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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epiphany 1 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 9th January

Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

The New year, despite the dark and cold – or perhaps because of the dark and cold – often begins with a burst of optimism. In the setting of new year resolutions there is a sense of turning over a new leaf, making a fresh start. But this year feels different I think: I’ve not heard much talk of new year’s resolutions, and that’s perhaps because after nearly two years of this exhausting and over-turning pandemic, we are all too aware of how optimistic endeavour can be undone by events. It feels hard to plan ahead and chart a new course, when we are so unsure what the next few months are going to bring. And yet, our readings on this Sunday, the first of the season of Epiphany, chiming with that new year, always invite us to the baptism of Christ – and that surely is about a new beginning.

It’s certainly true that at the heart of the Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ baptism is the declaration that this is where the re-creation that is enacted in Christ begins. The baptism of Jesus by John on the banks of the Jordan is the beginning of the story of Jesus that all four Gospels share: we have heard, of course, the stories of the nativity from Matthew and Luke; and John’s beginning in the Word existing before time; but those different ways of describing the coming into being of Jesus converge with Mark’s telling in this event: this moment of baptism. And the language that is used to describe it is rich with symbolism drawn from the biblical account of the first creation. In the account of creation in Genesis, the Spirit moves over the face of the waters, so that life and order emerge out of those waters that symbolize chaos and disorder and death.

So perhaps in our time of exhaustion, when hope seems in short supply, we need to first dwell on that entering into the waters that is the first movement of baptism. Jesus, at the start of his ministry does not set himself apart, but enters the waters along with everyone else, enters those waters of chaos and death. And actually, our present sense of things being out of control, disordered, is not something new to most of humanity most of the time, but a description of the human condition. This is what God coming alongside us looks like – an immersion into what life is.

The American writer Anne Lamott puts it well in this description of baptism: ‘It’s about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s also holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.’

Jesus baptism begins with an entering into, a drenching in, the human condition in all its chaos. And we know all about that chaos, a sense that things are out of order, even as we long for things to be otherwise. And in that longing we hear of God’s purposes. As Isaiah put it in our first reading this morning:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

And so Christ rises from the waters; and as Luke beautifully describes it, receives, in prayer, the gift of the Spirit, as he hears those words of the Father that will underpin and ground the life and ministry to come: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Jean Vanier, who helped create the L’Arche communities, told the story of Pierre, a learning disabled resident of one the communities, who was asked if he liked praying. ‘Yes’ he answered. ‘What do you do when you pray/’ he was asked. ‘I listen.’ ‘And what does God say to you?’ ‘He says, ‘You are my beloved son.’

Today we are not asked to make fresh resolutions that we might well fail to keep, but are reminded that we too have been baptised into that divine life of the Father, that names the Son as the loved one in the power of the Spirit.

We are reminded that we are baptised in to the baptism of Christ, who rises from the waters of chaos, into new life, that new creation which is God’s will for all.

And we are reminded, as we shortly re-affirm the promises that we made, or that were made on our behalf, in response to the gift of baptism; we are reminded that that baptism is not ours alone – we are baptised into the death and life of Christ, and we are baptised alongside and together with Christians throughout the ages. Baptised together into that new creation that Christ enacts and makes possible.

This last year, in the face of the climate crisis, and CP26, we began to talk about what it might be to be a Regenerative Cathedral, a Cathedral whose mission was to live in that new creation that is found in Christ. And there is no better place to start that exploration and journey than here, in the baptism that sees Christ plunging into the depths of our need and chaos, to rise into that new creation which is founded on the relationship of love that is held out to each and all. And as we re-affirm our baptism into that new creation, so we begin that journey, once again, with Christ as he shows forth what that new creation, the kingdom, looks like and asks of us. Amen.

Christmas 2. 2nd January 2022. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley.

Jeremiah 31: 7-14; John 1: 10-18

The first reading this morning is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah – the prophet whom we know as the one who always has a half empty glass, who appears to only be able to see doom and gloom. His name has become a shorthand for the pessimistic people we come across; those people we can be quick to label as Jeremiahs, and then equally quick to dismiss because they aren’t saying the things that we would like to hear.

Jeremiah is one of the Hebrew Bible’s major prophets. Not only is this book a significant piece of writing but he is thought to have authored, or co-authored, the books of Kings and Lamentations. In the first chapter of this book, we are told that God put his word into Jeremiah’s mouth. The word, that was then communicated by Jeremiah; the word that the people didn’t always want to hear; the word that didn’t always sit easily; the word that held them to account, reminding them of the times when they had chosen to turn away from God. The word that reminded them of their collective responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their community.

In many ways, we’re not terribly different from the people of Israel. We find ourselves looking for the shepherd to point us in the right direction, to help us stay on the right path, we’re wanting someone to tell us that things are going to be different. We want the problems, and the solutions, to be someone else’s responsibility.

We find our tribe and, to a large extent, we stick with it. By and large, that’s what had been happening with the exiled people of Israel. They stuck together, trusting – at least some of the time – that one day things would be different. They stuck together in adversity, presumably encouraging one another that one day they would find the promised land, that one day the persecution and endless travelling would stop. I wonder whether people had effectively stopped listening to Jeremiah – assuming they would know what he was going to say, the warnings that they had heard many times before. But this morning we’re reminded that, like most of us, Jeremiah wasn’t actually 1 dimensional. He has something different to say in this morning’s reading, his focus has changed.
What we read this morning is from a section of the book known as the Book of Comfort, or Book of Consolation. The voice we heard this morning isn’t the voice we assume we will hear, this morning’s verses bring a message of hope, a promise of change. Even Jeremiah, in the midst of thousands of gloomy words, heard God saying something different, responding to the prayers and hopes of the people.

