Pentecost 8 Sermon preached online by Marion Chatterley, Vice Provost

Words from the letter to the Romans:
If God is for us, who is against us?

This week, in particular, that feels like a really helpful question. It’s one that we can hang onto, especially at a time like this when we are collectively trying to find our feet again, trying to gain some kind of equilibrium. So let’s try to explore that question. If God is for us, who is against us?

It’s easy to identify an enemy ‘out there’, an anonymous presence that is out to sabotage all that might be good in our lives, all that might give us life and joy. We hear a certain international politician speaking about the ‘bad people’ – people who are in some way different to us, people who have malevolent intentions. The bad people. But those bad people are also God’s people. Those so called bad people were created and formed, as we were, by a loving and benevolent God who only wishes well for all of humanity.

The knowledge that God wishes well for all of humanity is spelled out by Paul in the letter to the Romans as he tries to encourage a bigger, more expansive understanding of the nature of God.
Paul is writing about a God who is not just for the chosen people of Israel, but is the God whom he encountered anew on the Damascus Road, the God for whom Paul discovered a revitalised love and devotion. He shares his theology in order that his readers might know that God more fully and find ways to follow him more closely. He shares his own experience of knowing God more deeply as a result of following the teaching and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Paul tells us that ‘those whom God foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his son’.

Don’t be distracted here by Calvinist ideas of double predestination where some are chosen to be saved and some to be damned. That’s not what Paul is speaking about. Paul’s predestination in this epistle is referring to the relationship between God and God’s people – it’s about God’s yearning for people to respond to the freely offered love of God, to respond and therefore to grow and to journey towards God rather than away from God.

Read in context, the meaning is generous rather than condemnatory – God foreknew that some people would find it easier than others to respond to his love for them. Some commentators suggest that the word translated here as foreknew could be interpreted as foreloved. Before the beginning of time God loved and God continues to share that love. Our calling is to respond. No-one is beyond the love of God; no-one is incapable of loving God, but we have free will and respond as we are able and as we are motivated. Responding to God’s love draws us into the Body of Christ, draws us into that relationship and response that was modelled by Jesus and that is the legacy we seek to honour.

This theme is illustrated in today’s Gospel parables. The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast that transforms the flour into something that is life sustaining. It’s like the treasure that was hidden in a field. The joy of finding that treasure isn’t to hold onto it, to sit and gaze and revel in it. No, the joy actually is about a more expansive gesture, a more holistic response. The person who found the treasure went out and sold his worldly goods in order to buy the field.

The person who found the treasure recognised that there was something else, something bigger and fuller and even more joyful. Something that was available to him for the asking. It wasn’t without cost, but it wasn’t unachievable. And that is a good illustration of the nature of God’s love for us and our call to respond. Our response is never without cost, it’s rarely without some kind of effort but it is available for the asking.

If God is for us, who is against us? God is for us as God offers each one of us that unbounded, unlimited love. Whoever we are, whatever we’ve done, nothing separates us from the love of God. Nothing, that is, except ourselves. We make choices, we make decisions, we form priorities. Each time we make a movement in our lives, we take ourselves towards or away from God. We can focus on responding to God and turning ourselves God-ward, seeking to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Or we can turn away from all that would give us life with God and try to do things our way.

If God is for us, who is against us? I suggest that the answer to that question is ourselves. The bad people aren’t out there – they’re in here.
The God facing and the God rejecting parts of ourselves cohabit. They present us with choices and temptations. Sometimes we’re drawn with little effort towards God; sometimes we’re lured with barely a backward glance away from God. And often we’re not sure which way we’re going and we find it hard to discern God’s will.

Let’s remind ourselves of what we’ve read in this morning’s epistle though – we are predestined to be loved by God. All God asks is that we find a way to respond. And that would all be very simple if we lived in a neutral space with no distractions or influences or temptations. But that’s not our reality. We know that there are negative influences in our lives and in our world. We see that being played out on the international stage, in more local situations and in some of the detail of our own lives. And those negative influences can present themselves in a very appealing and seductive way. We can find it hard to resist. What might strengthen our resolve and our intention is to remind ourselves that we are predestined to be loved by God; and that in loving and being loved we are aligning ourselves with Jesus Christ, we are living the Gospel life that has been promised to us.
If we really trust and believe that God is for us, then we give weight to the God facing internal narrative. We give weight to the God loving, life giving forces that urge us on. And if we really trust and believe, we are better able to identify and turn away from the negative and life sapping distractions that come our way. Each time we turn from negativity and towards God, we teach ourselves that this is something we can do, it’s a bit like muscle memory – and we make it just a little bit easier to do it the next time and the time after that.

