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.

Easter V – Andrew Philip, Chaplain – 19th May 2019

This far out from Easter Sunday, you could easily be forgiven for forgetting that we’re still in the Easter season. The surplus chocolate eggs have been sold off cheap and the chicks and bunnies have vanished from the shop displays. We might still be saying our Easter ‘alleluias’, but the world around us has gone back to business as usual.

That world of business as usual — which means power struggles and injustices, fear and violence — that is the world in which today’s Gospel is set. Our text from John plunges us back into the drama of Maundy Thursday, just after Judas has left to betray Jesus and just before Jesus predicts Peter’s denial.

This world of betrayal and denial, power and fear, is the context in which Jesus gives us the commandment to love one another as he has loved us.

That is, to love one another through a life of service, to love one another so thoroughly that we are willing to lay down our lives. Jesus, in calling us to love this way, challenges us to create a different world.

Our reading from Revelation offers us a vision of that different world. This is a universe renewed; resurrected; redeemed from the grasp of fear and power; released from injustice; a world in which not only sorrow and pain but death itself has been abolished. This is truly a world transformed, truly an Easter vision and it proclaims:

  • that resurrection doesn’t just happen to Jesus alone;
  • that resurrection is not even the preserve of the chosen few;
  • but that resurrection is for all creation.

For, as Colossians says, through Christ

‘God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven’ (1:20).

And as the voice of God says in our reading from Revelation,

‘See, I am making all things new’ (21:5).

It’s a beautiful picture and a wonderful thought, isn’t it? It wasn’t written by some spiritual guru sitting in comfort, removed from the realities of suffering. The book of Revelation tells us that it was written while St John was in exile on Patmos as a result of persecution by the Roman Empire, so he knew what it was to suffer as a result of standing up against the power struggles and injustices of this world. He knew what standing up against the Empire could do to you.

In that context of fear and oppression, violence and injustice, John’s basic message is that God wins. Love wins, for God is love. Against the destructive force of the Roman Empire and its all-conquering military machine, John pits the renewing power of the Creator God.

As in Genesis, God’s creative power overcomes chaos, represented by the sea, which is no more. But, unlike in Genesis, where God was only a daily visitor to the garden, the divine presence dwells with humanity. Apparently, when Revelation says ‘the home of God is among mortals’ and ‘He will dwell with them’, the root word for home and dwell is the same as the one for lived in John 1:14: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us.’ God dwells with mortals in the incarnation of the Word and dwells among us still through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

It’s worth staying with that thought for a wee bit because it points us to the significance of the reading. Many are the Christians who have tried to turn rich metaphors in the book of Revelation into an events guide for the end of the world. While it is legitimate to read the book of Revelation as being about the end times, John is certainly speaking about the present — his present and ours.

Because, as I just mentioned, God dwells with mortals now. The new Jerusalem is the gathering of the redeemed — that’s us, the church. In us, God is making all things new already. God is already wiping the tears from humanity’s eyes. This new creation is not complete and, yes, the church too frequently behaves like it’s part of the unredeemed world of power and injustice, too frequently reacts out of fear rather than love, but the new creation is no less real for that.

So how does God make all things new? How does God wipe the tears from our eyes? The answer to that brings us back to the climax of our Gospel reading:

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

Love isn’t just a smile on a Sunday and a warm handshake at the Peace. Love is being willing to wash others’ feet — to serve them — even the ones who will betray and deny you. Love is being willing to go to the Cross, to sacrifice all you have not only for your friend but for your enemy. As the reading we heard from Acts this morning reminds us, there are no boundaries to this love.

It is our hands, reaching out in love, that God uses to wipe away the tears and to fashion a new world.

Those of you who have read the materials for this year’s Christian Aid week will know that the work Christian Aid is doing with pregnant women, new mothers and babies in Sierra Leone is very much about wiping tears away from eyes and building a new world. As a bereaved parent myself, I relate to the grief that Tenneh Bawoh speaks of when she tells how her first child died:

‘I will never forget that day,’ Tenneh recalls. ‘I felt sick like I’ve never been sick before. I loved my baby so much.’

But, with a partner organisation in Sierra Leone, Christian Aid has been able to provide a nurse whose care has ensured that Tenneh’s second was safely delivered and is fit and healthy.

Every Christian Aid envelope pushed through a door, and every pound placed in one of those envelopes this week, is a contribution to wiping away the tears of Tenneh and many like her throughout the world.

