Pentecost 6 – sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 12th July 2020

Genesis 25.19-34; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

Who are you?

The question is perhaps rarely put as baldly as that. More politely perhaps, at a party or work meeting, we get asked to say something about ourselves, reveal something of who we are. If you are anything like me then there are perhaps stock answers that we offer – something about work, family, where I am from. If the conversation progresses we might talk about our sense of identity, nationality, faith, what we get up to outside of work and family. And then as the conversation goes deeper we might talk about the kind of person we are – our characteristics and personality – and we begin to tell stories that exemplify that or show how we come to be that way. Stories that help make sense of ourselves, to ourselves as well as to others. Stories that display and reveal something of the depth of each of us. Any conversation about who we are that lasts for very long moves beyond a succession of facts about me, into stories. Because stories are how we understand ourselves and each other.

One of the reasons I love the Old Testament – and wish perhaps that we read it, and preached on it, more – is that large parts of it are stories. Stories that reveal in the telling something of who the people of Israel, the people of God, are. Today we began the story of Jacob, the last of the three great founding forebears: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob it is who will later be named Israel, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. So his story is one that will be picked up and woven into many people’s story – he will become a fundamental part of how the whole people of God understand themselves. And so it’s a story worth attending to, for the clues it reveals about who this people are, what has shaped them. The story of Jacob is deep in the DNA, we might say, of the people of Israel, and therefore of us too. The bible invites us always to see our story in the light of this story, our own stories both reflected and revealed.

Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, finds herself pregnant with twins, struggling within her. ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ she enquires of God. Rebekah already has a sense that life with twins will never be easy. God’s answer invites us to see the twins as fathers of rival nations: Edom (which means red, ruddy) and Israel. Esau, red and hairy, is born first; Jacob swiftly follows, his hand already gripping Esau’s heel – a telling detail of the story. And then, as the boys grow up, we are invited to see other contrasts: the hunter and the gatherer; the man of action and the quieter reflective one; the one loved by the father, the other preferred by the mother – Daddy’s boy, and Mummy’s boy? The final vignette reveals Esau as governed by his belly – willing to sell his birthright, the right belonging to the elder, for a bowl of lentils that meet the immediate need of hunger; and Jacob, we gather, is altogether different – clever, a trickster who is happy to exploit his brother’s need to reverse the usual power relations. And yet that hand gripping the heel of the other echoes through the story – these two, a study in contrasts, are nevertheless intertwined.

The question, ‘Who are you?’ swiftly, in conversation, becomes a story intertwined with the story of others. In conversation we make points of connection, and difference, with the story of our conversation partner. Taking the cue of this story, of the birth of two nations in these brothers – and here I begin to tread warily – we might find echoes of the story of Scotland and England. National identity, and how that connects for each of us with our own personal sense of identity is complicated, but at the most basic level the story of Scotland, of what it is to be Scottish, is intertwined with the story of England. It’s a story often of contrast, but also about that intertwining, a rivalry and a need of each other. Our Old Testament story, told principally from the perspective of Jacob and his descendants, is both a laughing at their neighbour – the Edomite, so named for their forebear who sold his birth right for a pot of red stew – but also an admission that they are indeed bound together.

The story delights in Jacob’s cunning, and it doesn’t stop here; the story goes on to tell of his tricking of his now old blind and needy father, Isaac, to further rob Esau of their father’s blessing. Jacob’s cunning has a dark, uncomfortable side, even as he dances through life. He too will be tricked in his turn (but that’s the story for a future week), and this is not the last we hear of Esau either. Jacob and Esau’s intertwined stories continue, toward one of the most devastating and moving moments of reconciliation in the bible. Through it all we are invited both to recognise and rejoice in Jacob’s cunning, but also sense that things are more complicated that we like to admit. That there is both dark and light to Jacob, and to us.

In contrast, the story, the parable of the sower, told by Jesus in our Gospel can seem remarkably straightforward. I have to admit that I often find it a bit flat, predictable, ponderous even compared to other parables. The story of the sower who goes out to sow, with the seed falling on very different ground and soil, feels very direct, but it doesn’t have that element of surprise seen in the best parables or a twist to draw us in. I realise that much of that reaction is due to the somewhat crude tagged on explanation of the meaning of the parable given to the disciples. Many scholars argue that this explanation reflects the interpretation that the story gained in the early days of the church. For me the best stories are those that, like people, resist easy explanation. The explanation given tends to emphasise the seed that does not reach full harvest and the different ground it falls on. We become tempted, in this telling, to identify ourselves, or others with inhabiting a particular ground – well-trodden or rocky or thorny. One way to restore the surprise to the story is to remember that the first agrarian hearers of the story would have been astonished at the profligate practice of the farmer, throwing his seed around, willy-nilly. Any good subsistence farmer would have been much more careful than that, and ensured that the seed landed in good soil. And so the parable, on that telling, becomes also about the mysterious activity of God’s grace, dispersing seed in all directions, rather than through careful planting. God’s purposes of an abundant harvest are achieved through waste and destruction and indiscriminate sowing, so that the good soil might be also be seeded. That’s a surprising and very different way of imagining the activity of God in our lives and world.

I find that a more helpful way to understand the parable as, like Jacob, I know that within all of us is both dark and light; we all have within us a mixture of rocky, well trodden, thorny and fruitful ground. Our more honest stories reflect that. Maturity of faith and life comes when that ambiguity is admitted – when we move beyond painting ourselves, and others, as all good or all bad; when we admit the truth that we and others are more complicated than that, but that God’s abundant grace keeps being given out in expectation that the harvest will come.

