Paul Foster’s Harvest Festival sermon, 25th September 2022

Harvest – Deut 26.1-11 and Jn 6.25-35

 

In case you have suspected otherwise, when I was at University in Australia, my summers were not spent at the beach improving my tan, or perfecting my surfing technique. No, rather than that, I went to work to raise funds for the coming year of study. My jobs took me several hundreds of kilometres away from Perth, the city in which I lived, and into the rural areas of Western Australia. I was employed for a couple of months each summer as a weighbridge operator. This occurred during peak harvest season when wheat, barley, oats, lupins and other seed grains were gathered. My job was to operate the manual weighbridge my moving counter-weights along the large beam balance to weight in a truck full of grain. It would unload. Then I would weigh it again when it had emptied the grain into a bulkhead. Each truck would make several trips a day. A ticket had to be written up for each truck and its total delivery load was calculated at the end of a full day of deliveries. After the receival point closed for the evening, separate legers were updated for each grain type to calculate the total amount of grain received. By the end of the summer, many tens of thousands of tons of grain were collected ready for shipping overseas. This was an operation that was duplicated at hundreds of receival points across the state. One way to judge how good the harvest was in a given year was by keeping up to date with the running totals of grain deliveries across Western Australia published in the newspapers. However, I found there was another way to gauge whether or not it was turning out to be a bumper year. About half way through the season in a good year I noticed something else happened. All of a sudden, the farmers seemed to be driving around in shiny new cars! That was certainly one way to celebrate a good harvest. As an aside, I should add that I never saw any of the weighbridge operators driving new cars. Some wounds still run deep!!

The book of Deuteronomy also describes harvest celebrations. However, what it envisages in its ancient setting is on a smaller scale. Rather than truckloads of produce, the people are to bring a simple basket of their first fruits and to make an offering of thanks to the Lord God. As it is presented in the book of Deuteronomy, this was not an existing practice but one that was to take place when the people finally settled in the promise land. This section of Deuteronomy narrates a period towards the end of the forty years of Exodus wandering in the wilderness. Life is about to change from a nomadic existence when manna was provided for the people to eat, to a new time when they would grow crops and feed themselves. In anticipation of that agrarian life, the people are instructed that they should not wait until the end of the harvest season, but rather at the beginning they were to take some of the first fruits of the harvest and to present them to God. As they did so they were to say, “I declare this day to the Lord my God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give to us” (Deut 26.3). The act of thanksgiving was therefore not just for the harvest, but for the gift of the land and a settled and stable existence after forty years in the wilderness. Moreover, the text provides a liturgy for the service of thanksgiving that recalls the process by which a small family group became the nation of Israel enjoying the fruits of the promised land. The liturgy of the harvest required the individuals presenting the basket of first fruits to say, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there few in number, but there he became a great, mighty, and populous nation” (Deut 26.5). This liturgy of thanksgiving recalls the events during the life of Joseph when his father Jacob (who was renamed eponymously as Israel) went and lived in Egypt during a time of famine. However, despite the growth of the family group into a large nation, the events recalled were not all rosy.

The people were also to remember their enslavement, their poverty, and their torment at the hands of the Egyptian overlords. That act of remembrance was not for the purpose of self-congratulation at their transformed status, or even to legitimate the purchase of a new chariot after a good harvest. Instead, rather than crass sentimentality or self-justification for wealth, it was intend to engender a true humility and sense of generosity. For those of you who read the book of Deuteronomy regularly, you will know that there is an ethical refrain that runs through the book. It is a compassionate and outward looking ethical vision. A couple of examples suffice. In the tenth chapter it is stated that the people of Israel are to “show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10.19). Furthermore, the Israelites were not to harvest the very corners of fields or to go back for a forgotten sheaf of wheat. Instead, they were to be left for the destitute and hungry (Deut 24.19). In the final verse of today’s reading, we see this compassionate concern again, when it is stated that resident aliens should be invited to join harvest celebration in remembrance that all blessings come ultimately from God, and that God’s people are to share those blessings for the benefit of others. If our reading had continued a couple of verses further we would have also heard that portions of the harvest were to be removed from each Israelite land-owner’s house and given to those who were foreigners, widows, and orphans. Whether the people of Israel ever practiced the generosity which this text demands is a debated question. However, there can be no doubt that what is imagined is that the bounty of harvest should call people to a higher standard of love and generosity.

Although it was difficult for any story apart from one to get space on the front pages of the newspapers this week, I noticed the following in a tiny corner. Several editors were outraged by a certain statistic. The statistic was presented in the following manner: “more than 30,000 migrants have crossed the channel in small boats this year.” I fully understand the issues with undocumented migrants, or the distinctions drawn between genuine refugees and economic migrants – although that binary might not quite as clearcut as some would have us believe. What saddened me most as I read those stories replete with bristling outrage, was that there was no sense of generosity, no sense that many of our own families have been migrants seeking a better life, and ultimately that there was no love for the foreigner, the widow, or the orphan. While I am uncertain about whether the people of Israel ever practiced the generosity required by the vision of our text from Deuteronomy, I can make a better assessment of whether our contemporary society is willing to practice such love and generosity – but I leave you to make your own assessment on that matter.

Our gospel reading takes us to another wilderness setting with a gathered group of people. Earlier in that chapter from John’s Gospel, Jesus had performed one of his miraculous feedings, and then immediately he withdrew from the people across the Sea of Galilee. The next day the people set off in pursuit of this miracle-worker who had fed them. Upon their arrival, Jesus challenges their true motives stating that the reason that the people followed him was because they had eaten and were satisfied, not because of his message. In the same way that the people of Israel were at a point of transformed existence from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle, Jesus also offers his hearers a transformed way of existing. Instead of pursuing perishable food, they are offered a type of sustenance that Jesus promises will endure to eternal life. I am not sure if at this point in the story whether John the evangelist goes out of his way to portray the people as intentionally thick and uncomprehending, but it feels like it to me. After having been miraculously fed in the wilderness by Jesus the people demand a sign from him. They seem to have forgotten the feeding. To make matters worse, they recall the miracle of the provision of manna from heaven, and basically challenge Jesus to perform a miracle like that. Surely here the story is dripping with irony. The people have just seen Jesus perform the very thing they are requesting, but they cannot recognize it. In response, Jesus has to spell it out for them – the true bread of God is that which gives life to the world. The people still seem to miss the point – they seem to want this bread so that they might never have to seek physical food again. Then Jesus makes it clear that he is not talking about physical bread, but spiritual food. In one of the seven famous “I am” sayings in John, he declares “I am the bread of life, he who comes to be shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6.35). This is the true sustenance that is offered to the people, eternal life through belief in Jesus himself.

