Sermon, St Mary’s Broughty Ferry, 27th December 2015
1 Samuel 2, 18-20, 26; Luke 2, 41-52
“Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.” I know how Mary and Joseph must have felt, because I caused similar distress to my own parents when I was half the age of the twelve-year-old Jesus.
Until I was seven years of age, we lived in the village of Currie, west of Edinburgh. Every Sunday we attended Currie Kirk. The occasion I remember very well must have been during the summer holidays, because instead of going out to Sunday School during the latter part of the service, we children were taken on a supervised walk. Driven by a spirit of adventure, I suddenly decided to run away from our group and up a woodland footpath that I knew would take me on a circuit of about two miles and bring me back to the church by a different way.
Now remember that I was no more than seven years of age, so you can imagine how upset my parents were, because the service had been over for quite a while by the time I came trotting back, wondering what all the fuss was about. I suppose if I had run away in a busy city like Jerusalem at Passover time, my parents would have been even more upset, so it isn’t difficult to imagine the desperate anxiety of Mary and Joseph, especially when it was only on the third day that they found their son, sitting among the teachers in the temple.
“Why were you searching for me?” asked Jesus. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” When I went missing, I wondered what all the fuss was about, and here was Jesus, similarly wondering. I have no idea what kind of explanation I will have offered my parents, but the one offered by Jesus was completely over the heads of Mary and Joseph.
A puzzling thing about Mary and Joseph is the contrast between what they were told about Jesus before and immediately after his birth, and their inability sometimes to come to terms with the person he grew up to be. It’s often been noted that the gospels record not a single word uttered by Joseph, but we are left in no doubt regarding what he was told regarding the unique person and destiny of Jesus. “The child conceived in [Mary] is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1, 20-21) So writes St Matthew, and in St Luke’s Gospel we are told how amazed both Mary and Joseph were when they brought the infant Jesus into the temple, and the aged Simeon, in bestowing upon him his blessing, told them astonishing and disturbing things regarding the future that lay ahead of their son.
Mary and Joseph had been well warned even from before his birth that he would be no ordinary child, yet here they were, twelve years later, with no apparent understanding of Jesus. The only thing I can conclude is that for the first twelve years of his life, Jesus must have seemed no different from the well-behaved among his contemporaries. We’re told that after this escapade he returned with his parents to Nazareth “and was obedient to them.” It’s not hard to picture him as having been similarly obedient throughout his earlier years, but in a way that didn’t seem particularly special or unique.
It’s important to note that Jesus was twelve years old when he was found in the temple, for that was the age at which Jewish boys were regarded as ready to assume adult religious responsibility. Something very profound happened to Jesus during that particular Passover pilgrimage. He went home subtly different. St Luke tells us that he remained obedient to his parents as he “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.” What is it that must have happened on this occasion?
Let’s try to picture the childhood of Jesus. In particular, we should remember that he will have had a good religious upbringing. On Sabbath after Sabbath he will have been taken to the local synagogue, and will have heard, absorbed and memorized the Hebrew Scriptures. And though he may have kept his thoughts and feelings to himself, there will have been times when the scriptures aroused within his mind an ever-growing awareness that what he was hearing had a direct and unique bearing on his own person and destiny.
Many years later, visiting Jerusalem during his ministry, Jesus is portrayed by St John as saying this to his opponents: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5, 39-40) In the Hebrew Scriptures there are many subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, prophecies concerning the One who was to come as the Saviour of God’s people. Jesus had learned, from his earliest years, to search the scriptures, and in so doing it gradually began to dawn upon him that he was not merely the son of Mary and Joseph, but in a special and unique way the Son of the Father in heaven.
There grew in the boy Jesus the conviction that he was, indeed, the One who was to come. It was this conviction that, at the age of twelve, led him to slip away from his parents and join the circle of teachers gathered in the temple. Jesus began, as St Luke tells us, by listening to them. Then he found the confidence to ask them questions. The implication must be that the teachers began themselves to question this remarkable young lad who had joined their circle, for we’re told that “[a]ll who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
Eventually Mary and Joseph turned up, and we’re told that they were astonished. Perhaps they were even a little embarrassed, because they didn’t start preening themselves as parents sometimes do when they see their own children taking centre stage. I can picture Mary, her anxiety overtaken by relief, pushing her way into the circle of teachers, grabbing Jesus by the hand, and dragging him out of the temple. “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.” “Why were you searching for me?” replied Jesus. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus knew the special meaning that the words “my Father” had for him, but Mary and Joseph remained unable to grasp the connection between Jesus as he now was at the age of twelve, and the things they had been told about him at the time of his conception and birth. And although we are told that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart”, there were times even during Jesus’ later ministry when she still couldn’t understand what he was doing and saying.
