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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epiphany 6 – sermon preached online by Revd Professor Paul Foster – 14th February 2021

2 Kings 5.1-14 and Mark 1.40-45

I have only visited the holy land once. However those six days have left an indelible impression. There is a sense of awe while walking the bustling streets of Jerusalem knowing that somewhere my path would have intersected with where Jesus walked. Or a different sense of reverence standing on the more silent hills of Galilee where one looks out across the timeless sea below and contemplates the meaning of eternity. During this past week I had memories of the time at the ancient Roman site of Caesarea Maritima. The clue is in the name. It is located beside the Mediterranean and a number of our group took the opportunity for some sea bathing. Believe me as I looked out at snow drifts this week – I certainly knew where I would rather be.

Yet there is another memory I wish to share with you today of my time in the holy land. One afternoon we were taken by coach to see the baptismal site of Jesus. There was a sense of anticipation – the very place where John the Baptist met Jesus, and the Spirit descended in the form of a dove. I knew this was going to be special. As we drew near I was struck by the presence of barbed wire and signs warning tourists not to stray from the road, and even clearer signs of the presence of minefields – a reminded that the river was the border with Jordan. We disembarked the coach and went down to the bank. I looked and took in the scene. I surveyed the thick reeds, and what was called a river – so narrow that a Dutch dyke jumper could traverse it. I was so, so disappointed that I turned to one of my travelling companions and said, “this is not very impressive, I expected this would be a wide flowing river.” As quick as anything, he responded “Are the rivers of Damascus not greater than the rivers of Israel.” Since that day I have had a lot of empathy with Naaman.

Our Old Testament reading presents an evocative story, rich with a cast of multi-faceted characters. First Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. We are told that Yahweh had given him many victories. Yet we are left wondering whether Naaman knew that his success was a gift from Yahweh. Then we come across two unnamed female characters. The first is a young slave girl taken captive from northern Israel or Samaria. While outright war was not constant between Syria and Israel, border raiding was. The more powerful Syrian forces would engage in grab and run tactics, harrying and despoiling neighbours to the south. The captive young child had become the maid-servant of Naaman’s wife. This carefully plotted narrative also informs readers that Naaman, the great military leader of Syria suffered from leprosy. Actually if we understand Naaman’s skin condition to be equivalent to modern leprosy we are sorely misled. Modern leprosy or Hansen’s disease was unknown in this period in ancient Israel. Instead, Naaman was afflicted with some debilitating and perhaps disfiguring skin condition. Thus, we meet a proud and successful military leader, who is also a tragic figure. Providentially the captive slave girls tells Naaman’s wife of the existence of the prophet in Samaria. This, in turn, is communicated to the king of Syria who sends his trusted commander to Samaria with a message for the king of the northern tribes of Israel.

The next scene takes us briefly into the court of the king of Samaria. The letter bids him to cure Naaman of his leprosy. The king of Israel assumes that the request is a diplomatic rouse by the Syrians to pick a fight with its weaker southern neighbour. It is at that juncture that the prophet Elisha appears in the story. Somehow news has come to him of the predicament. In contrast to the panic of the king of northern Israel, Elisha sends a terse but calm reply. He asks the king why he has torn his robes in distress. Then we might expect the message to say “send Naaman to me and I will heal him for you.” Yet, it does not. Instead it says, “let the man come to me and let him know that there is a prophet in Israel.” Elisha’s agenda is not the agenda of the king, nor the agenda of Naaman. There is something else that is at stake here. Next we are told that Naaman travelled to meet Elisha in his pomp and splendour, with his horse and chariot, no doubt carrying all his silver and gold and the presents of fine clothes. Then something strange happens. Something that is insulting, and maybe which could be read as a provocation to the war that the king of Israel feared. Elisha refuses to meet Naaman. Instead, he sends his servant to tell Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan. Naaman is infuriated. Doesn’t this upstart Elisha from the puny kingdom of Samaria not know who he is. Naaman exasperatedly states “I thought that he would surely come out to me, stand here, and call upon the name of Yahweh his God, and wave his hand over the infected place and cure the leprosy.” Then Naaman’s classic comment follows – “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the rivers of Israel?” On that score, I have to concur with Naaman. However, it is not the greatness of the river that is at stake, but the greatness of the God of Israel. At this point Naaman storms off in rage.