There is much deserved concern around food at the moment. Due to war, due to climate change, the global harvest is likely is likely to be smaller this year than has been or several decades. We cannot avoid the uncomfortable truth that there will be more people who die this year due to malnutrition and starvation, due to lack of basic food staples. We may not be directly responsible for these shortages, but I do not believe that absolves us from responsibility. The lesson of the harvest instructions in Deuteronomy is to recognize that what we have is a divine gift and we are called upon to be equally generous towards those described as aliens, widows and orphans – in fact towards all in need who partake in our common humanity. Closer to home, as food prices spiral and energy costs rise, there will be many in our nation and in our own city for whom even a meal a day is a luxury and heating homes is no longer possible. As the people of Israel were told not to strip the land, but rather to leave provision for the destitute it is now more imperative that we provide more for the poor and needy. Here is one suggestion. This week it was announced that the National Insurance increase is being reversed – one suggestion is that rather than keep that increase for ourselves maybe it could benefit those in greater need. Deuteronomy indeed reminds us of our responsibilities to attend to the practical needs of fellow human beings. The reading from the Gospel of John reminds us that alongside that we also have other gifts to offer to our communities, the bread of life itself. The Christian message does not draw a distinction between provision of physical and spiritual need – giving bread that sustains this life and offering bread that leads to eternal life are unified and unambiguous priorities for people of faith like you and I. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest the gospel message has a preferential priority for those in need. The proud are brought down and the humble exalted, it is the hungry who are to be filled while the rich will be sent away empty (Lk 1.52-53). Harvest is not primarily to be a time of gathering, but one of generosity and giving.

When we reflect on our own lives, we see that in many ways we are like the wandering people of Israel who needed to be brought into a new mode of existence, we are like the crowds blinded in pursuing physical food instead of seeking the true bread of life. In a moment, when we gather around this table we will see set before us bread and wine. These remind us of a bounteous harvest, but they remind us of so much more than that. We will gaze on earthly elements, but the eyes of faith will see the bread of life that sustains even unto eternal life. That gift is not to be accrued or hidden away, it is to be shared abundantly for the life of the world. So as you go out of this place today think of the bounty of the harvest. Think not of how much you have, but instead of how much you can share – then give generously. Think also of the bread of life, given for the life of the world. Remember also the words of Jesus, ‘the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest” (Matt 9.37-38). I pray that I and you would each be one of those workers offering the first fruits, sharing the bread of life, this harvest festival and evermore. Amen.

Creation-time 3 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday September 18th

1Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13

‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.’ Those words from our, not entirely straightforward, Gospel reading, jumped out to me this week. This week when we have mourned and contemplated a faithful life of service, they seemed a fitting comment on our late Queen: to the remarkable sense of duty that permeated every aspect of her life, from the little to the much. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.

That commitment to duty and service has been much lauded this last week, as that which gave shape to her long life and reign. But it has also not gone unremarked that these are words that are now somewhat alien to many; that the Queen’s self-understanding and commitment to duty were in sharp relief to other more contemporary understandings of ourselves. We have gathered this week, queued many hours in some cases, to pay homage, but what might it mean for us to go beyond lauding such attributes? What might it mean to discover a re-imagined sense of duty?

The American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, talks about the path of Christian discipleship as about transforming our fate into our destiny. Transforming our fate into our destiny. What he means by that, is that at the heart of the life of faith, and of the church, should be a willingness to engage with the realities that are given to us; that faith is about a willingness to be shaped by those givens – because they are seen as gift, as our destiny and not our fate. It is through embracing those givens, recognising as a blessing that which might be seen as a curse, that the world is paradoxically transformed.

The Queen’s youthful vow, much played this last week, is an amazingly articulate example of such an embrace: I declare before you all, she said, a few years before she ascended to the throne, that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.

It was a vow made in her ‘salad days’ as she put it years later, and it is a remarkable fact that as a 21 year old she embraced that lifetime of service. The vow was made in response to the accidents of history, to the fact that she would one day wear the crown of the United Kingdom, a day that arrived sooner than she expected or hoped it would. But rather than rebel against the unfairness or the untimeliness, or the demands that that placed upon her, she accepted a life defined by those limits and demands. A life of duty, as she described it. As I suggested earlier, such commitment might feel alien to us now, or at least we might characterize it as a weight, a burden that she carried. Much of the lauding of the Queen has been in admiration of her carrying of that burden.

I don’t underestimate either the sheer hard work that was involved in seeing that vow through, or, on the other hand, the immense privileges that she enjoyed that helped her carry it out. But what has struck me also this week is that the sense of the vow being a burden is at odds with much else that has been reflected upon: the Queen’s wit and wisdom above all, but also her ability to properly listen, and to take courageous steps for peace. You don’t do those things, it’s hard to be witty and wise, if you are weighed down and burdened. And so I wonder if it is possible that that youthful vow, rather than burdening her, actually liberated her? That in transforming her fate into her destiny, she discovered the freedom to be herself, discovered the vocation that would both define her but also make her.

Freedom in the modern West is often understood as the throwing off of the shackles of history – the creating of a life not defined by the accidents of history, of our birth and of our time. Freedom is characterized by that adolescent energy that sees the world as its oyster, so that life is what we make of it, is best lived without limits, or at least in defiance of limits. Freedom is in the perpetual rebellion against what limits us; be that, to take two very different recent examples, institutionalized racism or the institutions of the European Union. Duty strikes us as a fusty constraint, potentially oppressive in its demands that keep us in our particular boxes; its often seen as a limit on our freedom and self-actualization, as people or as a nation. And of course there is truth in all that, so that at the very least discernment is needed to see what is oppressive and needs to be resisted and overcome. But the point is that a particular and limited notion of freedom, as being that which lies beyond imposed limits, is unchallenged.

And yet, the climate emergency is teaching us that there are, in fact, limits. Limits on what our earth can sustain. And not only that, but as Covid began to teach us, we are often less in control of our lives than we imagine. And the coming years, as the climate emergency bites, might teach us that over and over again. Characterising freedom as the throwing off of our limits, as limitless possibility, brings us to the brink of disaster. For there are limits; limits on what the earth can sustain; limits on the injustices others are willing to bear; limits on what is technologically possible, to remedy what we have done. And so the sharp question is how we will react to that experience: in the hard years to come, will we experience the necessities of life as cruel fate, or as something to face and embrace, and so paradoxically discover another path to freedom?

I suggested earlier that freedom as it is often defined has an adolescent quality. It’s certainly true as we grow older that, for many of us, the necessities of life press in on us, we realise how shaped we are by things of which we are barely in control. We have made particular career choices, married a particular person, have to live within particular means, our bodies begin to fail us. Through both active choices, and the happenstances of life, our lives have taken on a particular shape. Some people continue to rail against that narrowing of life – many a mid-life crisis is the resurgent bid for freedom characterised as rebelling against the limits. But most of us know others who are now comfortable as themselves, and embrace and serve others from that place of freedom; so that freedom is not sought in the escape from how life has shaped them, but known in the embrace of that; in the embrace of the giftedness of that life, the blessing known in its particularities. In the transformation of fate into destiny. And in that embrace is found wisdom, so that, as in Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer, we are granted the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.

The Queen’s youthful vow ended with an exhortation and invitation to all her future subjects: I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it. May we have the grace and wisdom to continue to rise to that challenge, and in that common embrace, find our freedom. Amen.

Mourning Her Majesty the Queen – a sermon preached by Rt Rev John Armes, Bishop of Edinburgh – Sunday 11th September 2022

Micah 4.1-15; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.35-40

We know how to mourn. Or at least we all learn how to mourn, for death and loss and lament are part of what it means to live. Most of us here know all too well those feelings of bleak finality which accompany death – those moments when we wake in the night and remember that the much-loved face, the familiar habits of someone who meant everything to us have gone… gone for good… leaving us bereft.