As children of God, predestined to love and be loved, we can say with confidence, God is for us.

Pentecost 4- Sermon preached online by Marion Chatterley, Vice Provost

Romans 6: 12-23;  Matthew 10: 40-42

… you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.

Recent weeks have forced us to think about the reality of the slave trade; forced us into recognising the many ways that our most beautiful cities have benefitted from the proceeds of that trade. Perhaps some of us have also spent time thinking about what it meant to be enslaved. How people coped with the cruelty and the uncertainty and the loss of personhood. What must it have been like to know that you were a possession; that you could be bought and sold on a whim; that there was no area of your life over which you were in a position to make choices. People were violated in many ways – they were branded, sometimes with the mark of their owner, sometimes with the mark of a company. And of course we also know that when slaves were freed, that wasn’t necessarily into a better life. It might have been better to be enslaved and relatively safe than freed and struggling to survive.

In this morning’s passage of Scripture, St Paul forces us to think differently about enslavement. He finds a way to turn things on their head, to suggest that the atrocities of enslavement to a human master are the absolute opposite of the rewards that come from enslavement to God. He reclaims the idea of enslavement – finding something that gives life and dignity in the very midst of something that denies life and dignity.

St Paul seems to be clear in this passage – we don’t choose to be enslaved, or not, but we choose to what we might be enslaved. That sounds straightforward, but experience may suggest to us that it’s not really that simple – it’s not a binary choice but perhaps a spectrum within which we make choices and decisions and at the same time face temptations and challenges.

For instance, people who are living with addictions can feel that they have become enslaved to the substance or behaviour that dominates their life. What starts as a choice becomes a necessity about which there may be little choice – at least without support and guidance. We can be lured into becoming slaves to a particular way of living or looking or spending time; find ourselves convinced, often by social pressure, that there are rewards to be had.
And that may be true, but it’s also true that as soon as we cross the line into enslavement, something else is happening. There’s a very fine line between enslavement that we find rewarding – even when those rewards aren’t necessarily healthy for us – and entrapment, where we find it difficult to see a way out.

Equally, we can find ourselves enslaved to ideologies. There are many examples of the ways that a commitment to a particular way of seeing or understanding things can go from being a rational result of thought and reflection to an uncritical acceptance of a larger canon of ideas and principles.

Enslaving ourselves in any of these ways limits us. It limits our potential to be critical thinkers; it limits our interactions with other people – how do we challenge our thinking if we only ever meet people who think like us? How do we grow as people if all of our energies are put into maintaining a particular stance? And it limits our engagement with God. How do we hear that still, small voice if our starting place is that we’re right?

And of course some of what is tricky is that as human beings we don’t really like change. Once we find a pattern of working or socialising or family life, we like the routine; on the whole we like to know what to expect, how to cope with particular situations. In some ways enslavement suits us.

Perhaps St Paul recognised that fact – enslavement suits us. We are creatures of habit and routine and we like what we know we like. We find a security and comfort in the patterns of our own enslaved behaviour – even when we grumble about them.

So how then might we think about a healthy form of enslavement, a way to be enslaved to our relationship with our God that is nurturing and life giving because of its nature, not despite that nature. What might we find that would give us life and dignity, that would enable us to grow, to take risks, to embrace change?

One of the surprising joys of lockdown has been that putting our pattern of morning and evening prayer online has enabled a number of people to join us on a regular basis.
Those services frame the days – we begin and end in prayer, and everything stops for those times of prayer. It’s a completely rigid routine, one might argue that its inflexibility is of itself enslaving – and yet the feedback would suggest that something else is happening. That pattern and rhythm enables freedom and creativity within the rest of the day. And there isn’t a decision to be made about what to do or when to do it – that’s, to some extent where the freedom comes, you just pitch up and engage with what is in front of you. Just do it.

