

In the same way that a party is about the gathering and the fellowship, about spending time with other people in a particular way, so worship is about gathering and fellowship and a particular shared purpose and focus. That has been challenging when we haven’t been able to see one another properly – even when we are in the same building, we’re wearing masks and keeping our distance. But we have been able to read Scripture together, to reflect together, to pray together, to worship together.

One thing that is true about church is that wherever we are, and however weary we may feel, Jesus turns up. He may not always turn up in the way that we had anticipated, but Scripture reminds us that it’s only necessary for two or three to gather together, two or three with a shared desire to encounter God. Each and every act of worship has the potential to be the wedding feast, to be the event at which something miraculous happens and our outlook is transformed.

One of the features of a wedding feast is that everyone is served the same food, in the same space. There isn’t an elite who are treated differently; the bridal party eat the same meal and drink the same wine. A wedding party is perhaps one of the better examples within our society of an opportunity for an experience of equality; there isn’t a them and us. And we are told in this morning’s Gospel that it was at just such an egalitarian gathering that Jesus performed his first miracle. At an event where everyone who attended had access to the new wine; an event where everyone who attended shared the experience of being surprised by the man from Nazareth.

And that is why this story about tables laden with wine points towards something good, something that we want to know more about. The bride and bridegroom may have been the first to be told that something extraordinary had happened, but they didn’t keep the gift for themselves. There was suddenly an abundance of wine, much more than the gathered assembly was able to drink and it was for everyone. Poured out simply because it was available.

Jesus made a difference for everyone who was there; young and old, rich and poor, believer and unbeliever. For those who were at the top table and for those who were ready to leave. The new wine bringing with it a new understanding of God’s generous and abundant love for everyone. It was genuinely a gift, with no strings attached.

And that is what Jesus offers to us. In our weariness and in our newly discovered joys; in our isolation and in our opportunities to gather; when we feel important and when we feel insignificant, Jesus meets us where we are and brings us an abundant gift that has the potential to transform. A gift to remind us that God doesn’t make differences between people – that we are loved and honoured equally; that we are all invited to God’s party. The wine that symbolises this new life is freely and generously and abundantly offered.

The invitation to God’s party is issued to each and every one of us – we choose whether and when to accept.