Bereft, all the more so for the gratitude we also feel. Gratitude not merely for memories but for the impact of another’s life on ours, the way their life shaped us, blessed us. Which means that the mix of emotions we feel at the death of our Queen are familiar to us. Sadness, certainly, and immense gratitude too.

We also know how the ending of someone’s life enables us to see them differently, allows us to see them whole, as it were, and to reach a measured estimate of what their life meant… to us and to others. Most of us didn’t know Queen Elizabeth personally, although so public was her life that perhaps we felt we did. Either way, we know enough to recognize the stature of the life now ended, and to acknowledge that to describe her as Elizabeth the Great, as some have done, isn’t far off the mark.

Greatness, not derived from genius or exceptional intelligence, but from a willingness to endure, to occupy the space given to her and to do this with all her ability, all her self-denying strength. What good fortune it was for the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, the world that such a unique space should be filled by such a remarkable person for such an extraordinary length of time. The past few days have allowed us to recognize what we have had and to acknowledge what we have no longer.

This is what it means to mourn and it’s why we must give ourselves time over these coming days, weeks, months to allow ourselves to mourn, to weep and to laugh. All the while remembering that it’s those whose life was closest, the royal family, who will feel the loss most keenly and very publicly.

But it’s not just about mourning one person. Nor is it simply about having a different head on our stamps and coinage. The smoothness of our constitutional transition cannot mask the fact that the Queen’s death will be destabilising in all sorts of ways. For many of us, the last few years of political uncertainty and Covid pandemic have felt as if things long held precious, reliable and stable have been disintegrating. War in Ukraine, mass migration, climate crisis, not to mention soaring inflation and fuel poverty, all these are enough to cope with, surely. But now we must cope also with the cutting of the golden thread that’s given us over all these years a sense of permanence, something to hold onto. Governments may come and go, but the Queen was always reliably there, including those Christmas broadcasts we may or may not have chosen to watch.

Something has shifted, and in ways subtle and not so subtle we must reconfigure our inner pathways, our sense of who we are and the defining characteristics of our nation and the shape of our world. We must be honest about this, for it’s hard to exaggerate the destabilising effect of the Queen’s death in an already febrile, anxious and angry world. If we Christians are to be of any use, to bring any sort of comfort or reassurance, we must tell the truth to ourselves and to others, and we must admit to how this truth affects us all.

And I do think we should expect to be of some use. For, one of the most important things about our late Queen, the one thing that motivated and inspired her above all else, was her Christian faith. Our Sovereign she may have been, but above all she was, and still is, our sister in Christ. She shared our longing, expressed by Jesus in our gospel reading, that we shall be raised up at the last day.

She died on 8th September, the day the church celebrated the birth of another famous woman of faith, Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary too, as a young woman, was placed in a unique position, with little choice but to obey God’s call, yet was eager to do so nonetheless, eager to obey. Mary gave of her very best and did her duty. ‘Be it unto me, according to your word,’ she said.

We revere Mary, the greatest of all saints – but she was not our Saviour. She gave our Saviour birth, she gave him place, but ultimately it is Christ who is our rock, God the one in whom we find immoveable and solid stability. Similarly, we may revere Queen Elizabeth, we may be in awe of her faithfulness to the very end of her life, but in losing her we haven’t lost our reason to hope, lost our anchor – for we still proclaim the very same God in whom her life was anchored, the faith in which she remained a learner to the end of her days.

At her Coronation service, she pledged her allegiance to God before she accepted the allegiance of her subjects. A very young woman, she modelled the simple commitment required of every Christian person that, whether our lives are glamorous and in the public eye or not, God comes first. In whatever space we are given, whatever space we fashion for ourselves, we turn to Christ, we resist evil, we serve God in word and deed, and, to the best of our ability, we work for justice and peace in all creation. Whatever the vows of her Coronation, whatever the limitations and opportunities offered by the role she inherited, for Queen Elizabeth her baptismal promises were those that most shaped her life. So it should be for us.

We have good reason, I believe, to trust that King Charles III will also be faithful to this calling. But let’s not ask more of him than he, a fallible human being just like us, can give. And let’s accept that all of us bear the responsibility to shape the country over which he now reigns, and to hold ourselves accountable to the same standards and ideals that his late mother so well represented.

Someone has estimated how many times the Queen heard the national anthem during her life. It was a lot! Was ever a prayer for long life more fulsomely answered? Now we sing it, and pray it, for our King, that his reign should be happy and glorious and somehow transformative of the troubles that just now beset us. But the glory we look to, as was the glory Queen Elizabeth sought, isn’t about jewels and rich apparel, power or palaces, but is to be shown in the joy of serving and loving others and of walking in the name of our God for ever and ever. May we together realise Micah’s vision of a world in which the nations gather in unity, committed to the commonwealth (in the best sense of that word), where swords are beaten into ploughshares, and where no one need be afraid. It’s a worthy aim for any royal reign. It won’t be achieved by one person alone but only by a whole people dedicated to seeking the ways of God.

The old gives way to the new, the page of history turns; but the loving call of God endures, unchanging, from one generation to the next.

Creation Sunday – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 4th September

Jeremiah 18.1-11; Luke 14.25-33

Today is Creation Sunday, the start of Creation-time: a season of the church’s year that invites us over the next month to think and pray about what it means to worship God the creator, the source and ground of all things. Our first reading from Jeremiah offers a very direct metaphor for that action of creation: God is imagined like a potter, struggling with the clay, destroying a failed attempt and re-shaping, re-making the soft clay to produce something of beauty. That’s an image that invites us to see God’s creative activity as ongoing, not executed in a one-off moment back in the dim distance of time, but as a dynamic presence within the world. God our creator is the One that constantly offers new possibilities that re-shape the world. The goal of the potter may be to produce something of beauty, but Jeremiah pulls no punches about the moments of destruction, of re-shaping too that are part of the process. We may resist the sense that God is responsible for that destruction, but we can surely relate to the sense of a world being re-ordered, a time when we struggle to make sense of things, and are fearful for the future. We sense destruction far more than creation at present – our world seems out of joint and out of control as the financial crisis spirals, war haunts our continent, and the climate itself turns against us.

Pakistan this week found a third of itself under water. That’s an area larger than the whole of the United Kingdom flooded, livelihoods and crops ruined, infrastructure destroyed. It’s barely imaginable, even as more monsoon rains, and melting glaciers in the Himalayas, contribute further water to the floods. And this week scientists warned that based on studies of the melting ice of Greenland over the last 10 years, a rise in the sea level of at least 30cm is now inevitable, with more very likely. What do such sea level rises mean for low lying delta areas, especially when such rises meet the floods we’ve seen in Pakistan this week? The destruction of creation is something immediately current, even as we might struggle to sense God’s activity within it. The destruction is much more related to our own patterns of behaviour, to the re-shaping of the world to which we have contributed these last 200 years. To inhabit the image of the potter, re-shaping the clay, destroying as well as creating, seems frighteningly prescient.

And our Gospel reading provides little relief either, as Jesus starkly speaks, in the context of following him, of ‘hating’ father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself. It’s possible to argue that we need to understand such language as ‘hyperbole’ – over the top language to drive home a point. That the verb translated as ‘hate’ is a way of describing the practise of detachment: a putting into proper perspective the things that bind you most closely, such as family. The call of Jesus to discipleship overrides all else, puts everything into proper perspective. All our relationships, including those that bind us most closely, and demand our time and energy, have to be understood and worked out in the context of responding to the creative activity of God encountered in Christ, the costly love he embodies.