For many of us, our weeks up until lockdown were marked by particular activities one of which was church at a particular time on a Sunday. That might have sometimes felt like one of those demands that is inflexible and burdensome – and yet we know that people are feeling rudderless without it. One of the fundamentals of Benedictine spirituality is the concept of stability – the whole question of where we put down our roots and how we then nourish them. Many people’s stability has been formed by that Sunday routine, their spiritual nourishment and nurture has been firmly rooted within their regular commitment.
One of the other pieces of learning over recent weeks has been that we don’t actually need to be in church. We might prefer to be there; we might find something different happens when we are there; and the physical building of the church is where we gather to form community and to make connections. And yet, it’s clear that none of that has stopped over recent weeks. The foundations that were created within our church building have enabled something to happen in ways that we could never have imagined. Our enslavement to the stability that comes from the physical church has been the catalyst for a new freedom that has emerged outwith the stones and mortar.

Slavery is a shameful part of our history and its legacy is something that we live with. It seems that St Paul is suggesting that finding ourselves enslaved to patterns of behaviour is also something that we live with. I pray that as we move towards freedom from our lockdown we will continue to find healthy patterns of enslavement that will nurture and sustain us as we relearn how to be free.

Pentecost 2020. A sermon preached Online by Marion Chatterley, Vice Provost

Send forth your Spirit O Lord, and renew the face of the earth.

 

As we celebrate the festival of Pentecost, we’ve heard readings that, in their different ways, show God sending forth that Spirit to renew the face of the earth.  They are readings that remind us that God isn’t a passive observer of our comings and goings, but that there is an ongoing and evolving relationship between God and God’s people.

 

The first reading was from the book of Numbers.  The context is that Moses is leading the people through the Wilderness.  That journey wasn’t a meander from here to there, stopping to look at the landscape or the wildlife.  It was the journey of an exiled people who were surrounded by enemies.  And they weren’t happy campers.  They grumbled as they went – they missed the interesting diet they’d had in Egypt, they wanted to be in a different situation, their faith was tested.  Moses expended quite a bit of energy trying to keep them contented, to persuade them that God hadn’t abandoned them.

 

Up to this point, God’s communication had been through Moses who was tasked not only with keeping the people moving, but with interceding for them with God.  And today we see God take a new initiative, we see God engaging in a different way.  70 elders were gathered and they experienced a direct encounter with God.  But that wasn’t all.  Two men who were outside the tent also received God’s direct blessing.  In that time and space, God’s spirit came both to those who were selected to be in the tent and also to those on the outside.  And that’s important – it shows us that this isn’t just about those who had been chosen but is also about the connections and connectedness between a much wider group of people and God.  The conduit for those connections is the Spirit.

 

Let’s jump to our Gospel story.  The doors of the house were locked; the disciples were huddled together in their safe space because they were afraid.  It was in that place, in that place of discomfort and uncertainty that something changed.  Again, God did something different, something new.

 

 

This isn’t the first resurrection experience, Jesus appearing in their midst may have been wonderful and extraordinary and mind blowing – but it wasn’t new.  The new element was the introduction of the Holy Spirit – Jesus breathed on them and said: receive the Holy Spirit.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven…. Receive the Holy Spirit, not just for yourselves but for the wider community.

 

Yet again, this gift of the Spirit is about connections with other people – it’s both about the people in the locked room and about the many people outside that room who were in need of forgiveness, who were in need of engagement with God.

 

Two scenarios, very many years apart, where God does something new, brings something to the table that is a game changer.  And notice something else about both of these stories – they’re not about God’s still, small voice whispering in the ear of a true believer; they’re about God’s Spirit engaging with gatherings of people – reaching into communities that then reach into other communities.

The stories illustrate something about the experience of God’s interaction with humanity, the connections and connectedness that are the catalyst for change.  They remind us that God doesn’t stand still; God doesn’t watch us from afar.

God finds innovative ways to reach out and touch lives.   And the Holy Spirit is one of God’s dynamic routes of engagement.

 

God’s Spirit is a gift that is freely and generously given.  It’s given to people who are inside the structures of spiritual and religious life and to people who are outwith those structures.  We see the fruits of that Spirit in the signs of renewal within our communities, within the people and places that we know.  It’s given, not as something to hold onto, but as something to share, to grow, to journey with.

 

As we find ourselves touched by that Spirit, as we find ourselves renewed and forgiven and refreshed, so we may find that we have the resources to pass something on to other people.  For instance, we know that kindness encourages kindness, generosity is almost catching.

