All Saints Sunday – John Conway, Provost – 3rd November 2019

Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18; Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31

Paul Robeson, the African-American singer, who amongst other things, introduced the songs of his forebears, the African American Spirituals, to a wider audience, was famous also for his political activism. He lived for a time in the late 1920s and early 30s in London, and struck up a perhaps unlikely friendship with Welsh mining communities.

Later, after the war he was investigated during the era of McCarthyism for un-American activities, and for a number of years had his passport removed so that he was unable to travel and meet with the friends he had made across the world. In defiance of this ban, Canadian Labour Unions organised, several times across a few years in the early 1950s, a concert at the border of the USA and Canada – at the Peace Arch, as it’s known no less, north of Seattle. Paul Robeson, unable to leave the USA, stood on that side of the border, as he sang, his deep bass voice carried across to his audience sat on the other. It is not recorded what the border crossing officials made of it. I discovered this little moment of history through a poem, by Naomi Shibab Nye, which reflects on the event. It’s called Cross That Line.

Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border
of the USA
and sang into Canada
where a vast audience
sat on folding chairs
waiting to hear him.
 
He sang into Canada.
His voice left the USA
when his body was
not allowed to cross
that line.
 
Remind us again,
brave friend.
What countries may we
sing into?
What lines should we all
be crossing?
What songs travel toward us
from far away
to deepen our days?

That last line provided the link for me with this All Saints Sunday, when we celebrate, open ourselves, to those whose songs travel towards us from far away to deepen our days.

That song that travels toward us is not a straightforward melody: God’s company is a strange and wonderful collection of people – if you’re in any doubt of that, then just take a look around you! God’s company, those who, in their following of Christ, have helped the Church to be Christ: offer to the world Christ’s continuing transforming presence. In our Gospel reading today, we heard Jesus offer the blessings of God in surprising places. In blessing, Jesus crosses the lines of poverty, hunger, grief, and persecution: blesses those who find themselves cut off, excluded. Jesus names God as present with those thought to be bereft. To the self-satisfied, those who see no need to cross any border, he offers only woe. Jesus comes in Luke’s beatitudes with both blessing and judgement.

And the saints, rooted in that desire to follow Christ, to be Christ, sing that same surprising, irreligious, compassionate, unafraid, trusting song that crosses our lines.

I was struck, however, by an earlier line in the poem too: His voice left the USA when his body was not allowed to cross that line. His breath, his spirit, left, when his body was not allowed to cross that line. Today we also celebrate All Souls, remember those we have known and loved, whose spirit has crossed that line, that line of death, even as their bodies have not. And we celebrate their song. To remember and celebrate All Souls today is to affirm that God is stronger than death. We are surrounded by and celebrate that great company of saints, whose music, in George Eliot’s wonderful phrase, is the gladness of the world. What songs travel toward us from far away to deepen our days?

But the resonances of the poem go deeper. For the coming weeks will see us facing a number of lines, and the question of whether we have the spirit, the breath, the song to cross those lines, will I suggest become urgent; as well as the question the poem asks us – are we open to the songs that travel toward us, across the lines that might otherwise define us?

Next week, on Remembrance Sunday we mark a line, a chasm rent in our common fabric by the conflicts, the world wars of the last century. I say to you that listen, says Jesus, in our Gospel, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Our prayer for peace has to take up that challenge, that insistence that we be not be trapped by the line drawn between friend and enemy, that we may find the ways to cross that line, and make peace.

And through all the coming month, we will be caught up in the most potentially divisive and bitter election for a generation. Elections are there to provide clarity, to help us all work out what the way forward for our country might be. Conflict is part and parcel of them. But in a world where it is all too easy to stay in our own bubble of received opinion, where clarity is so often lost in a blizzard of untruths and half-truths, who will help us cross that line into truth and a way forward for our common life?