But above all,  Jesus is attempting to shake out of apathy the large crowd that is travelling with him – to wake them up and ask: are you listening, do you know what this means for you and the shape of your life? The stark language is refreshingly clear eyed, designed to provoke a reaction and make us think and act in new ways. And so in the short parables which follow, the tower builder has to be honest about the costs involved; the king plotting to wage war is counselled to be clear-eyed about his chances of success. The call of Christ to us, in the midst of the destruction of our climate, is to wake up to the truth of that destruction that we inhabit and the re-creation that is possible; let’s have an honest conversation, and resultant action about that.  Let’s listen properly to the science: the International Panel on Climate Change could not be clearer about the risks and consequences of climate change, a rise in average global temperature which seems inexorable, unstoppable, without concerted action. For unlike the tower builder, or the king, it seems we are not willing to face hard truths, to be honest about our likely future; any momentum built up around COP26 in Glasgow last year seems in danger of frittering away as other concerns crowd in.  But there is no point celebrating the gift of God’s creation on this Sunday, worshipping God our Maker, if at the same time we are desecrating that creation. Our Gospel is a call to wake up, to an honest conversation and planning in the midst of much obfuscation and denial.

Jesus ends this short Gospel passage with the suggestion that the re-creation that is God’s work might involve us re-evaluating our relationships to possessions. None of you, says Jesus, can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Up until now, Jesus has spoken of relationships, of family. Now he asks us to examine our possessions.

Possessions are stuff, material things. Creation is stuff, material things, as well as the teeming life of our eco systems. And part of the honest conversation and action that is required is about our relationship to that stuff, the disposable culture that doesn’t think about where stuff comes from and where it goes; that doesn’t find ways to value the material, resources that we are rapidly burning through, or the easily made plastic that is choking our oceans.

So this creation-time we are invited by our clear-eyed readings into a prayerful honesty: about the destruction and re-creation we are in the midst of. And as we proclaim and worship the God who re-creates, we are invited to be honest and curious about the stuff that fills our lives, on which we often depend. To learn to give up more because we value it more. To re-create, with God’s grace and courage, both relationships and stuff that will last, to stand the test of the coming storms. Amen.

 

Pentecost 12. Sermon preached by Andrew Falconer (ordinand in training) – 28th August 2022

Alison Cockburn must have been incredibly charismatic and intelligent. Having lived for several years with her father-in-law, a strict Presbyterian who disapproved of drink, cards and dancing, she moved up to Bristo Street, where these pastimes soon became integral to her life. This was 1753. Her modest house and, later, her less modest residence in St Andrew’s Square, was to become the centre of the Enlightenment in Edinburgh.

At her salons Mrs. Cockburn brought together the intellectual and cultural minds of the day: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, David Hume, Robert Adam, Adam Smith – do you want me to go on? Her circle demonstrates why French philosopher Voltaire said “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation”.

We don’t have a salon culture these days. At most dinner parties a good host will actively avoid controversial topics and debates. And there is much to have opinions on – we are still trying to understand ourselves post-Brexit, aware that many see independence as the future for Scotland, others challenging the economic structures that see growth in foodbanks rather than salaries, different views on how to address the climate emergency. Such conversations are either polemical on social media or considered in depth by academics writing behind journal paywalls. Our world isn’t short of opinions but unlike our Enlightenment predecessors, there can be an absence of intellectual debate and rigour. We could learn much from Mrs. Cockburn.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is at a meal on the Sabbath, the guest of a leader of the Pharisees.

We are told the pharisees are “watching him closely”. Sounds a bit sinister doesn’t it? One biblical commentator suggests that the Pharisees aren’t viewing him with hostility, more curiosity. As Enlightenment intellectuals were willing to learn from each other, the Pharisees may also have been genuinely interested in the new radical perspectives taught by Jesus.

You may notice that our Gospel reading leaves out some verses. In the missing text Jesus heals a man with dropsy – despite it being the Sabbath – asking the Pharisees whether they would have done the same given it was against the law. Luke says they were unable to respond to this. It may be easy to presume the Pharisees complicit in their silence. But I wonder if Jesus was asking them questions they had just not encountered before. These are intelligent, educated men who may embrace being challenged. Perhaps they are curious about the one getting them to think differently. Maybe they wanted to be, shall we say, enlightened.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus eats with Pharisees three times. He tells us in chapter 11 about a time when a Pharisee invited Jesus to dine and, during that meal, Jesus rebukes both the Pharisees and…. dare I say it…. the lawyers. The Pharisees then became hostile and questioned Jesus, trying to trap him.

Think about that. You’ve invited somebody into your home and given hospitality – perhaps your best Macallan single malt has made an appearance. Yet before the After Eights have gone round a second time, your guest denounces you and your friends for their professions, your family for the way it behaves, and questions your whole outlook on life. I mean, this goes beyond a faux pas doesn’t it? Was Jesus a terrible guest with no social skills or is the Gospel writer drawing us into a deeper narrative?

There are more references to eating and drinking in Luke’s Gospel than in any other. For Luke, it is often through table fellowship that Jesus reveals himself, his mission and the grace of God. Jesus enters people’s lives at the most mundane, sitting and eating with them. Some meals are large banquets where men, and only men, would have reclined on cushions around the food; others were simple gatherings of families and friends. Think to the intimacy of that meal with Mary and Martha we heard a few weeks ago. Sometimes the host, but most of the time a guest, Jesus is always there on his own terms.

So can you see them? A group of men, dressed in their Sabbath finery, recline on plush cushions around a spread of meats, dates, olives, braided breads, fruit and wine. Their guest has already shocked them by working on the sabbath and healing a man, what will he do next? What are we witnessing? Is this fashionable society craving the latest novelty or an expectant gathering wanting to be taught something new and different?

As the meal continues, Jesus comments on how other guests chose the places of honour. But what he says isn’t new or revolutionary. As Pharisees they would be familiar with aphorisms around table etiquette from the Book of Proverbs. They also would have known about humility, even if they didn’t always practice it.

And then things become more challenging: “When you give a banquet invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind”.

Jesus is giving us an insight into the Kingdom of Heaven. And the Kingdom of Heaven is not an all-male club with members jostling for status and position. God’s grace is all-inclusive, an open invitation to all. The Pharisees may have thought Jesus their guest, but Luke suggests it is Jesus who welcomes us to the feast instead. In curing the man of dropsy, Jesus physically cleanses and makes him new. It’s the Pharisees, in their exclusiveness, who remain spiritually unclean.

What does it mean for us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind today? Who are the unclean, the forgotten, the ones we can’t bring ourselves to accept? Who is on the outside, looking in?

Some of you may have attended the creative workshops by Mousa AlNana a couple of weeks ago. The “Outside In” installation from those workshops is on display in the Charles I chapel. Art has long been a brilliant way of articulating the difficulties faced by those on the outside. And in the joyful diversity of Edinburgh today, we like to think ourselves as inclusive, outward-looking progressive people. But does art just mask our human failings?

Once the veneer of festival branding comes down, the tourists, performers and artists leave, there will still be outsiders. The drug addicts, the homeless, transient workers, hidden modern slaves, those not receiving the mental health support they need, people living isolated lives even behind big grand West End doors, those who sell themselves, the nomadic gypsy and traveller groups camping on private ground.