Who are you? Who are we? As we navigate our way out of this time of crisis and re-evaluation, who are we called to become, where within us and between us might the seed be growing, waiting to be harvested? We will discover that as we tell our stories, stories of rivalry and intertwining, and as we recognise our need for each other, as we recognise God’s abundant grace at work in ourselves and each other. Amen.


Questions to consider

How are stories a unique way to understand ourselves and others?

Who do you sympathise and identify with in the story of Jacob and Esau?

In what ways do you find the categories of ground identified by Jesus in the parable of the sower – trodden down, rocky, thorny and good – helpful?

What does the action of the sower, and by extension, God, in distributing seed in such a liberal and indiscriminate fashion, suggest to you about the activity of God in the world?

Pentecost 5 — Sermon preached online by Andy Philip, Chaplain — 5th July 2020

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Mt 11:28–30)

Who are the weary and burdened Jesus calls out to in today’s Gospel? We get a clue by looking back at the accusations thrown at him at the start of the passage. There, we find that people are scandalised by the company he keeps:

‘the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”’

They’re upset that he’s hanging around with the folk who’re perceived as immoral, as undesirable, as unscrupulous, as traitors — the ones who are, to put it bluntly, beyond the pale for the respectable people who take their religion nice and seriously.

If you’ve ever been on the outside of an in group — if you’ve ever been the unpopular one, the uncool one, or the odd one out for whatever reason — you’ll know that it’s wearisome and burdening to be looked down upon, to be made fun of or to be loudly or quietly despised. Unless you have a tribe of other odd ones out or until you find such a group or simply grow to be indifferent to what others expect, the rejection and ridicule can be immensely painful.

Some of us might well have experienced such pain on account of our race, our gender, our social class or our faith. Some of us might have been the ones to inflict that pain, wittingly or unwittingly. Sad to say that the church, unlike the Lord it tries to follow, has often been good at that.

Perhaps Jesus is calling out to those of us who are wearied and burdened by others’ expectations, others’ conventions and others’ standards. Maybe he is saying:

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying the heavy burdens of rejection and exclusion.’

However, maybe there is something more. Looking back to those accusations at the head of the reading, there is a further clue in the word ‘sinners’. This clue sends us off into our reading from Romans, where Paul wrestles with the perversity of human nature, the weakness that dogs us all when it comes to willpower:

‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’ (Rom 17:15)

There is debate among interpreters about whether the ‘I’ in this passage is Paul talking about himself — perhaps the course of his life before he encountered Christ on the Damascus road — or whether it is a rhetorical device he uses to demonstrate the law’s inability to fix us. In the end, though, the effect amounts to pretty much the same: the clear sense of a man burdened by the way that sin presses in on his will, turning him against what he knows is right, is good and is good for him.

Regardless of how personal Paul is or is not getting here, the implication is clear: this condition is a basic, universal human experience. As the confession for the Scottish Prayer Book’s daily prayer says: ‘there is no health in us’. The question is not whether it affects us, but whether we are aware of the predicament, whether we feel the burden of our sins in our lives, whether — to quote the prayer book Eucharist — ‘The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.’

We might feel the weight of wrestling with some form of behaviour that not even those most intimate to us know about — an addiction perhaps. We might feel the weight of the way we have sinned in our closest relationships — when, yet again and despite all that we want to do and be, we react in a way or say something that hurts our nearest and dearest. We might be waking up to the weight of sinful structures on our lives — structural racism, the damage consumerism does to our social fabric and the planet we share with other people, other species.

Perhaps Jesus is calling out to us who are burdened by sin:

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying the heavy burdens of not living up to your own standards or to what God asks you to be.’

There’s a danger I might begin to sound like an old-style, dour Scottish Calvinist here, ratcheting up the guilt with every thump on the pulpit, driving us all deeper into the darkness of total depravity. But, as Paul says, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ For Jesus is indeed the ‘Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy’. What he offers isn’t a muckle big stick to beat ourselves with; no, it’s what we all need: rest for our souls.

Rest for our souls. Those wearied by rejection and exclusion find in Christ the rest of welcome, love and homecoming. Those wearied by the weight of sin find the rest of forgiveness and restoration, a burden removed and fresh energy injected by the Holy Spirit working in our lives.

I think too that Jesus is calling out to those who are simply wearied and burdened by life. And that applies pretty much across the board at the moment, doesn’t it? We are all wearied and burdened by the restrictions and the worries that we have faced and continue to face. What does rest for our souls mean in this time of pandemic, a time when we are tentatively emerging from lockdown, with all the joys and anxieties that evokes, all the uncertainties that it entails?

I suspect that, above all, it’s about space and connection. As I saw people wander into the Cathedral this week — people I didn’t know and had never seen before — and noticed them sit in the nave or walk the labyrinth, it struck me that, in offering that space to them, we were offering them something of the rest that Jesus promises. Likewise, morning and evening prayer, which we continue to do on Zoom at the moment, are spaces where we can taste something of that rest in God, something of God’s ‘unfading light’ and ‘eternal changelessness’.