Next, a new set of characters are introduced. In many ways these are the wisest people in the story. Naaman’s attendants see what is really at stake and calm their Master. Addressing him as “Father”, they ask “if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? Now all he says to you is, wash and be cleansed.” These calming and wise words result in Naaman following that advice and being healed. So what is going on here? Elisha’s refusal to meet Naaman is in my opinion not some crass ethnic prejudice against Syrians, neither is it an attempt to belittle a wealthy person. Instead, I suggest, Elisha is undermining Naaman’s presuppositions. The great military leader turns up and he believes he can classify Elisha as some wonder-working healer, who will do the things that exorcists and shamanistic healers are supposed to do. He will get himself into a trance-like state and mutter some incantation and then the healing will take place. By contrast, Elisha wants Naaman to know that he is not able to categorise the one who will heal him. The healing is not attributable to human power, and even the brackish little waterway in which he is to bathe has nothing to recommend it. Naaman has to realise that he is being healed by none other than Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God of the universe.

After this story and its sequel in the remainder of the chapter, Naaman disappears from our view. We know nothing more of him and he is almost forgotten in the rest of scripture. That is, apart from a recollection of him by another Jewish prophet-like figure. In the Gospel of Luke, among other characters, Jesus recalls Naaman. He says, “there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha, but none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian” (Lk 4.27). Here, Naaman is recalled as an example of the universalism of human salvation made possible through Jesus.

It is this same Jesus we meet in today’s gospel reading, encountering another individual described as a leper. Here after a rapid sequence of preceding events, Jesus is sought out by a man in need of healing. This is no prestigious military leader. In fact this man’s presence is a threat to Jesus’ own state of ritual purity. Jesus heals the man with the skin condition, but then he does something unexpected. Instead of declaring the man clean, he becomes indignant with him and commands him to silence. The man is told to go to the religious leaders and make a thanksgiving offering in line with Torah stipulations. Then Jesus says something strange. The man is to carry out those actions “for a witness to (or maybe against) them.” In the same way that Namaan assumed that he could categorise Elisha as a healing shaman, it appears that Jesus wanted to challenge the priestly perception of the day. Had they categorised Jesus as no more than a Galilean wonder-worker, or perhaps even worse – they had forgotten the power of the God of Israel to heal the sick. Like the actions of Naaman, those of Jesus challenge false perceptions about human ability to understand spiritual power and to categorise the actions of God.

We are living through a time when we too need healing. We often pray for the healing of the nations and that the resources of the world will be shared with equity. Those are good prayers, but now they take on a greater sense of urgency and there is a more concrete picture of what those prayers might be seeking. This time has been a period of frustration. Personally, I have felt that large projects have been put on hold. Instead, I have had to spend more time on small things and having to adjust the pace at which things are achieved. It feels like foregoing visits to see the great rivers, and instead being forced to bathe in the insignificant and brackish Jordan. However, what the encounter between Naaman and Elisha teaches us is that it is not the size of the river, but it is the degree of our faithfulness in carrying out the will of the one we serve. Jesus’ own encounter with one who would have been considered an insignificant leper teaches us that God is just as much God over the small matters of life as over the great matters of state. Perhaps during recent times we have all had to adopt a simpler piety, and to carry out smaller acts of faith. Those acts are no less consequential because of the way we might perceive their size.