We can also look closer to home: after the service today, we are all invited to gather and consider how we, as a congregation, will help to meet the needs of the homeless people on our streets. This, too, is about wiping away tears. It is about loving as Christ has loved us. It is about becoming God’s hands fashioning the new world.

I will finish with some words from the writer Rachel Held Evans, who died around a fortnight ago:

‘Just as God comes to us through water and wine, God comes to us through touch, through the holy acts of holy hands. […] The hands that pass the peace can pass a meal to the man on the street. The hands that come together to receive Christ in the bread will extend to receive Christ in the immigrant, the refugee, the lonely, or the sick. Hands plant, and uproot, and cook, and caress. They repair, and rewire, and change diapers, and dress wounds. Hands tickle giggling children and wipe away tears.’ (Searching for Sunday, p98)

Easter III – John Conway – 5th May 2019

(Acts 9.1-20; John 21.1-19)

In the name of God, creating, redeeming and sustaining. Amen.

‘The greatness of the great Christian saints lies in their readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked and left speechless by that which lies at the centre of their faith.’ That is a quote from Rowan William’s wonderful exploration of the Christian mystics – The Wound of Knowledge. It sums up what links our two readings this morning – the conversion of Saul, soon to be Paul; and the re-conversion, the resurrection of Peter.

You may remember that back in January I offered you an imagining, from Peter’s point of view, of his first meeting with Jesus – his initial call by the lakeside after a night’s fishing. Today’s gospel returns us to that same place – Peter, after the events of Holy Week is back fishing. Let us too return and imagine what that encounter might feel like.

Peter said:

In my case there was no flash of light. No voices from the sky. It’s typical of Paul that his encounter should be dramatic, flinging him to the ground, blinding him. Me, my life was changed on a quiet, calm morning, after I thought all the fuss was over, when I had run away to hide and forget.

The seven of us had gone fishing. Back to what we knew best, what came easily. We worked through the night, the darkness enveloping us, smothering the need to talk, to make sense of what had happened. We could just be together, coping in our separate ways. The memory of Jerusalem, of that extraordinary week of conflict and death, and, and of, well, something more, could recede here among the familiar nets, the easy swing of them overboard, the fruitless search for fish. Here, I could almost ignore the uneasy voice that told me everything was different now, that the familiar could now no longer be enough, the be all and end all. That something more did rankle, even here, amongst the smells of rotting fish and faded dreams.

Early morning is a strange time when you’ve been fishing all night: of course you’re exhausted – particularly when you’ve caught nothing – and yet the dawn light can hardly fail to move you. The inexorable cycle of light breaking up the darkness, to be swallowed up again in turn in darkness. But at dawn, mystery is near, the world is hopeful. It was at daybreak the stranger appeared and told us to try fishing on the other side of the boat – told us, who had fished all our lives – but it was dawn, and the sky was painting the lake with fresh colour and warmth, so, because it was dawn and to humour the man as much as anything, we cast the nets once more, tired shoulders heaving. When the nets bulged and pulled, that’s when the familiar suddenly began to be invaded with other memories, other questions and longings. All that I had struggled to forget, in my shame and confusion, suddenly began to return, to haunt and disturb me. ‘It is the Lord’ someone shouted in my ear, and my heart leapt. Love triumphed at that moment – I knew that to be with him once more was my heart’s desire. But not naked. The events of the previous weeks had stripped me bare, left me without protection. I had betrayed him, when I had vehemently said I would not; I had deserted him when he was most at need. To be with him again was joy indeed, but not naked, not unprotected. So I pulled on my clothes, and then dived overboard – I had to be the first to reach him.

We came in with nets bulging – every species known to us seemed to be there, glistening in the rising sun. But Jesus had already got a fire going, with fish and bread to eat on it; the kind of meal we would have had shortly, gathering round the fire to assess the night’s fishing, make plans for the coming days, pass time in small talk. But it was different now. Memories stirred: us, and him, eating together once more, like that time in the Upper Room. But that was in Jerusalem, the holy city, when all was supercharged, when we had no idea what the future held, but the world seemed to be our oyster even with the rumours of the plotting of the authorities and Jesus’ own reluctance to evade them. Now we were gathered around a small fire, by the lake, amongst the familiar debris of fishing. This was not Jerusalem where the important things happen. And yet, once more he was breaking bread, bringing us together, stilling the small talk, sharing himself.