 

We’ve been reminded of that in recent weeks – smile at the person you pass on your daily walk and they will almost certainly smile back and perhaps pass that smile on to the next person they encounter.  We sometimes speak in church about the movement of the Spirit; perhaps an expression of that movement is in the ways that we share and support and care and grow within our communities.

 

Many of you who know this building well will know the work of Liz French, a glass artist whose work has been exhibited in this Cathedral during the Edinburgh festival.  This week I received some photos of Liz’s recent work.  She’s been making hearts out of glass and sending them to the hospitals as a tool for making a connection between patients and their families.  They give people the means to feel connected at a time when a physical connection isn’t possible.  But they bring something more than that.  They serve to show people that there is a wider community that is aware of their plight and their challenges.

 

A wider community that may not have a personal connection, but has a connectedness.  Liz, the artist, has no idea where her glass hearts will go.

She creates them and then effectively sets them free.  She offers something that she perhaps hopes might touch people on many levels.  But she has no control over that.  The fruits of her creative work are not directly for her – the work effectively has its own life and dynamic.  The hearts have the potential to bring change, but of themselves they are not the change.

 

When God’s Spirit is set free into our world, God doesn’t control how it will be shared.  We are trusted to be the conduits for that – we are given opportunities to work with and within the movement of the Spirit and so to expand and enhance the connections we make.

 

God’s engagement with us is in the midst of all that is – through the Spirit, in the connections we make, in the encounters we have, in the moments of kindness and caring and connectedness.  Within our communities and as we find ways to engage with new communities, the dynamism of the Spirit is set free.  Through us, God cares.  Through us, God connects.  Through us God’s Spirit is freed in order that lives can be renewed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Questions for further reflection:

Can you reflect on examples of the dynamic presence of the Spirit both within the institution of the Church and within your local community?

 

How do you understand the difference between connections and connectedness?

 

What changes when you think about God trying something new?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easter 3 – sermon preached online by Marion Chatterley, Vice Provost – 26th April 2020

We find ourselves this morning with two disciples as they make their way along the road to Emmaus.  This is one of those Gospel stories that just jumps off the page – it’s easy to visualise, to put yourself into the picture, to take your place alongside them.  We can imagine the dusty road and the warmth of the wind.  Let’s push that a little further and imagine how they look – the physical and psychological exhaustion; the weariness of the journey that lacks purpose; the despair and the feelings of emptiness.  And the bewilderment – going over and over the same facts and questions, unable to piece it together, unable to make any sense of it all.  Just a few weeks ago life was so different, they were with Jesus, they were focussed and happy and everything seemed to be fine. And now it’s like this and nothing is fine.

Just a few weeks ago everything appeared to be fine and now it’s like this and nothing is fine.  What a difference a few weeks makes.  And like those disciples, we are trying to make sense of it all, trying to piece together the fragments of information we have, trying to rationalise the irrational, trying to process something so enormous that it’s really beyond us.

Let’s go back and look at the Gospel story a little more closely.  The opening phrase is: on that same day. On that same day that the women went to the empty tomb, these two disciples were on the Emmaus Road.  This story is happening on the actual day of resurrection, day 3 in the crucifixion story.  So let’s look at these disciples again.  Their friend and Messiah died 2 days ago.  Any of us who has experienced a significant bereavement knows that 2 days isn’t long enough to have done any processing at all; 2 days isn’t long enough to actually believe with your whole being that death has occurred.  2 days is the start of a period of confusion and bewilderment and disconnection from the world around.  That’s the psychological place that these disciples are in.  Of course they are weary and confused; of course they’re telling one another the same stories over and over again – that’s what we do in the earliest stages of bereavement.  We share our stories; we reminisce; we effectively keep the person alive by keeping those memories of them alive.

Into this scene which is full of trauma and anxiety, another character appears.  Another traveller joins them and they are so caught into their own emotional state that they don’t recognise him.  They respond to him out of their place of grief – here’s someone whom they can speak to, to whom they can tell the stories that they were already sharing with one another, tell the stories to someone who hasn’t already heard them umpteen times.  And then, of course, Jesus turns things on their head and becomes the one who is sharing stories and understanding, the one who has something to tell.

And this morning’s passage concludes with a complete shift of scene – and mood, and leads us into the territory where they begin to see that life will never be what it was before, but that there is something worth living for, something worth engaging with.

For those disciples, that shift came when they were enabled to shift their focus from reminiscing about what once was to being in the moment and engaging with the world as it had become.   However wonderful before might had been, that time was over.