On this All Saints Sunday, as every Sunday, we gather around a table, to meet Christ, in broken bread shared out for all; in wine poured out. We gather with the great company of all who have longed to meet with Christ; the Christ, who, in the words of our epistle, is the fulness of all in all. The Christ who in our Gospel this morning comes with words both of blessing and judgement. The poor, and the hungry, those who weep, and the reviled who gather round this table hear words of blessing; the rich, the self-satisfied, those who simply laugh and bask in the adulation of others, hear words of judgement and woe. That great company, the invisible and the visible, us and all who gather through us are brought to words of blessing and judgement. And as we are, we realise the lines of blessing and judgement run right through each one of us. For we need both – to be blessed and broken. Blessed because we come in our need and carrying with us the needs of our world; and broken because we are not perfect, and our life is found in connecting more fully with others, in the courage to cross the lines that divide us one from another. Amen.

Pentecost 19 – John Conway, Provost – 20th October 2019

Genesis 32.22-31; 2 Timothy 3.14 – 4.5; Luke 18.1-8

Words from the second letter to Timothy, our first reading this morning:

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.’ All scripture is inspired by God.

Before we consider what that might mean, let’s approach it by looking at one of the other passages of scripture given to us this morning – the story from Genesis of Jacob’s wrestle with an angel, or is it with God? It’s a strange, but suggestive story – it has inspired many artists and writers, with its imagery of night-time wrestling to extract a blessing, even at the cost of a wounding.

The first thing to say is that the context of this story within the Book of Genesis is important. It is part of a series of tales that focus on sibling relationships (Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Rachel and Leah – who, of course, are the two wives of Jacob mentioned at the start of the reading – and then, not least, Jacob and his twin, but elder brother, Esau). We have already had the story of Jacob tricking his elderly father Isaac by pretending to be Esau, tricking him into giving Jacob the blessing usually reserved for the elder son. In an agrarian society, which sibling comes out on top is vital. In a context of scarcity, of the hard work of surviving, which one receives the father’s blessing, and the material goods handed on with that blessing, becomes all important.

Having stolen the blessing that should have been his brother’s, Jacob is packed off to find a wife, and having prospered with Laban, is now returning with two. But he is also returning fearful of the reception he will receive from his brother Esau. And so we are told, in the passage we heard, that he sends his wives and children, and all that he has, on ahead and is left alone, by the ford of Jabbok. Left alone to wrestle. With his conscience? With his fears? With an angel? We are not exactly told. But he emerges having been blessed, and so rises, blessed and limping, to meet his brother. The passage goes on:

Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.

But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

Jacob comes to meet his estranged brother, from whom he has been bitterly divided, and is met by an embrace, a moment of utter grace. The template of Cain and Abel, of all the other bickering and arguments between siblings in the context of scarcity and fear, is for a moment laid aside. And Jacob explicitly links this meeting to the strange events of the night before:

“truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God–since you have received me with such favour,” he says.

That breaking down of barriers, even when it inflicts wounds, is where the face of God is seen.

To read that story is to be immediately reminded of our own nights of wrestling; wrestling with our fears, in arguments with our brothers and sisters (both literal and metaphorical); seeking a blessing in the most trying of circumstances and arguments. And to read of Esau’s act of generosity and grace, is to be asked if we could do likewise – find the gesture and action that puts the ugly past behind, starts us again on a different footing. Even if, like Jacob, there may be a cost to that too – so that we are left limping and weeping, but blessed and reconciled.

Like all great stories, Jacob’s wrestling with an angel isn’t just about what happened by an obscure stream a long time ago. It provokes our own reflections and wonderings, our own stirrings and wrestlings.

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.’

That text is often produced to defend a certain account of biblical authority. I wanted to start by considering an actual scriptural text because the authority of the Bible should not be treated separately to its content. Authority is not something the bible possesses in the abstract, somehow inherent in being “The Bible”, but as something that its content evokes. The authority of the bible is not something evidenced by wheeling out 2Tim 3.16 – all scripture is inspired by God. Authority is arrived at through an engagement with the contents of the bible, what it actually is.

And when we do read it, live with the contents of this perplexing book, we discover that it is not a straightforward manual for living or a code of ethics, or a self-help book. It’s far more complicated and messy and joyous than that. Tales of sex and violence, for example, that would have self-appointed guardians of morals dashing off letters of outrage. Read the Book of Judges, but beware of its horrific violence; read the lyrical eroticism of the Song of Songs; or the many-layered vignette that is the Book of Ruth. These are not simple morality tales where good invariably wins out or virtue is finally rewarded. Often the biblical narrator seems to take no moral stand toward the events he or she describes. But the very mode of the story-telling – the sparseness of the language, the lack of psychological portraits of the characters – such devices draw us the reader in, force us to fill in the gaps, become involved, make moral judgements. And when we do so, when we become involved, we find that these expressions of human anguish, fear, passion, perplexity, eroticism, the search for wisdom and justice, the openness to the transcendent, these expressions of exultation speak to and unsettle us in our similar human predicaments and joys.

