Creation-time – John Conway, Provost – 8th September 2019

(Deuteronomy 30.15-20; Philemon; Luke 14.25-33)

See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.

Those opening words from our Old Testament reading this morning resonate through our celebration of Creation-time. A season instituted by churches in recent years to focus our worship of God the Creator, and to aid our collective response to the climate emergency that imperils that creation. Creation-time helps us to reflect on what faith in a Creator God actually means, what it might demand of us – not just to believe, but to feelthe earth as God’s creation.

See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.

That stark choice, offered by Moses to the people of Israel as they enter the Promised Land, are there to remind them what is at stake. In our own time, in this season of Creation-time, they focus our thinking about the choices that lie before us. Such  choices are more fundamental, I would suggest, than those we appear to have before us with Brexit. In the face of the sobering and increasing warnings of scientists that we are imperilling life on earth, we have stark choices about whether the ways we respond to the current climate emergency will bring life and prosperity or death and adversity.

Our Gospel reading is also stark, and in ways that, to our ears, are hard to take. Jesus speaks, in the context of following him, of ‘hating’ father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself. It’s one of those passages where commentaries attempt, not always convincingly, to persuade you that Jesus didn’t mean what he appears to say: so it is argued, we need to understand such language as ‘hyperbole’ – over the top language to make a point. Or that we really need to understand the verb translated as ‘hate’ as being a way of describing the practise of detachment: a putting into proper perspective the things that bind you most closely, such as family. The call of Jesus to discipleship overrides all else, puts everything into that proper perspective. So all our relationships, including those that often bind us most closely, have to be understood and worked out in the context of responding to that creative activity of God encountered in Christ, and in the costly love he evokes. It’s also suggested that this language is Jesus attempting to shake out of apathy the large crowd that is travelling with him – to wake them up and ask: are you listening, do you know what this is all about? See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.

Those ways of reading our gospel all seem to me to raise as many questions as answers. But there is something in the stark language about being clear eyed. That is what connects Jesus’ words to the short parables which follow, about the tower builder being honest about the costs involved; and the king plotting to wage war being clear-eyed about his chances. There is a demand for refreshing honesty which runs through our Gospel. In the context of our climate emergency, what we are doing to our planet, our home, the good creation we have been gifted, it is easy to be constantly in denial, or at least to think we will deal with it at some future point. The International Panel on Climate Change could not be clearer about the risks and consequences of climate change, a rise in average global temperature which seems inexorable, unstoppable, without concerted action. And yet, unlike the tower builder, or the king, we are not willing to be realistic, to be honest about the likely future and its cost – we appear to prefer to rush on blindly.

Perhaps some of the rhetoric around our climate emergency seems over the top to us, unnecessarily gloomy and doom laden. But perhaps that is because we refuse to be clear eyed, to be honest about the future. And there is no point celebrating the gift of God’s creation, and worshipping a Creator God, if at the same moment we are desecrating that creation.

It is perhaps the last sentence of our Gospel which is the key to enable us to re-read the rest: none of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Possessions as we usually understand them have not been mentioned up until now. The talk has been about relationships, family and close relationships. So why do possessions suddenly get mentioned?

In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we infer from the text that this is a letter that accompanies a returning slave. A slave that has escaped his master, and that Paul has now decided to send back. Crucially not on the same terms, but asking Philemon to recognise that the fellowship of God overrides all that history. That something new is re-created here. The language of faith is being relied on here, to do the work of re-creating; of turning another human from a possession into a gift, a brother, in the true and proper sense.

And perhaps that takes us to heart of what Jesus is addressing: our propensity to treat others as our possessions. Possessions are what we own, what are at our disposal; they are things that are useful to us. It is all to easy, when we are centered on self, rather than in Christ, for others to become like possessions, things useful to us. People are not, or should not be, however, our possessions, a source of utility. And neither is our good earth.

In Creation-time, we recognise God as our Creator, the giver of all good things. To worship God is to recognise life – in all its fullness – as gift. Gifts are not earned, but celebrated; they are evidence of a living relationship; you enjoy a gift, and our reminded of the giver by it. And gifts encourage us to be gift-givers, to hand on that generosity and joy that a gift brings.

Our climate emergency will not be solved by technological change alone; or by government action divorced from a growing realisation from all of us that life as we have known it is unsustainable. It requires a costly conversion from seeing the earth, and our neighbours not simply as utilities for our benefit, but also, like us, as gifts of the good Creator. To worship God the Creator demands us to be clear-eyed and to act. I’m delighted that within the life of the Cathedral, the Eco-congregation are helping us find the ways to respond. This week the Cathedral Board took the decision that the Cathedral’s investments should be divested from companies that support the fossil fuel industry. But worship of God the Creator leads us all to re-examine how we respond.

See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. To know how to recognise what that stark choice might mean, requires, our Gospel suggests, a re-orientation of so much of our understanding of what a good life, of what prosperity means. For prosperity is not about the accumulation of more and more possessions – our climate emergency reveals that that way has more to do with death and adversity, for our neighbours and our selves. Life and prosperity is found rather in the recognition and worship of the God who gives life to all. Amen.