Yahweh, who is the God of Elisha and the God of Israel, calls us to be faithful in the small things. Jesus himself heals a forgotten human being and then seeks to deflect attention from himself. Instead, he wants the act of healing to testify to the fact that the God who is able to heal is still at work. Today in our own lived-experience, the Holy Spirit is still working through the people of God often in what we perceive to be small acts, which unbeknownst to us serve to bring about the healing of the nations. It is to that God who works mightily through the small things, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to whom we now give thanks and praise for his mighty power constantly at work even in the smallness of human lives. Amen

Epiphany 5 – Sermon preached online by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 7th February 2021

Have Courage and Wait
Isaiah 40:21–31
Mark 1:29–39

What does it mean to say that “those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength” when we are in the middle of a pandemic? I’m guessing that many of us come to worship today wearied and worn out by lockdown, by our not so splendid isolation, by the stress of homeschooling, by the amount of time spent in meetings on Zoom. Us weary folk might well be drawn to those words of encouragement from Isaiah, hugging them to ourselves like a hot water bottle on a sharp, cold February night. The prophet’s lines certainly warm us down through the centuries and, though they were written to a very different context to ours, they have much to tell us.

Isaiah was writing to the Israelites exiled in Babylon, the exiles who had been told to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it. We have heard from his words to this group a few times over the past several months. Every time we do so, it is tempting to make a straightforward analogy between their exile and our situation — exiled from our friends and family, from our workplaces, from our community of faith, from the Eucharist.

Yes, there are some parallels, but we should take care not to push them too far. We have not been violently uprooted and our culture destroyed by an invader; we have been ordered to stay at home and our culture put on hold because of a virus. We do not face a dangerous journey to a ruined city but an uncertain wait to find out what the future will hold and how we might, as the slogan goes, build back better.

Despite these profound differences, we share with the exiles the experience of weariness. We share with them the trepidation about rebuilding. Will we have the stamina to wait? Will we have the energy to reconstruct?

“Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength”. These lines of hope come at the culmination of one of Isaiah’s greatest passages of poetry. It’s a poem that begins by calling its hearers to remember what they know of God, what they have heard from the very beginning. In vivid imagery, the prophet paints a picture of God the Creator:

  • the one who sits above the firmament keeping at bay the waters of chaos (verse 22a);
  • the one who protects and provides, creating a home for all creatures (verse 22b);
  • the one who has ultimate command over government and has power even over nothingness (verse 23);
  • the one who calls the stars by name (verse 26), also perhaps alluding to God’s calling Israel by name.

This much might seem obvious, so why does the prophet do it? Because Israel has lost its memory of God’s care. In the midst of their trauma, they have forgotten how God cares. It’s hardly surprising that the people, wrenched from their homeland, complain “My way is hidden from the Lord” (verse 27) but it wasn’t. Isaiah confronts them with all these images of God’s continuing care and consideration, not the divine deliverance of the past, calling them to remember not just what God has done or does but who God is.

What Isaiah doesn’t say is that we will never grow weary. There is a way of speaking these verses that might imply that, if you’re exhausted, you’re not waiting for God. That is not the case. Isaiah tells us that God “gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless” and renews strength. You don’t need your strength renewed if you haven’t grown faint and weary or fallen exhausted.

For all that we could read exasperation into the prophet’s “Have you not known”, it seems to me that, instead of burning with condemnation, this poem bursts with God’s compassion for a weary people, battered by events. This is a promise of renewal, not a judgment. It’s a promise that the Creator will recreate the people. It’s a promise not that everything will go smoothly for them — after all, they knew fine well it hadn’t — but that God will restore them after their trauma. It’s a promise that, if you are worn out and weakened, God is waiting to revive you, like someone waiting with water for a marathon runner.

Like the exiles, we are a weary people, battered by events and in need of renewal. The promised restoration, we are told, will come not to those who busy themselves with religious activity but to “those who wait for the Lord”. That’s something of a challenge to our goal-oriented, active, impatient society. It demands patience and calm in the midst of the confusion and pain. It asks us to live with uncertainty and ambiguity. It brings us back to last week’s Gospel, to Simeon and Anna waiting in the temple for the Messiah, and it coaxes us to wait with passion for our restoration.