What we do here on a Sunday, as we gather around scripture, is not entertainment; it gives expression to our human need to seek meaning, and because the bible dares to speak of God, to seek what is ultimately meaningful. Above all, through worship, through open, engaged hearts and minds, what we do here on a Sunday is not to be entertained but is to dare to listen and to receive and be transformed.

These scriptural texts have been, and continue to be, at the heart of living communities of faith. Our reading occurs in the context of community – past and present. We need to listen to each other, and to our forebears in faith, as we listen to the bible. It is the quality of that listening, to each other, to the tradition, to the bible, that will determine the authority of scripture. That authority rests on the process of reading, learning, marking and inwardly digesting scripture by which we are nourished.

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.’

Inspiration is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that leads us into all truth. That inspiration, that work of the Holy Spirit, is in the present, in the interaction between the text and us, the readers. It is as we are drawn into the acts of reading and listening, of questioning the text and finding ourselves questioned, that the work of the Holy Spirit begins. Too often we treat the bible as a historical document, locating truth as the answer to the question, did that really happen? To read the bible as scripture liberates truth, and the work of the Holy Spirit, to be that illumination, that exasperation, that wonder, that shock, that yes to God, that the Bible can provoke.

When Jacob finds himself engaged in a fight in the middle of the night with a ‘man’ who is also ‘God’, he does not say to him, as he would in a fairy tale: ‘I will not let you go till you tell me your name.’ Instead, surprisingly, he says, ‘I will not let you go till you bless me’. Whereupon the ‘man’ asks Jacob his name, and, when told it, announces that henceforth Jacob will have a new name, Israel. Our task is to wrestle with this book as Jacob wrestled with the ‘man’, sometimes in the darkness of not understanding; not for the sake of the contest or in order to wrest the book’s secret from it, but so that we may hear it utter its blessing upon us, and name us anew. Amen.

Pentecost 18 – John McLuckie – 13/10/19

The world feels more uncertain right now than it has for a long time. Old allegiances are challenged and the deep wisdom of our religious heritage is scorned by many. Faith is often caricatured as a kind of feeble appeal to an external, unquestionable authority and even the wisdom of scientists and experts is dismissed as mere opinion. When faced with a barrage of philosophical speculations like these, Voltaire’s character, Candide, replies with a disarmingly simple piece of advice: ‘Il faut cultiver le jardin’ – we must dig the garden. Christians would do well to heed his advice, for the turmoil of our world requires patience, not panic, wisdom, not slogans. Candide’s advice is that we should tend to the basic elements that make it possible for life to flourish, that we should see to the simple and deep stuff, not the shrill and superficial stuff. It is tempting to react to overwhelming challenges with elaborate schemes and eye-catching innovations or, worse, with simplistic judgements that propose winners and losers, insiders and outsiders. Faith, by contrast, urges a different response; a patient tending of the garden, trusting in the growth that is given when we seek to make good the conditions that make for growth.

This is beautifully expressed in words from today’s Epistle where Timothy is urged, in the RSV translation, to ‘present [him]self to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.’ I prefer this to the translation we heard a few minutes ago where the work is seen as an intellectual, interpretive endeavour. In this version, Timothy’s work as teacher and pastor has value when it is seen in terms of the rightful handling of the basic material of the spiritual life. He is an artisan who treats the stuff of his trade with respect and care. And what is the basic material of the spiritual life? Well, it is nothing less than the stuff of life itself. What is praised here is not elaboration, not sophistication, but endurance. In other words, the spiritual path is not one where we present an idealised version of life, but one in which we choose to stick with life’s path, whatever it throws at us. The spiritual life is simply life.