There’s a more than superficial resemblance between the young Jesus and the young Samuel of whom we read in our First Lesson. From a very young age Samuel was set apart to the service of God, and Jesus will have felt inspired by his example. “Samuel”, we read, “continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the Lord and with the people.” But Samuel was merely a prophet. Jesus was far more than a prophet. Jesus’ growth into adulthood was accompanied by the awareness of his own unique personal relationship with God the Father. The people who came to know him during his earthly ministry found themselves drawn into that same relationship between the Father and the Son. Really to know Jesus was to experience and enjoy nothing less than the presence of the living God.
For Mary and Joseph, Jesus remained veiled in deep mystery, and the wonder of Christmas is that we find ourselves drawn into that mystery. There are two kinds of mystery, however. There’s the kind that makes no sense to us whatsoever. I would call that a mystery of darkness, and that’s not what Christmas is all about. But as we come to know Jesus, and to share together our awareness of his presence, not least in the Sacrament of the Altar, a totally different kind of mystery breaks into our lives. I would call this latter one a mystery of light. We all know what total darkness is. But total light? That’s something we cannot begin to comprehend, but total light is what we will find ourselves bathed in when we enter into the joys of eternity. Meanwhile, not least at Christmas, we catch just a glimpse of the glory that came with Jesus, Light of the World.
Sermon, St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
Sunday 13th December 2015
Zephanaiah 3, 14-20; Philippians 4, 4-7; Luke 3, 7-18
John the Baptist “proclaimed the good news to the people.” What was this “good news” that John proclaimed at the River Jordan two thousand years go?
Let’s travel, in our imaginations, two thousand years and two and a half thousand miles from the River Jordan. At the end of that long journey we find ourselves standing at the entrance to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. We make our way through the security controls and head for the public gallery. Just as we take our seats, the Transport Minister hurries into the chamber to make a statement. “I have an important announcement to make,” he begins, “and it’s good news that I bring to the people of Scotland. Next Monday a new and revised edition of the Highway Code will be on sale.”
A bemused silence descends upon the assembled MSPs. Puzzled looks are exchanged. Then they start muttering to one another, “What was all that about? Why is a revised edition of the Highway Code such good news?” But then they see the Transport Minister frantically shuffling the papers on his desk. “I’m terribly sorry,” he stammers. “That was the wrong announcement. Yes, the Highway Code is being reissued, but the good news I really meant to announce is this: The repairs to the Forth Road Bridge have been completed earlier than expected, and next Monday it will reopen to all traffic.”
Now wouldn’t that be good news! The difference between the wrong announcement and the right one is this: The Highway Code is packed full of good advice, but good advice is hardly the same thing as good news. The reopening of the Forth Road Bridge next Monday wouldn’t only be good news, but very, very good news.
John “proclaimed the good news to the people.” In today’s Gospel we have a record of the kind of teaching that John delivered “to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him”. Was all of this teaching good news? I hardly think so.
Is it good news to be warned of coming judgement? Good advice, yes, but hardly good news. Is it good news to be told that you must give away all but your basic necessities in life? Good advice, perhaps, if you feel called to live a life of total solidarity with the poor and dispossessed, but hardly good news where your own future circumstances are concerned. It might be good advice to be told that you shouldn’t extort money from people, and that you should be content with what you have already. But good advice of this kind isn’t the same thing as good news.
The Highway Code and the Bible have one important characteristic in common – each is packed full of good advice. But much of that advice is plain common sense. I don’t even possess a copy of the Highway Code, but I still know what I should be doing in order to drive safely and courteously. And it would be just as true to say that countless people who never open their Bible from one year to the next – even if they have a Bible, which many people don’t these days – still know how they should behave if they want to live basically decent lives.
In my early 20s I experienced a profound but temporary loss of faith. A major stimulus to that loss of faith was a second-hand book I found, entitled Chinese Philosophy in Classical Times. The more of it I read, the more confused I became. The ultimate challenge for me came with these words: “The treatment you would not have for yourself, do not hand out to other people.” In my youthful naiveté, I had always assumed that it was Jesus who first told us that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us – what is often called the Golden Rule. But here was Confucius, 500 years before the time of Jesus, saying exactly the same thing! And not only had I mistakenly believed Jesus to be the original giver of the Golden Rule, but I had regarded the Golden Rule as constituting the heart and centre of the Christian Faith. No wonder I was experiencing a profound loss of personal faith!
The teachings of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel contain good advice, but that good advice is hardly original. It’s all just plain common sense, and you’ll find the same good advice in the teachings of a great many of the world’s religions and moral codes. And if the most important thing to be said of Jesus is that he taught the Golden Rule, then what makes him so special if that same rule crops up elsewhere, and sometimes earlier than Jesus? You don’t only find the Golden Rule in the teachings of Confucius. It’s found also in the Jewish Old Testament, in the Hindu scriptures, and in Buddhist teaching.