The message is for the remnant of Israel – it’s not aimed at the great and the good, the kings or the leaders of the people. This is about change and hope for those who have survived, regardless of the shape they are in. It’s a message for the blind and lame, for those who are weeping and in need of consolation. It’s a promise to God’s people regardless of who they are and how unimportant they might consider themselves to be.

There’s a resonance with the Scripture that we have heard over the past couple of weeks. The story of the Incarnation, the gift of God’s own son to redeem troubled humanity.  The clear message of Christmas is that Jesus came as a vulnerable child, born into a hostile world where the rich and powerful used and abused their power; born into a world where people continued to devalue the humanity of others. He was born into a people who were still looking for the voice that they could trust, the voice that people would feel able to rally behind and to bring real change into their lives.

I wonder how much has changed. Our world is one where people are looking for the voice that will bring real change into their lives. Our world is one where power is abused, where the most vulnerable people are neglected, where the humanity of others isn’t always valued. Just think about some of the news stories over recent weeks. Desperate people drowning; children failed by the people who should have been caring for them; women frightened to be out alone; people in hiding because the Governments they worked for haven’t done what was necessary to ensure their safety. We wring our hands and tell ourselves and one another what a bad situation it all is. We can be quick to become those stereotypical Jeremiahs.

This morning, though, we’re reminded that Jeremiah had more to say than we imagine; more to say than perhaps his people were ready to hear. And we’re reminded that God continues to have more to say. The word was made flesh… the word that was put into Jeremiah’s mouth is now made flesh, the incarnate word has come into our world and dwelt among the people of first century Palestine as it continues to dwell among us. The word becomes something more than words; something more than guidance or advice – it takes on human flesh and becomes both words and actions. We don’t just hear what God has to say, we see and experience the ways of God in the incarnate son.

This is the God who becomes fully human, who lives and breathes and laughs and cries. It’s the full incarnation of the God whom we glimpse in Jeremiah’s book of comfort. And at the same time, it’s the incarnation of the God who uses Jeremiah to remind the people of the right way to live.

The baby in the manger may well be soft and cuddly. We’ve sung the sentimental carols that welcome the vulnerable child. But that child’s purpose is to show us the nature of God; to guide and shepherd us onto a path that just might change the shape of human interactions. That child grew into the man who brought us the wherewithal to turn mourning into joy, to bring comfort to all of God’s people.

Our world is one that is desperately seeking that comfort. Our world is one within which some people have turned so far from the ways of God that they commit atrocious acts of violence and cruelty. Our world is one where a narrative of doom and gloom is very easy to find.

Within that context, our task is to bring an alternative narrative; to offer a different take, to hold onto the message of hope that we have heard. Hope for a different future. Hope for a change of direction. Hope that God’s word might be heard and received in all the world.

It’s not easy to go against the crowd, to be the outlier whose perspective is counter cultural, but if the church doesn’t take on that role, then what is it doing? What would it be for?

And the church isn’t some authority figure out there putting words into our mouths, the church is only you and me – we are the only ones who can grapple for those words of comfort and hope and who might just find the courage to share them.

We are no more one dimensional than Jeremiah – we just may need to remind ourselves of that from time to time.

 

 

 

Midnight Mass – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway

Isaiah 52.7-10; John 1.1-14

I don’t know about you, but this has felt, among many other things, like a year of statistics. It has become almost a daily ritual to check the Covid rates in Edinburgh, and then to worry about hospitalisation rates, to compare infection rates across countries and continents even as we also read articles that tell us how difficult it is to statistically compare. It’s been a year of statistics for vaccine efficacy; for the rate of vaccine take-up; of the R number. And through it all, the statistic of the mounting number of those who have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test – 147,720 people in the UK as of yesterday. And the estimated 5.4 million people worldwide who have died from Covid since the pandemic started. Such numbers are almost unimaginable, do scarce justice to the reality: the danger with statistics is for the sheer size of the issue, the weight of humanity represented in these numbers, to be what distances us from what is happening for each of the people represented in those numbers; the sheer mass of numbers masks the particular story of each.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of one particular human being. In the midst of our current crisis and challenge, is there any reason to focus on this human life any more than any one of the other billions of humans who have populated, lived and died, on our planet? This child is not any more, or less, human than any of those many others, than you or me even.  Jesus, in the vulnerability that calls forth the love of Mary and Joseph, in the fact that he is immediately subject to the whims of forces and powers beyond his control, to the rage of Herod that forces him to flee with his family; in all that he is as human as the rest of us. And yet our faith proclaims that in this particular human life, the light shines and the darkness cannot overcome it. That does not make Jesus uniquely special in a way that no one else is: instead this human life reveals that this is the way God reaches out and loves each one of us– in the very depths of every particular human life. God does not love in the abstract, through the contemplation of statistics, but loves every human being unconditionally and equally. Jesus we proclaim reveals the divine in the human, to open that way to each and every human being, to each of us. We may struggle to comprehend the humanity behind the statistics – but God does not. For this is how God comes – in love to every particular, unique, special, wonderful, glorious, broken, human life.

