St Martin’s Dundee
Fourth Sunday of Advent, 18th December 2016
St Matthew 1, 18-25
Years ago I was on holiday at Crieff with my family, and decided to pay a visit to the little Roman Catholic Church tucked away in a quiet corner of the town. In the vestibule I found several books that were freely available for people to take away. I glanced through one of them, and found that it was a book of meditations based on some of the messages that were believed to have been received from the Virgin Mary by a small group of young people living in a remote village in Bosnia called Medjugorje. The messages began to be received in 1981, and continue to this day. Medjugorje has become well-known throughout the world, and been visited by millions of pilgrims over these past thirty-five years. I’ve been there myself, twice, and as one who has come to believe that the messages are genuine.
On its cover the book I found in Crieff was described as having been distributed free of charge. But not wishing simply to take it away with me, I slipped a pound coin into the collecting slot in the vestibule wall, and set off back to our holiday quarters to investigate.
I would never describe myself as having been strongly anti-Roman Catholic at any stage in my life, but I was familiar with the common Protestant complaint that some Roman Catholics spend so much time and effort going on about Mary that they tend to leave Jesus almost entirely out of the picture. So I was half-expecting that this book would focus unhealthily upon Mary. A real surprise was in store for me! Far from exalting Mary at the expense of Jesus, on page after page the book portrays Mary as someone whose whole mission in life was, and ever shall be, to point us away from herself towards her Son. This deeper understanding of Mary and her role in our salvation had been missing from my Christian background up to this point, so my discovery of this book helped me towards a richer and fuller awareness of God and of God’s purposes for us and for the whole of creation.
Now it can’t be denied that some Roman Catholics do go over the top where Mary is concerned, but in this they get no encouragement from the official teachings of their church. A properly-balanced understanding of Mary can only enhance and enrich our devotion to Jesus. It’s unfortunate that hard-line Protestants are often uncomfortable even with the very mention of Mary, for that discomfort finds no justification either in the Bible, or more specifically in the Christmas story. To neglect the person of Mary, and to neglect her unique and special role in the story of our salvation, is to detract from the core Christian message that is held in common by each and every branch of the Church.
During the Seasons of Advent and Christmas we turn to what the gospels teach us about Mary and her role in our salvation. Jesus the Messiah didn’t drop into our earth as an alien visitor from outer space. Born of a human mother, he came to share fully in our humanity, and if he hadn’t been born of a human mother, it wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever to describe him as having been one of us. St Luke, in his gospel, makes it clear that Mary was specially chosen by God for her role as mother of Jesus. But that role wasn’t imposed upon Mary by God; her consent was not only asked for, but required; indeed, she could have refused.
A common misunderstanding regards God’s will as being utterly irresistible. In other words, on this false view, if God wants something to happen, then happen it must. This misunderstanding of God leaves no room whatsoever for the genuine freedom that God has bestowed upon us as human beings. This isn’t to deny the fact that God has the power to do whatever God wants, but the freedom to make genuine choices, and thereby to shape our own destiny, is what God has wanted for us human beings from the very dawn of our existence as a race.
We see the terrible consequences of our human freedom portrayed in the profound fable of Adam and Eve – not a literal history, but a poetic reflection on the wonder of our creation and the mystery of why we are the fallible and rebellious people that we so often are. The key to the Adam and Eve story is the genuine freedom given to them either to obey or disobey God. The choice they made was to disobey God, and in so doing they illustrate the path of disobedience that the human race has been taking throughout history – with disastrous consequences.
The appalling civil war in Syria is the most extreme current example of what happens when people choose not to obey God and not to behave towards one another as God would like. But I would invite you to take up any of today’s Sunday papers, and go through it page by page. On every single page, you will almost certainly find something of which it can be said, ‘This is not what God wants.’ It may be something relatively trivial that has caught your eye, but trivial or desperately serious, it will constitute a contemporary example of what the Adam and Eve story is all about – doing things our way rather than God’s way.
Our freedom to choose good or evil is a gift, from God, of power that belongs to God, and God will not take away that gift. We can use our power from God to do terrible things to one another and to our world, or we can use it to do wonderful things. The Sunday papers thrive on bad news, and it would be very wrong of them not to reveal the world to us as the sorry place that it is. But a properly-balanced view of our world and its history reveals example after example of human beings exercising their God-given freedom to choose what is good.
All the good in our long human history and in the world today has not been imposed upon us by the irresistible will of God; it’s what enlightened human beings have made possible by their freely choosing to be and to do what God wants of them. The tragedy is, of course, that an appalling number of human beings use their God-given freedom, not just to defy God, but to subvert or destroy the freedom of those less powerful than themselves. But there is no human being on this earth who has no freedom whatsoever, and for whatever freedoms have been taken away from men and women – far more often from women than from men – their oppressors will be held accountable before God, if not in this life, then certainly in the life to come.