Pentecost 12 — Andrew Philip, Chaplain — 1st September 2019

“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”

I guess that not many of us often serve up what we’d call banquets. For me, the word conjures up images of a Tudor monarch gorging on a seemingly unending stream of dishes. Whole roast wild boar with an apple in its mouth, haunches of venison and birds roasted inside other birds. Platters and trenchers and overflowing goblets.

Whatever the connotations of the word — even if it just brings to mind a muckle cairry oot from the local Chinese takeaway, enough to stuff all the family full — I presume we all tend to serve up something much more modest. Nonetheless, by the standards of many people in Jesus’ day — and even by the standards of a host of people throughout today’s world — the daily bread we lay on our tables has more in common with a banquet than with a simple crust.

It’s important to acknowledge that global perspective. It lands us in a much more complicated context than rural first-century Palestinian villages and towns of the Gospel narrative, where everyone knew who in the community was poor, crippled, lame or blind. Everyone knew who was in need and who was in plenty. The poor were not some abstract group hidden half a city or half a world away but real next-door neighbours.

That means we have to work harder to understand how to put into practice the challenge that Jesus lays down in today’s Gospel.

Strangely, the lectionary leaves out a crucial bit of context for that work. It skips the final parable Jesus tells at this Sabbath lunch: the parable of the great feast. You know the one: it’s the story where the feast is all laid out but the invited guests are much too busy with their other concerns, so instead the host orders his servants to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” — exactly the same groups that Jesus tells his host to ask to dinner. But even that doesn’t fill the party and the servants are sent out to the highways and byways to bring in the people they find there.

To leave that out of the lectionary altogether — we don’t even get to hear it next week — is a puzzling omission. The Gospel of Luke isn’t put together in some haphazard way. It’s constructed by a writer who knows what they’re doing and who is evidently aware that context is important because it changes how you read a story.

The parable of the great feast is the last and longest of three pieces of teaching at the table during the Sabbath dinner where our reading is set. It’s placed, if you like, at the head of the table, in the seat of honour. It’s the one that helps us to understand the other two more deeply. And the crucial point about that is that the Gospel writer makes it clear that the feast in the parable is a picture of the Kingdom of God.

The two pieces of teaching we heard in today’s reading — the parable about not taking the place of honour and the challenge to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” — are not quite so obviously about the Kingdom. The first might seem to be about nothing more than heading off embarrassment and getting the most out of a social situation. The second is more about generosity. However, when we read them both back in the light of the parable of the feast, we can see clearly that Jesus is not simply lecturing his hearers on table manners and social cohesion but illustrating the values of God’s Kingdom. In fact, he’s talking about God’s generosity, about how God invites the humble and the excluded to be the guests of honour at the Kingdom party.

The point is that the ones who big themselves up before God get sent to the back of the queue for the buffet. And the ones who thought they weren’t worth inviting in the first place are called up to the front, seated at the top table and waited on. The ones who are left out and left at the bottom of society’s heap, the ones who are debarred from contributing to the economy and from full participation in religious life, are invited to be the life and soul of God’s party.

Sound familiar? It’s part of the great overturning signalled at the start of Luke’s Gospel when Mary sings her great song of praise.

The stories we heard today are about more than food. They’re about more than where you sit at a dinner party. They’re about more than who you eat with day to day. At heart, they ask:

  • does what and who you value line up with who and what God values?

They show us what God’s values are and what a community that lives by those values looks like.

Well, does it line up? We welcome all to eat at Christ’s table in the Eucharist, but do we live up to that outside of the service in our interactions with others? Does the way that we treat people say that they are welcome to the party, even though they might be excluded, regarded by society as the lowest on the heap?

Of course, we might not personally know anyone whom we’d class as poor. But we need only go a matter of metres to find someone begging on the streets around us so maybe the first thing we need to do is to take the time to speak to them and get to know the people behind the appearance a little.

Not all today’s poor are homeless, though. Increasing numbers of people are a food parcel or two away from destitution and their situations can be hidden behind seemingly cosy front doors. So sharing our bread with the poor might legitimately include donating to a food bank, but Jesus’ words still challenge us to take the next step and build relationship between the haves and the have-nots. This means applying our creativity to find ways to overcome the fragmentation of our society.

Not all the poor whom our actions affect are local, either. I mentioned at the start the global perspective. We must not forget how well off we are in the UK. For all the anxieties about possible shortages of in the event of a no-deal Brexit, we are a rich country, globally speaking, and unlikely to starve. It is not possible simply to sit down and eat with poor people who live on the other side of the world, but we can certainly use our buying choices and campaigning voices to increase justice and fairness for them. The cathedral’s One World Stall is a good place to start, but this also includes how we as a community and as individuals use the planet’s resources wisely and making changes where they are needed.

Nor are all the excluded are poor either. Is there space at our table — space in our lives — for people who are harassed or pushed out because of their ethnicity, their gender identity, their autism or a disability, for example? And this is where it gets even more political. For if we are to be a community of welcome, we must think about what that means in a society where, as many of us will have read this week, a woman who has lived in the UK for 55 years, who was educated here, married here and has spent all her working life here has been refused settled status by the Home Office.