In announcing a new edition of the Highway Code, the Transport Minister was offering good advice on how we should behave on the road. In his recorded teaching of the crowds, John the Baptist was offering good advice on how they should live their lives. And in grounding his moral teaching upon the Golden Rule, Jesus too was offering good advice. Both John and Jesus are recorded in the Gospels as having proclaimed good news. But that good news was something entirely different from the good advice that we find in their moral teachings.
What, therefore, is that good news of which St Luke writes in today’s Gospel? We find it in our first reading from the prophet Zephaniah: “The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst…” We find it in Isaiah’s Song of Deliverance, which serves as today’s Psalm: “[G]reat in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” We find it in our second reading from the letter of St Paul to the Philippians: “The Lord is near.” We find that same good news in the teaching of John the Baptist: “[O]ne who is more powerful than I is coming.”
It isn’t his good advice regarding how we should behave that makes Jesus so special, so unique, so utterly central to our Christian Faith. Jesus was from all eternity, was throughout his earthly life, was in his resurrection and ascension, and is to all eternity, the revelation and embodiment of God’s presence. The good news isn’t to do with the sort of people we should be; the good news is to do with the sort of being whom God is. And the most important thing to remember in this Season of Advent is that God is not a remote and detached something-or-other, somewhere-or-other, but the Eternal Presence in whom, as St Paul proclaimed to the assembled leaders of Athens, “we live and move and have our being..” (Acts 17, 28) Because of Jesus, we know that God is with us, now and forever.
If, however, the essential good news is that God is with us, why do we bother with the Season of Advent and its emphasis on waiting and hoping? Why not just leap forward into Christmas, as the secular and commercial world wants us all to do?
An important thing about the Season of Advent is that it reminds us that we must never take God’s presence for granted. The theme of repentance was central to the teaching of John the Baptist – and to that of Jesus. We’ve taken our leave, meanwhile, of St Mark, but remember Jesus’ first recorded words there: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1, 15)
God’s presence is freely given in Jesus, but what should that presence cost us by way of response? The response of repentance is asked of us by Jesus, and it’s a bit like setting out on a car journey using a satnav. Provided it’s working properly, every time we take a wrong turning it patiently recalibrates our journey and tells us how to get back to the route we should be following. To follow the good advice of a satnav when we’ve lost our way, is just the sort of thing that repentance is.
In the Season of Advent we listen to what God tells us regarding the people we ought to be. Any necessary repentance isn’t required of us so that we can hope God will be with us if we make ourselves good enough. God is already with us. That’s the good news that nothing can ever change. But because God is with us, we need the good advice that will enable us to examine the journey our lives are taking to see if they really are heading in the direction they should. If in this Season of Advent we follow that good advice, our Christmas joy will be all the greater.
Sermon, St Mary’s Broughty Ferry, 15th November 2015
Hebrews 10, 11-14, 19-25; Mark 13, 1-8
November is a month of endings. For me, this particular November sees one very personal ending. Next Sunday, God willing, my life as a layperson will end, and as a newly-ordained deacon I will enter into my appointed curacy here in St Mary’s.
This isn’t going to be a sermon about me, but, having already shared in your worship these past weeks, I do want you to know that I’ve deeply appreciated the warm welcome I’ve received from Francis, from Helen, and from all of you. I’m looking forward to my continuing ministry in your midst. I would, however, make one plea. As some of you know for yourselves, when you reach your three-score years and ten, as I did last summer, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember everyone’s name. So please be patient with me as I sort out who’s who!
We’re thinking of November as a month of endings. Next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, and marks the ending of yet another Christian Year. And as for today, you could say that our focus is on yet another ending – what’s popularly referred to as the ‘end of the world’, though it’s better to speak of Christ’s Second Coming.
The entire Christian Year is structured around Our Lord. In the Season of Advent we remember the promise of his first coming to our world. At Christmas we share with our Blessed Mother Mary the joy of his birth in our midst, and over the succeeding weeks we journey with him through his earthly life as recorded in the Gospels. In the Season of Lent we accompany Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem and the tumultuous events that culminated with his death for us upon the Cross. In the Season of Easter we rejoice in his Resurrection from the dead. Then, after celebrating his Ascension and his gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we spend several months exploring what it means to be the Christian Church in our world today. Finally, we look ahead to the promise of Our Lord’s Second Coming.