These are spaces in which we are able to connect: to connect with God and with one another as we rest alone and together, as we share prayer needs or even just the ordinary struggles and delights of the day. It is a connection that can lift us out of the confined space into which lockdown has placed us, lift us — even for a moment — up into the broad space that the Spirit of God creates, into the green pastures of Psalm 23, into the ‘Sweetness most ineffable’ that comes with Christ’s presence.

May we all find something of that rest in the days and weeks ahead. And may we all be people who, in whatever way, guide others into that space.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion

How does Jesus’ invitation to the weary and burdened speak to you? Do you feel yourself to be among that group? If so, in what way(s)?

Do you agree that what Paul says in our Romans reading about the human condition is a universal experience?

What does it mean to be a ‘sinner’? How do you react to that description? How do you react to Jesus’ invitation to sinners?

How might you find rest and/or guide others into rest in the coming days?

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 3 – Sermon preached online by John Conway, Provost – 21st June 2020

Genesis 21.8-21; Matthew 10.24-39

On the face of it, our first reading this morning is a troubling story. It is the story of Hagar and her young son Ishmael being cast out into the wilderness, cast out following a fit of jealousy on the part of Sarah and Abraham, as they protect Abraham’s other son Isaac and his inheritance. Hagar and Ishmael are forced out to wander in the wilderness, there to come close to death, before finding, even in the desert, with God’s prompting, a well of water from which they are replenished, and so wander out of the pages of our bible. The troubling aspects of the story only increase as we examine the background, the preceding chapters of Genesis which have laid out this story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar.

The story begins with God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants, more in number than the stars, will fill the earth and bless it. That promise appears frustrated as Sarah and Abraham remain childless, until they have the idea to ‘use’ Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, as a surrogate mother. It’s a suggestion that initially at least Abraham appears to have little difficulty with, but in the course of time perhaps unsurprisingly it ends in mutual recrimination, as the now pregnant Hagar is cast out for the first time. Prompted by God she returns to the household, and ‘submits’ to Sarah, even as Ishmael is then born to her. To Sarah’s astonishment – she had laughed at the prospect – the seemingly impossible happens and Sarah herself becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. And so we reach this morning’s story; when at a great feast to celebrate Isaac’s weaning, his older half-brother Ishmael is spotted playing with him, and Sarah and Abraham respond to the blessing of this child by turfing out the potential rival, banishing Hagar and her son Ishmael. This story of the blessing of all the families of the earth through the progeny of Abraham starts unpromisingly.

And that matters, of course. For this is the story of Abraham – the father of faith. And yet it’s a pattern we have seen before: the blessing of the Garden of Eden is soon disturbed and Adam and Eve find themselves cast out; that first family finds itself undone by jealousy as Cain turns on, and murders, his brother, Abel. The Hebrew Scriptures are very clear eyed in their depiction of the jealousies and rivalries that threaten to undo the blessing of God that they also attest to. That is what makes this story troubling: Abraham and Sarah’s blessing – both the covenant that promises to bless the earth through them and their descendants, and the concrete blessing of this child, Isaac, given to them even in old age – Abraham and Sarah’s blessing does not unleash generosity of heart and action, but a casting out of the one who, they think, is no longer needed for this story, is indeed a potential rival. Hagar is superfluous. Nevermind that the story was supposed to be one of blessing, blessing for all people, the whole earth.

We are often not as clear-eyed as scripture about these things. We don’t always recognise the same jealousies and protectiveness in ourselves, or in the church, the proclaimer of God’s blessing. Any self-examination however, and any prolonged experience of the church, that community of flawed human beings like you and me, quickly disabuses us of the notion that living in an awareness of God’s blessing prevents us from selling that blessing short. It’s a pattern played out all too often in the name of religion – the blessing of God is narrowed, and becomes a possession for me and mine; the outsider and the other is superfluous to the blessing, their wellbeing and blessing somehow not part of the gift. We recognize ourselves in this account of Abraham and Sarah.

What redeems the story is its recognition that God is not limited to such behaviour. Abraham may be the centre of this story, the primary recipient and means of blessing, but his failures to see a different future for Hagar and Ishmael, do not determine their fate. The story recognises that God is bigger than that, that God’s promised blessing is faithful, and Hagar not forgotten. She may wander out of the pages of Genesis, but the hint is there that God does not desert her: ‘I will make a nation of him also’, says God before providing the well in the desert to replenish and renew.  Muslims trace their religious ancestry back through Ishmael and Hagar to Abraham. Hagar is the mother of the Islamic faith – the well in the desert where she finds water is traditionally thought to still spring in the desert, a short distance from the Kaaba at Mecca. When Muslims perform the Haj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, many will journey between the Kaaba and the well to replicate Hagar and Ishmael’s search for water. To drink from the well is to re-find blessing.

So our first reading explores the gap between God’s promised blessing, and our en-action and reaction to such blessing; it suggests too that God is always bigger than we had imagined, always at work to enlarge our flawed living out of the blessing.

Here at St Mary’s Cathedral this week we are busy planning the re-opening of our building for prayer as lockdown begin to ease. It’s proving quite an effort – to make sure we can do that safely. Ordering the hand sanitiser, finding volunteers to staff the rota, setting up the building for social distancing as well as prayer. But we do that because this building is one of the ways we seek to bless our city. Just as its doors were shut back in March, not out of fear, but out of love; so now the effort is important, is one expression of the blessing of God that we want to proclaim and deepen. Every church has it’s own ways of seeking to be a blessing, an expression of that gift of God given to each in the gift of life together.

‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ That is the dynamic of the gospel, words which end Jesus’ challenging speech to the disciples we heard in today’s gospel. Those words suggest that to be a blessing is not straightforward, and that it’s certainly not about hugging the blessing to ourselves.

Jesus has two fundamental messages to the disciples which underpin that insight that to gain life is about letting go. The first is the exhortation to the disciples: Do not be afraid; a exhortation found again and again in the gospels. Fear is what makes us hold the blessing tight to ourselves – fear of the potential rival, fear of the other. And second, the mission to widen the blessing is not easy – it may even bring us into conflict. Those hard words of Jesus, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,” are not easy to hear. They only make sense, it seems to me, in a world where family loyalty is everything; where the protection of me and mine is the over-riding loyalty. That is the loyalty which caused Sarah and Abraham to drive Hagar out. Family bonds, the bonds we share with those we love, or are familiar, or are like us, those bonds are important and a blessing, of course, but they can become oppressive of the outsider, and a limiter of the blessing. Jesus words are an exhortation to widen the circle of blessing, to include more than we would naturally, instinctively. And that is the task as we move out of lockdown. How might we live out, and offer that blessing, given to us so that all might be blessed? A blessing that we discover as we share it.

The doors of this Cathedral will, we hope, be once again thrown open this week – not just for our sake but to be a place of refuge, of transformation, of prayer, of community, of blessing for all. Amen.

Pentecost 2 – sermon preached online by Andy Philip, Chaplain – 14th June 2020

Where do we go from here? I imagine that this question was on the lips of all 12 apostles as Jesus sent them out. To judge by the Gospels, he doesn’t seem to have detailed them to go to certain towns and villages but instead to have trusted their judgment and nous.

Where do we go from here? I expect this question is also on most of our minds as we trace the implications of the gradual, tentative steps out of lockdown in Scotland, as we try to envisage what life will be like, what work will be like, what school will be like, what church will be like in whatever the new normal is like. I also expect it comes to mind as we follow the footage of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, the UK and elsewhere, as we reflect on the experience of the black and minority ethnic communities in our society and on how we respond as individuals and as a community of faith.

Last week, we heard Jesus’ Great Commission. The Provost spoke of it as an invitation to participate in the divine life, creating room for all people, all creation, to breathe deeply that life, to breathe in concert with the Holy Trinity, the God who is love.

This week, we once again hear of Jesus sending out his disciples. We jump back in the story to before the crucifixion and resurrection, a jump cut in the lectionary that reminds us there is a line of continuity in Jesus’ sending. Sending out isn’t something Christ keeps back for after the resurrection; it’s part of the story the whole way through, for Jesus sends out his disciples in imitation and extension of his own mission, his own sending by God the Father.

It is not enough to wait for others and welcome them into our walls, even though hospitality is a fundamental kingdom value. Like Abraham, we can and do encounter God as we welcome the stranger to our space. But we are called to break out of that space. Like the disciples, we are summoned and sent in imitation of the one who sends us, the one who is himself sent and who, through the Holy Spirit, perpetually sends himself to enable us to go just as he went.

So where do we go from here? Where are we sent to? Matthew tells us what moved Jesus to send out his disciples:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (9:36)

They were harassed and helpless. It’s quite vivid, but I was taken aback to read in one commentary that the Greek words we translate as ‘harassed and helpless’ mean ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’.

I was taken aback because I can’t hear ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’ without thinking of George Floyd with the policeman’s knee on his neck. Or, indeed, without thinking of Sheku Bayoh who died in Kirkcaldy five years ago in disturbingly similar circumstances, and who shares with George Floyd his last words: ‘I can’t breathe.’

And I was taken aback because none of the other English translations I have to hand convey the violence of that image: ‘weary and helpless’, ‘bewildered and dejected’, ‘confused and aimless’, ‘bewildered and miserable’.  None of them says, ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’. William Lorimer’s Scots translation, however, comes close when it speaks of the crowds as ‘sair dung and forfachelt’ — ‘struck down and exhausted’.

Jesus sends us out to those who are ‘sair dung and forfachelt’, those who are ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’. He sends us out to

‘proclaim the good news […] Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.’ (10:7–8)

That is, to bring wholeness, to create room for the oppressed to breathe.

To bring that wholeness, we are given authority to cast out demons. It’s the first thing Jesus gives the disciples authority to do in this passage and it’s the last thing in the list of his instructions on the essence of their task, so it brackets or bookends the way he lays out the mission.

I imagine that many of us are not the most comfortable with talk of casting out demons. Don’t worry: I’m not about to propose that we all run around commanding unclean spirits to leave unsuspecting neighbours and strangers. Instead, I invite you for the moment to think of demons as defining evils of this age, evils that shape the way we live and influence our conscious or unconscious thoughts, our attitudes and actions.  And I invite you think of casting out demons as confronting those evils.

Think about the events of past few weeks in those terms and it’s clear that they have thrown the spotlight on one such demon among many — the evil of systemic racism — generating headlines dominated by attempts to confront it.

Now, I’m aware that there are dangers in the direction I’m going here, not least of which is the danger of falling into some kind of saviour complex. Here comes the church to set everything to right by confronting racism! That simply won’t do. It simply won’t wash because we, too, have been complicit in the system that perpetuates racism and have failed to confront it in our own house. For instance, I read this morning that the Church of England owned slaves. I read this week of a black ordinand down south who was rejected by one possible curacy church this year partly on the basis of his race.