What does renewal of strength mean for us in our lockdown state? What does it mean to wait for the Lord? Like many people, I battle tiredness and lockdown lethargy, weariness with the restrictions and the stress of juggling homeschooling with work. But I find myself sustained each day in the quiet space of prayer, whether that’s the formal structure of morning and evening prayer with others or simply sitting silently in the presence of God by myself. When I go to God drained and anxious, I find myself given the energy and peace to start putting one foot in front of the other again.

It takes trust to do this. It takes the courage of our conviction that God is with us. As the psalmist says, “Wait for the Lord; have courage and wait” (Ps 27:14). This isn’t about laying more obligations on us. It is simply a call to open ourselves to the presence of God in our lives, building our capacity to be still and encounter the Holy Spirit working in us. It is about turning up, coming as we are not as we think we ought to be, and allowing God to renew and refresh us again and again and again. For the Lord “does not faint or grow weary” and does not run out of energy to refresh, renew and restore us.

We get a picture of restoration in the Gospel reading as Jesus brings healing to Peter’s mother-in-law and the sick people of Capernaum. Moreover, we begin to see what restoration is about.

Perhaps the most telling point in this passage is Mark’s note that, once she was healed — once her strength was renewed and restored — Peter’s mother-in-law “began to serve them”. Although we could see in this incident a simple reinforcement of gender roles, but Mark’s writing is very much about economy, so the fact that he notes this action should cause us to reflect more deeply. The word used here for “serve” is the one from which we get the word “deacon”. The Gospel is holding Peter’s mother-in-law up as a picture of what renewal is about, of how we should respond.

First, it’s about relationship. The healing was grounded in and grew out of relationship and trust. Peter and Andrew trusted Jesus and knew what he could do. The healing also inspired relationship, for Peter’s mother-in-law didn’t just sit back and ignore Jesus but served him. Healing and renewal are meant to bring us into closer relationship with God, to deepen our trust in God, and to bring us closer to one another.

Secondly, our renewal and healing are not solely for our own sakes but should move us to respond in service to others. This service needn’t be anything flashy, spectacular or out of the ordinary. After all, on one level, Peter’s mother-in-law was simply feeding her family and their friends. What could be more everyday? But, rendered to Jesus in response to her healing, this simple act becomes a holy act of loving service — an act of worship, even. This exemplifies for us the complete renewal of life, inside and out, that Jesus came to bring. Likewise, our daily actions and our interactions with others can and should be imbued with the love of Christ, becoming something holy and precious to God even as we deal with the slops of the food and the dirt of the dishes.

This renewal, this transformation of life, is part of God’s recreation, God’s new creation. Ultimately, Isaiah and Mark are saying the same thing: God will not abandon us, God has not abandoned us; God has come to us and will restore us.

Have courage and wait. And, in the midst of the mess and trauma, your strength will be renewed, your life will be transformed and you yourself will become an agent of God’s new creation.

 

Candlemas – Sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 31st January 2021

Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40

The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.

So promises the prophet Malachi in our first reading this morning. And that sudden coming is taken up in our Gospel reading, as Luke tells of the baby Jesus being taken to the temple, and there recognised by Simeon and Anna, as, indeed, their Lord and ours – the one who brings salvation, light for revelation and glory. In that sudden appearance, Simeon finds fulfilment and release: ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.’

It is tempting to focus our thoughts, on this Feast of Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in the temple, on that moment of revelation, of sudden, blinding, healing and release. This is the culmination of the season of Epiphany, the season that celebrates the revelation of Christ to shepherds and then Magi in the stable at Bethlehem; by the banks of the Jordan as he is baptised; in the calling of the first disciples: moments of sudden epiphany, of blazing light and faith given. And this is such a moment for Simeon and Anna.

As I contemplated our Gospel passage this week, however, I wasn’t drawn so much to that moment, as to the long years that preceded this sudden coming, this moment of revelation. Anna has inhabited the temple for long years after being widowed at an early age, worshipping there with fasting and prayer night and day. Simeon, we are told, is righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel; promised that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. How long he had lived with that promise we are not told. Had he doubted it? Was he certain what that promise would look like when it came?