The ministry that Jesus began during his life here on earth, he continues in and through us. But where is the evidence of that continuing ministry of Jesus? Some people would have us believe that the life of our world will rumble on, sometimes from disaster to disaster, until we destroy it and ourselves by our human greed and wastefulness. Others point to the increasing sophistication and deadliness of terrorism and organised crime. Are last Friday’s unspeakably evil events in Paris a foretaste of much worse to come, indeed, of a world sliding helplessly towards anarchy and annihilation? Others, again, fear that some eventual cosmic catastrophe, beyond human control, will turn our earth into a frozen or frazzled waste in which no life of any kind has the remotest possibility of surviving. Are we really facing the catastrophic and inescapable ‘end of the world’? The Christian answer to this question is an emphatic and joyful ‘No!’, and that’s why it’s more positive, in this closing season of the Christian Year, to speak of Christ’s Second Coming.
Today’s Gospel, indeed, the whole of Mark chapter 13, presents the Church’s traditional belief in the Second Coming as having been firmly rooted in the teaching of Jesus himself. Unfortunately, however, what the scriptures teach here and elsewhere has become a happy hunting-ground for successive generations of cranks and fanatics, each convinced that to him or her has been entrusted from God the unique ability, not only to interpret what are called the ‘signs of the times’, but even to proclaim the precise date and location of Christ’s return to the earth. Typically, these ever-so-confident cranks and fanatics have proclaimed the return of Christ as due to take place within their own lifetime, and thus far events (or, rather, non-events) have shown all of them to be mistaken. Why should this surprise us, because Jesus himself is reported as having said that even he had no knowledge of the time of his return?
The teachings of the scriptures regarding the Second Coming of Christ are puzzling and disturbing, and this is why, for understandable reasons, most of us prefer to skate past them in search of teachings more cheerful and more directly relevant to the business of daily living. What I’d like to share with you today, is a way of approaching these puzzling and disturbing scriptures that does relate to our ordinary lives and the business of getting through each day.
I’ve enjoyed looking around our fine stained glass windows here at St Mary’s. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the nearer you approach to a stained glass window, the less sense you’re able to make of it. Viewed from close up, it dissolves into a confusing jumble of shapes and colours. The only way to let a stained glass window ‘speak’ to you is to step back from it until you reach the point where you can take it in as a whole. At that moment it springs into life and becomes for you an object of beauty and a stimulus to contemplation.
Apply this example of how to ‘read’ a stained glass window to the challenge of how to make sense of what the scriptures teach regarding Christ’s Second Coming. The more you try to make sense of each individual point of detail, and to fit all of these details into a narrative of future events, the more you miss the overall message. But what is that overall message? Today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel points us towards three vital matters:
Firstly, we must not put our trust in earthly or material things, including our fine church buildings. Even the magnificent temple in Jerusalem, as Jesus himself foretold here, was utterly destroyed some forty years after his earthly life. But nothing could, or ever can, destroy God, or deprive us of the future God intends for us. The Church of Jesus Christ is not a world-wide scattering of buildings; it’s a family of believers, gathered around Christ their King and dedicated to serving one another and the wider world in his name and strength. Knowing this should give us enormous confidence as we face the stresses and challenges of our daily lives as individuals and as God’s people.
Secondly, and as we noted earlier, there will always be cranks and fanatics who are liable to lead us astray by claiming special wisdom and knowledge to which they alone are privy. Similar to this kind of Christian fundamentalism, but far more deadly, is Islamic fundamentalism, with its determination to wage jihad, holy war, upon all the rest of the world. Jesus warns us to beware of such people. In today’s reading from Hebrews we’re told to have confidence in Jesus, the great priest who shepherds us into the heart of God. And always we must encourage one another through love and good deeds. This simplicity of Christian belief and living is what God has provided to carry us through the perplexing uncertainties of our daily lives.
Thirdly, when the news is bad, as it has been from Paris, when we hear of wars, natural disasters and famines, we must not conclude that our world is getting totally out of control, and that global catastrophe is just round the corner. Yes, we sometimes have good reason to fear for our own immediate future and the longer term future of our children. We do live in uncertain times, but the overall message regarding Jesus’ Second Coming is that the ultimate destiny of all things is secure in God. Every present moment of our lives is determined, not by what we have been in the past, but by the eternal destiny to which God is calling us. And central to that eternal destiny is Jesus Christ, our King and Priest. He is the One who comes to us from beyond all time, drawing us to himself. The meaning and value of our lives is found in our future, not in our past. Jesus died and rose again to set us free from the past. When we profess our confidence that he shall return in glory, we acknowledge that ours is a future united with him and with all his saints in the splendour of eternity.
The teachings of scripture regarding the Second Coming are like a stained glass window. Viewed from too close up, they dissolve into a profusion of bewildering detail. But take a few steps back, view these teachings as a whole, and there emerges an awesome and reassuring panorama of our future in the risen, ascended and glorified Christ, who will gather all things into himself and usher us and the whole of creation into the eternal presence of God. This is our hope, our calling, our destiny. In this we rejoice today!