If we are to cast out the demon of racism from our society, we first need to cast it out of ourselves, as individuals, as a community, as a church. Those of us who are white — the overwhelming majority of Cathedral members — need to take a good, hard, long, prayerful look at ourselves and to put ourselves under the judgment and tutelage of our black and minority ethnic brothers, sisters and neighbours in order to pinpoint the ways, the often subtle ways, in which the disease of racism has infected us. We need, in a word, to listen.

That will doubtless be hard and unsettling work, as I’m sure casting out demons was for the disciples. It is often unsettling when the Spirit is at work, not least because the insights that work produces might come from unexpected quarters and lead us in unexpected directions.

I was asked this week by a young person, ‘Why is Jesus white?’ There’s a straightforward answer to that: he wasn’t, and he isn’t shown that way in all traditions, but white European Christians made white European images of him and then imposed them in places they colonised. They made an idol of a white Jesus. But the question made me think afresh about the images of Christ in our Cathedral and it struck me that, as far as I can recall, they are all images of a white, European Jesus. Here, then, is one of those subtle ways that racism has influenced our own community. Here is that demon hanging around in our own sanctuary.

How do we go about casting it out? How do we go about toppling that idol? Awareness of the issue is the first step, but only the first. As a community, we need to reflect on what response that understanding demands of us. Perhaps there are other things in our past and our present that we will also need to uncover, own and cast out. But we should take heart, because Jesus has given us the authority to do so and it is his Spirit of freedom that will create the room to breathe.

Where do we go from here? This question faces us every day and it faces the church in every age. But wherever we go from here, we go with the Spirit and we go in Christ’s name and in his resurrection power. May we, like the apostles, be among those who bring freedom, justice, change, room to breathe.


Questions for Reflection:

In the Cathedral, we are good at welcoming people into our space. What might it mean for us to break out of that space and go to others?

How do you react to the description of the crowds as ‘oppressed and thrown to the ground’?

What we work do you/we need to do to address systemic racism and other injustices in our society?

‘It is often unsettling when the Spirit is at work.’ How has the Holy Spirit been working in you during the lockdown? Has that shifted in this period of unrest and protest?

Trinity Sunday – sermon preached online by John Conway, Provost – 7th June 2020

Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-31; Psalm 8; Matthew 28.16-20

In the name of God, Creating, Redeeming and Transforming. Amen.

I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

Those are words that might possibly come to define these months that we are living through. I can’t breathe. First Covid19, attacking people’s ability to breathe. And seeming to target the vulnerable – the elderly, particularly those in care homes; those with underlying health conditions; those in black, asian and minority ethnic communities. And the death toll in those communities particularly stark amongst those who have responded most selflessly to the pandemic – those essential workers we have begun to appreciate with new eyes: carers, transport workers, those in the NHS. Covid19 has attacked that most fragile, basic and necessary aspect of being human – our breathing. And in the wider lockdown that all of us have experienced – for how many of us has that been an increasingly suffocating experience, as we have felt choked by the need to stay indoors, not able to physically meet with family and friends; unable to escape situations of abuse, or trapped by the suffocating anxiety of an uncertain future, of financial pressures and worries. I can’t breathe.

And, of course, this last week, those words have resonated across America and beyond. The dying words of a man being suffocated to his death; the police whose job it is to protect and save lives, now becoming, as all too frequently before, the administrants of death to a black man. I can’t breathe. Is it any wonder that those words have been picked up and shouted at demonstrations across America, succintly expressing both the particular brutality experienced by George Floyd, but also the wider sense of frustration and rage at a system, a political order, a society, which suffocates the life from black communities and people? I can’t breathe.

Breath is the most basic, and taken for granted, aspect of being human. To live is to breathe, and to breathe is to live. For that reason religions have always brought our breathing to mind, to consciousness: whether that is in basic breathing techniques for meditation and prayer, or as a sign of the life given to us by God – the breath breathed into the dust of the earth to create life; or as an analogy for the divine life within us – the Spirit and breath of God. To live is to breathe; to live in faith is to recognise that breath as a sign of the living Spirit within us and all life. ‘I can’t breathe’ expresses a radical challenge to that which is most sacred and most basic. We are suffocating, and we need the breath of God to blow through us like never before.

Words from our Old Testament reading this morning:

Why do you say, OJacob, and speak, OIsrael, ‘My way is hidden from theLord, and my right is disregarded by my God’? Have you not known? Have you notheard? TheLordis the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of theearth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and beweary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for theLordshall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

In a world seemingly suffocating and fainting, what has faith to offer; how might we bring breath to mind and sense?

Our breath connects our spirit to God’s Spirit – it is neither solely one, or the other; our breath is an analogy of our participation in the divine. We breathe because God breathes in us. And it is that participation in the action and life of the divine that the Trinity tries to name and shape. On this Trinity Sunday we celebrate and deepen our trust in God who is creative power, saving love, transforming freedom. The mystery that is God is named by the Trinity as beyond, with, and within us; as above all, through all and in all; the Trinity points to a God from whom, by whom and in whom all things exist, struggle toward freedom and in that freedom find their true home and end.

The Trinity is therefore a dynamic image – an image of a personal God, but not of three persons sat around in some sort of heavenly conference. It is a dynamic image because it speaks of God in terms of movement and relationship, continually reaching out and receiving back. Giving life to all things. To attend to breath is to attend to that gift of life within us, and within every living creature; it is to attend to the mystery that we exist and to trust in that which has given us life, to trust our creator.

