John Conway – Lent 2 – 17/03/19

(Genesis 15.1-12. 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35)

Our Old Testament reading today concerns our forebear in faith; that wellspring of all the faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that trace themselves back to this archetypal man, to Abraham’s faith. Whatever the hateful ideology of the perpetrators of violence might say – all Jews, Christians and Muslims share this common ancestry. In today’s reading, however, Abram – as he still is at this stage, before his re-naming – Abram is anxious about the future. He and Sarai are childless, unable to imagine how the promises of God might be fulfilled. The future looks grim, despite assurances from God not to be fearful. And then Abram is brought outside to gaze upon the stars: ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them,’ he is told. ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And so the faith of Abram is re-kindled.

On Ash Wednesday I offered those of you at our services a poem: Lent by Jean Watt

Lent is a tree without blossom, without leaf,
Barer than blackthorn in its winter sleep,
All unadorned. Unlike Christmas which decrees
The setting-up, the dressing-up of trees,
Lent is a taking down, a stripping bare,
A starkness after all has been withdrawn
Of surplus and superfluous,
Leaving no hiding-place, only an emptiness
Between black branches, a most precious space
Before the leaf, before the time of flowers;
Lest we should see only the leaf, the flower,
Lest we should miss the stars.

The poem invites us, in this season of stripping bare, taking down, to not forget that we do that in order to see the stars, the bigger picture, that which lies beyond the immediate, that which it is easy to miss. In this a week to make us all anxious, uncertain over the future, what might enable us to see the stars, enable the re-kindling of faith and hope?

Our epistle and Gospel offer some clues as to what that looking for the stars might mean, and that re-kindling of faith. For Paul, the contrast is with those whose ‘god is the belly’. Words which suggest the calling is about getting beyond our immediate desires and cravings and seeking to satisfy those; refusing also to fan the flames of those desires in anger and the insatiable need for more. Instead to see our citizenship, our final rootedness and identity, as in heaven, among the stars, the eternal.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus, like Abram, has every reason to be anxious. The ‘wise’ counsel him to leave, and avoid his pursuer, Herod. He is making a name for himself, and he would do better to lie low. Jesus, however, offers, in counter to Herod, the one he names as a fox, no desire to hide. He will continue to do what he is called to do, bring life and cures to those he meets. And not walk away from those centres of power which feel threatened and so threaten him, but walk ever toward Jerusalem. And he then offers this remarkable image to that city of power and broiling tension and death, where the fox resides.  Jesus offers himself, not as the Lion of Judah roaring a response, but as a mother hen, gathering her squabbling chicks into the shelter of her wings, if only they were willing. The hen has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill the hen first.

In Philippians, Paul urges his readers to imitate him – not in being Paul, but, in turn, in imitating Christ, our mother hen. Together, we are called into that imitation of Christ which opposes the fox not with bared fangs, but in the gesture of love that gathers to her bosom all the children of Jerusalem.

In the febrile atmosphere of this coming week, who is offering a glimpse of the stars? As we all woke to the terrible news from Christchurch, children across the globe were gathering in their thousands, striking from their studies, to ask the world to wake up to climate change and act. Those are the actions which re-kindle our faith in our future.

Abram, after staring at the stars, later still finds himself within a deep and terrifying darkness, standing amongst slaughter and death and destruction. But he holds on to the promise, arrives at an understanding of the promise given, moves forward with faith and hope. May we, in this season of Lent, and in the week ahead, do likewise. Amen.

Andrew Philip – Lent 1 – 10/3/2019

Staying True to Our Calling

What gets to you most? I don’t just mean what most gets your goat; I’m thinking about what goes to the heart of who you are. Who are you when everything is stripped away?

That’s what faces Jesus in today’s Gospel. The temptations he fends off in the wilderness come from deep inside him and strike at the heart of who he is. After the very public high of his baptism, at which the Holy Spirit has descended on him, at which his identity as God’s Beloved Son has been proclaimed by the voice of God the Father, Jesus is sent by the Spirit into the desert to grapple with his identity and calling.

The question behind our Gospel passage is: what sort of Son is Jesus going to be? How is he going to live out his calling? For, each of the three temptations is an enticement to Jesus to become a false version of who he is; to be untrue to his calling not by rejecting it but by allowing it to be twisted subtly out of shape; to become fake good news.

The first and third temptations begin with, ‘If you are the Son of God …’. Scholars tell us that this would be better translated ‘Since you are the Son of God …’. Satan, the plausible but lying voice inside, is not trying to deny Jesus’ Sonship but to twist it out of shape.

We too face the temptation to be untrue to our identities as children of God and to our calling to be part of God’s redemptive mission, the temptation to allow the pattern of Christ in us to be twisted out of shape. Every day for us brings the question: what sort of children are we going to be? So what does the text tell us about the temptations that we, along with Jesus, face and how to withstand them?

The first temptation flung at Jesus is to turn stones into bread. For a famished Jesus to make bread from stones seems like a good idea. And if he can accomplish that, he can easily feed the hungry masses. But it is a temptation to accept and be false sustenance — a quick fix, a spiritual fast food that addresses the wrong need. Jesus will, indeed, satisfy the hungry with bread, not just in the feeding of the 5,000, but in the bread that is his body broken on the Cross. A far cry from desert rocks transmogrified as if in a Hogwarts classroom.

Next, Jesus is tempted with the power and glory of all the world’s kingdoms. But this is false glory and power on offer. The issue is whether Jesus will become the kind of king the world already knows too well: one who rules by might and force of ego. But for him to do that would be to turn away from the servanthood he came to model, to reject the way of the Cross and, ultimately, to forgo the joy, glory and power of the Resurrection.

This temptation is, however, also a cloak for a deeper, more subtle one: the enticement to worship the false gods of status, influence and ego. Satan shows his hand here when he tells Jesus, ‘If you will worship me, it will all be yours’. It surprises me how many commentators seem to take at face value Satan’s claim that the kingdoms are his to give away. I mean, we’re talking about a character who is described in the Gospel of John as ‘a liar and the father of all lies’. Jesus knows this voice is faking it and that to turn away from the God who called and named him is to turn away from truth.