There are so many parallels with the place that we collectively find ourselves in.  However our lives were before, that time is now over and one of the challenges for us is to find ways to stop looking backwards and to be in this moment.  Not many people really believe that lockdown will end and things will simply revert to how they were.   Too much has changed.  Entire communities have been traumatised; people have been bereaved of loved ones; we have all been bereaved of easy social contact, of the human interactions that provide some of the colour in our lives; we’ve lost our trust in a society that we understood to be safe.

In the words of the song: things ain’t what they used to be.

For our two disciples, their focus moved into the present when the unexpected traveller joined them on the road.  He got alongside them in that place of disbelief and unreality.  He walked and talked with them, not minding that it took them a bit of time to recognise who he was.  There have been unexpected travellers joining us over these past few weeks.  Most of us hadn’t anticipated the outpouring of care and support that has come from within local communities.

Many people have been moved to realise that people do care, that there is a heart within our communities to reach out to the vulnerable and the isolated; to support the people who are having the hardest time.  Random acts of kindness have become reality for a lot of people – and if that’s not an example of Gospel action, I don’t know what is.  I see the Risen Christ in the lives of our communities.  I recognise the words and the actions of our Lord in the words and the actions of people who are doing their best for friends and neighbours, for strangers and loved ones.  And in those moments, I dare to hope.

I dare to hope that things ain’t what they used to be – that things will never again be what they used to be.  I dare to hope that some of the changes I notice will be sustained – the quieter streets, the family groups on bicycles, the couples taking an evening stroll.  I dare to hope that some of the abuse that people have heaped upon others simply because of who they are, will not restart.  I dare to hope that we can allow ourselves to live in this moment, in this time, in this situation – and to find ways that allow us to flourish, to grow, to become something more – now, as it is, not at some as yet unidentified time in the future.

On the Emmaus Road, Jesus met with Cleopas and the other disciple in the midst of their deepest pain.  He got alongside them and he engaged with them; his presence was the catalyst for change.  They said to one another: were not our hearts burning within us.  Their raw pain was eased; their eyes were opened.  The facts hadn’t changed – there had been a crucifixion; the women had encountered the Risen Christ at the empty tomb.  But now they had experienced something that allowed them to believe, allowed them to dare to hope.

As we continue to journey in our bewildered states, can we find ways to be in the moment, to recognise the activity of the Christ right here in the midst of it all.  Next time you see a rainbow chalked on the pavement, or hear of a kindness, or step outside to clap for carers, know that you are witnessing change.   My prayer is for that change to become integrated and normalised, for our hearts to burn as we experience the presence of the Risen One.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Blessed Virgin Mary – John McLuckie, Vice-Provost – 18 August 2019

There is one word that stands out in the church’s celebration of the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in its understanding of the central mysteries of our faith. That word is often obscured in our Anglican tradition for two reasons. One is that we have inherited a degree of squeamishness about the place of Our Lady in our devotional life, the other is that the prayers we do have slightly obscure the word I have in mind. The word is ‘rejoice’. It is obscured in the greeting of Gabriel to Mary – hail Mary – which might just as easily be translated, rejoice, Mary. And as for that squeamishness, well I want to encourage you today to set it aside in order to see some true reasons for joy in our Christian faith, a joy which is rooted in the unique place that Mary has in the strange and wonderful work of transformation that lies at the heart of our faith.

One of the loveliest but least-appreciated Anglican writings about the Blessed Virgin Mary in the last couple of generations was by a quiet mystic with a uniquely ecumenical take on all things religious. Donald Allchin’s book about Mary is called ‘The Joy of all Creation’ and even in that title we begin to sense something of his appreciation of the mother of our Lord. Here are some words from his book:

The human is capable of the divine. Through the gift of God, the divine life is rooted in the human, the human in the divine. And here precisely is the cause of great joy and amazement. For precisely in ‘our animal exigencies’ the ultimate glory is revealed, just where we had least expected it. Hence everywhere in the Christian world where she is known, Mary’s name is associated with joy. She is the joy of joys, the cause of our joy, the joy of all creation. In her there is a meeting of opposites, of God and humanity, of flesh and spirit, of time and eternity, which causes an explosion of joy, of a kind of ecstasy. It is the joy which is known in human life, ‘when the opposites come together, and the genuinely new is born.’