God comes not as some ideal of peace and calm, or as the idea of love. God comes not in the form of a sermon on love or a treatise on peace. God comes into our reality as it is, however muddled and muddied it may be, like the stable at Bethlehem, with straw and cow dung. If Christmas is about an ideal then we are easily oppressed by it because we rarely live up to it (Christmas is supposed to be about peace and love, so why does my family irritate the hell out of me?). Or, as an ideal, we decide it’s not practical, and dismiss it as irrelevant and carry on regardless – as if the message of peace proclaimed at Christmas is simply some sentimentalized story to warm our hearts, and please the children, and therefore has little to say that will redeem our mess and muddle, our anxiety and fear.

But God does not come as an ideal: God comes not as a plea for world-peace; not as an insistence that you have a good time; not as the latest consumer product that life is incomplete without. God comes in a particular place, at a particular time, as a defenceless baby. The Word became flesh, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.

The invitation of this night is for us to come and see, gaze upon God come among us and place that fact in the midst of our living, in the midst of any family squabbles and tensions, in the midst of our griefs and sorrows heightened by absence, in the midst of our anxiety and fear at the continuing pandemic.

To place God in the midst of all that – to gaze upon the Christ child born this night – is paradoxically, given our current predicament, to be brought into joy. Like the shepherds we are brought to rejoicing. This wee babe we welcome tonight, in all his unprotected vulnerability, like countless children before and since, has the capacity to break hearts, to breach our defences, unplug our wellsprings. Joy bubbles up this night – that is God’s gift we receive tonight, and everything is put in its place because joy bursts forth. The joy of Mary, as she forgets the pain and travail of birth, forgets the alien surroundings and the worries about tomorrow, and cradles her child close. Joy melts our hearts and makes living worthwhile – without it the present giving and receiving, the surplus of food, is strangely sterile and empty. God comes amongst us bringing joy. And from our joy flows our giving, our celebration, our peace-making – the gratuitous acts of people in love, delighting in our ability to mirror the gratuitous, gracious, unmerited overflowing of love that is God. This night, light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.

God comes among us not as an ideal to admire, but fail to live up to, but as a child and a man who, in the midst of our brokenness, loves his people into joy, into resurrection life. Tonight we are not here to worship an ideal, but have come to be visited by joy, and to carry that joy into whatever mess and muddle, whatever anxiety and grief, is ours, so that stumblingly we too may offer our gestures of generous joy. For God’s resurrection joy and life is unconquerable, and it is revealed as with us this night. To celebrate Christmas is to celebrate the God who comes, not in the general ideal, or the vague sentiment, but in a particular human life – a particular human life born in that stable long ago; and because of that human life, we now realise, God comes to meet us in love in every particular human life. In you and me, and every one of our neighbours. Amen.

Advent 4. 19th December 2021. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley.

Do you remember back to the heady days of the summer when we were beginning to look forward to Christmas celebrations? The conversations about the catching up that we would all be doing; the plans to party – even for those of us who might not normally be party animals. There was anxiety about whether Santa would be able to fulfil all of his requests – international transport of goods was becoming difficult and the supermarket shelves were a bit depleted. The first Christmas adverts came onto the TV and they promised the best and most enjoyable Christmas ever. And then things began to change and we began to wonder whether life would be quite so open – but the possibilities still seemed greater than we’d become used to. And gradually, week by week it seems, our horizons have narrowed and our aspirations have been curtailed. It’s easy to feel miserable about all of that; to catalogue a list of ‘if onlys’ and to drift into a narrative of ‘making the best of it’. To some extent, that is the situation, but perhaps there’s a little bit more to reflect on.

I read a poem this week that really resonated for me.

Annunciation by the Welsh poet, Gwynneth Lewis.

When first he painted the Virgin the friar filled
the space around her with angels’ bright wings,
scalloped and plated, with skies of gold,

heavy with matter. He thought that he knew
that heaven was everywhere. He grew
older, wiser and found that he drew

more homely rooms with pots and beds,
but lavished his art on soft furnishings
and the turn of the waiting angel’s wings

(still gorgeous with colour and precious dust).
Much later, he sensed that his God had withdrawn,
was spacious. On smaller frescoes he painted less,

let wall be wall, but drew in each lawn
the finer detail of sorrel and weeds.
Still later, he found his devotion drawn

to nothing – shadows hinted at hidden rooms,
at improbable arches, while angel’s news
shattered the Virgin, who became a view

As open as virtue, her collapsing planes
easy and vacant as the evening breeze
that had brought a plain angel to his grateful knees.

 

Gwynneth Lewis’ reflections on the process of painting the Annunciation seem to speak right into the heart of where we find ourselves. We all, or almost all, find that despite ourselves, despite our very best intentions and resolutions, we are sucked into more busyness at this time of year than we might think is good for us. Even those among us who don’t send cards; who don’t decorate a large tree; who don’t leave it till the 23rd to remember that we need a gift for a particular person – even if you are that person (for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not) there is a bit more to do at this time of year – even if that is only to make sure you have enough milk and cat food to see you through while the shops are closed.