But God does not simply create the world and sit back to admire the handiwork, but in the Word, the Logos, through whom all things are created, God enters creation, becomes involved, and is encountered here. At the heart of creation lies the mystery of a man so open to the claims and possibilities of love, so fully alive to the breath of God within him, that that engagement of God in love shines out. The human Jesus of Nazareth confronts the dominating power of evil and death. The relationship of love between Creator and Word is, in that confrontation, stretched to breaking point, as Christ journeys into the horror of the power that, on the cross, snuffs out the breath of life. But from that horror, new life is offered. The Risen Christ breathes new life into broken disciples, giving them the faith to live no longer in the fear of death and the power of domination, but to trust in the power of the saving love of God. And we too breathe in that faith, the faith to protest against a world that suffocates, and create a world where all might breathe.

Faith witnesses to that Spirit within us – transforming our broken lives, our unjust structures and desire to dominate; transforming us in and for God, a transformation achieved by the gift in love of freedom. We are not coerced, dominated by an all powerful God into transformation – rather in the Spirit, in the gift of breath and life, we are gifted our true selves, the promise and possibility of true humanity. We and all creation are invited through the Spirit to participate in the divine communal life of the Trinity. In prophetic action, in the searching after justice and peace, in generous lives of love, in the glory of what humans and our whole earth and cosmos are capable of, the mystery of the Spirit is revealed and creation is turned toward its maker.

Jesus said to them, ” Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Breathe. It all starts with breath – attending to our own and that of all creation, to the breath of God. Attending, nurturing and not destroying breath, to the ends of the earth. That is why we will fight the pandemic with all the reources we have available – so that all may breathe. Why we must use this moment of fracture to reset and re-imagine – so that all may breathe. Why black lives matter – for the Spirit gives life that all may breathe. We are not made for suffocation, but for breathing, breathing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.



Questions to consider:

How does/might the discipline of attending to your breathing play a role in your own spirituality and practise?

How does the Trinity help you think of/speak about/pray to God?

One of the things that the Trinity does is help us focus on what God does (create/redeem/transform) and on the relationships between the persons of the Trinity (God the Father begets the Son; the Son is inspired by the Spirit; the Father breathes the Spirit into all creation; the Son intercedes to the Father for all creation etc). What changes in how we think of /speak about/pray to God, when we imagine God  as a verb, rather than a noun – a (transcendent/immanent) agent, rather than a thing?

What does it mean to say that our vocation (as human beings, and as part of all creation) is to participate in the life of God?

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 7/Ascension Sunday – sermon preached online by John Conway, Provost – May 24th 2020

Acts 1.6-14; 1Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11; John 17.1-11

Jesus said: ‘This is eternal life, that all people may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’

This has been an Easter season like no other. There is no need to rehearse the reasons for that – we are still living in the midst of that strangeness. But this Easter season, we have been proclaiming the resurrection of Christ in the midst of much uncertainty, fear, turmoil, and change. That has been a challenge certainly – not least having to do all that in online worship, but it has brought to the proclamation of life in the midst of death, a vitality and a fresh urgency.

And now, as we collectively, I sense, grow increasingly bored and frustrated at lockdown, and long for its easing, we celebrate the Ascension of Christ.

And that too is not inappropriate, for the Ascension is a moment of transition: for the first disciples it marks the transition from the intimacy, the life-changing richness of the first resurrection appearances, through the sudden absence of that bodily presence of the Risen Christ, as Christ is taken up into heaven; through to the proclamation, in the power of the Spirit given at Pentecost, that Christ is everywhere, abiding with us, and us in him, until the end of time. Ascension is a hinge point, a turning point for the disciples, and therefore for us; it’s the moment when the gift of the resurrection, given to us at Easter to turn us each around, now becomes our responsbility, our story, the way we walk in. In Luke’s telling of the Christ event, the Ascension marks both the end of his Gospel – it is the climax of the resurrection appearances, and it marks the start of his telling of the Acts of the Apostles, the living out of resurrection life by the early church.

George MacLeod, one of the founders of the Iona Community used to retell an old legend about the return of Jesus to heaven after his ascension. It is said that the angel Gabriel met him at the gates of the city. ‘Lord, this is a great salvation that thou hast wrought,’ said the angel. But the Lord Jesus only said, ‘Yes’. ‘What plans hast thou made for carrying on the work? How are all to know what thou hast done?’ asked Gabriel. ‘I left Peter and James and John and Martha and Mary to tell their friends, their friends to tell their friends, till all the world should know.’ ‘But Lord Jesus,’ said Gabriel, ‘suppose Peter is too busy with the nets, or Martha with the housework, or the friends they tell are too occupied, and forget to tell their friends  – what then?’ The Lord Jesus did not answer at once; then he said in his quiet wonderful voice: ‘I have not made any other plans. I am counting on them.’

The Ascension is both our celebration of the culmination of Christ’s redeeming work, his carrying into heaven the fullness of our wounded, redeemed humanity; and the moment when that work becomes our work, in all our fragility and frailness. For Christ’s kingship that we proclaim, is not the kingship of a potentate lording it over his subjects, but the kingship of inspiration, of loving service, of handing over to Peter, James, John, Martha, Mary, you, me, the work of reconciling all creation in the power of the resurrection.