We know this explosion of joy when opposites meet in the words of today’s Gospel, the Magnificat. In these words uttered by Mary when her cousin Elizabeth recognises in Mary the presence of the Lord, we hear of a lowliness that is also a blessing and of a hunger that is also a deep satisfaction. In Mary, opposites do indeed coincide and we find our way to a new wholeness of humanity, a new integration of all that makes for our flourishing. For in her, heaven and earth, divine and human, sorrow and joy, death and life are brought together. In her, the tiny confines of a mother’s womb become nothing less than the spaciousness of heaven.

In the early Christian centuries, these rich paradoxes became a central expression of that most vital of all Christian paradoxes – the uniting of the divine and the human in the person of Christ. There was no way for this unity to happen other than through the completely free choice of a uniquely free human being to the invitation of God. Mary was that perfectly free person who was able to give an answer on behalf of all creation to the desire of God to make his home among us in the fragility of human flesh. In other words, there is no way to affirm the humanity of Christ and his divine and human natures other than by rejoicing in Mary as the God-bearer, the Theotokos, the Mother of God. What an extraordinary paradox that is! The uncreated God becomes flesh in the same way that every single one of us does – through the slow, hidden gestation of brittle human life in the womb of a woman, nourished by her own nourishment, enclosed in her own body, the Creator of all things contracted to a tiny space, unseen except to those with the eyes of faith and the longings of human hopefulness.

This movement of integration is utterly vital in our understanding of the salvation that God works in Jesus. We are diminished when our lives are marked by fragmentation, healed when our lives are marked by integration. We are not at ease when we are distanced from any aspect of ourselves, complete when all of our life experiences are made whole. We become violent when we separate ourselves one from the other, peaceful when we learn how to realise that we belong to one another. We are blighted when we discriminate, blessed when we integrate.

There is a way of being that lies at the heart of Mary, the God-bearer, which opens this world of integration to us. It is hinted at in an ancient Greek hymn which sees in her a unique kind of boundless openness. It opens with that word of rejoicing once more – all creation rejoices in you – and then goes on to say that, in making his home within the temple of her body, God has made her more spacious than the heavens. Another one of these poetic paradoxes that try to get as close as possible to the unsayable mystery of God’s presence among us. Mary’s spaciousness is, I think, the same thing as her lowliness of which she sings in the Magnificat. This is not some kind of docile self-effacement but a strong and daring letting go of self-concern that opens the way for God to appear. Mary’s humility is her strength, her humanity is her gift to God, her courageous openness is her permission for the boundless possibilities of life to flourish. For we do not find our integrated wholeness while we hold on to the smaller things we imagine constitute our true selves – status, identity, achievement, appearance, intelligence. This only comes when we make space, when we open up, when we let go, when we say ‘yes, let it be’ as Mary did when Gabriel appeared to her.

There is much cause for rejoicing when we honour Mary as the chosen Mother of our Lord. There is rejoicing because the ultimate purpose of our lives is brought very near to us. There is rejoicing when we let go of our false sense of what it is that makes us truly fulfilled and when we embrace, instead the boundless openness of Mary. There is rejoicing when we realise that alienation, estrangement and division are not the final word in our human story. That final word is not a word at all. It is a person. Here is how Thomas Merton wrote of his coming:

Mary’s consent opens the door of created nature, of time, of history, to the Word of God. God enters into his creation. Through her wise answer, through her obedient understanding, through the sweet, yielding consent of Sophia, God enters without publicity into the city of rapacious men. She crowns Him not with what is glorious, but with what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty, she sends the infinitely Rich and Powerful One forth as poor and helpless, in His mission of inexpressible mercy, to die for us on the Cross.

And so to Mary, with all the church today we say; ‘All creation rejoices in you, full of grace. Glory to you.’

 

Easter VI – John McLuckie – 26th May 2019

As that well-known floppy-haired American philosopher, Emo Philips, once said, ‘I used to think that the brain was the most fascinating part of the human body. Then I thought, wait a minute, look what’s telling me that!’ In our modern imagination, we tend to see our brains as the centre of who we are, sometimes using the metaphor of a sort of computer which controls our body’s actions and makes decisions. We might go so far as to see the brain as the centre of our identity, a centre which holds all our defining memories and characteristics. We are human because we think. There are, however, some counter-movements in this set of cultural assumptions. When we want to indicate ‘me’, we point not to the head where our brain resides, but to our heart. However, in this metaphorical scheme, the heart is a less reliable organ. Whereas the brain is rational and coolly in control, the heart is all passion, colour and, above all, emotion.