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Sermon, St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee, 6th September, 2015
Isaiah 35.4-7a; James 2.1-10, 14-17; Mark 7.24-37
Most of us, I’m sure, will have had the embarrassing experience of unintentionally causing grave offence by saying something teasing or ironic with tongue in cheek, and to our dismay being taken with utter seriousness by the other person. It’s equally embarrassing, of course, if you yourself take offence because you fail to realise that someone is only joking. Either way, the result is that you find yourself falling head first into a great big hole you’ve dug for yourself. Good-natured banter can be great fun, but only when those concerned understand and accept that it is only banter. This is why, if you’re minded to tease someone by saying something impudent or outrageous, you need to get your body language right and adopt the tone of voice and facial expression that will make your well-meaning intentions clear.
Today’s gospel reading contains, in my view, an excellent example of good-natured banter. Jesus has retreated from the hurly-burly of his public ministry, and sought rest and refuge in a private house. A distraught mother intrudes on his privacy by bursting into the house, falling at his feet, and begging him to heal her daughter. And because this woman is a Gentile, an ‘unclean’ foreigner, a strict adherence to Jewish customs should oblige Jesus to refuse to have anything whatsoever to do with her.
As I try to fill out this scene in my imagination, I can see Jesus breaking all the religious taboos by taking the woman’s hand and enveloping her with a warm smile of welcome that puts her completely at ease. Meanwhile the other people in the house, among them some of his disciples, are shouting at him to send this ‘Gentile dog’ packing. With an angry gesture he silences them, and it becomes even clearer to the woman that here in Jesus is someone overflowing with unconditional love for her and her daughter.
It’s in this context that Jesus is able to say, with tongue in cheek, what might otherwise be considered grossly insulting: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus is echoing, but implicitly condemning, the exclusivism that regarded the blessings of God as being reserved for the Jewish people only. The woman realises, by his whole demeanour, that he’s teasing her, and that there’s no malice whatsoever in his banter. So she responds in the same vein: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus and the woman are of one mind and one heart, and absent healing flows to her home and her sick daughter.
To understand this incident as being one of good-natured banter is the only way in which I can make sense of it. I felt a deep disappointment as I looked these verses up in several of the commentaries that I have at home. Without exception they treated this incident in a completely po-faced manner, not even hinting at the possibility that Jesus might have had a sense of humour. I simply cannot recognise that Jesus as being the one I know and love. To think that he could have spoken to this woman with deadly severity is, in my view, to think the unthinkable. In all that he said, Jesus’ only intentions were to challenge the religious taboos of his time, to show the woman unconditional love, and to send absent healing to her daughter.
This is not an easy story to read in church. The over-dramatized rendering of the scriptures can sometimes make us cringe with embarrassment. But if the Gospel, in particular, is read in a bland and impersonal way, with no feeling whatsoever, its true meaning can be obscured. Even more unfortunate, in my view, is the practice in some High Church congregations of chanting the Gospel. Now chanting is beautiful and enriching as far as liturgical prayer is concerned. It’s one of the glories of our worship here in the Cathedral. But how could the gentle banter of today’s Gospel possibly shine through its being chanted? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Impossible! A balance needs to be struck between the over-dramatic and the impersonal, even the musically exquisite impersonal. And if, as is the case here, the humour of a situation isn’t fully explicit in the reading, it needs to be drawn out in the homily, as I’ve been doing.
Now today’s Gospel consists of two contrasting healing stories, and the contrast lies in the fact that the one we’ve been looking at so far is an absent healing, whereas the second is just about as hands-on as you could imagine. Indeed, it’s worth noting that this second and very earthy healing is one of the very few incidents recorded by Mark that neither Matthew nor Luke chose to incorporate in his own Gospel. The thought of Jesus having stuck his fingers in the deaf mute’s ears, spitting, and then touching his tongue, must have struck these two later evangelists as somewhat over-the-top!
Why, if Jesus could perform absent healing, did he choose on this occasion to be so hands-on? It wasn’t showmanship, because he took the man aside in private, away from the crowd. Here was someone who couldn’t speak, and couldn’t hear a word. But he could see and feel, so Jesus chose to draw him into the healing process by engaging his still-intact senses of sight and touch. Jesus must have sensed that the man needed some kind of physical procedure to convince him that he really was being healed. And healed he was, to the amazement of all. “[Jesus] has done everything well” exclaimed the crowds; “he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
It was because she already believed in Jesus that the Gentile woman looked to him to heal her daughter. The deaf and mute man needed the reassurance of physical signs so that he could believe in Jesus and so be healed. What have these stories to do with us today? Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus is portrayed as saying these words: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…” (John 14, 12) Healing, whether absent or hands-on, is not a phenomenon confined to the earthly ministry of Jesus. It’s an ever-present and God-given potential that can and does transform the lives of countless numbers of people today. This isn’t to say that it’s a mechanical process through which anyone and everyone can be restored to the fullness of physical health. But healing, at the deeper level, can be a reality even in the midst of sickness that doesn’t go away; even in the face of death. In a profoundly spiritual sense, the words we heard from the prophet Isaiah can become a reality today, in our lives and in the lives of those around us: “[T]he eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” Healing, whether absent in answer to prayer, or hands-on, can touch any of our lives in the most surprising ways, sometimes physical, but always spiritual. And it’s the spiritual dimension of healing that carries us through, even when, in the physical sense, as must happen to each of us eventually, we find ourselves beyond all earthly help.