The world of faith is not abstract but concrete: how do I respond to this setback? How do I live with my limitations? How do I live with the reality that whatever choice I make in this situation comes with difficult consequences? What can I do in the face of a challenge that is far bigger than my own limited sphere of influence? How can I love when that love may find no reciprocation? Christian faith is profoundly realistic when it comes to such questions. I confess to feeling a degree of impatience when people suggest that religion offers easy answers for the simple-minded. It does not. It offers clarity but not easy comfort, encouragement but not escape, penitence, not self-justification. Above all, what faith offers us is perspective. It urges us to see beyond the immediate and towards the ultimate, beyond the self and towards the whole, beyond the perishable and towards the imperishable. And it offers us concrete strategies to make this possible.

If Christian faith is a matter of tending the garden of our lives, then its practices and insights are ones which require persistence, confidence and hope. Gardens are not the work of hours and sometimes not even the work of one lifetime. When Timothy was encouraged to see himself as a workman rightly handling the material of his life, he was given a pattern for such a way of life. Firstly, a workman like this must die to self, die with Christ. I was urged last week to say something radical in my last sermon with you, and here it is. We must die with Christ. This means nothing less than a complete re-centring of our lives so that they do not revolve around self-concern but are lived in radical freedom, abandoned to the greater truth of life in Christ, life in all its fullness, life that is free from the compulsions of success, recognition, status or domination. But this is also a life that is free from self-loathing, blame or condemnation. As Timothy was told, the Word of God is unfettered, free, abundant.

There are many practices and disciplines that allow us to tend the garden of our lives and the greatest among them is our practice of unceasing prayer, the prayer of the heart. But today’s Gospel offers another, perhaps less obvious one, and that is the practice of gratitude, of giving thanks. Here, an outsider receives the gift of health from Jesus, but he receives even more when he responds with gratitude. The other nine lepers are also freed from disease, but only he is freed to embrace life because he has discovered its fundamental truth, and I can let you into its secret: life is a gift! There’s another radical statement for you today – life is a gift! And what do you do when you are offered a gift? Well, you might do two things. First, you receive it. Second, you give thanks. The first movement is related to my first radical suggestion to you this morning – receiving a gift requires a kind of death to self. To accept a gift is to relinquish control, to be open-handed and open-hearted. It is a kind of vulnerability because it says that I do not have all that I need in myself. It says that I am willing to express my insufficiency and my place in the great chain of life. Our life is not our own creation but a gift from God.

The second movement is the heart of Christian worship – thanksgiving. The very offering we make Sunday by Sunday, the offering of the Eucharist, is an offering of thanks. We say that it is right to give our thanks and praise before the priest goes on to give thanks, in our name, to God for the gifts that make us who we are. When we give thanks, our relationship to the things for which we give thanks changes. They are no longer instruments of our purposes but gifts to be relished. This simple act is what gives us strength to endure. This is what makes it possible for us to handle rightly the material of our lives.

Today I give thanks for seven wonderful years of life with you all. We have shared much and I am humbled by the privilege of doing my little bit to cultivate the garden of our life together. Keep on digging, planting and watering with patience and with gratitude. I give thanks for you and I give thanks to God, the giver of all good gifts, for he is faithful and his mercy endures for ever.

Pentecost 17 – Marion Chatterley, Team Priest – 6/10/2019

From the second letter to Timothy ‘Guard the good treasure entrusted to you’.

Words written by St Paul, probably just before his execution; words of command, not just for Timothy but for those whom he would teach.  Words to pass down through the generations of believers.

I’d like to think this morning about the good treasure that has been entrusted to us, what it might mean for us to guard that treasure and how we might pass it on to future generations.  Some of you will have noticed that we launched a new social media campaign at the beginning of this month.  Our hashtag is Treasure our Cathedral and over the coming months we’re going to be sharing posts on a daily basis that reference the life and witness of this place.  When we began to think about the social media campaign, our starting place was the rhythm and cycles of prayer that are at the heart of who we are and what we do.  Day by day, in words and music and silence, in the majesty and the beauty, this place supports and enables the prayers of its people. We are steeped in the prayers that have been offered here over the ages, we add to and enliven those prayers and leave our own legacy for those who will follow us.

Our building is clearly not just our gathering place, but also our spiritual and, for some, our emotional home.  There are physical treasures within this place – art and embroidery; woodwork and glass.  All gifted to us by skilled craftspeople – some in years gone by and some created in recent months and years.  Those visual arts may help us to focus, may remind us of something of the nature of God.