In biblical terms, however, it is the heart that is at the centre of the human person, but not the heart as merely the seat of emotion. For the biblical writers, as for the theological traditions which followed them, the heart is nothing less than the place of encounter between God and the human person. It is the centre of spiritual intelligence, insight and discernment. It is a temple for the inward dwelling of God. It is a sort of shorthand for the whole human person and offers a far richer notion of the centre of who we are than a sense of the brain as a squishy computing machine. For in the bible, the human heart is fundamentally disposed towards a quest for the God who made it. It is the basic driving force in human life which refuses to be reduced to functions and data and is turned, instead, towards its primary goal of union with the God of Life.

In our Gospel today, we have many references to that heart. The first is a little hidden for it does not use the word, but it is there in the promise that God will come and make his home in the one who keeps his word. Let’s slow down and hear that verse again. First, this is a matter of home-making. God’s natural locus is within us. We come home to ourselves when God comes home to us. We return to the fullness of our true selves when our hearts are open to receive the guest who is none other than our creator. Our fulfilment does not occur through achievement of great things in the eyes of the world, but when our hearts are receptive to the gift of God’s life-giving presence. This is good news. Every single one of us has the capacity to say yes to the quiet request of our creator to come and abide in us. Not a single one is excluded. Not one. Next, this home-making of God in us requires that we ‘keep his word’. I do not think this is a question of observing commands but of keeping close to us, of cherishing, the greatest word that can ever be spoken within us, and that is the Word made flesh, Jesus, the Son of God. And his words are reinforced every time we open the Gospels. They are words that say, ‘you are forgiven’, ‘your faith has made you well’, ‘you are all clean’, ‘you are children together of the one Father’.

Keeping the word also has another dimension, and that is the dimension of keeping guard over our hearts. The early church mothers and fathers were clear that our hearts are not only a place of encounter and holiness – they are also a place of contest and trial. We all know very well our ability to be distracted from the course we set out to maintain. We are beset by calls on our attention and affection which, though they may not be bad in themselves, nonetheless distract us from the primary sense of who we are as those called to follow a path of love and forgiveness. Mostly, our distractions are unspectacular. They consist in endless lists of ‘things to do’ or, worse, ‘what we should be’. That, I think, is why the heart of today’s gospel rests in these words of Jesus: ‘Do not let our hearts be troubled’. And this brings me to the main thing I want to say this morning. Jesus offers peace for our hearts. Where do we find it? We find it in prayer. We find it in the simplest and most important form of prayer that is available to us and that is the prayer of the heart – the prayer of attention and watchfulness, the prayer of simplicity and fullness of life, the prayer of quiet. You see, we don’t need to conjure up God in our prayers – he is already there, there in the heart he created with a longing for him. All we need to do is not to let our hearts be troubled so that our heart’s created impulse for God may be set free. Our deepest prayer is not a matter of adding virtues to our life but of subtracting all that impedes these virtues, and that is mostly our frantic self-concern.

On Thursday this week, we will begin 10 days of prayer in the Cathedral as we respond to a global movement of prayer through these days before Pentecost. I invite you most sincerely to join us in whatever way you can to spend some time in simple prayer, in the prayer of the heart. We are made for great things. We are made for complete union with God, the supreme Good, and it is only in our praying that we begin to explore the depths of that union. Let’s be clear – this focus on inward prayer, on the prayer of the heart, is not a selfish or individualistic thing. It is the means we are given to transcend our self-absorption so that we may be free to love all as God loves us. When we pray this prayer of the heart, the prayer of communion with God, we pray the prayer of communion with all that God has created. There is, quite simply, no separation between these things.

So how is this done? How do we not let our hearts be troubled? We do so by learning the slow, patient practice of stillness. We sit or stand still. We breathe. We let go of our desires to control our thoughts. We let our minds descend to the heart, the place where we encounter God in the depths of our being. We repeat a word of scripture or simply trust that God is closer than the very breath we take. Come and try it out and find that God will give you peace, not as the world gives, but a peace of heart that remains still even when the troubles of the world threaten to unsettle us. This is a life’s journey of discovery and joy, a journey that leads us home, home to the heart where God resides.