And there’s a temptation to make a bit of a virtue out of the busyness. So many people to think about; much mandatory jolliness and perhaps even a bit of silliness. There’s something about the energy that’s around that many of us enjoy and that kind of carries us through. There’s perhaps also something about the familiarity that serves us – the box of decorations that is a box of memories; the cards from people we rarely see but hold in our hearts; the first mince pie and glass of mulled wine. And, as I told the choristers this week, the first time we hear a favourite Christmas piece of music – which for me, incidentally, is Jesus Christ the apple tree. We tend to have quite a fixed idea of what makes Christmas for us. And then a global pandemic comes along and at least some of those things are no longer possible. The danger is that we then tell ourselves that this is somehow a lesser event; that we are making do; that next year we’ll have a real Christmas again.

The poem speaks about losing the busyness in the imagery; losing all that surrounds the central message; losing everything that isn’t crucial and stripping back to how it felt; how it made the artist feel.

If we strip back to how it feels; how it makes the listener feel; how it makes the one who says a prayer feel; how it makes the believer feel, can we find a way to connect with what Lewis describes as the shadows hinting at something more, the easiness of the evening breeze?

What is left for us in this pared back Christmas season? Once we let go of the trappings and trimmings, the big picture stuff, what do we find lurking? What might we catch just out of the corner of our eye? What’s that sound that we just caught that might have been a rustle in the trees?

There’s a gift in what we have, that isn’t the gift in what might have been, but has its own intrinsic value. There’s a gift in the solo voice for today’s music – the poignancy of a single voice drifting into and through this space. Completely different from the experience of worship that is supported by the choir, but no less of a worship experience.

There’s a gift in smaller gatherings. Being able to communicate with one another in a different way because we’re not part of a large group, not competing to be heard in a noisy space. There’s a joy in dressing up, but there’s also a gift in having a duvet day – snuggling up in your pyjamas to eat chocolate and watch box sets.

The big, grand Christmas services, the services that mark out a place like this, they tell out the story of a God who is awesome. A God whose love for humanity is overwhelming. A God whom we greet with shouts of adoration. A God whom we find in the colours and the socialising and the shared expressions of joy.

But that isn’t the whole story about God. The God we are more likely to encounter in the shape of our worship and our celebrations this year is the God who is present in the simplicity of Rob’s solo voice. The God who pitches up when just 2 or 3 are gathered. The God who we might just notice in the more spacious days or the quieter moments.

The God who calls us into a different kind of response, an unexpected response, a response that just might help us to have a more expansive understanding of who God is – and of who we are.

Mary and Elizabeth were just two women, sharing together the wonder and excitement and anticipation. Two women caught up in the experience they were living, ordinary women who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. They responded from a place of openness and wonder, a place of trust and belief. A place with space for God to be God and for them to be the people God needed them to be. No fuss; no trappings, just openness and the fleeting touch of an angel.

When first he painted the Virgin the friar filled
the space around her with angels’ bright wings,
scalloped and plated, with skies of gold,

heavy with matter. He thought that he knew
that heaven was everywhere. He grew
older, wiser and found that he drew
more homely rooms with pots and beds,
but lavished his art on soft furnishings
and the turn of the waiting angel’s wings

(still gorgeous with colour and precious dust).
Much later, he sensed that his God had withdrawn,
was spacious. On smaller frescoes he painted less,
let wall be wall, but drew in each lawn
the finer detail of sorrel and weeds.
Still later, he found his devotion drawn

to nothing – shadows hinted at hidden rooms,
at improbable arches, while angel’s news
shattered the Virgin, who became a view

As open as virtue, her collapsing planes
easy and vacant as the evening breeze
that had brought a plain angel to his grateful knees.

 

Advent 3 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 12th December

Zephaniah 3.14-20; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18

This 3rd Sunday in Advent is sometimes known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete comes from the Latin for Rejoice. And our first two readings certainly pick up that cue: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice, says Paul in his letter to the Philippians. Sing aloud, says Zephaniah, Rejoice and exult with all your heart. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. Zephaniah, from the midst of his own grim present, invites his readers to rejoice in the promised future. Gaudete Sunday is a moment of rejoicing within the solemnity of Advent, as we anticipate that promised future.

And then, into this invitation to rejoice, comes striding the figure of John the Baptist. Like the crowds, in our Gospel reading, flocking to the banks of the Jordan to catch the latest thing, abuzz perhaps with excitement, we are suddenly confronted with John’s anger and directness. ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’

John is an uncomfortable figure. He’s often described as the last of the OT prophets, living on the edge of civilization, in the wilderness. He seems beholden to no-one, free to speak truth, fiery words that address our darkness. He puts into practice the judgement of which he speaks. And, I suspect, we do recognize, even yearn for, that kind of figure – the one railing against corruption, expressing our anger at the world, the darkness that this week, as ever, presses in on us. We all know something of that anger – at those who think the rules are not for them. John expresses our  rage against hypocrisy, against injustice and inaction. And our anger, we hope will, like that of  John the Baptist, cut through the darkness, convict our politicians, and our vacuous celebrity obsessed age, issue a wake up call to those who simply lash out without thought except to administer poisonous bites: ‘You brood of vipers.’

It’s a tempting role; one that the church is often invited to fulfill: to stand in judgement on society, wag our finger disapprovingly, or shake our head disappointedly, as we reflect on society going to the dogs. That’s what church is about isn’t it?