And then it happened. No blinding light; simply, after breakfast, he took me off by myself as the sun rose, the heat of the day beginning.

‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Once the answer would have been automatic. I took pride in being the most loyal, the eager one. But now, how could I boast, take pride? And yet, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’

And again, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Again, he addressed me with my old name, Simon. Not the new name of Peter, the Rock, the name that he had gifted me – of that I had proved unworthy – the rock had turned to quicksand. I was back to being Simon, all else was delusion, pride before the fall. ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ How else could I answer?

And again, and by now my pulse was beating hard – no need to remind me of the significance of that third question, I who had betrayed him not once, nor twice, but three times. ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Now I was stripped bare, no hiding place left. ‘Lord you know everything’ – you know that I betrayed you and deserted you, and that I don’t know how to cope with you coming back from the dead. I thought you were buried and gone, and that I would have to deal with my hurt and anger at myself as best I could – probably by taking refuge in this fishing, hoping that that would numb the pain and the ache – but now it’s not so simple. For you are not dead and buried, but amongst us, sharing yourself again in bread broken. So yes Lord, you know everything, and despite it all, in the midst of the hurt and brokenness – ‘you know that I love you.’

And then I finally heard it – not the repeated question but the repeated response and instruction. Not words of condemnation or reproach, of blame or inquest. He was not wanting my guilt or remorse, but to offer the gift of new life: ‘Feed my lambs – tend my sheep – feed my sheep.’ And something in me died, for the familiar rhythms of fishing could no longer comfort me, and my cherished ideal of being proved the hero also finally withered under that three times repeated question, but at the same moment something burst into life. I did not have to be someone else; I did not have to forget and bury the past. My broken, betraying humanity was enough, a crucible fit for that gift of new life, new calling. I loved him, and that was enough, and would take me where he needed me to go. And so he left me, with simply the whispered instruction, ‘follow me’, going as quietly as he had arrived. The heat of the day soon passed; night drew in again enveloping all. But the fire within me burned on, unquenched.

As I say for Paul it was all very different. And yet, and yet, don’t let the outward appearances deceive you. For both of us died in our encounter with the Risen Christ. Both of us were stripped of all that clothed and protected us, taken to a place we would rather not go – me to the prison of my memories, he – who had wielded the power of death over Christians – made blind and powerless, led like a child, waiting for a fearful, brave old man who would restore him, give him his new name and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was hardly painless – the gift of new life was born in the vulnerability of our old ways dying. And the new life we were gifted took us to places we would not have dared imagine. He said it to me himself before he left: ‘When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ And yet that final death, that final loss of control, will not defeat me. For I have already been crucified with him, and in his resurrection, I have already risen to new life in him. And that gift means I am no longer trapped in my past of betrayal and failure, nor dreaming of being the hero I will never become, but simply living for the sake of the world, not myself. And that is a gift none can take away, wherever I am led.

Amen.

Easter Sunday – John Conway – 21/04/19

(John 20.1-18)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Yeats’ famous lines from his poem The Second Coming, have apparently enjoyed a second wind themselves in recent years – often quoted as people have tried to describe and understand the times we live. They sprang to mind, as I thought about how to describe this moment, this Easter moment in which resurrection is encountered, and proclaimed.

It is perhaps no surprise that it is these words that resonate in our present, words written a century ago in 1919, in the exhausted, disillusioned and fearful aftermath of the 1stWorld War, when that awful clash of nations had burst the bubble of optimism felt in the early years of the century, and people feared that there was more violence to come, that a vacuum had been created into which the populist demagogues would step and whip up passion: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Words for our times indeed. Particularly as we hear today of acts of unspeakable violence and cruelty in churches and hotels across Sri Lanka. Whatever our sense of the particular reasons for the times we live in, we are familiar with the fear and dread that Yeats evokes – a sense that the old ways of ordering the world are coming apart, and we don’t know what is next. We lack conviction, and we fear and suspect that those full of passionate but shallow intensity are even now sweeping up and making the future.

And it is in that context that we also hear the question, twice addressed to Mary Magdalene in our Easter Gospel this morning: Woman, why are you weeping? Why are you weeping?

For Mary’s world has of course fallen apart, violence has been loosed on the ceremony of innocence that Jesus enacted. And like women throughout the ages, she is left trying to pick up the pieces, and hold it together. She has come to tend the body of her friend, anoint and care for it, offer the rituals of comfort to ease her grief and pain.