We are living through times when our waiting, for the promise of vaccines, for the ability to see, and hug, and comfort, loved ones; when our waiting can seem endless. And still the darkness presses in, as the awful death toll to Covid mounts – we passed beyond 100,000 people dying of Covid in the United Kingdom alone this week. And behind that statistic, each a person known, and loved, and grieved. Each cared for by tiring health workers, who wonder too when this will end; people dying, separated from family and friends by the disciplines of PPE and sanitation, to die without the usual and important bodily farewells. This is a time of waiting, of hard, exhausting waiting; there have been too many false dawns and we are wary of thinking it will soon be all over. We know there is still a long haul ahead: so what will get us through, what can we learn from Anna and Simeon about waiting in the midst of grief, with hope and expectation?

Prayer is many things, but waiting is at the heart of it. Certainly there is rarely a simple correlation between prayer and answer: prayer is not simply about getting a result to a request. It is about that discipline of waiting, waiting on how requests might be answered, but also waiting to discover what it is we truly need, what it is we are actually needing to wait for.

To describe prayer as about waiting may seem to make prayer a very passive activity, but that is to misunderstand the waiting. Anna, we are told, in those long years in the temple, worships with fasting and prayer, night and day. There is a discipline involved to prayer – to the placing of oneself in this moment before God. And that placing is about feeling and knowing this moment, ever more deeply. It’s about not running away from the pressing grief and darkness of now; from feeling for those separated from loved ones, for all those involved in the care of others. Our waiting in consciousness of this moment, deepens our empathy, invites us to inhabit the shoes of others and to feel what they might be feeling. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, said T. S Eliot, in his Four Quartets, and there is certainly truth to that. But the prayer of waiting is about opening ourselves up, a little more, to that reality.

We do so, however – we wait – as Simeon did, in hope and expectation. It is easy for this moment to overwhelm us, to know despair. But there is consolation too, in the waiting; our reality is also about the collective effort we are making; it is about the going beyond, that many feel called to; it is about the care of keeping each other safe; it is about previously disregarded work being revealed in all its essentialness. And in prayer, we know that reality too, and draw strength from it.

Above all, our waiting, prepares us: prepares us to know what we are looking for, what really matters. Prayer is the schooling of our desire, so that, like Simeon, we can recognise our salvation when it comes. In this present moment, our waiting is about becoming more conscious of what this pandemic has revealed about our world, about that reality we inhabit. Our waiting is not simply for it to be over, for ‘normality’ to be resumed. The pandemic has revealed, through its ability to prey on the vulnerable, the deep fissures and divides in our society. The poor, the discriminated against, those without safety nets, are both more likely to be victims of Covid, but also least able to navigate through the wider challenges that the pandemic presents: the challenges of education in a time of home-schooling; of stable employment in a gig economy; of mental health in anxious times.

To pray, to know this time we are living through, is to be schooled in the determination that we will not simply return to normal; that the dead will only be honoured, and our grief give way to joy, if we find ways to rebuild and respond in ways that heal those fissures that have been revealed and deepened. The prophet Malachi, as he offers the promise of the Lord whom we seek suddenly coming to his temple, also warns that that moment is a moment of judgement; of the overturning of the usual ways of doing things: ‘I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, says the Lord.’

This time of waiting, therefore, is a time of discipline; of strengthening; of deepening empathy; of the discovery of knowing what really matters; and of deepening determination for that to shape our life as we move beyond this moment; as we greet our salvation and our healing.

Simeon greets the Christ child, after that discipline of prayer and waiting, and knows that he can depart in peace, not because everything is alright now. He warns Mary of the heartache to come, the heartache that is bound up in the coming of light into the world. But he has waited, and prayed, so that he sees and knows enough to bring him peace. Simeon is the opposite of a cynical old man: in his waiting, he has kept his eyes open to the possibility of his salvation; he has waited in hope and expectation, so that he recognises what will save him, what will grant him peace. And it is to that same faithfulness that we are called – to wait, with open hearts, with candles lit, for that which assures us that, at the end of all our waiting, ‘all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’ Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epiphany 2 – Sermon preached online by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 17 January 2021

“Come and See”
John 1:43–51

“Come and see”. In the midst of our second lockdown, when we can barely go anywhere or see anyone, and in a week when restrictions in Scotland are tightening even further, it might seem perverse to focus on those words from this week’s Gospel reading. Nonetheless, I couldn’t move past this phrase as I reflected on the readings and I found that, despite the confinement and frustration that I expect we all feel acutely right now, there is still a lot to find in these words.