Tempting as that is – this week especially – I think that gets both John and our calling wrong. Certainly in Luke’s account that we just heard in our Gospel, the anger is there: alongside the description of his hearers as a brood of vipers, he informs them that even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ Such fiery words draw a crowd, gets him noticed, but when John begins to address those who come to him, what he advocates is far from extreme. ‘What shall we do?’ they ask. And John invites them to act, here and now in the present. He addresses the situation of each that comes to him, encouraging a culture of generosity (sharing cloaks and food); of fairness and decency, so that we are not concerned simply with acquisition but know when we have enough. It’s a call into responsible living, finding some meaning and purpose in what lies in front of us. The anger gives way to something else.

And famously and above all, John points away from himself to the one who is coming. For John, the one who is coming is the one who will execute judgment, put things right, and so we better get ready. Luke’s gospel, in this early chapter, sets up our expectation: this is what the coming Christ is about, Jesus will execute that judgement that John, and we, look for. But as Luke’s Gospel will go on to show, the one who comes will subvert that judgement, will not simply point the finger and rage at the world. Instead of executing God’s wrath, he will reveal the anger and violence for what it is, by taking the violence on himself – the One who comes is not the bringer of violence, however seemingly justified, but its recipient. Jesus’ ultimate journey will reveal violence to be what we do to love, not the way God is.

So, as we wait this Advent, John rightly reminds us to wake up, and his call into responsible living, still resonates. And we need to follow his pointing finger, not pointing in judgement, but at the one who will come, to subvert all our fantasies, above all, the fantasy that it is simply other people who are the problem, that pointing the finger is enough.

Advent is often described as the season of waiting. That can make it sound a very passive season, perhaps in contrast to the dashing around in preparation for Christmas that many of us are engaged in. The French verb for ‘waiting’ is ‘attendre’, from which we get our words, to attend, attention. If our waiting is about attending to something, paying attention, what will you attend to this week? If what I am suggesting about John is right, then, even in the darkness, even as we rage and know our anger, we wait, we attend, to something that subverts that darkness. The light that the darkness will not master is coming, so let us pay attention, or we will miss the reason for rejoicing. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.’ Let us find space for the coming outbreak of cleansing joy.

God our healer, whose mercy is like a refining fire,
touch us with your judgement,
and confront us with your tenderness;
that, being comforted by you,
we may reach out to a troubled world,
through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Advent 1, 28th November 2021. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

I don’t know about any of you, but I was a bit surprised to wake up this morning and find myself at Advent Sunday. Yes, of course, I knew in my head that’s where we are in the year – not least because I had to prepare this sermon – but I didn’t feel quite ready for it to be Advent yet again. I wonder whether that’s in part because we have lived through so much turmoil and change over the past couple of years. Our whole sense of how we inhabit our world and how we go about our lives has changed dramatically. We think twice about travelling; rather than filling our diaries with social engagements, we cautiously consider whether we might dare to do one or two things in the course of a month – making some kind of risk assessment in order to do so. There is so much new vocabulary – LFTs and PCRs are now acronyms that trip off our tongues. Two years ago most of us had no idea what either of them was. We’re having to revise or perhaps learn the Greek alphabet in order to keep up with the emerging variants.
There is sometimes a narrative that life has been on hold for the past year. But I’m not so sure that is true. Life has been challenging and unpredictable and subject to more restrictions, but it’s not stopped.

Life’s major events have continued to pepper the months. Babies have been born; couples have married; loved ones have been diagnosed with medical conditions – some have died. Children have started at schools and universities; people have started new jobs. Others have retired. Some jobs have come to an end. And in the midst of it all, we’ve continued to question and wonder – when will this all end; what will happen next; will things get worse before they get better. The public health messaging has encouraged us to be fearful, in order to ensure that we take the pandemic seriously. Other people are potentially vectors of infection and we are, rightly, encouraged to be wary of them.

Alongside our newly learned ability to live in pandemic times, we’ve also lived in a country that hosted the COP talks this year. Our understanding of the imminent pressures around climate change has been heightened – none of us could now imagine that doing nothing is an option. We are already experiencing changes in our weather systems; we’re seeing the impact on other parts of our world. And we are afraid.

The second verse from this morning’s Gospel reading could have been written for contemporary times and it doesn’t mince its words:
‘People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world’. (Lk 21: 26)

Well, there’s a reminder, if we need one, that fear about the future isn’t something new. From the very earliest of times, humanity has lived with the anxiety that disaster is just around the corner. If we think about the history told in the Hebrew Bible,  we read story after story of persecution; of nations fighting over land or resources; woes are catalogued, tribulations are spelled out. The narrative serves as a constant reminder that danger and threat are never far away.

If you were to read the newspaper headlines on any day over the past year or so, you would believe that things have never been so serious, that humankind has never been so threatened. And, of course, there are very good reasons for us to be concerned, even frightened. Very good reasons for us to take seriously the threats to our planet and our future.

But one of the things that we know about fear is that it is disabling. It stops us in our tracks and makes it almost impossible to have a rational or measured response to what is in front of us. We have a visceral response to fear that is biologically very helpful, but societally less helpful.

And that is where the New Testament writers have something to bring to the table. However frightened they are, however alarming their world may feel, they are driven by the belief that there will be unimaginable change within their lifetimes. There’s a real urgency in their writing – this morning we read: your redemption is drawing near. Something significant is about to happen.