And we too are tempted to respond to anxious times with the comforting rituals of the familiar, with expressions of tenderness towards those we know. We lament the state of the world, but we often respond by doing what we can do, faithfully, tenderly even, like Mary coming to anoint the dead.

But that is not what resurrection is. In our Gospel Mary meets an absence – what she seeks is not there, the comfort she seeks to bring and to find, is denied her. Instead angels, strange figures mark the place of absence – one at the head, the other at the feet. In John’s account what greets Mary when she looks in the tomb is the space between two angels: one sitting where the head of Jesus should have been, one where his feet should have been. In Old Testament depictions of the throne of God, angels sit on either side of the presence of God. Here they sit on either side of a surprising absence, which overthrows Mary. Woman why are you weeping? The angels ask. She is weeping because her confusion is deepened, and the one thing she thought she could do in this situation is not possible – he is not there, his body is gone.

And then, as she stumbles out into the garden, Jesus himself, no corpse to tend, but a living person, stands unrecognised before her, and he too asks her, Woman, why are you weeping?

Why are you weeping? Because the times are fearful and we are troubled. Even the familiar, the expected is not as it should be, is strange.

The gospels are full of markers of the way Jesus fulfils the Old Testament scriptures. His birth and ministry, his teaching and even his dying, are understood in patterns drawn from the scriptures – they are graspable through terms that are familiar. But in all the resurrection narratives that phrase, ‘to fulfill the scriptures’ is never used. The resurrection is surprising, initially ungraspable, radically new.

And we stand, on this Easter Day, in that tradition: the tradition of disciples who, like Mary, receive the gift of the radical, surprising, new thing God is doing in our midst. That is why, when Christians claim that tradition demands that you keep doing the same thing over and over, they are betraying their own tradition. The tradition we inhabit tells us that here is God’s presence known: in the surprising absence of what we thought would bring us comfort; in the surprising presence of a forgiving, wounded Saviour.

It cannot be said often enough that the resurrection does not right the wrong, undo the crucifixion. Rather it is the gift of surprising hope, the refusal of closure at the scene of crucifixion, at the scene of betrayal and dashed hopes.

For our Good News, our gospel, is not about neat endings, about tying up the loose ends of the story, about happily ever after and all that – no matter how much we long for that. The Gospel is not interested in closure, but in keeping the story going. The resurrection is the invitation to Mary and to you and to me, to us together, to take the story in new and surprising directions by seeing, and then being, that forgiving presence we meet in Jesus. Our gospels end not with closure, for the disciples or for us, but with invitation.

So, why are you weeping? As this stranger names her, “Mary”, so she recognises and is given the gift of resurrection. It is as if she hears her name for the first time, and yet knows it is absolutely her, and that there is only one person who could name her in this way. In knowing herself named, she knows that the man before her is Christ, is the one she came to weep over. Here is the presence of him who Mary had thought gone. Here is a centre to hold onto; where things had threatened to fall apart; here the fragments are knit together into a living presence that re-names her.

Why are you weeping? In this quiet garden, Mary and we receive the gift of resurrection to take away our tears – receive a living presence to ground us, a centre that re-gathers the scattered fragments of our lives together, a conviction to steer us through our times of inequality and need, of looming climate chaos and the challenge of different patterns of living. Here is life beyond death, beyond suffering and the violence and betrayals of our world. The resurrection, the gift of this day, is what lifts us out of our familiar routines, however tenderly we may enact them. “Do not cling to me”, says the Risen Jesus. The resurrection gives us new purpose, new energy – as Mary runs to proclaim to the disciples – I have seen the Lord. So, go, be not fearful, refuse to be simply comforted, for the Lord of love is not dead but alive and he re-names you here. Go and proclaim, in word and deed, that suffering and fear and violence have not won, and shall not win. In His presence, we are re-made and hope is born anew. For Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

 

Good Friday Reflection – John Conway – 19/04/19

They shall look on him whom they pierced. John 19.37

On Good Friday we have to reckon with the statement, that appears in all the Gospels in one way or another, that the death, the crucifixion, of Jesus is chosen, is anticipated by him and even necessary. The Gospels talk of Judas’ betrayal, and that might indicate that without the actions of Judas, another end for Jesus was possible, but to focus on that betrayal, as the cause and reason for Jesus’ death, is to contradict much else that is said – about Jesus deliberately setting his face toward Jerusalem, being clear about what awaited him there, and nevertheless choosing, it being God’s will that he should walk that road.