We are at something of a hinge point in our response to the coronavirus too. We are looking toward slowly coming out of lockdown. That lockdown has been a time of unexpected gifts, of discovery and even in some things delight. But it has been a time of enormous suffering too. I’m not sure that our reading from 1Peter this morning was a direct inspiration to the UK Government’s new, slightly muddled, public messaging, but it too counsels, keep alert! The famous image that follows certainly didn’t figure in Government advice – like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 1Peter is written in a very different context, but it makes clear that suffering is not something that the resurrection removes, protects Christ’s disciples from. Rather, resurrection faith provides the courage, the strength to persist and resist, and beyond that, the desire to wrestle meaning and possibility from the suffering. ‘Resist him, steadfast in your faith,’ writes Peter, ‘for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.’

The power of death is all too real – the grief and agony we have witnessed and known is testament to that. All of us I’m sure, have seen or heard or imagined something of that grief, experienced the ripples of it, even as waves of grief and pain hit others. We know something of its force, and we cannot deny it. But we can refuse to give it dominion. For the heart of our gospel is that beyond, encompassing, redeeming crucifixion is resurrection – the power of life. And this is eternal life, says Jesus in today’s Gospel – this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

It is that life, that desire to connect and create, to cherish and serve, that we have also seen in evidence throughout this pandemic. That response, to meet grief with love, and to celebrate such love, is testament to the power of life: this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. Jesus Christ, whose rising from the dead is the gift, the sign, the enactment of that power of life over death.

The early disciples responded to the sudden absence of the risen Christ, to his ascension, in prayer and a waiting on the Spirit. They had no idea where their faith would take them. And neither do we as lockdown eases and we enter a new landscape. But we wait in faith, renewed by the glory of the resurrection.  For to participate in that glory is to participate in the power of being fully alive, and not in thrall to death. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, says Jesus; and I have been glorified in them. Amen.


Some questions for pondering:

How do we make sense of the absence that is at the heart of the Ascension story? Does it help us talk about, and pray with, a sense of the way that Jesus is both with us now, and not with us?

What might the words, addressed to disciples who are staring up into heaven after the departing Jesus, mean: ‘Why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’?

How do you react to Peter’s thoughts on suffering? Is he talking about suffering in general, or particular kinds of suffering? How does his advice on responding to that suffering (‘rejoice, be humble, cast your anxiety on God, discipline yourself, keep alert, resist’) connect with your own experience?

Easter 6 – Sermon preached online by Revd Professor Paul Foster – 17th May 2020

Acts 17:22-31; 1Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21

Mission is a central activity to which all Christian believers are called. In his final words in the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus instructs the eleven apostles to make disciples of all nations, to baptise such people in the threefold name, and to help them to follow the teachings of Jesus. Discipleship, baptism and instruction are thus presented as the three core activities of Christian mission – which itself is the central and final task that Jesus left for believers to carry out. And yet mission often has a bad name. Too often mission is associated with a cheap conversionist agenda where people are not respected as people, but are rather seen as a mere tally or notches on the ego of some flashy evangelist. Big tent mission, tele-evangelism, and promises of miracles have engender scepticism in wider society. This is fully understandable. Such activities often seem to suggest that the so-called unsaved are being treated as little more than a commodity, or conversion-fodder to be moved from the debit column of the damned to the credit column of the converted. Yet despite all these negative images we cannot avoid the words of the risen Jesus that we are commanded to make disciples of all nations. But the question remains, how do we as disciples of Jesus carry out that task with integrity and without becoming some parody of the worst kind of miracle-promising tele-evangelist who only required you to send all your money to the address on the screen!

Among the writings of the New Testament, the Book of Acts is one of the most exciting to read. It documents the early and rapid expansion of Christianity, it tells of the activities of several of the apostles presumably carrying out the words of the risen Jesus, and it is written in the belief that the Holy Spirit is at work within the early believing community. Our reading joins the text during what is known as Paul’s second missionary journey. In chapter sixteen Paul had left modern day Turkey and crossed over into northern Greece having been directed to do so in a dream. In chapter seventeen, from which our reading is taken, first Paul visits Thessalonica in northern Greece. He enjoys some success in the city, but is chased away by an angry mob who declare ‘these men who have upset the world have come here also.’ Next he journeys south to Berea, where again there is a positive response to his proclamation of the gospel. However, upon hearing of this, his opponents from Thessalonica travel south to agitate a crowd in that city also. The new believers send Paul away further south by boat, and he arrives in Athens waiting for the rest of his companions who are travelling overland to join him.

I wonder how many of you have visited Athens. I was there a couple of years ago during a wonderfully hot summer, enjoying great coffee and delicious delicacies of filo pastry filled with feta cheese and spinach! However, the food is perhaps not my most enduring memory. Although certainly no longer in its original splendour the Agora, the Acropolis and the monumental remains of the ancient city have to be seen first-hand in order to truly appreciate their scale and their magnificence. It was in this city that Paul arrived around the middle of the first century – some time after the political dominance of Greece had ceased, but with its architectural marvels presumably far closer to their original grandeur than now. We are told, however, that what struck Paul was not the huge architecture, but seeing so many idols. For somebody like Paul, raised as a Torah-observant Jew, this was not only a breach of the second commandment, but it characterised the enslavement of Gentile people to gods of their own making. As could happen in ancient Athens, we are told that Paul encountered some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who took him to the Areopagus – a prominent rocky outcrop northwest of the Acropolis. In classical times the Areopagus functioned as meeting place for court hearings, and it appears that by Paul’s day philosophers met there to debate new ideas. Thus, before the great minds of the intellectual centre of the ancient world, Paul proclaimed the Christian message, that is he engaged in mission.