Luke was encouraging his readers to see beyond their fear, to see beyond their immediate experience and to trust that things can and will change. Jesus says: when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads. Stand up and raise your heads. Fear makes people cowed and turned into themselves. Jesus encourages confidence, not fear. Jesus helps us to look beyond the immediate threat, to shift focus.

Acknowledge the fear for what it is, but know that it’s not the final answer. It’s not what defines you, it’s not what defines God’s people. It’s not the driving force in our world – and it’s not a force for positive change. Fear is a force for stagnation; it encourages people to hunker down, to lower their eyes, to make themselves small.

Change and movement come when we manage to find a place of hope. When we manage to lift our gaze to see beyond ourselves, beyond our immediate situation or environment and to catch a glimmer of light in the midst of the darkness. Change comes when we focus on that which is of God, when we look beyond the immediate towards the promises of the kingdom.

We are at a point in the evolution of our communities where we can either be disabled by fear or inspired by hope. Being hopeful, having a forward looking focus isn’t the same thing as being reckless. Of course we need to take the actions that we know mitigate against the threats that we face. So we need to continue to wear our masks and sanitise our hands. We need to continue to look for ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels and to waste fewer of the earth’s resources. We need to find ways to take care of the most vulnerable people within our world.  We can do those things whilst simultaneously moving our attention towards what comes next.

Within the church we don’t inhabit a place of stagnation. Our church year forces us to move from one season to another, from one focus to another. It stops us from getting too comfortable – or too uncomfortable, stops us allowing fear to completely disable us. Today, we are called by the church to begin, again, the story of our salvation. To begin again the story of God’s direct intervention into the life of our world. Over these few short weeks we will be retelling the story, re-experiencing the wonder and the joy. Journeying, yet again, to that stable in Bethlehem. And this morning, the preparations begin.

Laying the ground; retelling the stories that remind us of God’s promises to humankind; retelling the stories of hope and gift and redemption. Lifting our eyes and hoping to catch just a glimpse of God’s promise to us.

 

 

 

Feast of Christ the King – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 21st November

Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33b-37

Today we celebrate the final Sunday of the Church’s year, the Feast of Christ the King. It’s the climax of our year’s pilgrimage, from the anticipation, and then the birth of, Christ, at Advent and Christmas; through the mystery of Christ’s life, and death and resurrection that finds its focus at Easter; and then through the long season of Pentecost as we learn what it might mean to walk that way ourselves in the power of the Spirit. And so to this climax of the year, as Christ is proclaimed as King: our readings from Daniel and Revelation rejoice in the setting to right, the drawing into worship of all creation, that is at the heart of the King and his kingdom that we proclaim today.

And yet, and yet, in our Gospel reading, under Pilate’s questioning, Jesus quite pointedly deflects, refuses even, the title of King. It’s a gospel that places a question mark, at the very least, against any easy triumphalist acclamation of Jesus as King; certainly against our usual ways of understanding that title: ‘So you are a King?’ Pilate asks Jesus. And Jesus answers: ‘You say that I am a king.’

We are taken back, in our Gospel reading, to that moment of extreme conflict and brooding violence, in the early hours of Good Friday, as Jesus stands before the authority who will decide his immediate fate. And he is given an opportunity to defend and justify himself: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ asks Pilate.

And in that place of conflict and brooding violence and powerful authority, Jesus does two things, which place that question mark at the heart of what we celebrate today. First of all, Jesus asks Pilate where he stands. He asks the one who apparently has the authority at this moment, to give an account of himself. ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Why do you care, asks Jesus. For to all intents and purposes, Jesus is clearly not a King in any way that makes any sense to Pilate, or to us. Here he stands, helpless, friendless, deserted by his followers. And yet, from a deep well of courage and conviction, he throws the question back at the one cloaked with the authority and power: where do you stand, what’s in this for you?

And Jesus then goes on to say something even more radical to the uncomprehending Pilate: ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’

Not from this world – in this place of conflict, Jesus identifies himself as being from somewhere other-worldly. It’s a common accusation thrown against those who come at things from a faith perspective – that we are just being other-worldly, and it’s not usually a compliment. But here, it is the hard-edged reason for Jesus’ refusal to get involved in the conflict on the usual terms: ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.’ But Jesus isn’t going to get drawn into that fight; instead, he draws strength from a place that is not from here; he is subject to a different set of rules and demands.

In a world which constantly seeks us to take sides, get drawn in, arm ourselves, define ourselves as not like them, Jesus points to a kingdom not from here. Faith is characterized as the practice of going to that place, that kingdom not from here, which resources and strengthens us; it is that travelling together in the company of others who strengthen and renew us; it is the practice of prayer and self-discipline, that equips us with power that is not from here. ‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world,’ says Jesus, ‘to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

Pilate famously dismisses that claim: ‘What is truth?’ he exclaims. To the one who trades in the might of the sword and empire, truth is simply the wielding of that power and authority. Pilate ends the exchange uncomprehending; and the friendless, helpless prisoner before him makes his way to the cross. But we gather here as those who do listen to his voice, who gather as subjects of that kingdom that is not from here. We listen to that voice even as he makes his way into suffering. For the King we celebrate is found not robed in majesty, but walking the way of the cross; not wielding power and might, but offering himself for the life of the world. He asks his followers not to take up arms and fight on his side, but to follow him in finding the strength for acts of costly, forgiving and life-giving love. To be subjects of this kingdom, to listen to his voice, means growing in faith in the possibilities which that forgiving love open up; it is about being drawn into that kingdom not from here. That kingdom which on the far side of cross and resurrection, on the far side of costly forgiving love, is revealed as that which judges the uncomprehending and blustering power of Pilate, and Prime Minister; judges the preening power of might and authority found in different degrees in all of us, with the truth of forgiving love.