Do we suddenly seem less inclusive, less welcoming? Like the Pharisees, we want others to obey our rules, our way of life, to conform. And that doesn’t fit everyone. And it doesn’t fit Jesus. Jesus didn’t dine because he was looking for acceptance, he shared a meal because he wanted to save.
“And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Today we welcome two new members as they are baptised into our church family. The fountain of Living Water that Jeremiah spoke about is ready to cleanse and embrace. Parents, Godparents and we, as a fellowship of believers, will make a commitment to them and must remember our duty to lead by example.

So what church family are they being welcomed into? Are we as enlightened as we like to think? Our Epistle from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Jesus challenges us now as much as he did the Pharisees two thousand years ago.

The Christian family is one with a troubled past, and often a difficult present. We’re a family that can do better. Our origins are as outsiders and that should, I believe, make us a genuinely loving family: one brought about not by accident of birth but by commitment to Jesus and each other. One that seeks the outsiders and is willing to learn and grow – to be enlightened.

And finally, we are a family that comes together to share in fellowship over a meal. As Jesus gathered the twelve, so we gather and share in the bread and the wine, remembering that sacrifice made for us. We are imperfect, humbling ourselves as Jesus instructed the Pharisees, waiting for sustenance and to meet Christ himself, present for us in the Eucharistic feast.

Amen

Andrew Falconer
St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh
28 August 2022

Pentecost 10. Sermon preached by Bishop John Armes. 14th August 2022

14th August 2022. St Mary’s Cathedral – Lifting up the Lowly (The Assumption)
Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 1.46-55

Three weeks ago, Clare and I were sent off, from this Cathedral church, with prayers and blessings for the experience that lay ahead of us. We were to attend the Lambeth Conference, a gathering of bishops and spouses from the Anglican Communion, which stretches across 165 countries and speaks many many languages. There were about 1000 people in all, gathered at the University of Kent in Canterbury. It had been 14 years since the Conference had last taken place.
We left Edinburgh with some trepidation, not sure what was in store for us, we return enlarged by an experience in which God really was magnified, ‘bigged-up’, given glory – sharing more completely Mary’s great vision of God’s purposes for this world, in which the lowly are lifted up and the hungry filled with good things.
Before we left, I met with some younger members of this congregation and I asked them what I should bear in mind as I attended the conference. One young man wished that we could make worship less boring. Perhaps the crucifer might throw the cross high in the air and catch it during the procession, or perhaps we might introduce interval entertainment during our services. There was none of that in Canterbury, I confess, but I think he might have enjoyed the quality of the music on offer, including a group of Zimbabwean singers chanting, dancing and drumming as they led us in praise.
Other young members underlined the need for our church to take the climate crisis more seriously, to address racial injustices and the consequences of British colonialism, to find ways of resolving economic inequalities, reconciling conflicts and embracing diversity, not least around sexuality. I’m pleased to say that we made progress in all these areas and whilst words are not the same as actions, I really believe that everyone returned home with a clearer sense of how they and their churches might work with God to transform this world.
But change can be costly, even within a Christian communion celebrating its oneness in Christ. What some might embrace as a sign of God’s new creation, others may see as betokening a church led astray from the true gospel. The majority of churches in the Anglican Communion, for example, hold that only a man and a woman may marry in God’s sight. But some provinces, including the Scottish Episcopal Church, contain those convinced that God has led us to discover that a covenanted, faithful, lifelong marriage between people of the same gender may also be holy and God-given. Several countries were absent from Lambeth because they took exception to this, and the bishops of South Sudan, whilst very much present, refused to take communion at the daily Eucharist.
Costly. At the concluding Eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral, I returned to my seat and found one bishop who had resolutely remained in his place. I reached out my hand. Our hands clasped, our eyes met, ‘Peace be with you,’ I said. It was a deeply emotional moment, certainly for me and I imagine for him too. He had felt excluded (or excluded himself, it doesn’t matter which) because of something I (and my part of God’s church) had done. We who should have been united in Christ, who over 10 days had enjoyed so much together, were unable to approach the table of Christ side by side. We who so longed to be faithful to Christ had divided Christ. That God holds us still in unity is not in doubt, but we can’t pretend that such unity is easily won; it is costly to Christ and, therefore, costly to Christ’s people.
Mary’s song was sung in joy that God had chosen her, a lowly and obscure young woman, to give birth to hope for the world. But she soon learned that such hope can pierce one’s soul, and thirty years later, or so, she discovered that God’s promise to turn the world upside down can demand everything of us. At Lambeth, surrounded by our sisters and brothers of the ‘two-thirds world’, where faith somehow flourishes in the face of daily persecution, grinding poverty, almost unimaginable hardship, rejection and exile we found ourselves called to account by Mary and her Magnificat.
It is true, you know, God does lift up the lowly. I think of Daniel, one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan, stolen from his family and never returned, escaping to refuge in Ethiopia only to be exiled again, finding his way after much hardship to a refugee camp in Kenya. In all this, God was very present to him. He was ordained in that camp, met Rachael, herself separated from her family by the civil war, and they married. Further exile to Australia, where Rachael earns a living as a cleaner to care for their seven children, and now Daniel is a bishop in his home country, South Sudan, a land of terror and political corruption, and thankful to be reunited with Rachael for a while at a university campus in Kent.
At Lambeth every day we celebrated such stories of fortitude, faithfulness, Godly blessings showered on the lowly, and we Westerners, so secure in our wealth, found ourselves wondering where we fitted into Mary’s song – amongst the lowly, or the rich who are sent empty away. There is an unavoidable poignancy to St Paul’s words (in our first reading), telling us that we are no longer slaves but children, redeemed by God’s Son, born of a woman, when those words are heard in company with people whose countries still suffer the economic consequences of the slave trade.
This isn’t about wallowing in guilt. Guilt, important though it is as a moral barometer, is most often an unproductive emotion. We are who we are, and we are faced with living faithfully in the culture we have inherited. I suppose what I’m saying is that two weeks in a global gathering has taught me all over again what it means to be connected, to be part of one human race. And whilst we, certainly, have monetary riches and these riches can be transformative when shared with those living in abject poverty, in the end it is only money. And the riches we receive in return from our brothers and sisters serving God in the church, in our church, in places far distant from us, are immeasurable – riches stored up in heaven where moth and rust, inflation and interest rates cannot destroy.
This feast of St Mary is often described as the Assumption. Some parts of the church hold that Mary was lifted up body and soul into heaven at her departure from this world. We don’t need to believe that, however, to recognize that in the mother of our Lord we see the lowly lifted up, we see the intimations of the glory that awaits us all. Glory that even now we glimpse, even in this broken and breaking world, even in our disunity and our negligence of God’s gifts. Glory Clare and I were privileged to encounter at the Lambeth Conference, in meal queues and bible studies, and in the touch and the glance of those with whom we disagreed. Glory all of us encounter every day, if our eyes are open to see, glory in our gathering here, glory in the bread we share, glory in the music and laughter, the art and drama of this festival city, glory in the exuberance of a child, glory in the slow passing of life in the dying.
Hard won glory sometimes, costly glory, but glory nonetheless for, as Mary understood, in all this we may discern and proclaim the greatness of God.