Alongside the freely-made choice of Mary, St Matthew’s and St Luke’s Gospels, and following them the creeds of the Church, present us with the miracle of the Virgin Birth. Now I believe in the Virgin Birth, but I accept the fact that some of my fellow-Christians find it difficult to believe, so let me try, if I can, to share with you the deeper meaning that lies behind the story – literal or otherwise. Just as the story of Adam and Eve portrays to us a beginning that went horribly wrong, so the story of Jesus’ conception, not through the agency of a human father, but through the agency of the Holy Spirit, presents us with a new beginning from God. That new beginning was made possible by Mary’s obedience, but came into being, and could only have come into being, by the power of God.
This new beginning in Jesus and through Mary’s free acceptance of her role as his mother is well-expressed in Cardinal Newman’s famous hymn that we sing from time to time:
O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.
O wisest love! That flesh and blood,
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.
The Season of Advent is a season of waiting. God has made a new beginning in Jesus, a new beginning made possible through Mary’s consent, and whenever, as urged upon us by Mary, we look to Jesus and follow him, we help to build the new world, the better world, that in its fullness will only be permanently established when Jesus returns in glory. Meanwhile, the sorrows of our world continue, but they do so against the background of the Advent assurance that in God’s own good time evil will finally be destroyed, and Jesus shall reign forever as Lord of All. This is the sure and certain hope that we celebrate during Advent and Christmas.
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St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
Third Sunday of Advent, 11th December 2016
Isaiah 35, 1-10; St Matthew 11, 2-11
In the early days of my ministry in one of my former congregations, various people dropped a quiet warning in my ear regarding a woman whom I’ll call Mrs McNab – not her real name. She was quite elderly, I was told, and because she now lived some distance away, she wasn’t a regular Sunday attender. But she had maintained her interest in our congregation, and sometimes dropped in to a women’s group that met on a weekday afternoon.
Mrs McNab, I gathered, hadn’t got on terribly well with my predecessor, and there was clearly some concern that the same might happen regarding myself. She was described to me as being blunt, outspoken, abrasive and quick to take offence. The general consensus of the warnings quietly dropped in my ear was that I would be well-advised to keep Mrs McNab at arm’s length.
Well, one afternoon I happened to drop in to the church hall half an hour before the meeting time of the women’s group I mentioned earlier. I was still at the stage of fitting names to faces, and the only other person present was an elderly woman whom I couldn’t remember having met before. One of the hazards of moving to a new congregation is that you meet so many people so quickly that you can’t remember everyone, so I started to make polite conversation in the hope that I would soon be able to sort out who she was. Quickly a realisation dawned upon me. “Are you Mrs McNab?” I asked. “How did you know?” she fired back in a booming voice. I could hardly tell her, could I? All I knew was that she fitted perfectly the quiet warnings that had been dropped in my ear.
I’m happy to tell you, however, that in contrast with my predecessor I got on perfectly well with Mrs McNab. She was, indeed, blunt, outspoken and abrasive, but healthily so. And as for her reputation for being quick to take offence, she was one of those people whose bark is worse than their bite. Deep-down she was kindly and well-meaning. The problem was, and is, that in church circles the cardinal rule is too often that everyone has to be terribly ‘nice’ to everyone else. The down-to-earthliness of people like Mrs McNab, who shoot from the hip and take no prisoners, can be deeply unsettling, but the truth that needs to be faced is that often these blunt individuals can inject some much-needed realism into an unhealthy atmosphere of contrived ‘niceness’.
Like Mrs McNab, John the Baptist was blunt, outspoken and abrasive, and as such he played a pivotal role in the emerging ministry of Jesus. But John’s outspokenness proved to be his downfall, because he opened his mouth once too often regarding King Herod, son of the earlier Herod who figures in the Christmas story. Herod had John cast into prison, and in the misery of his incarceration John found himself beginning to wonder if Jesus was, indeed, the promised Messiah.
As we heard in today’s gospel, John sent a message to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Now Jesus knew that John would be well aware of the Old Testament portrayals of the promised Messiah. We heard one of the most majestic of these – from the prophet Isaiah – in today’s first reading. Jesus didn’t answer John directly: ‘Yes, I am the Messiah.’ Rather, Jesus gave a live demonstration of his Messiahship, and then he said to John’s disciples: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” John, languishing in his prison cell, couldn’t hear or see all this for himself, but he could trust the word of his disciples. Just as my Mrs McNab fitted perfectly the description that had been whispered in my ear, so for John the description of Jesus, brought to him by his disciples, was all the evidence he required.
Jesus didn’t need openly to announce that he was the long-promised Messiah. All he had to do, and all he kept on doing throughout his ministry, was to be himself – to be, indeed, the Messiah. His powerful actions and his sublime teachings spoke for themselves. “Then,” wrote Isaiah, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” John, before long, would be cruelly executed at Herod’s order, but he died happy in the knowledge that in Jesus God’s Messiah had come into the world.