What, finally, are we to make of today’s reading from the Letter of James? There’s nothing of banter in these challenging words. They mean exactly what they say. Whether we have in view the tragic individuals who confront us most Sundays the moment we step outside this building, or the vast numbers of helpless refugees fleeing conflict and persecution and seeking safety in Europe, there is no escaping the plain meaning of these words. “[Faith] by itself,” says James, “if it has no works, is dead.” Jesus could not refuse to help the foreign woman who sought healing for her daughter. As individuals, as a congregation, we are powerless to resolve the massive problems that confront us, both in our city and in the wider world. There are no simple solutions. But if there is anything useful we can do to heal the burdens borne by others, then only by doing whatever that healing might require of us, can we demonstrate that for us faith is not manifested in what we say, but in what we do, and in what we are, as individuals, as a congregation, and as citizens of this country of ours.
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DANCING WITH GOD
Sermon, St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee, Sunday 12th July 2015
Amos 7, 7-15; Psalm 85, 8-13; Ephesians 1, 3-14; Mark 6, 14-29
Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of having to dance with me knows that I was born with two left feet. For sheer clumsiness and lack of coordination I must have few equals. But it’s not for want of trying. As a boy I attended a Scottish Country Dance class in our village hall. I succeeded in learning the basic steps, but putting these to use and remembering what I was supposed to do next was often a bit of a nightmare. Any set in which I was placed was liable to become a demented game of ‘pass the parcel’, with me taking on the role of parcel as the other dancers nudged and shoved me around the floor.
Dancing at its best, however, is a beautiful, moving and expressive art form. I have an abiding love of classical ballet. It transports me to emotional realms far deeper than words can ever express. And I find myself an admiring but wistful spectator at any social gathering where the floor is taken by couples who really know how to do the traditional ballroom dances. Even Scottish Country Dancing, when performed well, has a wonderful grace and charm.
The Scottish dance I’ve always particularly admired is the Foursome Reel. Each dancer engages in turn with the other three, and all four together weave patterns of elegant beauty. For me this is folk dancing at its highest. I would even want to say that the Foursome Reel can serve very well as a reverent and appropriate metaphor of God. I find myself trying to picture God in the eternity before all things came into being. ‘Why don’t we dance,’ asks God? ‘And what lovelier and more joyful dance in which we can share than the Foursome Reel! But we can’t dance a Foursome on our own. We, as God, are only Three.’
In the Christian tradition we believe that there is an eternal and profoundly personal ‘threeness’ within the being of the one and only God. In traditional language, whose male overtones have grown increasingly problematic for many of us, we speak of God as the eternal relatedness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Finding satisfactory gender-free and liturgically elegant alternatives to ‘father’ and ‘son’, alternatives that perfectly express the personal nature of God’s being, is a problem that remains to be solved. The word ‘source’, for example, is too impersonal. We know of nothing higher than personhood, so if the fullness of personhood cannot be ascribed to God, then we human persons set ourselves up as higher than God.
Let’s return to our metaphor. How can the Three Persons who are God share their enjoyment of one another in that Foursome Reel, unless a fourth dancer is added to their number? Where is that fourth dancer to be found? Here we see why God created the universe, including us as human beings. We are the fourth dancer who completes the set. We have been created so that we can share in the exquisite beauty and exuberant joy of the dance who is God.
We are generated within the very being of God, and that is where we and all creation are appointed to remain for all eternity. To say this is not to embrace what is called pantheism – the view that God is everything and everything is God. If God is everything, then Hitler and the Nazis were God. If God is everything, then Isis, the so-called ‘Islamic State’, is God. If evil is integral to the being of God, then the thought of there being such a ‘god’ is horrific to contemplate. Pantheism is to many people an attractive belief, but so, so problematical the more you delve into its implications.
There is, however, an aternative concept that doesn’t fall into the same trap, and the word for that concept is ‘panentheism’. To spell out its meaning, ‘pan’ is the Greek word for ‘all’, and ‘en’ the Greek for ‘in’. So panentheism is the belief that all that is not God nevertheless exists within God. Outside of God there is nothing, absolutely nothing, but within God there is, as it were, a ‘space’ within which all that is not God is able to exist. We, together with the whole created universe, though not God, exist, and can only exist, within the being of God. In today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians we see this panentheistic understanding beginning to emerge in early Christian thinking. God, we’re told, has “gathered up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” As you trace the development of Christian doctrine down through the centuries, you find an ever-deepening acceptance of God existing in all things, and all things existing in God.