Pentecost 9 – 7th August 2022. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20; Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16; Luke 12: 32-40

 

The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It’s a well-loved verse because it expresses something that we want to be true – something that we want to be true for us, today. We hope and we dream, our aspiration is often for things to be different – and eventually they will be – but not always in the ways we had imagined or in the timescales we had hoped for.

This week we have seen a number of examples in the sporting world of hopes and dreams that were realised. Who could have watched Eilish McColgan finding that spurt of energy as she made her way to the finish line in the women’s 10,000 and not felt the emotion of an ambition realised? The Lionesses have clearly changed the face of women’s football, perhaps even of women’s sport, and we’ve witnessed extraordinary responses to that achievement. Those, and all the rest of this week’s sporting achievements, whether or not the participants were medal winners, are examples of hopes and dreams translated into reality by hard work and determination and belief that it is possible.

The emotions that come with these achievements show us that it’s not just about physical strength or the ability to dig a bit deeper. This is about a whole person commitment and engagement with something that is often just on the edge of what’s achievable. And the author of this Epistle seems to understand something about that when they say: ‘what is seen was made from things that are not visible’. We see the achievements of the runners on the track; we don’t see the hours of slog in the wind and rain as they train day after day. We don’t see the blistered feet or the injured legs. We don’t see the moments of despair when someone can’t beat their personal best.

The sportsperson has much to teach us as we grapple with the challenges of living out our faith, of trusting that what we hope and pray for will, one day, be realised. The training regime for us is prayer. Regular prayer requires discipline and commitment. Dare I say that it can sometimes be quite boring or uninspiring. But we know, and are reminded by the example of those athletes, that the challenge is to stick with it, to persevere.

On those days when it feels too much like hard work; on those days when we feel as though nothing will ever change; on those days when we feel as though we are in a vacuum, those are the days when we most need to stick with it. Those are actually the moments when we are most likely to make a breakthrough, to find ourselves in a place we hadn’t known about, hadn’t imagined we could find, hadn’t thought God would take us to.

And like the athletes, this is a whole person engagement and experience. Prayer isn’t about telling God what is wrong with the world; it’s not about desperately trying to remember the name of every person whom we know to be in some kind of trouble. It’s fundamentally about stopping and engaging. It’s about engaging with God and opening our whole selves to the possibility that God might use us or put some task before us that will eventually lead to something that we may know nothing about today.

It’s about getting ourselves out of the way in order to make the space for God to point us in the direction that we need to go. Going back to the athletics analogy, it’s about trusting the process and recognising that we won’t all end up on a podium, but we will all achieve some kind of change.

Don’t be deceived into thinking that prayer is something we can just squeeze in between a trip to the supermarket and an evening in front of the TV. There are indeed moments when a fleeting prayer is offered – and heard. But the heart of prayer, the foundation of prayer, has to be that regular and consistent and faithful returning to God time and time again. We return, often using familiar words and phrases, prayers that have been passed down, even from Jesus himself. And we do well to remember that all of Jesus’ ministry was punctuated by prayer. He set aside time; he took himself off to quiet places; the fully human Jesus showed us how crucial prayer is to our ability to navigate through our lives.

Our Gospel reading teases out just that point. It makes it clear that we’re not expected to just sit back and wait for things to happen round about us. We are the ones who have the resources to make things happen and we choose whether we do so or not. The Gospel writer is quite directive – there are things that we can, perhaps should do that create the environment and the opportunity for moving forward.

That movement is about journeying through our lives and towards God, but it’s also about journeying deeper. It’s about finding those places where we didn’t know God to be. About finding the places within ourselves that are precious and sacred; those places within ourselves that thrive when we nurture and tend them, that enable us to turn our faces outward and to share something of the God we discover. In the same way that the athlete speaks about digging deep, finding that inner resource that is almost elusive, so we too need to learn how to do that digging, how to find the places that are a source of change.

The Gospel writer catches it by saying: where your treasure is there your heart will be also. Your real treasure isn’t in your jewellery drawer or in your bank account. It’s not in those beautiful things that we all like to accumulate. It’s in that place within each one of us where we encounter the living God. That place where words are often superfluous; that place that is touched by music and art, by beauty and creativity.

It’s a place that we often call our heart. And by that we don’t mean the large muscle that pumps blood around our bodies. We mean the core of each one of us; that which makes us who we are; that place which is the source of all that gives us life in all of its diversity. It’s that part of us that responds to love and life; that part that dictates how we respond to the influences that we encounter. It’s the part of us that is active when we pray deeply – when we allow our prayer to travel from our heads into our very beings. It’s the place where the risen Christ resides; it’s the way that resurrection life is enacted within and through us.

If we can find ways to stick with the routine of prayer; if we can find ways to stick with God whether or not that feels fruitful; if we can find ways to focus in and on our prayer, then we can begin to create an environment within which there is space for hope, within which we can really believe in transformation.

However tough the challenges, God always offers us hope. That was expressed in a prayer that was found on the wall of a basement in Cologne where Jewish people had been hiding from the Nazis:

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love even when feeling it not.
I believe in God even when he is silent.

 

 

 

 

 

Pentecost 8. Sermon preached by Dr Esther Elliott, Lay Reader. 31st July 2022

Pentecost 8 Year C/2 Luke 12:13-21 St Mary’s Cathedral

 

Last week Bishop John, the Bishop of Edinburgh was here. During the service we prayed for him and Clare his wife, as they prepared to go to the Lambeth Conference; a big gathering of Anglican Bishops from all over the world. And Bishop John asked us to keep praying, for, and I quote “…prayers for courage and prayers for humility. Courage to offer of our best when we’re there, but also the humility to receive of the best of others”. I don’t know if he had prepared himself to say that, or if it was a spur of the moment sentence. He certainly thought it was worth remembering because after the service he asked if it could go as a request on the diocesan social media channels. It’s a phrase that has intrigued me all week. Why chose those two particular things? Why courage and humility, why not, say patience or energy, or empathy or confidence? And my mind was mulling that over as I started to look at the gospel reading for something to say today. A story of another man involved in an act of gathering, of a different sort, but nevertheless a gathering.

Jesus tells a story. A man who is already rich, gets lucky and his land produces a bumper crop. He ends up with so much and he gets so rich, he doesn’t know what to do with it all. So, he talks himself into tearing down the barns he already has, building bigger ones, and gathering all his possessions together and putting them in storage. Knowing that he is absolutely loaded, and it’s all stored away securely he intends to live a lavish, worry-free, happy life. Elon Musk eat your heart out.

Courage and humility as we gather. Courage to offer our best and the humility to receive the best of others. Actually, that’s probably exactly what the rich man in Jesus’ story could have done with. It seems to me his problem wasn’t in being rich, or in fact in being a successful landowner and farmer. His problem was that he acts as a completely independent, autonomous, and self-reliant person. So much so that he didn’t even talk to anyone else when he was trying to work out what to do when faced with a problem. He did all his thinking, all his strategizing and all his planning in his own head. He did all of his gathering on his own in fear and in pride. And in Jesus’ telling of the story, God gets straight to the point; you idiot, you fool, what happens if tonight you die, all these things that you’ve gathered and stocked up for yourself, whose will they be then?