Finally, having failed to tempt Jesus away from worshipping the true God, Satan tries to get him to put God to the test. This is a temptation to false faith, a lure to risk everything in order to prove God in a way God hasn’t called him to do. Instead of this swift, dramatic spectacle, Jesus chooses the long, hard road to the Cross and the hope of Easter morning.

Through all these temptations, Jesus remains true to his identity and calling. To the long way round. To the way that looks crazy but leads to life.

Like him, we encounter voices from within that entice us to be untrue to our identity and calling. What sort of children will we be? Will we run after quick fixes instead of walking the long road to Jerusalem with Jesus? Will we get wrapped up in budgets and finance instead of being bread broken for the world? Will we get caught up in seeking influence instead of looking to serve our communities? Will we be enticed by dramatic ideas or be willing to lay down our lives quietly in service?

The question is how we keep true to our calling. First, like Jesus, we should remember whose we are. At his baptism, Jesus was declared the Beloved Son; our baptisms likewise proclaim that we are Beloved of God. We need to hold on to this identity before all others.

Secondly, we need to listen to the Holy Spirit. Jesus is filled with the Spirit at his baptism, led into the desert by the Spirit and filled with the Spirit when he leaves the desert to begin his preaching ministry. Likewise, we are given the Spirit at our baptism and filled with the Spirit as we open ourselves to God through regular spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading and worship.

And this points us to another resource we have, and the most obvious one from the text: Scripture. Jesus doesn’t argue with the temptations; he simply refutes them with Scripture: the wisdom and strength of his tradition. It’s interesting that he uses desert Scriptures — verses from Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. He learns as much from Israel’s failures as from its faithfulness. If Jesus needs that, how much more do we need to steep ourselves in Scripture. It is the memory book of our tradition, showing us how God has spoken in the past, showing us patterns to follow and develop, showing us how to pattern ourselves after Christ.

As we move through our own 40 days in the wilderness, I encourage you to take something up for Lent: reflect on the temptations. Make them into a form of prayer. Perhaps ask yourself, at the end of each day:

  • What has sustained me and how have I sustained others today?
  • What did my words and actions today say about who or what I worship?
  • How did the way I lived today show my trust in God?

As you ask yourself this, listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit calling you ever deeper into life, ever deeper into your identity as a beloved child of God.

John Conway – Sunday before Lent (Transfiguration) – 03/03/19

(Genesis 15, 1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 9.28-36)

‘Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.’

So begins our Gospel reading from Luke, that strange story of transfiguration, as it is usually described, when Jesus’ face shines like the sun and his clothes become white as the light.

It’s a story about prayer and about glory. That combination might suggest beginning this sermon with famous words from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil

That would suggest that we take this story of a mountaintop epiphany as an exemplar of a much more common phenomena: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The transfiguration is suggested as an example of those moments that many experience, when time stands still, when you glimpse the more, the God who works in and through all things. The fact that the transfiguration occurs on a mountaintop is no accident, we might say, for that is where many of us, in the exhilaration of a mountaintop, the world laid out below us, where many of us experience an overwhelming sense of God’s grandeur and glory. Or we could talk of those moments of transcendence and epiphany occurring when we witness an act of un-self-interested love, when our perception of friends, neighbours, strangers is suddenly altered by an act of grace.

That is one way to approach, seek to understand, this strange story of the Transfiguration – that it is a heightened example of an experience that many have fleetingly experienced. It is, in the case of the gospel story, centered on Jesus, but it is not particular to him. But I’m not sure it gets to the heart of what is being claimed, and presented here. This is not simply an example of a general phenomena, but an experience that brings into focus the very particular claim that the disciples would go on to make about this person, Jesus.

Edwin Muir, in his poem, The Transfiguration, enters the mind of the three disciples as they reflect on that mountaintop moment:

Was it a vision?

Or did we see that day the unseeable

One glory of the everlasting world

Perpetually at work, though never seen

Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere

And nowhere?

The story of the Transfiguration is about the seeing of the unseeable; the undoing of that locking of the gate of Eden that is everywhere and nowhere – the way back, and forward, to Paradise. Not an example of a general phenomena, but a revealing of the particular truth of this person, Jesus. This is shown explicitly in icons of the transfiguration where Jesus does not simply reflect light from another source, but is the light source itself, it is from Jesus that glory shines forth and causes those around – the three disciples in most icons, to cast shadows from that light emanating from Jesus himself. He does not simply reflect the light and glory of God – he is the light and glory.

The context of our gospel reading is important: it comes after Jesus has talked to his disciples  about the way of the cross, and the suffering to which his path commits him, and his disciples. And then he goes, on this eighth day, up a mountain, to pray, to seek after God’s presence in prayer. There is a symbolic importance to that eighth day, the day beyond the seventh day, the day of Sabbath rest – the eight day is the day of resurrection, the day of new creation. We are used to days 1 to 7, here is the eighth day, the day beyond and outside our normal pattern and practices. We enter something transcendent here. Moses and Elijah are part of that eternity of God’s dealings with humanity – Jesus is seen as linked to those depths. And for Peter and James and John this experience of prayer, this seeing of Christ in a new light, asa new light, ends with the command: ‘This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.’ Listen to him: shape our lives around this one from whom glory radiates. This is God – in this human life of prayer and suffering and love.

The other context for our Gospel reading is the context provided by today, the Sunday before Lent, and also by it being Fairtrade Sunday. We are encouraged, in prayer, before we enter the self-reflection and disciplines of Lent, to see that unseeable one glory which Christ embodies, and to invite it to shape us.

For Fairtrade Sunday we are particularly thinking about chocolate, and the producers of cocoa who sustain our consumption. In the Ivory Coast, 4 million people grow cocoa, much of which comes to the UK. More than 60% of those cocoa farmers live below the United Nations poverty line of £1.47 per day. In the light of the glory emanating from the one who comes to save all humanity, in that light, and listening to him, are those cocoa farmers simply to be exploited for all that we can get? Or does that opening of the gate into another reality, suggest we too might shape our relations with one another not on the basis of economic power and muscle, but on relationship and mutuality. It is that relationship and mutuality, restored again and again by Jesus in the healings he provokes as he walks the way of the cross; relationship and mutuality that are at the heart of Fairtrade, that we are called to embody, be shaped by, in the light of that one glory which Christ embodies.