For, at the end of the day, we are all poor before God. What we have to offer is only what God has given us. And it is only through God’s gracious, loving invitation that we have a place at the table. We can serve only because God has served us. So, friends, come up higher.

Pentecost 11 (Proper 16) – John Conway, Provost – 25th August 2019

Jeremiah 1.4-10; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17

Words from our reading from the letter to the Hebrews this morning:

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.

A central religious category is ‘the holy’, the sacred: religion might be characterised as where that which is other, not of this world, the transcendent and holy, is encountered, in all its ability to provoke fear, obedience, awe, fascination. Where that which is not ordinary, not run-of-the-mill, breaks in and makes a claim upon us, demanding change in us.

In our Gospel reading, people have gathered in worship when something happens to disturb and upset the proper ordering of things. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue – he is obviously held in goodstanding there, invited to address them. But then that teaching is interrupted – Jesus sees something that he considers to be more important than whatever he happens to be talking about. A woman crippled for 18 years, crippled by a spirit that causes her to bend double, comes into view. Our instinctive response to those who are afflicted is often, at some level, to think that they are to blame for their predicament. But Jesus sees a woman whose binding has prevented her from her true vocation, the vocation of that whole community: to stand tall and praise God. So that moment when the sermon is interrupted, is not a moment when the teaching stops, but when its focus shifts, to this woman: the one who, rather than being cut off from the community because of her ailment, is the one who is enabled to express the vocation of the whole community. She is brought centre-stage, and released by words from Jesus that liberate her: ‘Woman, you are set free.’ Released to stand tall and praise God.

But the story doesn’t end there of course. The leader of the synagogue does not see a moment of liberation, but a polluting of the holy, a moment where that which is impure invades the purity of this moment; the Sabbath is desecrated – de-sacralised. The congregation have been invited to identify with the outcast and the shunned – to see their liberation and vocation in her. The place of holiness, where it might be found, suddenly shifts to this woman – and the guardian of holiness, the leader of the synagogue, who interprets the rules for where it is usually found, for who has access to holiness, is disturbed. ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days and be cured’ – the leader inists to the crowd. Don’t disturb the peace and holines of this moment – this doesn’t belong here.

Jesus response is one we hear elsewhere: ‘You hypocrites,’ he says.

We are perhaps used to Jesus using that word – as well as its popularity in certain sections of our own press. That familiarity may blind us to the fact that it is not a common word in scripture. It literally means, from the Greek, those ‘under (hypo) crisis.’ Outside the Synoptic Gospels it is only used in the book of Job. There, Elihu, the last of those to address Job, talks about him being bound in fetters and afflicted, much like Jesus sees this woman. Elihu is assuring Job that God answers the righteous who are afflicted, those who are bound in fetters and caught in the cords of the afflicted. But there are those who don’t seek God’s help, who hold onto their anger and do not cry for help when bound: these are the godless, the hypocrites in heart, says Elihu.

So when Jesus calls the synagogue leader a hypocrite he is accusing him of being like the godless who no longer cry out and long for help, but sit gnawing away at their own resentment (as Elihu accuses Job of doing). The leader of the synagogue has become so wrapped up in doing what he believes to be right, and wedded to resentment when that is not happening, that he has lost touch with the true vocation of the people of God. The real vocation is to cry out to God for delivery, and through that crying out, to know something of the bonds that bind us, and to also discover that which liberates us into standing tall and praising. Hypocrisy diminishes us, leaves us trapped in our resentments, means we no longer see God at work; no longer enter into the realm of the holy, the holy which moves us from being bound, into the freedom of standing tall and praising.

Into our midst, in the place to which this building directs our gaze, in front of the High Altar, during these Festival weeks, has come a disruptive presence. No doubt some of us have found Vanishing Point, the video installation hanging there, a desecrating presence, an invasion into that which is holy and sacred. On Sunday mornings we’ve lessened the disruption by muting its soundscape, and freezing it on one image. That has allowed you, I hope, to appreciate some of the beautiful images that the piece contains. But if you’ve not had the opportunity to sit in the Cathedral when it is running, then I would invite you to do so, to be caught up in its world. But that does mean being disrupted, put under crisis. For Vanishing Point invites us to spend time with, to contemplate seagulls, and further, to imagine sharing a table, and food with them. What can that teach us about holiness, if our gaze is re-directed there?

I’ve come to appreciate Vanishing Point as a rich work of art, with a whole host of suggestive themes to respond to if we let it work on us. Let me briefly draw out two: first it asks us to reimagine our relationship to creation, to the world out there. That’s a theme, at this time of climate emergency, that has taken on a sharp urgency. It’s a theme we will be exploring further in the season of Creation-time next month. It’s easy to think of creation in terms of beautiful sunsets, or mountainscapes, to think of it in romantic terms. Vanishing Point brings us face to face with the natural world as it is; as it is in our cities, as animals adapt and create a home alongside ours. The artists are interested in those parts of nature which disturb or irritate us, whose insistent presence remind us that this is not just our world to do with as we like. What does it mean for all creation to stand tall and praise God – as that seagull fixes you and your food with its beady eye?