To talk of it being God’s will brings us close to what many Christians down the centuries, although not all, have wanted to say – that the necessity for this act, this death, lies in God. God wills it because God’s justice demands it it is sometimes said. The death of Christ, the offering of himself on humanity’s behalf, is to satisfy the Father, make right a relationship that is broken – broken, for sure, by humanity’s fall, but in need of repair because God is God. And so the solution to the problem is God sending his Son to die in our place, to offer himself for us, and so make things right.

There are many reasons why I think that understanding of the cross needs to be questioned, pushed back against, but that is for another time. The aspect that has been nagging away at me during Lent, however, is that understanding, the clear articulation in our Gospels, that Jesus walks toward his death in uncompromising fashion – his face is set. And nothing, not even the understandable doubts and agonies of Gethsemane, or the pleadings of his disciples, will deflect him from this course. And that way of understanding Jesus’ walk to the cross has nagged away at me during Lent because I, like many others, have spent much of the last few months praying for those in positions of power in our divided and fractious country, to have the humility to compromise, to be flexible enough to appreciate that there are different ways of viewing things, to find new and creative ways through the political messes we find ourselves in. And so my prayer has been questioned, put in doubt, by the simultaneous seemingly implacable walk to the cross of Jesus. He appears little interested in compromise, or finding a middle way, or in reconciliation with the powers and authorities of his day.

They shall look on him whom they pierced.

Alongside the insistence that this death is chosen, is God’s will, however, lies another insight from our Gospels. In the first part of our Gospels, Jesus is the initiator, the maker of the story – he moves around the countryside in a blaze of healings, and insightful teaching, and generous, gratuitous, feeding. Here is the Word, the giver of life, coming among his people in all the creative energy that we might expect. But as he makes that turn toward Jerusalem, walks this way into the midst of the gathering storm – a storm provoked and focused by his action – so things change. Jesus ceases to be the initiator, the man of action, but becomes the still centre of that gathering storm, the silent recipient of all that is now thrown at him. It is not that this walk to the cross is the walk of an uncompromising idealist; refusing to give up his principles no matter the cost. Jesus is not uncompromising in his following of his Father’s will. Rather, walking that path, means that he is deeply compromised – willing to take upon himself, be compromised by, what others will do to him, will do to that expression of God’s love in action.

They shall look on him whom they pierced. We shall look on him whom we pierced.

The cross is a place of brokenness, of ultimate vulnerability to the world, of weakness in the face of sin and death.

Today, in the stark reality of this man on a wooden cross, we meet an image that penetrates our stony exteriors, penetrates the protective layers with which we guard ourselves. It is an image that embodies, shows us, our own experiences of being broken, experiences that are often denied, well-hidden buried deep, or sometimes all too painfully present. Good Friday is about a moment of recognition – yes. Yes, I know suffering: my own, my neighbour’s, the suffering of our fragile earth. And yes – I have lived within that meaninglessness, that bewilderment at God, or even that total absence of God, that sense of nothingness embodied in Jesus’ despairing cry: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’

But as well as recognition, an honesty about the reality and cost of suffering, the cross goes deeper as it names our betrayals, our collusion in, and causation of, the suffering of others; our place in the crowd, our standing alongside Peter in betraying all that we thought we held dear. To see this man compromised, put to death at our hands unmasks our pretensions of order, our desire to be in control and in the right: here is one who has lost control, who is utterly in the hands of others, who is done to; one who, even as his disciples flee and scatter, can only trust by placing his life in the hands of an absent God. And yet he is love, love incarnate, love embodied.

We shall look on him whom we pierced. And in that looking we are undone.

And as we are undone, so shall we be re-made. Our Easter faith is not simply a declaration that spring shall follow winter, not simply a celebration of light following darkness, Easter Sunday does not simply come after Good Friday like some unwritten law that good shall always come out of evil. 

It is as the cross uncovers our brokenness, our complicity, our weakness, our need for God, so we are healed. As we are drawn into that Christ-like movement of sacrificial self-offering, so we discover God at work within us and beyond us. This death of love incarnate, the Son walking that way of love in obedience to the Father who is love, asks us what is important, what is vital and true, where are we going and where have we come from. In becoming open to that insistent questioning of Good Friday, so we become the place of God’s redeeming work on Easter morn. Amen.