“Come and see” isn’t the first thing to be said in the Gospel passage we heard. Jesus utters the first words of any characters when he draws Philip to him with the invitation or command: “Follow me”. We’ll take a look at this phrase first.

We all recognise it as the quintessential phrase of calling. It’s what Jesus says as he calls the disciples in the Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — but he says to someone it only twice in the Gospel of John: here and when he reinstates and commissions Peter after the resurrection.

Despite its rarity in this Gospel, the phrase “follow me” is no less important. In fact, to my mind, the way it bookends the story gives it if anything more significance. Its placing shows that the call is not only to follow the incarnate Word of God — remember, the call of Philip comes very soon after John’s famous prologue “In the beginning was the Word” — but to follow the crucified and resurrected Christ. It is a call not only for those first disciples and not only for those first witnesses of the resurrection but for us who live in the age of the Risen and Ascended Christ.

As you might have heard many times, the usual pattern in Jesus’ time was for disciples to find their own rabbis and not for the rabbis to choose their disciples. So, in each instance in which Jesus says “Follow me” he is breaking convention. In Jesus breaking this boundary, God is breaking out of the run-of-the-mill, out of tradition, and taking the initiative.

God still takes the initiative and invites us with the words “Follow me”. Even if we think that we were the ones to make the first move, when we reach out, we find that God was alway up to Firefox s reaching out before us.

Not only is “Come and see” not the first thing to be said in our reading, but it isn’t said by Jesus. For us to understand its significance, we need to go back a tiny bit before today’s passage. Although Jesus doesn’t utter these words here, he is in fact the first person in the Gospel of John to use the phrase. Jump back to verse 39, and you will find him issuing this invitation to Andrew and another unnamed disciple who have begun following him of their own accord after John the Baptist identifies him as the Lamb of God:

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi … where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ (vv 38–39)

“Come and see” is Jesus’ invitation to the two disciples to spend time with him, to start sharing his life and begin getting to know him. Because of the way that John uses the same verbs later in the Gospel to speak about believing in Christ, we can read it as an invitation to discipleship and, therefore, as an equivalent to his invitation to Philip, “Follow me”.

God takes the initiative, saying “Follow me — follow my path. Come and see — come and share my life.”

Let’s return to Philip. Not only is he the one to whom the call “Follow me” is issued but he is the one who utters the words “Come and see” in today’s passage.

What strikes me about Philip is the first thing he is recorded as doing after Jesus calls him: he goes to find Nathanael and tell him that he has found the Messiah. It might not be obvious, but Philip is doing exactly what he is told here: for all that he isn’t following Jesus physically, he is following Jesus’ example. After all, Jesus has just taken the initiative and sought him out. Philip is imitating what we, the audience, have already heard and seen Jesus do: calling people to follow, to come and share Christ’s life.

It’s clear, therefore, that John wants us to understand that to follow Jesus means acting like him and bringing people to share his life. Philip isn’t a tubthumping, Bible-bashing street evangelist, trying to condemn harassed shoppers into the Kingdom of God, as I had someone trying to do before Christmas. Nonetheless, Nathanael isn’t, shall we say, the most receptive of audiences: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he retorts (verse 46). Faced with this disparaging reaction, Philip doesn’t get into a debate about the Scriptures or Jesus’ good character. Nor does he walk off in disgust or disappointment. He simply invites Nathanael to “Come and see”. He invites Nathanael to an encounter and lets the life of Jesus speak for itself.

These are fractious days. People are at each other’s throats about so many things. Folk are quick to take issue and offence. The comments sections of website after website are thronged with people writing things that make Nathanael’s retort look terribly mild mannered. As we have seen in recent weeks, some people let themselves be whipped up into violence to make their voices heard. But we are called to let the life of Jesus speak for itself.