And second, hanging there, in front of the high altar, the Eucharistic resonances of the piece become obvious. At the heart of Vanishing Point is the sharing of food around a table – just as it is for us this morning. We are not the company of the perfect; just like the seagulls we gather around the table as the dishevelled, the wary, the uncertain. We are both proudly beautiful and strangely unlovable. Have we come here this morning to raid the altar table for our little piece of holiness, or does something else happen as we gather round? The shift in holiness that Christ enacts and effects, draws us together into a new community, a festal gathering, as the letter to the Hebrews describes it, a place of joyful gathering, where we encounter Christ, the one whose self-giving blood speaks a better word than the blood of sibling rivalry and violence, the blood of Abel. Christ’s coming has shifted the understanding of holiness from something fearful, to be guarded, to something joyous and saving; a kingdom that cannot be shaken by anything in this world. We are liberated, as part of all creation, seagulls and all, the lovable and the unlovable, to stand tall and praise God, as we are.

It was all too easy for the leader of the synagogue for the Sabbath to become about rest, the ceasation of activity. The equivalent for us might be about thinking of church as where we come to get away from it all, recharge our batteries, find some peace. But that sells us, and more importantly the holiness encountered in Christ, short. Holiness is more disruptove than that – Christ re-directs our gaze to the cords that bind us, that leave us bent double; Christ challenges us to move beyond hypocrisy, and reconnect to our primary vocation: to cry out, move beyond our resentments, look for our release; to stand tall, and with all creation, praise God. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pentecost 6 (Proper 11) – John Conway, Provost – 21st July 2019

Genesis 18.1-10a; Colossians 1.15-28; Luke 10.38-42

I’ve been lucky enough to do some travelling in countries where I have spent time in local households – I’m thinking in particular of India and Poland – where I have experienced that culture of hospitality which can be almost overwhelming, certainly humbling in the efforts made by those, who sometimes have very little, to make the guest feel welcome and valued. I’ve known that, as guest, I will not be leaving without an extremely full stomach, and a share in the best that the household has to offer. I’m not sure we quite have that same culture in Scotland – many people are of course extremely hospitable, but we don’t have the sense of the almost sacred duty of hospitality, the dropping of everything to make a guest feel welcome, the priority of such welcome.

We get a glimpse of that same culture in the story from Genesis we heard in our first reading: the visit of three men to Abraham and Sarah. The visitors are never named as angels, messengers from God, but they have been widely understood in that way – Rublev, of course, took this story as the basis for his famous icon of the Trinity. God is glimpsed in these three visitors gathering around a table in a moment of shared hospitality and visitation. Certainly Abraham and Sarah understand these unknown visitors to be important, as they quickly prepare a feast and set it before them. These messengers of God are royally welcomed, and Abraham and Sarah’s reward is the promise of a son – even if, initially at least, Sarah, at her advanced age, finds such a promise somewhat laughable.

I mention the centrality of hospitality to our first reading, because it plays a role in our Gospel too. Here Jesus is welcomed in to a house – the home of Martha and Mary – and Martha, at least, is taking the duty and privilege of hospitality seriously.

Martha is busy preparing the dinner, making sure everyone is well looked after. She becomes understandably annoyed with her sister, who rather than sharing the load, simply sits at the feet of Jesus to listen. Many of us, when reading this story, feel that Martha has a point. Whilst we recognise the truth of Jesus’ words that Martha is worried and distracted by her many tasks – and we’ve all been there I suspect – well, the food is not going to cook itself is it? Is this not a typical religious move – privileging contemplation over action; sitting around over actually getting on and making a difference, making things happen.

If we read our gospel passage in isolation then taking the side of Martha is certainly an understandable reaction. But that is not the whole picture. Our reading follows straight on from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, itself preceded by the great commandment to love God and love neighbour. We heard all that last week. In the parable, Jesus answers the question, who is my neighbour, by holding up and commending the action of the Samaritan, the one who doesn’t stick to his allotted role, but responds in compassion to the need of another human, his neighbour, in front of him. The conventionally religious, the priest and Levite are condemned for not seeing, for being so wrapped up in the religious rights and wrongs, and their own standing, that they don’t recognise their neighbour. Action, responding in compassion to get things done, is here very much privileged over religious piety. It is in that context that we hear of Martha: like the Samaritan she is responding to the needs of others.

The difference is, I suspect, that Jesus reacts to the resentment in Martha’s tone and question: Martha is trying to recruit Jesus to take sides in her annoyance with her sister. That is something that Jesus refuses to do, instead he asks Martha a question about her commitments in the midst of this frenetic activity. What are her motives? Martha is being asked to bring her activism into dialogue with contemplation, so that each may feed the other. Just like the Samaritan, Martha is not expected by Jesus, to stick to an allotted, in this case archetypal feminine role – the care of the household. She is invited to bring that task and calling, to the feet of Jesus, to his words and practise of compassionate care. Jesus invites Martha to see herself not in competition with her sister, but to ask what enables the mutual flourishing of each.