The people originally hearing this story would, I think, have understood this. The crowd around Jesus would not just have reacted to this man out of prejudice against the rich, but would have seen his behaviour and his choices as very odd, as mismanagement and probably as evil. Because he has so much and is so rich, his decision to hold back his produce would have a huge impact on the other local farmers and the regional economy. Because he has so much and is so rich he would also be enormously powerful, and his decisions would have made others in the locality even more dependent on him. They would also, probably be highly critical of a farmer who seemingly didn’t realise he was going to get a bumper crop and take some action well before he had actually harvested. This was a man who was not behaving as a member of a community. He was arrogant, independent, and completely self-reliant. He didn’t have the courage to offer anything, let alone his best, or the humility to receive from others of what they had to give including their best.

And if we were allowed to read just a little bit further in the Biblical text from where we stopped today there’s some further confirmation of this being the rich man’s actual problem. Jesus says as a sort of climax to this bit of teaching to the crowds “do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying” (verse 29). Well, we translate the last word as “worrying” in English. In the original Greek it’s a word that is only used here in the whole of the New Testament and can mean “to be arrogant”. As a lifelong worrier who gets cross when people say “oh don’t worry” as though you can just flip a switch and turn it off, I was extremely grateful when I realised that. So, the big precis of this bit of Jesus’ teaching can easily read “do not strive for what you are to eat and what you are to drink and do not be arrogant or self-sufficient”.

Wise advice indeed. Jesus, the great teacher, instructs us that a good way to live is not as autonomous, self-sufficient individuals but as people who are part of a community in all that we do and say, including how we use good fortune and wealth should that come our way. Well, yes, and. Jesus always tells stories, speaks, behaves, and acts to teach us something about God. God, says Jesus, if you keep reading, feeds even the nasty unclean ravens, God has made ordinary fields beautiful with flowers and lilies. God is overwhelming generous and caring. God gives because that is in God’s nature. God is generous to all, regardless of whether they are considered to be the nastiest thing or the most beautiful thing on the planet. That’s just God. In the face of that fact, the rich man trying to be completely self-sufficient and all our attempts to be autonomous and arrogant, do all become foolish.

And it’s that picture of God, out of all the other things we can understand from this story, that at this moment in our lives I think, might just be the most helpful and useful thing to mull over. Some of the other ideas and concepts don’t quite work. The major issue of our current context is arguably the fact that we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. The cost of everything is going up and we are told is going to continue to go up, not least the cost of energy and fuel. The vast majority of us are not chatting away to ourselves wondering what to do with all the riches we’ve just amassed, we’re terrified that the bit we’ve got coming in isn’t stretching enough. In this context, trying to be self-sufficient isn’t arrogant and being dependant on others doesn’t always feel virtuous and good.

Or, to take another example of the big things in life at the moment, we are on the cusp of festival time in this city after a couple of years of that not happening. Our streets and venues, including this church will soon be packed with people relaxing, enjoying events, eating, drinking, being merry and entertaining each other. And that’s a joy, a celebration of culture and creativity and art and relationships, not something to condemn.

So, let’s take that from this bit of teaching of Jesus and let it seep into our souls and our bones. God is overwhelming generous and caring and gives, and gives, and gives again without judgment or prejudice. The knowledge of that can give us a very deep confidence to put one foot in front of the other with, amongst other things, courage, and humility. Courage to offer our best and the humility to receive the best of others.

 

 

Pentecost 7 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 24th July

Hosea 1.2-10; Colossians 2.6-19; Luke 11.1-13

We are blessed to have Bishop John with us this morning, as he prepares to join bishops from across Scotland, and the wider Anglican Communion, at the Lambeth conference this coming week. Later in today’s service, we will offer him and Clare something of a send off, our prayer, as they go to Lambeth with our hopes and fears, the stories of faith from across this province to share with bishops with similar and different stories of faith and hope to tell.

When I arrived as Provost at this Cathedral nearly 5 years ago, and began to inhabit its life and story, I quickly realised that prayer was the particular gift and charism of this place. That may seem an obvious statement, and one that should hold true for every church, but it has been important to highlight and draw out the ways in which that is particularly true for the Cathedral: in the rhythm of Morning and Evening Prayer; the community that gathers around that rhythm; the open doors that draw many in, increasingly to sit, and stop, and pray; in the refuge that this place offers in the midst of a humming, hot, city; a refuge that speaks in the language of stone worn down by generations of praying feet, in the beauty of this place, in the music offered, and in words of scripture and reflection that name our longings and our fears. In all that, prayer is offered and experienced, and is the bedrock and calling of this place.

I start with that reflection because the chief reason the Bishops gather at Lambeth is to pray together. Again that may be stating the obvious, or be thought to be simply a pious platitude, but actually it lies at the heart of what God’s Church for God’s World, as the Conference title puts it, offers. Prayer is the Church’s gift to the world, the particular charism we inhabit, not simply for our own sake, but because it is something vital and life-giving. And so Bishop John you go to Lambeth, with close to a thousand other bishops, to pray together, and in that prayer to find their unity and their calling.

Our scriptures readings this morning offer some insights into what prayer might be, its gift. Our first reading, from the prophet Hosea, laments a world that seems empty of God. In the starkest terms, the prophet is instructed to even name his children in ways that witness to the god-forsakenness and despair that the prophet feels, living in a society that seems to have abandoned its relationship with God, and walks instead in the paths of violence. It’s one of the harshest laments and prophetic denunciations found in the bible, and yet that despair does not have the final word. In the final verse, suddenly the tone changes: ‘Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’

That shift is what prayer does, is its gift. We come to the place of prayer in despair at the state of the world or our own situation, in grief, or lamentation, and we find that we are given the gift of hope. There have been the perhaps usual controversies as the Bishops gather for the Lambeth Conference – a few bishops boycotting the event, concerns about what might still hold the churches of the Anglican Communion together, and different responses to the issues we all face. Prayer doesn’t make those problems disappear, or even less intractable; but it is the wellspring which reminds us that faith is not about succumbing to the despair; and however much the moment of lamentation is important, just as grief is important and inescapable; so the lament and the grief break as hope is discovered and named. That is the work of prayer. And what we hope the bishops will do as they gather together.

‘Christians are formed by the way in which they pray’, as the preface to the Church of England’s Alternative Service Book put it. We are formed by that process of taking our despair, our fear, to the wellspring of prayer, and finding there the gift of hope.

Our Gospel reading sees the disciples, after observing Jesus himself praying, asking him: ‘Lord teach us to pray.’ In the second half of his answer Jesus offers a series of illustrations around the themes of asking and finding. It’s easy to hear those vignettes as statements about the power and efficacy of prayer – ‘ask and it will be given to you’ – and that might leave us wondering why it is not that straightforward, or how in our heart-breaking world, prayer can be characterised so simply. I think that is to misunderstand the question Jesus is responding to. The series of illustrations he offers is about the elemental need for us to keep searching, keep desire alive, keep hoping, in the midst of many reasons to despair. The question the disciples ask is, teach us to pray, not, why do we pray? If you pray, says Jesus, you need to persist; you need the discipline of keeping on.