How do we do that? We might be tempted to say that the life of Jesus can only be seen alive in us, the people of God, but that would be only half the truth. Yes, when people see the love of God at work in us, the peace of God rooted in us, they see the life of Christ. And, yes, it is our calling to let that love and that life shine out of our words and actions. But it is also our calling to keep our eyes open so that we can see all the places where God is at work — the expected, the unexpected and the downright scandalous (the Nazareths of our time) — and point gently and lovingly to them so that others can “Come and see” and be drawn into the transforming power of Christ’s resurrection life.

Questions for Discussion/Reflection
How did God call you?
Where do you see God at work in unexpected or even scandalous ways?
How could you bring that work of God to wider attention?

Epiphany 1 – Sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 10th January 2021

Genesis 1.1-5; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11

New year, new lockdown.

There are times when the readings given to us by the lectionary seem right on the money, speaking directly to our situation or the time of year. Normally, the start of a new year is the right time to be taken by our Old Testament to the start of creation, to the movement of the Spirit over the darkness, the formless void and the chaos; the Spirit who then brings forth light, and order, a new creation. The new year seems the right time to think about the baptism of Christ, the start of his journey, the event that propels him into an awareness of his calling and the task ahead. As the new year begins, we ourselves are often asking the same questions, making appropriate resolutions – what might I make of this fresh new year, what am I, are we, called to?

And yet this new year, the course of the pandemic makes it feel hard to turn over new leaves; the past is catching up with us again as we re-tread the lockdown of last year. Despite the shoots of hope from vaccines beginning to be rolled out, we find ourselves, this time in bitter winter weather,  back in lockdown, tired and jaded; anxious if we have the resources to see this through again. And meanwhile, over in America, we witness barely believable convulsions that threaten their transition into a new start, a fresh page. There doesn’t feel much new about this year so far. How might our readings, that invite us into fresh paths, speak to us today?

At the New Year, the Methodist Church often holds a Covenant service: a service of re-dedication, renewing the covenant, the relationship, between God and themselves. At the heart of the service the congregation renew that covenant in a prayer that can be traced back to John Wesley himself:

I am no longer my own, but Thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt:
Put me to doing: put me to suffering:
Let me be employed for thee, or laid aside for thee:
Exalted for thee, or brought low for thee:
Let me be full, let me be empty:
Let me have all things: let me have nothing:
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth let it be ratified in heaven.

On first hearing, it may appear almost shocking in the directedness of its language, and in seeming to hand all responsibility over to God – ‘put me to what thou wilt.’ Is that really what we want to pray, to offer to God in our hard times? Where is human action, our decision making in that? It could be read as a prayer that simply accepts our fate, accepts whatever God has in store for us. The Christian calling is to endure. Is that how we imagine God, however – as the one in control. deciding, almost cruelly, what happens to us. It’s a prayer that asks, very directly, what kind of God we believe in;  how God acts in the world.

In this hard year, in what sense is God in control, the pandemic God’s will? If that’s the case, what kind of God are we dealing with – at the very least, why doesn’t God do something?

In our reading from the book of Acts, Paul, on his travels, meets some disciples. Upon questioning them he discovers that they have received John’s baptism, but not that of the Holy Spirit. This is obviously an important distinction, one that can be traced back to John himself. In today’s gospel John is recorded as saying, ‘I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’ Paul describes John’s baptism as a baptism of repentance – a baptism that offers the forgiveness of sins. It’s an understanding that persists: baptism is often described washing us clean. But for Paul, in the baptism offered in Christ, there is something more: baptism with the Holy Spirit.