In our metaphor of the Foursome Reel, the three original dancers create a space within their relatedness, into which the fourth dancer can enter. God is not a remote entity, separated from us by an infinite gulf. For us, to be created in the image of God is to be created God’s fellow-dancers, and in Jesus, human as we are human, this fact is revealed. The personal reality of God is encountered by those who know Jesus, love him, and experience his saving power. In the truly and fully human Jesus we have living proof that we and God shall dance together for all eternity.
By gathering up all things in heaven and on earth, God has ruled out any artificial distinction between the natural and the supernatural. You can’t, as it were, seal up our universe of space and time in one container, and God in another. The standard mistake of atheism is to picture God as being some kind of remote and supra-celestial entity whose reality no amount of empirical scientific investigation could ever hope to demonstrate. But it isn’t only atheists who make this mistake. Too often we who believe also picture God as completely separate from the universe of space and time, and in so doing we make ourselves vulnerable to the challenge of atheism. ‘Where is this ‘god’ of yours?’ we are asked. In reply we must affirm that God is in us, just as we are in God. The material universe, which atheism so often insists is the only reality, is real only because it is gathered up into the being of God. Apart from God, nothing exists or could ever exist.
This panentheistic understanding can sometimes be seen emerging within the pages of Scripture, but more often we are viewed there as being completely separate from God. Take, for example, our reading in the prophet Amos. It likens God almost to a council building control officer, who holds a metaphorical plumb-line up against our best endeavours, and with a sharp intake of breath condemns us as failures. Perhaps we do need such a warning from time to time, but here is a vision of God too austere, too remote, to assure us that, despite all our faults and limitations, we have been gathered up into God’s eternal being.
But if all things have been gathered up into God, what are we to make of the world’s gross evils like Hitler and the Nazis? See how King Herod is portrayed in our Gospel reading. Here is a gruesome story of beheading that cannot but remind us of the vile atrocities perpetrated in our own time by Isis and its followers. Pantheism often deals with the problem of evil by affirming that evil doesn’t really exist. Try telling that to its victims! Panentheism, however, is far more subtle. In the suffering of Jesus on the cross we see that all the world’s pain has been taken into the very heart of God. God is with us, and we are with God. We and God are in this together, and often it hurts!
I began by describing how my bungling and disruptive attempts at Scottish Country Dancing often obliged my fellow-dancers to nudge and shove me around the floor. Our world can seem like a dance gone horribly wrong. In that dance we and God are inextricably bound up together. But God doesn’t call for the music to be stopped, so that the dance can start all over again. The dance goes on, and because three of the four dancers are God, somehow we muddle through. The problem of evil is the greatest challenge to our belief in a God of love. In Jesus, however, we are offered the sure hope that somehow God will either transform that evil, or bring it ultimately to nothing. But meanwhile its inflicted agony is as known to God as it is to us. So let’s keep on dancing our Foursome Reel with God in the assurance that we do not dance in vain.
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St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee, Candlemas, 1st February, 2015
In my former church in Glasgow there was a marvellous old lady, almost certainly well into her nineties, but just how old none of us knew. Her age was something she kept strictly to herself. Her mind, however, was sharper than that of many a person half her age, and the following incident was proof of that. One day she had the misfortune to fall and injure her wrist. She phoned up friends in the congregation, and they drove her to the Western Infirmary. At the reception desk she was asked for her age, and she told a white lie. Let’s say it was 83. Then she was asked for her date of birth, and she said something like the 23rd of March. “Yes”, said the receptionist, “and what year?” Quick as a flash she snapped back, “Can’t you work that out for yourself?”
Some ten years later I found myself in conversation with a retired GP, whose practice had been near my former parish. For some reason that I can’t remember now, I found myself telling him that story. He laughed and said, “I’ll tell you the sequel. I was her GP, and she had quite a few hospital visits during her latter days. On each of these visits she lied about her age and gave a different date of birth. After she died the hospital discovered that it had multiple records for her, one for every false date she had given.”
Now I know that logging people under their date of birth is the simplest way of ensuring that their records don’t get mixed up with anyone else’s, but there’s something in me nowadays that wants to rebel against this practice. Could it be the fact that I was born in the first half of the last century? To some younger adults this must make me seem terribly old, far older than I certainly feel. I’m just beginning to notice that sometimes, when I have to give my date of birth over the phone to total strangers, their manner suddenly changes and can even become almost patronizing. In an age when all kinds of people get terribly jumpy about all kinds of ‘isms’, I have to confess – out of obvious self-interest – that ageism is increasingly a pet hate of mine.