The first treasure then, is tangible.  And within this tangible space come the treasures that bring the building alive.  Our liturgy is one of our treasures – beautifully crafted words that help us to engage with the core of our worship, to share in the breaking of bread and the distribution of wine.  Our liturgy expresses our theology, feeds our minds and our hearts, points us towards the Divine.  In this place, that liturgy is supported and enhanced by our musicians.  Carefully chosen music, performed in a way that is neither intrusive or for its own sake, but liturgical music offered as a part of our expression of worship.

These offerings are, of course, dependent on the work and gifts of individuals who lead and support the different elements of our worship.   People are one of the treasures of this place.  And, of course, people are our treasures not just in this place and in this area of our lives but throughout all of the aspects and areas of life we inhabit.  People are our connections and our inspiration.  People are our carers and those who care for us.  People are those who love us, those whom we love and those whom we find it difficult to love.  And we know from our understanding of Scripture that each one is loved by God, each one is treasured by God.

So what does it mean for us to guard our treasures?  In some ways, the answer to that question is obvious if we’re thinking about our building and the things that are within it.  We have a responsibility to care for this place, to look after the artefacts and crafted work that surround us.  To guard it in order to pass it on to future generations and to make sure that it is in good order when we do so.  And we now understand that our stewardship extends beyond the simple care of our building and possessions.  Stewardship includes our responsibility within this place to care for our wider community and to take into account the environmental impact of all that we do.  Last week our children unveiled the new banners that remind us of those responsibilities.

They spoke about our use of sources of energy; the materials we use; the day to day choices we make – and the impact of all of those on people across our globe.

We were also reminded last week of our more local responsibilities to people who may be less fortunate than us.  Our foodbank collection was a practical way for us to care for others; it was also a symbolic way for us to treasure the more vulnerable people within our communities, to remind ourselves that we have a responsibility to care for God’s people alongside our responsibility to care for God’s created world – it’s not an either/or.

Within every place of worship we have a responsibility to treasure and honour, to hold the balance between ‘in here and out there’, recognising that everything we do is grounded in our collective life of prayer.  We offer the best worship we can – in our words and our music, in the ways that we conduct our services and in what we seek to share about God within the content of those services.   In praying together, we journey together.

We guard all that we treasure week on week as we gather as the body of Christ in this place, and others, because the ultimate treasure isn’t the building or the liturgy or the music or even the people – the real treasure is the grace that we receive when we encounter and engage with the risen Christ in our midst.  The real treasure is the love of God which is revealed to us in the tangible and intangible treasures that are right here in this place.

One of our responsibilities is to ensure that the gift we find in this place is kept healthy and alive in order that it can be shared with future generations.  It’s been a real pleasure to welcome the Friends of Cathedral Music over this weekend and we hope that you will take something of what we treasure back with you to your home churches.  It is incumbent on each one of us to honour our traditions and to do whatever we can, to give in whatever way we can, in order to ensure that the treasure is not just preserved but enhanced and enriched for the benefit of those who will follow us.

Let’s return to our hashtag – Treasure our Cathedral.  Whether or not we are people who engage with social media, we can share the message of that campaign.  The treasure that is this Cathedral, its building and artefacts, its liturgy and music, its people and their commitment – that treasure is too good to keep hidden.

We all carry the responsibility to share the Good News that we find here, to invite others to experience the treasures that are on offer.  In so doing, we will play our own part in ensuring that this place and all that makes it what it is, will be available for many generations to come.

Pentecost 15 & Baptism – John Conway, Provost – 22nd September 2019

Amos 8.4-7; Luke 16.1-13

Today is a good day. In a short while we will baptise Euan, a member of this congregation. He will declare his faith – a faith that he has explored and tested in conversation and prayer over this past year. He will, in the waters of baptism, like all Christians, enter the waters of Christ’s death, to be raised into Christ’s resurrection life. Today is a good day.

And Andy, our Chaplain, leads us in worship today as a priest amongst us. After spending his deacon year getting to know you and this Cathedral, sharing something of himself in preaching and conversation and care; after that year, on Thursday he was ordained priest, to gather us in worship and renew that resurrection life of Christ within us. Today is a good day.