And so the question that the helpless, friendless, and yet faithful Jesus offers Pilate lies at the heart of our celebrations today: ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Where are you before this man; where am I before this man? Shall we trust in the might and power that is all too evident in the world around us? Or do we recognize our deepest truth in the journey this man makes, and so find our selves strengthened in his broken body and outpoured blood, strengthened by his kingdom not from here. Amen.

Remembrance Sunday, 14th November 2021. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost.

Lest we forget…

That line, from Rudyard Kipling’s poem Recessional, serves as a sharp prompt at this time of year.  There are the familiar, perhaps over familiar, words that speak into our very souls, ‘they shall not grow old as we that are left grow old…’ words that we will hear in just a few minutes – and then this stark reminder of why it’s still important.  Lest we forget.

This is the first verse of Kipling’s poem:

God of our fathers, known of old,

Lord of our far-flung battle-line,

Beneath whose awful Hand we hold

Dominion over palm and pine—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The poem isn’t war poetry, it was written 20 years before the start of the first World War, it’s actually a reflection on the Empire.  And the reader is being encouraged to remember that the world is God’s – that we have authority over our created world only as creatures of our God; that God’s hand is in and over all, and that we are God’s servants.

Lest we forget.  Lest we forget the sacrifice; lest we forget the price that individuals and communities paid; lest we forget the impact.

Our focus today is mostly on the World Wars of the twentieth century, but they turned out not to be the wars to end all wars.  Our world has continued to be scarred by conflict; young lives continue to be lost; young people continue to be scarred.

I want to tell you about someone I know.  I’ll call him George.  George was born in the early 1960s in a working family in Edinburgh.  He didn’t enjoy school and left as soon as he could.  He’d seen the recruiting posters for the army – sign up and learn a trade.  Sign up and see the world.  Sign up and have permission to leave home and enjoy yourself.  And so he did.

And he had a few years that were great fun.  He enjoyed the training and the camaraderie.  He joined the paras.  He lived in various places and felt that he was getting exactly what he had signed up for – and they paid him as well.  And then we went to war in the Falklands and George’s battalion was called up.  He and his mates found themselves on Goose Green.  George was beside his closest friend when he was blown up.  George was injured.

Fast forward 39 years and George still hears the sound of artillery; George feels the force of the blast that killed his mate.  George has physical scars that have healed over; he has internal scars that will never heal.  George doesn’t have the option of forgetting – the trauma is etched on his brain and he suffers.

We are privileged – we have the option to forget, or at least not to think about war.  We see conflict on our TV screens, we read about atrocities that are committed; someone, somewhere counts the deaths.  And tomorrow we may remember, and we may forget.

But George and those who fought with him in the Falklands, those who fought in Iraq and in Afghanistan and Ireland, those whose loved ones were massacred in Sarajevo and in Rwanda and in all the other conflicts that have erupted in recent years – they will never forget.   Each one of them lives with the scars that were inflicted.

The scars of war present in a whole range of ways.  I grew up in a city that had been scarred by war.  Whole streets had been destroyed.  Many street corners were simply rubble; a city filled with reminders.  By now, of course, all of those bombed sites have been built upon.  The new houses replace the old; the new shopping centres fill the gappy streets.  And new opportunities have emerged.  The recently bombed out cities that we see on our TV screens are at their lowest point at the moment, but there is the opportunity for new life to emerge – even in those places.

Let’s go back to Kipling and his reminder that the world is God’s – and all that is in it.  That we are God’s created people seeking, as we pray each week, to do God’s will.  Your will be done.

Your will be done.  The will of God is that all of humanity should be honoured and respected. The will of God is that our created world should be honoured and respected.  And war fundamentally disrespects.  It scars the land; it scars the ecosystem, it scars humanity.  And those scars are carried by those who have direct experience and by their descendants.

I’m not naïve enough to believe if we only all pray hard enough, people will stop hating one another and all conflict and war will cease.   Our vergers pointed out to me this week that there is a plaque in the North Aisle commemorating a soldier who died fighting in Afghanistan in 1879.  And that part of our world is still being destroyed, new scars are being created as we speak.

What I do believe though, is that healing is possible; that scars fade and sometimes become almost invisible.  And I believe that happens when the humanity of those who have suffered most is honoured.  Wars create stateless people; wars create bereaved people; wars create refugees and displaced people.  Not one of them has chosen their situation – longer term, there aren’t any winners, only losers.

Each one is a sister or a brother, carrying scars that I pray I will never have.  Carrying trauma and damage that, at best, they will learn to manage.

We don’t live in the midst of conflict, but we live in the midst of the impact of conflict.   And we choose whether or not we reach out to support and care for the refugees and the migrants; whether we have compassion for those whose misery originated in places far away, but whose fundamental humanity is no different from our own.   That may be seen as a political matter, but I want to suggest that it’s a humanitarian matter – that it’s a Gospel imperative.