One way to describe that distinction is to say that in John’s baptism the focus is on the past; in Christ’s, it is the future. Repentance is about wiping the slate clean, having the past forgiven. Baptism in the Holy Spirit – picking up the language of our first reading from Genesis, where the Spirit moves over the face of the deep, over the formless chaos – that baptism is about re-creation, renewal, it is to be thrust into the future. For Paul, baptism is about recognizing the work of the Spirit of God within ourselves, and all the baptised; recognising the Spirit which guides our human decision making, offers hope and strength, brings life. Baptism celebrates God’s action in the world and reveals it as Spirit – not a controlling force, but coaxer, inner voice if we would but listen, uncoverer of hidden talents, bringing all creation, without undermining its freedom, into relationship with God, and therefore into relationship with everything else that is.

At his own baptism, Jesus hears the Spirit declare: ‘You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.’ Our own life in the Spirit begins here too, is grounded in knowing that we are loved: ‘You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.’ Here is hope, and strength; here is the voice of the Spirit  who nurtures our living, coaxes our freedom to be a little more loving, more hopeful, less fearful.

Our baptism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, is not simply some past event, but a reality to be reclaimed now, that points and directs us into an uncertain future. In a moment, as our affirmation of faith, we will renew our baptismal vows, re-commit ourselves to that God who has not got everything mapped out, is not ‘in control’, in charge of our fate, but is God because God does not give up, does not lose hope, but eternally invites us into the freedom of service of others, into a world bound together by the Spirit.

If God is not the great manipulator of events, but the Spirit of renewal, the creator of order out of chaos, then that Methodist covenant prayer powerful articulates a faith that, whatever the year ahead might hold – poverty or riches, action or patience, esteem or loneliness – we will not give up on God, because God does not give up on us. We will continue to hope because God continues to offer us hope. Events may throw us into confusion, suffering might come upon us; we will be newly aware that we are not in control as much as we would like; weariness is, at times, bound to be our lot; but none of this is the final reality, which is God’s inexhaustible love. In the midst of whatever the new year brings, we will listen for God’s Spirit, the Spirit that forever accompanies us and does not desert us. We will not give up on God, because God does not give up on us. A covenant indeed. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Christmas 1 – Sermon preached by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 27th December 2020

The waiting is over and the waiting has just begun.

All these years I have been coming daily
to this house of God. All these years waiting
for the Lord to show me the one who’ll set us free.
I’ve lost count, almost, of how many years it is. Waiting
for God to ride in and rescue us.

All these years of prayer and I was assured
I’d recognise him instantly. So many families
passed through the house of God each day
and I glanced at every one of them. So many times
the Spirit told me, No, not this one, just like Samuel
with the sons of Jesse. No, not this one, yet again.

Today they came in cradling a tiny bairn:
a mother and father who straight away you could tell
were prime candidates for the food bank.
Yet something about this family told me at once
my years of waiting were at an end.
Yes, he looked exhausted; she appeared utterly drained
and worn down with the care of keeping her son,
but even so their faces were charged
with love and pride, with awe and fear,
with trust and deep confusion —
that combination we might label holiness.
So ordinary, yet so sacred.

I heard the Spirit whisper to me,
Yes, yes — this is the one. This
is the one you’re waiting for.
And before the parents could approach the priests
to do for him what they had come to do
as their faithful hearts had moved them
according to the commands laid down by God,
I took this newborn in my arms and gazed
down at the face I knew to be my Redeemer’s.

I felt as if a crown were held out to me,
a diadem resting in the hands of God,
as though the Lord Almighty stood before me
as a servant stands before their king,
waiting for me to take hold of the kingdom.
And not only me,
not only all our people even,
but all people everywhere — our enemies among them!

Surely you will say this is nonsense.
Surely you will say that this is upside down.
Friend, barely a day ago
I would have surely said the same
but this child changes everything.

For Zion’s sake, I could not hold my wheesht.
For Jerusalem’s sake, I could do nothing
but burst out in a song of praise to God,
my Master-Servant, Servant-Master
who has prepared our freedom like a feast.
I did not care who heard me then
and do not care who hears me now
save that those astounded young parents
had to know just who they have in their charge.

The waiting for me is over
and I can go now,
happy and at peace that I have seen what was promised.
But the waiting has just begun
for the world to see
what this fragile little newborn will become.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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