Up on the mountain top, Peter famously wants to preserve the moment – ‘let us make three dwellings’ he says. This peak experience needs to be captured, memorialized. But that is not to be – rather this moment, this timeless, transcendent moment, is bound to everything else, this glory perpetually at work. This moment of prayer leads to what follows – Jesus plunging down the mountain – into a round of healing and binding up, and suffering. And so on to Jerusalem and another time when Jesus will take Peter, John and James with him to pray – in the garden of Gethsemane. Pray, not so that Jesus is transfigured with light, but in agony – Father, let this cup of suffering pass. This is our Lenten journey, to walk and pray with Christ in moments of transfiguration and glory, and to walk and pray in moments of agony and darkness. And at all times, to listen to him. Amen.

Epiphany 6 – Paul Foster – 17/02/19

1 Cor 15.12-20 and Lk 6.17-26

If I were to ask you what is the most important or central belief in the Christian faith, I wonder what you would answer? In many ways it is an impossible question, and it would almost certainly misrepresent the Christian faith to reduce it to a single belief. However, if I was to allow you three or four statements I would hazard a guess that the name Jesus would feature prominently, and that there would be references to his incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection. Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians focuses on the resurrection, but not just the resurrection of Jesus – it makes clear that belief in the resurrection of Christ is the basis for the assurance that followers of Jesus will likewise be raised from the dead and be partakers in that resurrection life that Christ inaugurates.

‘Dead people do not rise from the dead.’ It is a statement I have heard many times when discussing the Christian faith with people – and to be honest I understand exactly why people make that statement. We are not talking about resuscitations, those medical marvels where people who have been pronounced clinically dead are brought back to life a matter of minutes or sometimes even hours later. We all know those events happen and that they have been documented. What people reject is the belief that somebody who had been laid in tomb for the best part of three days, after being crucified, could come back to life again. In fact, like my questioning interlocutors, I do not buy the so-called “swoon theories” – that is the idea that Jesus was not really dead and that rest in a cold tomb was a period of recovery. I would rather bank on the fact that the Romans actually knew how to kill somebody so that they were really dead. I also readily confess that I have not met anybody who has been genuinely dead for several days and then returned to life. So I can understand that scepticism around this most central of Christian claims – the belief in the resurrection from the dead. Yet despite the difficulty due to the fact that resurrection appears to transcend our natural expectations, the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the belief of the future resurrection of believers remains a central claim of the Christian faith.

In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, after having laid out a list of post-resurrection appearances to Peter, then to the twelve, then James and all the apostles, and lastly to Paul himself, Paul turns to a theological problem that appears to be plaguing the Corinthian community – some in the community appear to be saying there is no resurrection, at least not for believers in the future. Paul asks the rhetorical question, how is it that if Christ is proclaimed as having been raised from the dead that some believers in Corinth state ‘there is no resurrection of the dead?’ For Paul, such logic is incomprehensible. He goes so far as to say if the Corinthians have no hope in a future resurrection for believers, then the implication is that they are really denying the resurrection of Jesus. I am not sure what led some early believers in Corinth to that position. Last summer, for the first time I visited the site of ancient Corinth. Apart from the warmth and the wonderful views over the glistening Corinthian Gulf, the thing I remember was how small the city-site was. This small band of early believers lived cheek-by-jowl with their neighbours who held to majority pagan religious practices. I suspect with their new found faith the Corinthian Christians must have seemed weird. Not only had they given up traditional beliefs in a pantheon of gods in exchange for exclusive faith in one God, yet even stranger was the fact that the new faith centred on a person who had been crucified at the hands of the Romans. Nonetheless, this crucified Messiah was claimed to have come back to life again. At the beginning of his later, Paul goes so far as to state ‘we preach Christ crucified … to Gentiles foolishness.’ It is easy to imagine the ridicule and mockery the Corinthians experienced for this belief in a crucified messiah. So maybe it was more comfortable for some of those Corinthian believers to say they followed the teachings and ethics of the man from Nazareth, and simply or not acknowledge or to reject that central faith claim: that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and that believers also would become partakers in this resurrection life.

In response to this type of thinking Paul drives the logic of his argument home. He states again, ‘if the dead are not raised then Christ has not been raised’. Some might have said what is the problem with that, but Paul anticipates such thinking. He responds that ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins.’ Be under no misapprehension, according to Paul, it is the resurrection of Christ that is the guarantee of the genuineness of faith. So let me put the uncomfortable logic of Paul before each of us today, do we believe in the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of believers, or (as Paul would put it) is our faith worthless? Paul’s logic offers a stark and binary set of alternatives. He presses his argument hope with the following statement, ‘if we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.’ In essence, Paul is stating that without the resurrection of Jesus, the Christian faith is a pitiful delusions. I wonder if you agree with that assessment?

I was at a memorial service in this cathedral some little time ago. The person being remembered was without doubt a faithful and believing Christian, but the service struck me as being strange at many levels. Above all, the thing that disquieted me the most was the complete and utter lack of any reference to future Christian hope. I spoke to one of my dear colleagues afterwards, who had not only noticed the same thing but shared with me that our very perceptive organist had said that it felt like a secular crematorium service. Ten out of ten to the organist for his wonderful theological sense. The problem was there was no reference to Christian hope in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, and the hope of a future resurrection for believers. When it comes my turn to shuffle of this mortal coil – in my case burial not cremation please(!), I want somebody to read the words of Jesus that he is the resurrection and the life, and then to declare in the words of the prayer book that the mortal body is being buried ‘in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ I cannot scientifically prove to you that resurrection from the dead is possible, I will never quell the doubts of the sceptics, but I simply trust that the same God who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, will – through the sacrificial love of Christ – have forgiven my sins (which are many), and that God will raise both you and I to a new and transformed life to be one with Christ for ever.