 

Lent 4 – John Conway – 31/03/19

2Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32

According to the Gospels (well, Mark, Luke and Matthew anyway), Jesus didn’t go in for sermons. It’s a fact that always puts a bit of a question mark next to this part of the service! Jesus did, however, tell stories. And we heard one of the most famous of them today.

So I could preach a sermon focusing on the prodigal son: the son who demands now, his share of the inheritance that belongs to him. He’s not prepared to wait, but then squanders that inheritance, is reduced to hiring himself out, a wreck of person, before coming to his senses, and traveling back home, expecting to beg for a servant’s lot, and then surprised by the welcome and forgiveness from his father. There are plenty of sermons that encourage us to identify with that journey – the journey to find ourselves back home, and not just home but greeted by the surprising welcome of our father – a feast thrown to welcome our return.

Or I could preach a sermon not so much focusing on the prodigal – for like the first hearers, isn’t the point that we aren’t always those who’ve wandered off and squandered everything. We perhaps more often identify with older son – looking askance at the behaviour of his brother, and the behaviour of his Father. That sermon might ask if the older son doesn’t have a point – articulating the truth that most parents know that spoiling a child is a potential path to ruin. It’s a sermon that might tease out the tension between justice (what is right and fair) and mercy, the act of gratuitous, unmerited forgiveness. That’s a real tension, and the story is open-ended, the reconciliation between the brothers (as well as the older son and the father) is incomplete – we’re left wondering how the older brother will react to the Father’s invitation to join the feast, and how we might react.

But perhaps the sermon would help us think more deeply about God (the Father). For surely the story implies that this is what God is like. God, the one whose mercy breaks down the walls of both our foolishness and our self-righteousness. The God whose overwhelming desire is to reconcile, to bring into the feast both the older and younger child, the foolhardy and the responsible. This is Jesus’ most sustained vision of what God is like.

And therefore the point is maybe that we are called to bethe father figure, enacting that reconciliation, which as Paul says is our epistle, is the ministry of us all. We need to find the strength to be vulnerable, like the Father who runs down the road to greet the younger son, and sweeps aside his apologies; find the strength to show the joy and mercy which breaks hearts and changes the patterns of our life together.

There so many ways to take this story. That’s without exploring how Jesus’ first hearers might have reacted to the parable, or the reading of this story by that great 20thcentury theologian, Karl Barth, for whom the Prodigal Son was Christ himself – making his journey into the far country; the journey of God into incarnated human living, in all its squalor and sinfulness; so that, as Christ becomes like us, so we may journey with him back into the arms of the welcoming Father: or as Paul puts: For our sake he made him sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. The point is not only that we are all like the Prodigal, but that God chooses to make that journey too.

So many readings of one story. And perhaps that today is the point worth drawing out. That humans are story tellers; we are a species formed and shaped by our story telling. It’s the reason we still gather to hear this familiar story, in all its multi-faceted depth; just as we will shortly enact other stories: as Alannah is baptised, brought through the waters of Christ’s death that she may live his resurrection life; and as bread and wine is taken and shared, and the re-telling, in our presence, enables it to become the presence of Christ among us and in us. Our gospel story continues to challenge us to think about why forgiveness and reconciliation and justice matter; in a world of estrangement and squalor, and dubious choices; just as our communion will remind us in a world of brokenness, of the possibility of transformation and wholeness and community. And so the stories form us, as we are invited to see the world and God as they suggest – to see the possibility for forgiveness and reconciliation and feasting, where we thought there was none.

For if it is not this story, this account of the world and the One who holds all things in life, then some other story, some other account of the way things are and might be, will be forming and shaping us. That’s true on a personal level – as Christians our baptism describes and enacts that fundamental shape of dying to self, dying to a life lived simply for ourselves, so that we may rise into Christ’s resurrection life, into his Body, a community of people living not for themselves, but to bring life for all, And it’s true on a corporate level. Hearing, once again, this most powerful of Jesus’ parables, should make us ask: what are the foundational stories that animate and shape our public debate? Do those stories invite us to cherish every human life, as Alannah is cherished and valued today? And do they re-open our eyes to others so that reconciliation in our divided society is imagined and invited? Too many of our ways of looking at the world, the stories which shape us, simply reinforce what we already think, our prejudices and fears, so that the challenge to be more human that the best stories pose and enable, is lost. For by our stories, how they shape us and what they provoke us to, shall we be known. Amen.