We gather here, week by week, around a table, at the feet of Jesus, to listen and learn. If we think that we are here to recruit Jesus to help us with our projects, as an ally to command others to do what we think should be done, then we miss the point. We need to be directed toward Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet to listen. That is the necessary moment, as we receive Christ’s hospitality, his offering of himself. It isn’t a matter of being active or contemplative or prioritising one over the other; it’s a matter of being focused on Jesus without resentment because Jesus has no resentment.

And when we have gathered around Christ, so we will be sent out: ‘To go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.’ Our faith demands action, the generous hospitality and welcome shown to others. For loving God and loving neighbour are never separate but each feeds and needs the other. Amen.

 

Pentecost 4 – Andrew Philip, Chaplain – 7th July 2019

What is the heaviest burden you carry? There will doubtless be all sorts of answers to that question. You might identify your greatest burden as illness, for instance — perhaps your own or that of a family member. You might point to a financial burden that’s weighing on your mind — the rising cost of living, perhaps. Or what burdens you the most could be a breakdown in a close relationship. It might be a bereavement that has hit you so hard you struggle to rebuild your life.

My guess, though, is that the heaviest burden that many of us carry is a wound within our sense of self.

These wounds, these burdens, are negative messages that we have internalised and that are playing on loop at an unconscious level. Perhaps it’s the message that we aren’t clever enough or talented enough. Maybe, whatever our achievements, there’s a script running deep down that says we’re failures. Maybe the script says we aren’t beautiful enough. Perhaps, underneath everything, the message on loop is that nobody loves us or even that we aren’t loveable.

There is a fair bit about self-image and self-understanding in today’s reading from Galatians. Most obviously, Paul says:

“if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.” (6:3)

This, of course, is very true. Such self-deception seems to be rife in our culture. We don’t have to look far to find folk “famous for being famous”, as the saying goes, who project their style as if it’s really something but who have little of substance to offer. Those of us who spend any time on social media will sooner or later run into people who appear to think they know everything about any topic and who will readily and aggressively put right or put down even experts in whatever is under discussion. It’s tempting, too, to cast our eyes over the political stage and come to the judgment that certain individuals have a highly inflated sense of their own importance.

But Paul, of course, is concerned about how this plays out in the church. Because those who claim God’s authority for their words and actions without proper humility, those whose boast is their reputation, not the humiliation of the Cross, aren’t living by the Spirit. Such people can end up doing a lot of damage.

But if it’s common for “those who are nothing” to deceive themselves into thinking they are something, it’s also common for people who are something to deceive themselves by thinking they are nothing. For we are all something: we are all Beloved; we are all infinitely precious in God’s eyes. Nonetheless, many of us become burdened with a sense of failure, or wrongness or unloveableness.

This kind of burden, the inverse of the self-deception Paul describes, can come from years of negative messages, perhaps from parents, teachers or other authority figures earlier in our lives. It can be a result of childhood trauma. It can also be fed by all-too-human tendency to compare ourselves negatively against what others have or what they seem to be. Our consumer culture itself feeds off this, stirring up our sense of envy and competition, stirring up the sense that we are falling short of the ideal.

The church to which Paul was writing was being assailed by negative messages. It was being placed under burdens. In essence, some people were telling the Gentile Christians of Galatia that they were falling short of the ideal. They said the Galatians weren’t Jewish enough, that they ought to be circumcised and follow the Torah.

Paul is clear that those people are just plain wrong. He spends the largest chunk of his letter arguing that to require circumcision and adherence to the Jewish law is to place a burden on the backs of the Galatian Christians that no one can carry and is to deny the power of the Cross to save us from sin. Paul is adamant that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision” matters; what matters is being a “new creation” in Christ (6:15).

In the passage that we heard last week, Paul outlined what this new creation looks like. It is characterised by the fruit of the Spirit (5:22–23) — the Spirit who creates a community that is not conceited, is not competitive and does not envy (5:26). This is a community that bears one another’s burdens. By doing this, Paul says, it fulfils “the law of Christ” (6:2). The “law of Christ” is the law of love. It is, as Paul mentions in the previous chapter (5:14), to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. But more, it is the new commandment that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34). That is, to lay down our lives for one another.

Paul’s instruction is pretty vague on the practical points. We are left to work out for ourselves what it means to bear one another’s burdens. But that is hardly surprising, because each situation demands a different touch.

What is clear, however, is that this is something the church does as a community. Yes, it very often takes place in one-to-one interactions, but bearing one another’s burdens isn’t solely the job of one or two who are pastorally gifted, whether ordained or lay. It’s something we all participate in by being open, genuine and welcoming in all our dealings with, our words to, one another. It’s something we do through prayer for one another and by practical action to support each other when we are going through the mill. It’s something we do together in our liturgy by creating and holding a space in which people can be in the healing, restorative presence of God.

What of those burdens I spoke of earlier — the burdens of our wounded, broken self-image? Some of them are situations beyond our control. Some of them are wounds that it takes time, care and attention to heal. But the first step for both is often naming them and laying them before God.

We are all burdened in some way, not least because we are all, in George Herbert’s phrase, “guilty of dust and sin”. But the Christ who meets us in the Eucharist is the one who came to take away our burdens. So come, as “the Living Bread is broken for the life of the world”, let the Broken One embrace you, comfort you and untie your burdens.