And in the first half of his answer, Jesus offers a simple direct way to pray; a form of words that gets to the heart of the matter:

Father, hallowed be your name: prayer begins in and with God. From that all else flows. Prayer is the placing of God at the heart of all things; displacing our own fears and anxieties, our despair or our self-centeredness, our concern for simply me and mine; all that we are is brought into relationship with God, the ground and source of being of all things; and God is holy, mystery, beyond understanding, and yet closer than breathing. And that displacement, that bringing of our fears and hopes, our faith and doubts into relationship with God, is done so that …

Your kingdom come: here is the wellspring for that hope that is the gift of prayer, hope that the world might be something other than that which we see all around us. And in order for us to see something of that kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, we need to learn certain disciplines.

Give us each day our daily bread: give us what we truly need, and not simply what we have been taught to want, and the knowledge that that is enough.

Forgive us our sins as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us: give us grace to live that new community of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness of us intimately bound up to our forgiveness of others.

Do not bring us to the time of trial: Jesus’ form of prayer given to his disciples ends with a simple prayer of human need and an admission of our vulnerability. Pray that you to not have to endure a time of trial, of testing. We live in a world where we know how easily we fail to exhibit the courage, the strength, the wisdom, to practise the way of God’s kingdom. But give us the strength to persist.

And so my prayer, from this place of prayer, to you, Bishop John, and your sister and brother bishops, is that you find ways to witness to that gift of prayer. That you show us how to be honest in our despair and lamentation about the challenges that face us – the huge disparities in wealth and opportunity that disfigure our world, the ever-increasing and present threat of climate change, the violence that continues to blight the lives of whole nations; but also, in praying together, show us how to find the resources for hope; find the words and deeds and disciplines of life that will nourish us into God’s future. For like the disciples before us, we need to learn how to pray. Amen.

Pentecost 4 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 3rd July

2 Kings 5.1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6.7-16; Luke 10.1-11, 16-20

Preaching is an odd occupation. The opportunity to hold forth for 10, maybe 15 minutes, uninterrupted; quite literally, here, 10 feet above contradiction, as the old saying puts it. That’s an odd, and perhaps rare thing. Any preacher worth their salt is bound to like the sound of their own voice, or at least think they have something to say, but the opportunity to talk, uninterrupted and without immediate reply, is unusual, especially in our own times of instant social media interaction, and a knee-jerk suspicion of authority.

Of course, the pulpit is placed high not just to give you all a good view of the preacher, but because my job is to expound the Word of God; to make sense of the bible passages given to us today, so that the Word might speak to us. But, for me, that simply reinforces the slight strangeness of the form – for is it from on high, above contradiction and the messiness of human interaction, that God speaks, and acts, and saves and heals?

I found myself thinking about this as I contemplated the wonderful story of Naaman from the 2nd Book of Kings that was our first reading this morning. It’s a wonderfully recognisable story about how we complicate our human interactions by our posturing and our need to prove ourselves. And how that posturing, which is really just a way of covering up our wounds, the bits of ourselves we don’t like, gets in the way of our healing, our wholeness.

For most of us our wounds are hidden, often well hidden. For Naaman his wounds are present for all to see – for he suffers from leprosy. He is a mighty warrior and yet his skin is deformed and potentially contagious: he cannot hide his leprosy. By an accident of fate he learns where healing might be found – his wife’s servant girl, a captive from one of his military raids, informs him of a prophet in Samaria who could cure him. And so the first irony and reversal of the story is presented to us: it is the people who this mighty warrior has recently conquered and subdued, whose girls he has carried off to be slaves, it is this people who might be the source of his healing.

The king of Aram is delighted that his general might be cured, and he lends all the help his power and prestige can muster – plenty of silver and gold is given to accompany Naaman on his search for healing. But now things begin to get complicated, and the healing of Naaman becomes embroiled in the politics of conquest. The king’s way of aiding the healing – piling on the silver and gold – is interpreted by the conquered king of Israel to whom he sends Naaman, as a threat. The King of Aram is asking more than the King of Israel is capable of, he reasons. He must be deliberately picking a fight. After all that’s the usual relationship between conquerors and conquered – squaring up to each other, the familiar pattern is simply being repeated. The king of Israel doesn’t recognise that in seeking the healing of his wounds Naaman is after something very different.

But Elisha responds. Responds, not like the king, out of fear; nor as we might imagine, out of revenge. The conquering army chief has leprosy? Well good! Might be an understandable response. But instead, Elisha recognises that another possibility is opening up; that this man’s wounds might be the place where God’s power is demonstrated. Here is an opportunity to change the relationship between conquered and conquerors; to turn the story from being about victory and defeat, to healing and salvation.

But to reach healing there is a little more posturing to overcome first: Elisha sends a message to the King, and, we’re told, ‘Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’’

But Naaman refuses to dismount and scorns such simple sounding advice – he wants a big show as befits a mighty warrior. He leaves in a huff when his prestige is not acknowledged and ministered to. What he’s been offered appears demeaning, insulting, humbling. It takes his servant running after him to manage to get him to see sense: that for his wounds to be healed, his prestige needs to be laid aside. He climbs off his high horse, and bathes and is made clean.

Naaman’s healing occurs when he allows his wounds to be ministered to; not his ego, the ego that demanded the signs and wonders befitting to him, a mighty warrior. That takes humility, a move beyond posturing. Humility is there too in the response to Naaman’s wounds, of the servant girl, far from her home land, and then Elisha, to bring healing to more than just Naaman, but to the whole distorted and broken relationship between conquering Arameans and conquered Israelites.  Unlike the King of Israel, Elisha moves beyond fear of the oppressor, and beyond the mentality that insists on an eye for an eye. He recognizes his calling to bring healing. Both Naaman and Elisha have to move beyond easy pride, have to stoop low, and then healing is found.

In our gospel, Jesus sends his followers out two by two. Each has someone else for company, but otherwise they are unprotected – no purse, bag or sandals. Luke’s account of this sending out has seventy being sent out; seventy being the number of the nations of the earth in Genesis, and therefore an indication that this is how the Gospel will reach every nation, every corner of the earth: in two’s, travelling light, and seeking in peace the hospitality of others.

They are instructed to seek and enjoy the hospitality of others. We are so used to thinking of the church, of discipleship, in terms of what we do for others. We are sent out from here to dispense peace and joy, we like to think. But often it is how we allow ourselves to be helped that matters as much, if not more, as how we help others. In following Naaman off our moral high horses, and knowing ourselves as wounded, in need, the recipients of other’s kindness and hospitality – it is there that the kingdom is known, salvation glimpsed. Naaman’s healing is a story about humility; not the false humility that is actually pride masquerading as self-abasement, but the humility that acknowledges our need, our woundedness, as the place of healing. We talk and acknowledging our need of God, but the practice of that is about knowing our need of others. To be open to God means to be open to the gifts and healing others bring us. When we allow others to minister to us, barriers are broken down, the usual hierarchies are overturned; we relinquish control of the situation, and meet the other as equal, not merely as the recipient of our charity.

Father Damien, a famous 19th century priest who worked among lepers – and who is depicted on the walls of our choir Song School; Father Damian, when he himself contracted leprosy after working among lepers for years, is reputed to have responded by saying: “I thank God that now when I preach I shall be able to say instead of ‘dear brethren’, ‘my fellow lepers’.”

And so I am pleased that when I have finished preaching, I climb down from this particular high horse, and gather with you around the same table, to share in the same bread that is our healing and salvation; in my woundedness and yours, all of us in need of the healing body of Christ that is our communion. Amen.