Both Euan and Andy embody for us today a vocation, a lived out response to the call of God. Euan embodies and expresses the vocation of us all, the vocation of every human being, responding to the gift of life. That gift, of human life and breath, today in Euan’s baptism takes shape: the shape of Christ’s death and resurrection. That shape, that knows of suffering and death – that does not shy away from that, but through that knows of hope and new life – that shape is the most profound and engaged way to be human. Euan today expresses, commits himself to, the vocation of us all. And Andy, within that human vocation, embodies for us today the priestly vocation of gathering us around Christ, that Christ may be known in us. Andy, in bringing us to Christ, enables that wonderful exchange that our Eucharistic Prayer celebrates: In Christ, your Son, our life and yours are brought together in a wonderful exchange. He made his home among us that we might for ever dwell in you.

Today is a good day.

As the preacher I might have hoped, on this good day, for readings that celebrated those vocations, that lifted our hearts in prayer and praise. But just as we arrive at the deep hope of new life, only when tread the paths of suffering, so we need to do a bit of wrestling with our readings to arrive at good news. For this is how Jesus teaches; his parables work by overturning expectations, delivering a shock in the tail. They make you work. Often, because we are so familiar with these parables, it can be hard to recover that sense of shock that would have been there for the first hearers of these tales. But that is not so with this morning’s parable – the parable of the dishonest manager – the shock, I suggest, remains.

The parable introduces us to the dishonest manager of a rich man. His dodgy dealings are found out, and he is asked to give an account of himself. Rather than this being the moment of truth however, his craftiness continues – he devises a new scheme, and – you might say, squandering his master’s property further, he establishes the relationships that will see him through his sacking. And then the twist and the shock: rather than condemning his manager for such continued dishonesty, out of the blue the master commends his dishonest steward. And we then get a series of cryptic sayings of Jesus around the themes of friendship and money:

I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

It’s a difficult parable to makes sense of; what are we being shocked into thinking? First, it’s worth putting it in context. Follows immediately after the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Last week we heard the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin – and Paul drew out their connections to the Prodigal Son; but surprisingly the connections to this week’s parable are there too: both the prodigal son and the manager are described as squandering their property. Both of them conduct an internal dialogue with themselves to work out how to restore themselves to a home. And both receive surprising, greater mercy than they, or we, believe they deserve.

That connection alters the whole feel of this parable for me. Part of the shock is that we are being asked to identify with this dishonest steward, his sharp dealings and dishonesty. In the parable of the Prodigal Son we are used to the idea that we might see ourselves in the role of the older brother, and find that identification difficult. Identifying with the dishonest steward takes us a step further. But Jesus’ point is that this man finds a way to bring forgiveness into his relationships – it might be for dubious motives (although is the longing for a home, a place where one is welcomed, that dubious a motive?). But that forgiving practice is what earns him the surprising commendation of his master. For Jesus’ hearers – the poor, those who would have identified with the debtors in the story – the remission of debts is no small thing. The sums being written off are huge. For them the steward’s practice might be sharp, but exceedingly welcome. And the usual order of things is overturned when suddenly the rich master commends such behaviour! The one who was thought to be only interested in his estate, the power and money it could generate, is suddenly found to commend the establishing of relationships. Relationships are suddenly given priority over money.

And so the parable invites us into a world where that is what God is like: not an absentee master, preserving the status quo and hierarchical order, but one who delights in the practice of forgiveness.

The sayings that follow ram home the point – that we are all called to make that similar journey – the journey of the prodigal son and the dishonest steward. From squandering uselessly what we possess, to recognising that what we most long for is a home, a community, friendship, where the practice of compassionate forgiveness is paramount. And that home and that practice place money and possessions in their proper place. Not as a competing claim on our allegiance, but a means to serve our fundamental allegiance to God, the God who is love, who is the practice of compassionate forgiveness, our true home. For you cannot serve God and wealth. Our wealth, what we have been given in trust, is there to be used, just like that dishonest steward, for the building up of a home, a world, where all may live.

It is that home that Euan, I hope, has begun to find here. That journey, in compassionate forgiveness, that he promises in baptism, with all of us, for the sake of all, to make. Today is a good day. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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