Pentecost 3 (Proper 8) – John Conway, Provost – 30/06/19

(1Kings 19.15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62)

He gave answers to questions they didn’t ask

sometimes they didn’t dare

open their mouths anymore

not because they hadn’t understood

he was taking from them

everything sacred and safe

he offered no guarantees

Fire was not sacred to him or neon

not singing or silence

not fornication or chastity

in his speech foxes bread leaven

and much mended nets became sacred

the down and out were his proof

and actually he had as much assurance

of victory as we in these parts do

None

That poem by Dorothee Solle, a wonderful post-war German theologian and mystic, from her set of poems, When He came, captures something of the uncompromising, urgent Jesus that we encounter in today’s Gospel reading. A Jesus on the move: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Follow me.’ Are you attracted? Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, we are told, and an urgency now characterizes him – almost shocking in its brusqueness: ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ – ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, he journeys towards the pain, the conflict, the disturbance that await him there. And he seems only to invite others to join him in that single-mindedness

That stark invitation may seem at first to be at odds with our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free,’ Paul declares. ‘Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.’ That call to freedom might seem in contrast to Jesus’ insistence that ‘no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Are we not free to do as we like?

To see Paul’s evocation of freedom as being in tension with Jesus’ call to discipleship is, however, to misunderstand the nature of the freedom in which Paul believes we stand.

To understand that crucial notion of freedom – such a loaded word for us in the West of course – I think the writings of a French anthropologist, Renee Girard, are immensely helpful. Girard’s writings are complex, but at the heart of his understanding of human society, and religion, lies what he calls mimetic desire. Girard argues that our desires, what we find ourselves longing for, what we imagine we want out of life, such desires do not come out of nowhere. Nor are they simply the expression of a free heart. Rather there is something about how human beings are, that makes us desire what we see our neighbour’ s desiring. We learn what we desire through imitating those around us. That is what Girard means by Mimetic desire, from the Greek word mimesis, meaning reflection. What we long for is a reflection of, learnt from, the longings and desires of the society we find ourselves within. The most obvious example of this, with which many of us will be familiar is when you observe two children playing. One child rediscovers a long forgotten toy, buried deep in some toy box. As she gets the toy out to begin to play with it, the other child notices – suddenly the toy, which a moment before had been of no significance to either child, becomes the must-have plaything. The second child cannot, all of a sudden, live without it – and he will swear blind that he’s been longing to find it for weeks. We learn what we desire from the desire of those around us – and the belief that that only happens in childhood, is quickly dispelled if you observe the power exerted by keeping up with the Joneses, or the pull of celebrity culture, or the way that the latest technology exerts a strange fascination for us. Our desires, the longings of our heart, what we imagine we need to be free, is actually a reflection, is shaped by those around us. Our expressions of individuality, our cherished freedom, is far more a product of group-think than we care to admit.

Girard’s further, and crucial point, however, is that because what we desire is shaped by the desire of those around us, we necessarily find ourselves competing for the same thing. Just like the two children will end up in an almighty squabble over the newly-discovered toy, so we end up thinking that, in a world of finite resources, we need to guard what we have, guard what will inevitably be the object of others’ desire. Our mimetic desires inevitably lead, argues Girard, to repressed, or sometimes open, violence: competition over the shared objects of desire. Societies find ways, says Girard, to unite us in the midst of that violent competition: usually by turning that repressed violence outwards onto a scapegoat; we avoid fighting with our neighbours by turning on those identified as outsiders. We become united by turning on them, thus avoiding the conflict which our mimetic desire provokes with our neighbour.

There is not time in a sermon to do full justice to Girard’s complex and suggestive thinking, but I hope I have indicated enough to put all our usual ideas of freedom into question. Freedom is so often characterized as about our liberation, about being able to express ourselves however we want. Girard’s point is that once we are aware of how such desire is shaped by others, and of the competing violence that that gives rise to, it no longer looks much like freedom. And the one who makes us aware of all that, says Girard, is the one who refused to unite people by playing ‘us’ off against ‘them’: is this Jesus, who steadfastly walks into the heart of our violence, and takes the place of the scapegoat, bears on himself the violence we usually unleash on the marginal, the outsider, the foreigner; on ‘them,’ who are not like ‘us.’ Jesus, in his crucifixion, reveals the scapegoat mechanism even as, in his resurrection, he reveals the deeper reality of forgiving love. For it is in that forgiving love, in a desire shaped by his abiding in the Father, as the Father abides in him, in that forgiving love that Jesus walks toward Jerusalem. It is in that forgiving, non-competitive love that he is free, free from mimetic desire and its competitive violence. And it is into that freedom that we are invited. Not, as Paul says, a freedom that sets us apart from one another, an opportunity for self-indulgence; but through love, says Paul, become slaves to one another.