I am struck by the fact that his message is characterised by meeting his interlocutors on their own ground – literally and intellectually. Rather than berate them for all the idols, he compliments them. He says to this group of philosophers that he observes then to be very religious, and then he mentions an altar he saw that had an inscription ‘to an unknown god.’ Many have thought that such an altar was an example the ultimate future-proofing celestial insurance policy ensure that even an unknown god received due deference. However, for Paul, it signified a deep if ultimately misguided piety. Nonetheless, he makes this altar and the inscription on it his starting point for mission. He sees in the Athenians a very genuine spiritual desire, and for a second time he draws upon their own cultural encyclopaedia referring to the insights of Greek poets who acknowledge that all humans ‘live and move and have their being’ in God, and that all people are ‘children of God.’ Paul’s logic is that if we are like God, then in at least one aspect God must be like humans – a living being, rather than one fashioned from ‘gold or silver or stone.’ Having made this point that God is a living God, he tells the Athenians about the God who welcomes those who repent and makes himself known through Jesus whom he raised from the dead. It is unfortunate that we do not get the last three verses of the chapter. There the narrator continues by teling us of a divided response. He states when the philosophers heard mention of the resurrection some sneered, but others desired to hear from Paul again.

So what are we to make of Paul’s engagement in Christian mission in Athens? It is a story that is markedly different from most of the others recorded in Acts. It is characterised by a notable attempt to engage people within their own culture and religious context. It is perhaps more ‘high-brow’ in its approach then several of the other acts of proclamation recorded in Acts, and unlike the stories of Paul’s activities in Thessalonica and Berea, he is not chased out of the city by an angry mob. However, it is by mentioning that core aspect of Christian belief, the resurrection of Jesus, that the message causes a fundamental division between hearers. Some scoff, while others wish to hear more.

For me this story perhaps raises some of the fundamental issues that partaking in Christian mission entails. How is it to be done with integrity, how can those being addressed be treated with respect, to what degree should the message accommodate the prevailing society, and what are the core aspects of belief that must always be presented for mission to be authentically Christian? This story has also occasioned debate about whether Paul’s decision to accommodate the Athenian culture was a success or a failure. Scholars note that only a few received his message among whom were Dionysius the Areopagite (that is an official of the Areopagus) and a women called Damaris. Yet, unlike Thessalonica the city he had just visited and Corinth the next city on his journey, no letters are known that Paul wrote to a stable and lasting community in Athens. So some consider the lesson of this story to be that accommodation to the cultural context dilutes the Christian message, and hence leads to failure in mission. I am not so sure. After all, it is the work of the Holy Spirit that leads people to believe and we are simply called to be faithful in following the instruction of Jesus to engage in mission.

So what can we learn from this story for our own life of mission in the cathedral. I hope you will not be disappointed if I cannot set out a five point plan for successful mission. If I were that good, then I would get my own tele-evangelism channel and a post office box to which you could send money. However, I believe we can learn from Paul’s approach in Athens. More than anything I see that what characterises his approach is that he is not trying to get something from people, but rather he strives to offer something to people. His mission is one of service. He makes himself available and he travels with the Epicurean and Stoic to the place where they are willing to hear him at the Areopagus. I see this as a model of journeying with and alongside people. Paul utilises the cultural context in which he finds himself drawing on the religious piety and upon shared cultural understandings of his hearers. In this way, Paul is willing to meet these people where they are, and also to genuinely learn from them. Yet for Paul the central elements of Christian faith must be shared for real mission to take place – a merciful God reaches out to people who are willing to repent and he argues that the hope of life and the victory of God over death are announced in the resurrection of Christ. As the people of God, Christians are resurrection people. We are transformed by the power of the resurrection, we have been transferred from death to life, and this is a gift that is to be shared. Mission is not about what we can get from people, it is not about a tally of converts. Rather, the hallmark of authentic mission is sharing and giving. As the people of Jesus, we humbly seek to share with others that risen life that has freely been bestowed on us. We strive to respect the full humanity that is in every person as we give from the very best of ourselves to all people in order that together we may be transformed into the fulness of the image of our maker in whom we live and move and have our being.

Was Paul’s attempt at mission in Athens a success or a failure? That is a question I leave for you to debate. The question I prefer to ask is whether Paul was faithful to his calling, and of course whether we are faithful to our calling. As followers of the risen Christ, we are called to share the wholeness of that resurrection life with others, and to meet people where they are. May we be given the wisdom to be sensitive and faithful in that calling and may all our mission activity be honouring to the one who calls us to proclaim his love, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to whom belongs all might, majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever. Amen.


Suggestions and questions for further thought and study.

  1. Read the book of Acts. It is one of the most exciting writings in the New Testament.
  2. Was Paul’s approach to mission in Athens effective?
  3. Did Paul’s presentation of the gospel in Athens involve too much accommodation with the prevailing culture, or should he have gone even further in this direction?
  4. What can we learn from this narrative that might inform the contemporary mission of the church?
  5. Are there any practical steps we can take in the cathedral in relation to proclaiming the gospel and serving the wider community that might emerge through considering Paul’s approach in Athens?

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.