At this point my thinking strayed, and I began to wonder if the claims of Paul were actually normative for Christianity. First, I considered the words of the creed which we recite each week. It is a short statement, but together we declare that ‘we look for the resurrection of the dead.’ Then I wondered what other churches believe today. Turning to the Roman Catholic catechism, paragraph 655 for the swots among you, states ‘Christ’s resurrection and the risen Christ himself is the principle and source of our future resurrection.’ The Greek Orthodox church states of God that ‘You deigned that your only begotten son should become man, to be crucified, to die as man, to be resurrected and to become the first born from the dead, and to make possible our resurrection.’ Admittedly, these are quite historic churches, so I wondered if more recent churches might deviate. So from the statement of faith from a Southern Baptist seminary: ‘Jesus bodily resurrection is also the guarantee of a future resurrection life for all believers.’ Then from our more Pentecostally-minded fellow believers in Destiny church in Edinburgh we have ‘we believe that only because of Jesus’ death and resurrection people can be forgiven and have eternal life.’ It seems to me that if your three or four statements about the centre of the Christian faith does not include reference to the resurrection of Christ – it is time for you to consider a redraft.

The problem with all this talk of future resurrection, is that if it is not accompanied by reflection on contemporary Christian discipleship, then (to cite the cliché), it can be too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good. If today’s epistle presented us with a core item of the Christian faith, then our gospel reading gives us an equally core aspect of the teachings of Jesus. Our reading from Luke gives us the sermon on the plain, with Luke’s shorter, more earthly-minded set of beatitudes. For Luke, unlike Matthew, writes blessed are the poor – not the poor in spirit, and blessed are those who hunger and thirst – not for righteousness as in Matthew, but those who actually hunger and thirst. The poor, the hungry, and them that mourn – these are the people to whom the Lukan Jesus assigns a special blessing and privilege in the kingdom. For as much as Christians share certain beliefs, those beliefs are not an end in themselves. Belief in the resurrected Jesus, must leads us to transforming the world in the here and now for the destitute, the down-trodden, and the despised. In effect, we are called to make that resurrection life, that time when every tear will be wiped away, a reality – at least in part – in the present world in which we live. Writing to the Corinthians in his second letter, Paul still affirms the transformative power of the risen Christ, he states ‘that if anyone is in Christ that person is a new creature, the old things have passed away, new things have come.’ However, this is not all for the future, as if we could sit back and do nothing now. Paul continues by saying that God has reconciled us in Christ ‘and so gave us the ministry of reconciliation.’

Christ’s resurrection is indeed the promise of our future resurrection, but it is also the pattern for our transformation in this life. We are to continue the work of Jesus, by binding the broken, healing the hurt, loving the loveless, and reconciling the rejected. That is resurrection life in the here and now. So with the broken, with the reject, with the hunger, we gather here today. We ask Christ to forgive us, to begin to transform us in this life, and to raise us to new life with him in the world to come. With the hungry we gather at this place of feeding, a wooden table reminding us of a wooden cross. Ye this is also a place of hope and healing, in fact a place of resurrection. So, come today as those who share in Christ’s risen life, as those prepared to share in his ministry of reconciliation. And together with all those whom Christ loves – the poor, the hungry, and them that mourn – we will offer our praise to the risen Lord, the one raised from the dead by the power of God, for to him belongs all wisdom, might, honour, dominion and glory, both now in our broken world and in that glorious resurrection life that is to come. Amen.

John Conway – Epiphany 5 – 10/02/19

Epiphany 5

(Isaiah 6.1-13; 1Corinthians 15.1-11; Luke 5.1-11)

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

‘As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.’

That sparse and direct account is the version of Peter’s call from Mark’s Gospel. In Luke’s account that we just heard, there is a certain expansion, elaboration on the story. Indulge me, as I take that expansion as the template for something similar – if a little more extended – an invitation to enter for yourself this most redolent of stories. To revisit, in its light, your own call and invitation, your encounter with Christ.

And Simon Peter said:

We had been at work all night – a long fruitless night with no catch to show for the hours of back-breaking toil in the darkness – no catch to sell, no money to take home. A long, fruitless dark night. But now, as the sun rose, and the warmth of the day took hold, we were cast up on the seashore, in the solitude of tending our nets – the endless repetitive work of making everything secure and right – washing them free from the debris of the night – wondering as I did so if it was all worth it, this endless cycle with often nothing to show for it. But after all, I thought, it’s all I know, all I’ve been brought up to do – fish, fish like my father, and his father. It runs in the family this fishing and somehow we get by.

And then suddenly all this quiet thinking, this tidying up and setting right was interrupted – crowds appeared – people running for the best view, pressing in some chap who was in the thick of it – surrounded by people, shouting to him, and at him, oblivious to others, they were. And he, well he wasn’t panicked by all the attention – he moved amongst them with quiet grace and determination. Saw our boats, in fact, and made a beeline for us. Oh, what’s going on here I thought – not what I need at the end of a long night’s fishing – to be overtaken by the latest ‘sensation’, the latest know-it-all from Jerusalem, or rabble-rouser from the sticks. The kind who whips up a crowd, starts a riot and then disappears. Not what I need, not right now. And there he is making straight for our boats – as if they were his, as if the whole world were his. And without a by your leave he’s stepping into my boat, and asking me to push off. Well with the crowd pressing in, it seemed a fairly sensible move – but I wasn’t best pleased – to find myself bobbing along the seashore, trapped in my own boat, having to hear the man’s sermon, when I wanted my bed!

But there I was, and the strange thing was I found my resentment giving way to attention – for he spoke like no-one else I had heard. His words made sense – at least, they made you think, and think that somehow he must know you. What he said didn’t build him up – make you think what he clever chap he is – they made you think about yourself – made you think that you mattered, mattered in ways that you hadn’t thought possible. Well that was a bit of a shock – sat there in my boat.