And he then hammers home the point: that it is two accounts of freedom that are in view here. The first is freedom that gratifies the desires of the flesh, desires shaped by what the world values around us: a freedom, as it is so often characterized, to do what we want, to live without limits or constraints, with the pleasure-seeking self at its heart. Such ‘freedom’, Paul argues, results in enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy – as well as the more usual suspects listed as sins of the flesh. Against that understanding of freedom is the freedom given as gift, given in the abiding of God in the human heart, so that we begin to be shaped by that reality of God’s abiding presence rather than by mimetic desire. Such freedom is not found in endless choice, or liberation to be whatever we want, but in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity – in those things that make us slaves to one another, bound together rather than competing; freedom in commitment, in engagement, in the laying down and the picking up of mantles. Freedom not, as it is so often characterised, with a certain wistfulness, found in un-commitment, in not being tied, but the freedom of finding a ‘home’ on the way, a task to do, a self discovered not through the relentless acquisition of ‘experiences’ or possessions, but known in relationships, in all their give and take, their laying down and picking up. Freedom found as Paul paradoxically puts it in the bondage of love.

Our Eucharistic prayer will shortly declare that Jesus ‘broke the bonds of evil and set your people free to be his Body in the world.’ We are freed in our common sharing to be Christ’s body in our world; learning in community that new freedom to which all are called.

As St Augustine put it:  Eternal God, the light of the minds that know you, the joy of the hearts that love you, and the strength of the wills that serve you: grant us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whose service is perfect freedom in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Trinity Sunday – Andrew Philip, Chaplain – 16th June 2019

“God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!”

We sang these words with joy as we entered into worship this Trinity Sunday morning. You might more readily associate the idea of the blessèd Trinity with a headache than with joy but the doctrine that God is at once one and three should, I believe, be seen as an invitation to praise and worship and into the life of God rather than as an insoluble intellectual puzzle, which we often turn it into.

Christians down through the centuries have tried to make sense of the ways they have encountered the divine by asserting that the God we worship is at the same time one being and three persons. This is the Sunday in the church year when it’s traditional for preachers to attempt to explain this holy mystery by means of a number of more or less unsuccessful analogies. But I’m going to break with that tradition.

The main reason I’m going to break with that tradition is this: as I was thinking and praying about what I could say that would throw some light on the Trinity for us all — myself included — it struck me that the doctrine of the Trinity is another way of saying “God is love”.

If you take only one thing from this sermon, I hope that it’s that statement.

The Trinity is another way of saying “God is love.” What do I mean by that? The revelation that God is love is at the heart of Christian faith. We proclaim “God is love” in as many words every Sunday as we approach the confession. And we proclaim it in the Eucharist as we remember the Lord Jesus laying down his life out of love.

Of course, we understand God’s love for us primarily as it is expressed to us. We understand God the Father mainly as the One who brings all things into existence and sends the Son; we understand God the Son mainly as the One who redeems us from our sin, heals our brokenness and sends the Spirit; and God the Holy Spirit mainly as the One who sustains and renews us, leading us into all truth.

But if humanity had never been created, if God’s fingers had never worked the heavens into being, would God still be love? If the creation and creatures were not there to receive and return love, would it still make sense to say that God is love? The answer must be an unequivocal yes. For God has been love from all eternity. What, then, does it mean to say that God not only is love but that God was love when there was nothing, no universe to love, and will be love even if heaven and earth pass away?

What gives us the confidence to state that God is love in this profound and everlasting way is the doctrine of the Trinity. Because God is three persons, we can say that God’s nature is relational. The heartbeat of God, if you like, is relationship, communion, love.

This is what we are saying when we recite the creed, affirming that the Son is “eternally begotten of the Father” and that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father”. It is not as though God was one in the beginning and then, when Christ was incarnated and the Spirit came, God split into three like some sort of divine amoeba; no, there always has been one God in three persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The beginning of John’s Gospel teaches us that the Word — that is, God the Redeemer, the Son — existed before all things began. And our reading from Proverbs this morning speaks of Wisdom — often associated with the Holy Spirit — in terms that are redolent of such pre-existence.

It is important that we be careful in how we speak about the Holy Trinity. I have used predominantly the traditional terms: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I am nonetheless profoundly aware that this very male language can shrink our understanding of God. It is vital that we balance this with feminine language for God and with imagery that pushes us beyond gender, such as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. The metaphors used in the Bible do some of that work but our understanding of how power is gendered requires us to renew that effort.

At the same time, we must watch that we don’t end up using language that leads us think of the Sacred Three as just different aspects of how God reveals Godself to us, as if there were one God who just looks different from three different angles. If we do that, we lose the richness of our distinctive Christian understanding. Most significantly, although we could still say that God loves us, we lose the basis for saying “God is love”.

The God we proclaim in our prayers, our creeds and our hymns is a God of relationship, of communion, of love. And the language of Father and Son, for all its problems, makes it clear that we are talking about relationship and community. Some writers speak of the Trinity as a dance between the three persons. Others speak of God as hospitality, of the Father, Son and Spirit making room for one another, being “incomparably hospitable to each other” [see Daniel L Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding p82]. That’s a profound image to meditate upon as we approach the table prepared for us to enjoy Christ’s hospitality.

Whatever metaphor helps us to conceptualise the Trinity, it’s clear that God’s nature is self-giving. We understand that primarily through Christ’s giving of himself for us. But our Gospel reading today indicates that this selfless giving of self happens within the Trinity. Jesus tells his disciples, “All that the Father has is mine” and says that the Spirit will “take”— or “receive” — “what is mine and declare it to you”. A mutual, a reciprocal giving and receiving underlies the life of the Trinity.