Lest we forget – lest we forget those who gave their freedom in order that we might have ours; lest we forget those who live amongst us with the direct scars of conflict; lest we forget those whose scars are hidden; lest we forget that the impact of war reaches well beyond the boundaries of the battlefield; that the impact of war is with us and remains with us and changes us and our planet.

Let’s not forget.

 

Pentecost 24. Sermon preached on by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley. 7th November 2021

1 Kings 17: 8-16; Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12: 38-44

Two of our three readings this morning feature a widow.  In biblical times – and well beyond then – women who had been widowed found themselves in a very vulnerable position.  They had no obvious means of support; they weren’t able to be financially independent; they were possibly perceived as a burden by members of their extended family; unless they had a male child, the future held nothing that was likely to change their situation.   In both of this morning’s stories, the widow represents the most marginalised and isolated members of the community, people with little personal agency.

The thing about widows is that they are people whose status within society has changed – they are outsiders who were once insiders.  They know what it is to be accepted and acceptable and then for that to change.

And the change is dramatic – from having a voice, having a place at the table, a purpose and a focus, to scrabbling round in order to survive.  We are thinking about women who have no value or agency in their own right, but who are only included in society in relation to a man who in some way has responsibility for them.  When the man goes, so does the status.

We know that there are places where, in the 21st century, women’s lives are restricted unless they have the permission and oversight of a male.  Invisibility, second class status, these are not things of the past; they are the ongoing experience of women, young and older, in many parts of our world.

Of course, that experience of not being seen or heard is not restricted to women.  Some of the most interesting interviews that I have heard from the COP attendees have been from people representing the smallest and most vulnerable island communities.  They are people who are doing, indeed who have already done, all that they can, and they are now pleading with the richer, more powerful nations, asking them to take seriously their responsibilities.  They may normally have little personal agency, and yet, they speak with voices that carry significant weight; voices that it is hard to dismiss,  voices that prick our consciences and demand that we see things through a wider lens.

These are people who challenge our ideas and perhaps assumptions about who is vulnerable.  We tend, I think, to imagine that vulnerability is about people with particular needs, whether that is to do with their health or their background or their living situation.  We focus on people who are clearly more vulnerable than we perceive ourselves to be, people to whom we might be able to offer a helping hand in one way or another.  Those people in positions of leadership within, for instance, Pacific Islands, don’t have those stereotypical vulnerabilities, but it doesn’t make them any less vulnerable.  They are within the international structures and simultaneously finding that those structures don’t really serve them.

Not noticed; not important – values turned on their head.  Those who thought they had agency have less than they imagined; those who were ignored now demand the attention and the ears of the world.

That seems to me to be a bit of a summary of what Jesus was teaching in today’s Gospel story.  The story is remembered for its second half, the widow’s mite  – I want to begin by focussing on the first couple of verses which begin:

Jesus said, beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces…

Jesus is giving a clear message that when we look at people, we see how they present, not who they are.  There are those people who swan around in their swanky clothes and who put their energies into how they are perceived and how they are greeted.  Jesus is reminding us that those things are unimportant.  Those are not the values of the Kingdom; those are not the values that bring us closer to God.  The designer clothing or the flashy jewellery might make people feel as though they will be respected and therefore help them to feel better about themselves, but those are not the things of God.

It’s easy, if you have surplus money, to give some of it away – to a favourite charity or to the church or to a loved one.  Giving from a plentiful resource doesn’t require too much heart searching – the generosity of the wealthy philanthropist is wonderful and gratefully received, but is unlikely to impact on their day to day choices.

However, the generosity of the widow, the generosity of the marginalised person who has little and is constantly aware of what they have and the choices they need to make – that is a different kind of generosity.  That’s about sacrificial giving; that’s about faithful giving, about giving back with gratitude.

Thinking back to the COP and the marginalised peoples whose plight is most severe, they are the people for whom our sacrificial giving could make the biggest difference.  And those of us who have more than we need, those of us who are called by Jesus to care less about how we’re perceived and more about what we are able and willing to give – we are the ones who can make a difference.

The strongest voices advocating significant change within our communities and our civic structures are those of young people.   They are the ones who are calling out the hypocrisy; they are the ones who have lost patience with blah, blah and who are demanding that something happens.  Young people – those whose voices are often ignored.  Those who, like the widows, don’t normally have agency or authority.  And yet, they are speaking with authority.  They are telling it how it is.  They are not ready to settle for easy giving, for change that comes at little cost.  They know that what is needed is sacrificial change – and that the change needs to be made not by those who are most vulnerable and most affected, but by those who, at the moment, perceive themselves to be less vulnerable and less immediately affected.

They know that they need to beware of those who walk around in fancy robes and like to be greeted with respect.  They know that to be window dressing – game playing that our world no longer has the capacity to entertain.  They know that unless we, as national and international communities, take seriously this morning’s teaching, a sustainable future will be an even more distant dream.

We are the people who are still in a position to make choices.  We are the people who have the opportunity give sacrificially.  And we will do that when we find ways to give, not from that which we won’t miss, but to make those changes that we would prefer not to make.  We need to make sacrifices whilst we still have options; we need to make them from a place of love and respect for humanity, for our planet and for our God.