And then he finished, with no great flourish, but somehow the crowd had had enough and quietly dispersed, broke up to share food and talk I suppose, but he turned to me and my companions, and asked us to put out into the deeper water. Well if he’d asked an hour earlier he’d have got an earful about our night’s fruitless fishing, but now – well I did tell him we were a bit tired – but he was the kind of man it’s hard to refuse, and actually I don’t usually need a second invitation to head out onto the lake. To put out into the deep is what keeps me a fisherman – that journey out away from the hubbub of the shore, out into the deep waters. Those deep waters have a mystery, an allure, all their own – the sense of floating on all that water and who knows quite what else. The occasional glimmer of fish, and the possibility of so much more. The deep waters – and so we did put out, once more – in response to that strange summons. And let out our nets, once more. Did this man even know anything about fishing?

That wasn’t a question we contemplated for long. For suddenly the nets bulged – we were in the midst of a shoal of fish the like of which you never did see. It threatened to capsize us, the nets heaved so – we had to shout for the other boat to join us – it was all hands needed, and even then, there was such a flurry of activity, of shouting orders, and heaving, and making sure we didn’t tip over, and exclaiming at the fish, the fish – everywhere. Too much, too much.

And in the midst of all this – this excitement and bewilderment and frenzy – he, he just laughed and delighted in it all. But me, I was suddenly struck dumb, and it hit me – this was no ordinary Tuesday morning in February. My world was threatening to turn upside down – and he, he was the cause of it. All things flowed from him – I was in the presence of something incredible, something both fascinating and fearful; of the holy, I suppose. Holiness – not something I thought about much – except when those smug types – the Holy Joes – appeared to tell us how to live – making us feel inadequate so that they could feel good about themselves – but this was very different. This was like nothing I had met, and yet he was just like you and me. He seemed to know and see stuff, and yet he talked with such simplicity and directness. And now, well I was overwhelmed, there in that boat surrounded by fish, and him laughing and me gaping, and thinking ‘this can’t be real, this is like something out of the pages of the bible – like I’m Isaiah in the temple overwhelmed by God – it was all too much, too much. And so I fell to my knees – I could no longer look him in the eye. And I begged him to leave; to not disturb my settled world. For this, this holiness, asked too much of me. It was like I was plunged into those deep waters I was used to navigating. Suddenly up to my neck in the mystery of it all, with who knows what fish swimming about me. I felt afraid and unprepared and not up to it – not worthy, not worthy to be in this man’s presence and company. I, I was a fisherman, what had I to do with this man, with his talk of God, and his healings and the press of the crowds. “Go away”, I cried, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” You are you and I am me and we are not the same. I cannot, I cannot do this.

And from him – no words of condemnation – he understood, and somehow knew all that my heart dared not say. “Do not be afraid,” he said, lifting me from my knees, and staring into my eyes. Not to judge and find wanting, but to fill me with strange courage and faith and hope. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” You areyou, he seemed to say, a fisherman born and bred – and that is enough. Enough to fish in the mysterious deep waters that I will show you – the deep waters of the lives of others. Not to judge them and find wanting but to fill them with courage and faith and hope.

And so when we reached the shore I left everything and followed him. For I had been found. And that was enough – more than enough. I left everything and gained – the world. For this was just the beginning.

Andy Philip – Candlemas – 3/2/2019

I’m sure I’m not alone in coming away from this morning’s Old Testament reading with the setting from Handel’s Messiah ringing in my ears. Those of you who know the aria will doubtless be glad that I am not going to attempt to sing it, but the way Handel sets the text certainly captures the imagination. The opening passage — ‘But who may abide the day of his coming and who can stand when he appeareth’ — smoulders darkly and elegantly. But, at the words ‘for he is like a refiner’s fire’, the music bursts into flame and vividly brings to life the prophet’s blazing simile.

Malachi’s description of God’s presence as like a refiner’s fire conveys great intensity. It takes tremendous heat to refine gold and silver. Silver melts at around 900°C while gold must be heated to 1064°C for it to liquify. So the refiner’s fire is around five times as hot as the oven for your Sunday dinner. I hope you’ll excuse me mentioning such temperatures on a cold and frosty morning in our chilly cathedral, but it helps us to grasp what Malachi was trying to put across. It leaves us in no doubt that, for him at least, the presence of God was a tremendously powerful, all-consuming experience.

It might be difficult at first to see what this has to do with the presentation of Jesus in the temple. If we are looking for connections between today’s Gospel passage and our Old Testament reading, we more readily see them in Malachi’s assertion that ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’ (Malachi 3:1). It is natural for us Christians, who believe that God was made flesh in Jesus, to read this prophecy as being fulfilled in Luke’s narrative: here we are — the Lord is turning up in his temple in Jesus. But if that is how we read it, the prophecy is fulfilled in such a paradoxical fashion. For the Lord whom Malachi describes as a refiner’s fire comes not as an inferno but as an infant.

Anyone who has spent much time with babies will certainly attest to the fact that they have their own intensity, and sometimes it’s a wonderful intensity, but, unless we are talking about Jack Jack from The Incredibles, it certainly isn’t the same as a refiner’s fire. So, what is the connection?

On Monday, the cathedral’s Poetry Close-Up group met. We gathered to read and discuss TS Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’. It’s a dense and difficult but rewarding piece. At one point, Eliot speaks of how

The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre —
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Eliot is saying that we face the choice of being burnt up by the fire of judgement or consumed by the ‘pentecostal fire’ of Love. The fire of Love saves us from the fire of judgement.

We are not often comfortable talking about judgement. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like a good fit for the inclusive and welcoming community that we aim to be, grounded in God’s love. But we can’t engage honestly with Scripture and avoid judgement for very long. Maybe our understanding of it is still shaped at some level by mediaeval depictions of devils prodding unfortunate sinners into various eternal torments. So we find it hard to see how judgement can co-exist with God’s love, even if that love gives us a way to escape the fire.

While the last judgement is part of the picture that the Bible gives us, and the mediaeval torments aren’t, it is clear from Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph and from our Malachi passage that the biblical writers conceived of judgement as something broader and more immediate. Judgement is part of salvation, not just something that happens to the damned. It is part of being purified, which is ultimately to be made whole.