That self-giving, of course, is not confined to the internal life of the Trinity. For God gives of Godself in creating the universe. God gives of Godself in redeeming us from our sin and brokenness. And God gives of Godself by making the life of God available to us through the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.

God is love. God is self-giving. God is incomparable hospitality. This should lead us, as God’s children, into wonder, praise and adoration. But it should also lead us — who are invited into the life of the blessèd Trinity — to emulate our heavenly parent as we interact with our neighbours.

A world riven by hatred, violence and threats, a world breathing warfare and breathing down the neck of climate catastrophe, a world filled with division and derision needs that hospitality, selflessness and love.

The challenge that thinking of God as Trinity poses us, then, is much less how to get our heads round the fact that God can be both one and three and much more how we demonstrate in our lives — our actions and our words; our pockets and our presence — that God is love.

 

 

Easter VI – John McLuckie – 26th May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Easter VII – John Conway – Sunday 2nd June

(Acts 16.16-34; Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17.20-26)

‘One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl.’ So starts the strange extraordinary story from the book of Acts that was our first reading this week. As we were going to the place of prayer. As ever, it’s the small details that reveal much. This is a story framed by prayer; on their way to pray, Paul and Silas encounter a slave-girl, a woman defined by her bondage, her imprisonment by the men who make money out of her. This is a story about prayer, and about freedom, or the lack of it.

Last Sunday, as the Cathedral embarked on a Festival of prayer, joining with Christians across the world in praying, Thy Kingdom Come, we were encouraged by John, our Vice-Provost, to discover, through prayer, our heart as the meeting place with God; the place of God’s abiding, overcoming our fear and kindling us into love. As our Gospel put it this morning: ‘I in them, and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’

Our reading from Acts is a vivid illustration of what that abiding in God as God abides in us looks like; how prayer might shape our living. One day, as they are going to the place of prayer, Paul and Silas meet a slave girl, a woman who makes a great deal of money for others through fortune telling. Such fortune telling relies on a belief that the future is fixed, determined – it is the antithesis to a faith in the possibility of freedom, faith that the future is open, to be shaped by our collective response. This woman, herself not free, owned and a money maker for others, offering fake news to gullible people desperate for certainty about the future; this woman becomes fascinated by Paul and his friends, and begins to follow them everywhere. You sense that she is perturbed: abused by her owners, she sees in these men of prayer something different at work. Paul, somewhat exasperated by her haunting of them, orders the spirit of divination, of fortune telling, out of her.

However we might understand that exchange, something shifts. The woman herself disappears from the story – wahtever Paul has accomplished, to her previous owners, her liberation from fortune telling, means a fall in their fortune making. Their hope of making money from her is gone, and they are furious.

And so, even as she is set free (we hope), the money men force a role reversal: Paul and Silas are themselves imprisoned, thrown in to jail by magistrates in cahoots with the money men, and there they are stripped naked, beaten, put in the innermost cell, their feet fastened in the stocks. And there, at midnight, at the darkest hour, we find them ‘praying and singing hymns to God.’ Who is bound? Who is free?

And at this darkest hour, ‘suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chanins unfastened.’ This is a story of dramatic reversals – where those we think are bound and chanied are suddenly free, and those who think themselves free are suddenly revealed as imprisoned. It might be tempting to think the earthquake is some sort of divine intervention – it certainly has a miraculous quality to it. And yet the text is silent on the cause of the earthquake. It just is; it’s the circumstance that helps reveal what the text is really interested in – who is bound, who is free?

The immediate effect is that the jailer whose job it is to ensure that the prisoners remain locked up, is beside himself, and draws a sword to kill himself, supposing his prisoners have escaped. Because if you were the fortunate beneficiaries of an earthquake, why wouldn’t you? And he, the enforcer of the magistrates rule of fear, has failed. But his prisoners, who he imagines have leapt to their freedom, instead call out to their jailer: ‘Do not harm yourself for we are all here.’ Here is freedom; here is the abiding presence of God, in this act of selflessness and relationship forming. It brings the jailer to his knees, and then to faith. ‘He brought them outside’, out of the prison that they were never in, and he then asks: ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved.’ And so this jailer is brought too to the place of freedom; into the company of those who can sing and pray even when the world is at its darkest. And in their company he forges new bonds of friendship and love: ‘he took them and washed their wounds, brought them up into the house and set food before them. And he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.’

‘Christians are formed by the way in which they pray.’ This Cathedral is fundamentally a place of prayer, we are a people of prayer. This week, this Festival of prayer is an opportunity to journey deeper into that reality and truth. In a world so often defined by who makes money from whom, by a culture of imprisonment and fear; where we can be tempted to think the future is fixed and determined and we know who the winners are; prayer is about the journey into a different kind of freedom. The freedom that sings songs in the darkness, that acts in selfless, surprising ways, that forges bonds of faith, that knows the abiding presence of God in each human heart. Who is bound? Who is free?

Amen.