Today’s Feast of Candlemas is an excellent antidote to ageism, because it introduces us to an old man called Simeon and a very old woman called Anna. In Candlemas we celebrate the carrying into the Temple of Christ, the Light of the World. It could well be that the fullness of that Light was clearer to Simeon and Anna even than it was to Mary and Joseph. Think of his parents’ bewilderment, twelve years later, when Jesus went missing and was found in the Temple, sitting among the teachers. We’re told that “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2, 47), but we’re given no indication that those distinguished teachers had even a fraction of Simeon and Anna’s insight into the true nature and role of Jesus. Today we celebrate, not only Christ, the Light of the World, but the insight and wisdom that older people can sometimes bring to the life of the Church and the life of the world as a whole.
I suppose I’ve no alternative but to adjust to the fact that I’m now what is commonly regarded as being an older person. But I hope I’m being truthful when I say that insofar as I’ve experienced any growth in insight and wisdom over recent years, this has led me to be intensely critical, not so much of some people who happen to be younger than myself, but of the younger person I myself once was. Sometimes I find myself physically wincing at the sudden remembrance of things I wish I’d never done or said, of postures I wish I’d never adopted, or of causes to which I wish I’d never lent my support.
Many of you will have seen the coverage of Libby Lane’s ordination as the Church of England’s first woman bishop. At one excruciating moment, when objections were formally invited, a lone protester shouted “not in the Bible!” I’ve never been an opponent of women’s ordination, and even in my most Presbyterian days I had no objection to other Christian traditions having bishops. I’ve also never had the temerity to interrupt a service of worship. But many a time, where other issues of belief or behaviour were concerned, I used to find myself locked into a ‘not in the Bible!’ mindset. Belonging here in the Cathedral these past three years and more has been exactly what I needed, not just to shake me out of my old self, but to complete my growth into a more tolerant and open-minded form of Christian faith and expression.
I’m often irritated by the cliché ‘less is more’, but I can’t help admitting that it’s relevant to my own experience. The less I’ve held on to what had for me become unjustifiable beliefs and opinions, the more enriched I’ve become by those that have remained. If you’re troubled by beliefs and opinions you find increasingly indefensible, let them go! It’s only when you sweep the dead past out of your life that you can see with clarity the future that the Light of Christ is revealing before you.
Who would have thought it, two thousand years ago, that so much of the world’s future should be invested in a tiny Jewish boy, sharing, as today’s second reading expresses it, our “flesh and blood”? (Hebrews 2, 14) As Mary and Joseph carried him up to Jerusalem and its Temple, who would have given them or their baby son a second glance? “The Lord whom you seek,” we read today in the prophet Malachi, “will suddenly come to his temple.” (Malachi 3, 1) Did these enigmatic words of prophecy suddenly acquire a whole new significance for one old man and one even older woman? By whatever means Simeon and Anna were able to recognize in Jesus the Light of the World, the important thing for us to note today is that here are two old people possessed of an insight and wisdom that was denied to everyone else at that time.
As devout Jews, Simeon and Anna had been hoping against hope for a better future for God’s people. Simeon, today’s Gospel tells us, was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel…” (Luke 2, 25) Anna, we are also told, belonged to a circle of people “who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2, 38) What were Simeon, Anna and all their contemporaries hoping for? Their longing was for the restoration of God’s people to their former glory. And how was such a restoration to be accomplished? Only by the advent of a mighty warrior Messiah who would drive out the hated Romans and restore the land of Israel and its Temple to the pre-eminence they had enjoyed in the halcyon days of King David and his son Solomon.
In their old age Simeon and Anna had to abandon all these hopes of earthly glory, but in the course of attaining their ripe old age they had acquired the insight and wisdom that enabled them to step out of the mindset that prevailed among their contemporaries. Holding in his arms the infant Jesus, Simeon said to his mother, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2, 34-35) The light that shone out of that tiny face had exposed and expelled Simeon’s own inner thoughts. In their place was born the foreknowledge that here was no warrior Messiah, but one who would be despised and rejected by many of his own people. And for Mary, so delighted by the birth of her child, there was the ominous warning of terrible sorrows to come.
When Anna “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2, 38), I wonder how many of her listeners took her seriously? Could it be that some of them were muttering to themselves, ‘What is this silly old woman going on about?’ But she, too, had gazed into the infant face of Jesus, and by the light that shone out from it into her inmost being recognized that here was God’s future for his people – a future very different from the one that everyone had been long expecting.
Never write off us ‘oldies’. Ageism has no place in the Christian Church, and neither should it have any place in our society as a whole. If you think us sometimes a bit silly, then by all means say so. But perhaps, like Simeon and Anna, we may sometimes have insights and wisdom in the absence of which we would all be the poorer!
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