Simeon recognises in the baby Jesus one who ‘will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver’ (Malachi 3:3). He tells Jesus’ parents how their child is ‘destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed’ (Luke 2:34–35). A number of commentators read this to mean that some people will fall and others will rise. Other commentators think that the people who are in view here will all fall and then rise because of Jesus. The Gospel writer doesn’t make it clear. But it is evident from this passage that Jesus’ brings both judgement and redemption. The one does not come without the other.

Simeon and Anna both welcome this. They rejoice in the salvation that Jesus will bring to them and their people, a salvation that includes judgement.  We can all think of people we might like to face judgement — with the way the world is going at the moment, they are probably queuing up in our minds — but are we able to rejoice in judgement not for others but for ourselves? Silver and gold, once they have been refined, can be worked into something far more beautiful and useful than in their raw state.

  • Can we see in judgement the love of God that draws out of us what is detrimental and forms us into a new creation?
  • Can we see in judgement the love that makes us whole?

In many ways, this is what we do when we join in the confession. We know that we have fallen so we ask that we may rise.

We must not forget, however, that this refiner’s fire — this great conflagration of judgement and grace — comes to us not in roaring flame but in a helpless and vulnerable baby, unable even to prevent himself from being taken up in a stranger’s arms. This tiny flame, who will grow into ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32, KJV), is passed from hand to hand just as we must pass the light of the good news from person to person, which we do not only through preaching but through concrete, loving action. Jesus, the Light of the World, asks his church to become the light of the world.

‘Who may abide the day of his coming and who can stand when he appeareth?’ The answer is that, through his sacrifice on the Cross — the sign that will be opposed (Luke 2:34) — we all may abide. We all can be Simeons and go in the peace that we long for.

As Eliot says in the closing lines of ‘Little Gidding’:

all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Marion Chatterley – Epiphany III – 27/1/2019

Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10;    1 Cor 12: 12-31a;    Luke 4: 14-21

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, a day that has become a regular feature in the calendar and in the UK has broadened its remit to include not just the Holocaust of the second world war, but more recent incidents of genocide.  This year is the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and so we are asked to remember that shameful and devastating time in the life of a small African nation.  A time when within small villages, neighbours betrayed one another; a genocide that left no community untouched; a time whose impact is still being felt.  I’ve met some survivors of that genocide and they will live the rest of their lives as people who have been damaged by trauma.   One little example of that was a day when I introduced two women to one another, two women who had both lived through the genocide and are now in Scotland.  In my innocence I thought that each would be pleased to meet someone from her home country, but within moments I realized that there was something much bigger at play.  Each needed to identify very quickly which side the other belonged to, to identify friend or foe.  Luckily it was OK – but no thanks to me.

The strapline for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is Torn from Home.  Both of those women were effectively torn from home but they had brought their pain and history with them – and that history of home was far more significant than any shared story they may have had in this new place that they have come to call home.

One of the intellectual struggles we all have is to imagine how people find themselves in a position where they are committing despicable acts of violence against people whom they once called friends and neighbours.  And, of course, the journey from here to there is an incremental process.  That process has its roots in our sense of identity – the ways that we see ourselves and how we translate that sense of self onto other people.  We never really see ourselves as others see us- and we can be quick to forget that we don’t see other people as they see themselves.  You’ll know the Robert Owen quote ‘All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thee’s a bit queer’.

We make divisions and differences in all sorts of ways – many of which are completely trivial.  Think of the debates about whether jam or cream should be spread first on your scone or scone.   I do wonder whether

John Conway – Epiphany 2 (Week of Prayer for Christian Unity) – 20/01/19

It is wonderful to welcome members of Palmerston Place Church to St Mary’s in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is good to be together once again – a visible sign and foretaste of that unity for which we all long. Not just unity between and for ourselves, but that unity, that reaching out across difference, which our world desperately needs. Our readings today suggest something of what that being together, or more accurately, our following of Jesus together, might look like.

Quentin Blake, the famous author and illustrator of children’s books, wrote his first illustrated children’s book, more than fifty years ago. It’s a book called Patrick – some of you may know it.

It concerns a young man called Patrick, who, on something of a whim, spends his last pennies on a dusty old violin from a market trader. Having blown the dust off, he proceeds to play it as he walks along. You really need Quentin Blake’s exuberant illustrations at this point to bring the action to life, but unexpected things begin to happen behind Patrick as he walks along, in the wake of the music. A couple of scruffy, down at heel children, suddenly find their old shoe laces turning into resplendent blue and red bows. As they turn and follow Patrick through an orchard, the trees don’t just sprout apples and pears but cakes, hot dripping buttered toast, jelly and ice cream. My children always made me pause at that page to relish the moment, choosing what they would pick and eat. The birds in the trees sprout glorious plumage, and are joined in the sky by the fish leaping from the local pond. Patrick walks on with his violin, almost oblivious to the mayhem behind him, the glorious procession now joined by a herd of cows, their black and white hides suddenly sporting a profusion of colours and patterns. This glorious and strange procession, winding its way through the countryside, finally meets an old tinker and his wife. The procession stops, and the tinker’s wife pours out her woes – her husband is sick, pale and wan; they have no chance of reaching the town in time for nightfall, and she is worried. Patrick’s only response is to play his violin – the tinker perks up, colour returns to his cheeks, his skinny body plumps out; the procession begins again, wending it’s way to town, fireworks erupting from the pipe of the old tramp they also pick up on the way.

It’s a glorious tale, and worth recalling any time, but it came to mind particularly as I read today’s gospel, that familiar but strange tale of the wedding at Cana, the reluctant and almost unintended miracle of abundant wine. As Austin Farrer dryly observed, this a wedding where our Lord did not preach to the happy couple their Christian duty in marriage, rather ‘he saw to the supply of wine.’

Like all good jokes, that has a degree of perceptive truth about it. Unexpected, glorious, abundant things happen in Jesus’ wake. ‘Seeing to the supply of wine’ is, we are told, the first of Jesus’ ‘signs’, signs that will structure John’s Gospel. After the first chapter of his gospel concludes with the calling of the first disciples, John then presents this first public sign. John doesn’t want you to read too much into it – hence that strange exchange between Jesus and Mary about the hour being not yet here. That hour will come later, on the cross, the greatest sign of all – the crucifixion of the Son that reveals the limitless love of God in all its vulnerable glory. And yet, in this first sign the disciples see enough, this seeing to the supply of wine shows that they are in the company of someone who makes things happen; they are in the procession of someone around whom extravagant, exuberant, abundant things happen, they believe as Jesus ensures that the guests at a wedding can party on. ‘Seeing to the supply of wine’ is important and revealing.

On the face of it that importance is odd, however – Jesus appears reluctant; and this is a miracle of provision where the need is not exactly great. There might be some embarrassment for the steward as the wine runs out – but this relieving of a domestic crisis is small beer, if you’ll pardon the phrase, it hardly compares with restoring a blind man’s sight or raising a dead man in full view of his family, friends and neighbours – the signs that will come later in the gospel. Things begin in understated fashion, behind the scenes, with only servants as witnesses – those who can give no admissible testimony in a court of law at that time. It is only the disciples, we are told, who begin to see what being in Jesus’ company might mean.

In our OT reading we heard that wonderful intimate image of salvation being like the marriage of God and his bride Israel. John revels in the paradox that it is Jesus who, at this wedding feast, is the true, but unknown, bridegroom – God coming to restore salvation. And this bridegroom ensures that the necessary wine for a wedding feast does not run out – in fact, he doesn’t just replenish it but produces an overabundance of new wine – 120 gallons of the stuff. This is how Good News starts – not with Jesus drawing attention to himself, but by ensuring that the feast goes on; not with heavy pronouncements on the doctrine of marriage, but in a gratuitous, over the top supplying of new wine. Perhaps churches have something to learn from that.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul is urging his readers to notice the gifts, the abundance of gifts that are all around them, the Spirit of God at work in each person to build up the common good of all. So this is where Christian Good News starts, in having our eyes opened to God’s abundant providing – not worrying overmuch where it comes from, but delighting in the provision, in the abundant gifts present in ourselves and those around us, whose company we share.

So we gather in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as disciples, at the beginning of something, to find our stocks replenished, our joy rekindled, to feast with one another and in the company of Jesus. For we are wedding guests – invited along with all humanity – and the marriage feast is before us. This is where it starts and who knows what signs we might discover, what bursts of exuberant, abundant life might unexpectedly bloom as we learn to travel together in the company of Jesus. Amen.

Andrew Philip – Baptism of Christ – 13/01/2019

What words do you long to hear the most? What would be a good word for your soul to carry you through 2019?

There are probably as many answers to that question as people present this morning. But my guess is the words that most of us — perhaps all of us — long to hear have something to do with relationship.

When push comes to shove — as it too often does in this world where many are jostling for power and position — we all need to know that we are loved. This is more than a nice, touchy-feely sentiment: hard science confirms the importance of love for the healthy development of a baby’s brain. Child or adult, we all flourish when we are recognised, valued and loved just as we are, not for what we do, produce or consume.

Jesus, in today’s Gospel, hears that he is loved. And he hears it from the most powerful source: the voice of God the Father telling him, “You are my son, the Beloved”.

  • “You are my Beloved” this good word is for all of us and is one that we all need to hear.

It’s worth thinking about how the revelation of Jesus’ Sonship and Belovedness takes place in the context of baptism and prayer:

“when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying […] a voice came from heaven”

“When all the people were baptised”. Though this might seem like a throwaway line, it makes an important point.

First, this reminds us that, even though we might tend to think of baptism as the act of an individual, it is also very much a corporate event. If that was the case for the baptism John offered, how much more so is it the case for our baptism into Christ. More than simply a corporate event, it is an act of incorporation because it marks our becoming part of the Body of Christ — the Corpus Christi. This is why our baptismal liturgy includes words for the entire congregation, reminding us of the faith and mission of the church as a whole.

Secondly, baptism isn’t just an act of incorporation; it is also an act of identification. If we accept that Jesus was without sin, that leaves us with a big conundrum as to why he wanted to be baptised. He didn’t need to repent and he certainly wasn’t being baptised into his own Body. A standard answer is that he submitted to baptism out of solidarity with sinful humanity. I don’t know about you, but that argument leaves me thinking, “Yes, but surely there’s something more going on.”

One commentator I read (Carol Lakey Hess) says that, in submitting to baptism, Jesus shows that he understands the full implications of the incarnation — that is, he acknowledges that he is fully part of humanity’s broken set-up; he’s born into and from it.

We can all attest to that brokenness. The way that our systems, our social structures, steer and shape our options means that we are left with no unambiguous or sin-free choices. It limits our choice of what kind of work we can do, what clothes of food we can buy and even we can vote for. In other words, as Bruce Cockburn puts it in his song “Broken Wheel”, you “can’t be an innocent bystander in a world of pain and fire and steel”. In submitting to baptism, therefore, Jesus is saying, “I’m taking part in this mess. My choices are walled in by it too.”

If that’s the way we should understand Jesus’ baptism, then it means that the voice from heaven speaks the words, “You are Beloved” to someone who is as much a part of the messed-up system as we are — one who not only identified with broken humanity but identified as broken humanity. But one who also overthrew that system.

No matter how broken we are, no matter how sinful we are, we are Beloved of God. And this applies not solely to those of us who are in the club of the baptised but to the whole world. In baptism, we identify ourselves publicly as sinners in need of redemption, so we identify with the whole of humanity. We also identify with Christ in his death and resurrection and so enter the truth of our Belovedness. But we were Beloved before our baptism, even before we believed, even before we were born. As the First Letter of John says, and as we are reminded every Sunday, “We love because God loved us first.”

This should make all the difference in the world. It should put the words of our reading from Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you”, at the core of our being and it should drive our actions. But we often find it hard to lay hold of this truth.

I think it is significant that Luke mentions that it was “when Jesus … was praying” that the revelation came because this points to one of the main ways that we can grow into the truth of our Belovedness.

A few years ago, I was going through a particularly painful time and could not see the way forward. I could do nothing but sit with the pain, holding it before God. That was the only way I was able to pray. One day, after I don’t know how many weeks of this, it suddenly dawned on me that there was nothing I could do to make God love me more and, more to the point, nothing I could do to make God love me less. The pain didn’t vanish but I felt a profound release and saw a way through. I had suddenly emerged into the truth of my Belovedness.

I still wrestle with my broken humanity. I still mess up. But I can now recentre myself in my identity as Beloved.

  • This is the heart of prayer: not asking God to do things but entering deeply into the relationship that God calls us into, understanding who we are in the eyes of God.
  • Prayer is not about us changing God’s mind but us being changed into people with the mind of Christ.

When we know ourselves to be Beloved of God, we are freed to see others as Beloved too — not just those we find it easy to love, but those we struggle to like, even those who injure us. All these people also need to know that they are Beloved.

This is the task of the church: to live in our identity as Beloved so that others can find that identity too. The person who has survived years of cruelty and abuse — they need to know that they are Beloved. The young person wrestling with their body image or gender identity — they need to know that they are Beloved. The businessman whose life is ruled by the firm’s performance targets — they need to know that they are Beloved.

“You are my Beloved.” Let those words ring out in the depths of your being as we remember now what Christ has done for us and as we go from here to love and serve the Lord.

John Conway – Christmas Day – 25/12/2018

(Isaiah 52.7-10; Luke 2.1-20)

 

Is the dinner in the oven, the feast on its way? The table laid, even? Guests gathering, preparation over. A happy Christmas to you all. Or are you anxious over the details, worried perhaps about what the conversation around the table might turn to in this year of divisions and polarised opinions. Are you aware of who is not with you, grief cutting into our celebrations. It’s good to be together, but we know that many, too many, will be left out in the cold. Our burst of festivity, this year perhaps more than ever, feels like a bulwark against gathering storms, uncertainty and anxiety.

 

Christmas is a season of enormous contrasts; contrasts between the festival of Christmas, in all its joy and excess, its warmth and its madness, and the ongoing reality of a world of conflicts and division and difficult choices. How does our frenzy of activity and spending and preparation, the desire for a good Christmas, how does that frenzy and that desire touch the reality of the complicated and difficult world we live in; and what has all that to do with the story that lies at the heart of Christmas, of Mary and Joseph travelling long distances, and Mary giving birth in an outhouse, and angels proclaiming good news to shepherds? How are we to hold these things together – our desire for a good Christmas, our heartache that it is not always so, and the wee babe in a manger?

 

Lancelot Andrewes, in his Christmas Day sermon of 1620, described the birth of Jesus as ‘the Word that cannot speak.’ This is how God comes among us, the Word that is wordless, the Word that only cries, cries that call Mary and Joseph into parenthood, into a different kind of responsibility and self-forgetting love. God comes, says our Christmas Gospel, not in triumph, showering gifts but in the newborn cry and the suckle, demanding our attention. Richard Crashaw, the poet and contemporary of Lancelot Andrewes, writing in the first half of that rancorous century that will see the outbreak of Civil War in England, famously describes Christmas in similarly paradoxical terms:

Welcome, all wonders in one sight!

       Eternity shut in a span;

Summer in winter; day in night;

       Heaven in earth, and God in man.

Great little one, whose all-embracing birth

Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.

Paradox, the reconciling and overcoming of tensions and contrasts lies at the heart of our celebration of the Word made flesh; God among us, heaven in earth.

The circumstances are far from perfect, the preparation is incomplete, and yet God comes. Mary and Joseph, not yet married, have to negotiate the family politics of an unplanned pregnancy. We too have family tensions to balance, name or avoid. And in the midst of that comes the demand from the powers that be that Joseph register in his home town. The journey is long and arduous, with pregnant wife-to-be. We too know about external demands that disrupt and make life difficult. Many today embark on journeys long and arduous. And yet, God comes.

Like many on our streets and in our city, Mary and Joseph struggle to find shelter, find themselves excluded; Joseph is called back to his home town to discover it is no longer home. And yet, God comes.

And gathering around that manger, around that wordless Word, come not the high and mighty, or the especially holy. Shepherds, as they go about their daily life, suddenly and to their surprise find themselves caught up in a blaze of joy, a glimpse of that inner life of God that is glory. And so we come, leaving behind, at least for a moment, our daily anxieties, our preparations and our present swapping; we come to stop and gaze and wonder: for into our midst, whether we are ready or not, whether joyful or anxious, God comes. And God comes, as the angels announce, not to fill us with fear -‘fear not’ they declare – but with a blessing of peace, the blessing of peace of this wordless Word, reaching out from the heart of God into the heart of our predicaments.

The Word that does not speak lies in the manger – in the feeding place. He comes today, to lie in our midst, to feed us, as we gather around this table, this feeding place. For we come not just to rejoice in the baby, but because that Word of God that is Christ grew up and learned to speak in the accent and cadences of love. Taught us and emboldened us to fear not. And gave himself in bread and wine that those who follow might become his body and blood.

In Christ God enters the mess and muddle of our world to give of himself. Heaven and earth are joined; the irreconcilable reconciled; the divided brought into relationship. God comes in the midst of our festivities, our frantic preparations, our consumerist fantasies, and gives of himself. Today, to be here, is enough, as we welcome the wordless Word demanding our attention; born anew to feed us; creating space in our hearts for love, so that we might echo to the joy of angels. For wherever God is, there is praise.

Today we are invited, in humility and wonder into that praise which is the presence of God. Into our midst comes the gift that restores our true identity beyond fear – this is who we are: creatures made for praising and loving, for wonder and the joy of communion. For this is God, the truth of our living and our world – the hopeful possibility of reconciliation. Here is the strength of God, to uphold our weakness, and break into our same old, same old ways, restoring, renewing, reconciling. Gloria in excelsis. Amen.