Through their words and actions people can reveal to us their identity. But is this always true of everyone? And, more importantly, is this always true of me and of you? Over this past year I’ve become accustomed, once again, to going out in public wearing a clerical collar. Often I’ve asked myself whether there’s any difference between my words and actions when I’m wearing my collar and when I’m not. There shouldn’t be, I well know. None of us is perfect, of course, whether clerical or lay, but we clergy go about our daily business in the uncomfortable knowledge that an awful lot of people expect us to be perfect, even if some of them at least have the honesty and humility to acknowledge that they’re far from perfect themselves.
But appearances can be deceptive. I remember, years ago, doing a hospital visit dressed in an ordinary shirt and tie. Standing in the corridor of a ward, and consulting my notebook, I glanced up and saw two male nurses looking at me and laughing. Then one of them called out, “We were trying to work out whether you’re a minister or a bookie!” I realised that they were pulling my leg, but is it always true of us that through our words and actions we reveal our identity? Honesty and humility should compel us to acknowledge that there can sometimes be a profound discrepancy between whom we are and whom we appear to be. This is why the opening section of our Eucharistic Liturgy, leading up to Confession and Absolution, is so important – and so health-giving, provided we take it seriously and truly mean what we say of ourselves to God and to one another.
Throughout his ministry, the eyes and ears of all were turned to Jesus, and unless their hearts were firmly closed to God and to their neighbour, more and more women and men felt drawn to conclude that he was, indeed, the Messiah. For many of them, however, this conviction was deeply shaken when they saw him despised, rejected, betrayed, condemned and crucified. What they needed still to learn was that Jesus hadn’t come to be the kind of Messiah that they had long been accustomed to expect. The terrible nature of his Messiahship had been revealed by Simeon to his mother Mary at the time of his presentation as an infant in the Temple: “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.” What had been understood by Mary from the beginning, others had subsequently to learn. With the benefit of hindsight, and especially in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, the earliest Christians, and Christians ever since, have been able to understand how the true identity of Jesus as Messiah was revealed with perfect consistency in all of his words and actions – and in all that happened to him.
As we approach the season of Christmas, the eyes and ears of many, whether they admit the fact or not, are turned to the Church and to its people. What do they see, and what do they hear? Do our fellow-citizens see and hear what we know they ought to experience of Christian people, or is there sometimes a disturbing discrepancy between whom we are and whom, unfortunately, we appear to be? How possible is it for people to look at us, look through us, and recognise the underlying reality of the Jesus whose birth in us is proclaimed through our baptism?
The identity of my Mrs McNab, bless her, shone through the unknown woman I encountered in my church hall. The identity of Jesus as Messiah shone through all that was heard and seen by the disciples of John the Baptist. Who is it that shines through me and through you? Let it be Jesus! He wants us to be seen to be his Body – his words, his actions – in this world into which he was born as Saviour and Lord.
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St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee
The Second Sunday of Advent, 4th December 2016
St Matthew 3, 1-12
About thirty years ago I paid a first visit to an elderly couple up the street from my Church of Scotland manse. As soon as I entered their living room, I was confronted with a massive Italian marble fireplace and surround that occupied the entire length of the room. This fireplace was obviously their pride and joy, for they launched almost immediately into a detailed account of the effort and cost – running to several thousand pounds – of its construction, emphasising the fact that it wasn’t made of any old marble, but Italian marble – of which we here in the Cathedral are admiringly familiar.
As I said, the fireplace was massive. I should add that the marble was exquisitely fashioned and polished, and in one sense I could only applaud the good taste of the couple in commissioning such a fine piece of work. But, unfortunately, the whole thing, occupying, as it did, the entire length of the room, was weirdly out of place in what was a relatively modest Victorian terraced house.
A year or two later the house was sold, and the first evidence of its having new owners was the appearance of a skip outside. No prizes for guessing what I’m about to say! Yes – the earliest contents of the skip were the smashed-up remains of the marble fireplace. In a limited sense, these remains constituted a monument to some good taste on the part of the new occupants, but good taste only in terms of what was appropriate in a room of that size and style. I doubt, however, if they had sufficient good taste to honour Italian marble for what it is. I also found myself questioning their financial good sense, for if the fireplace had been carefully dismantled, there would have been a market for the individual slabs of marble. The new occupants, alas, would probably have been saying to themselves, ‘Thank goodness we got rid of that load of useless old stones!’
In today’s gospel we’re invited to picture another load of old stones. The scene is the wilderness of Judaea, carpeted with rocks of every size and shape. John the Baptist is probably standing on top of one of them as he preaches to the many Pharisees and Sadducees who have come for baptism – preaching to them and, as the colloquial saying puts it, giving them laldy’: “‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.’”
The new occupants in my street could look into the skip and see nothing to them of any value. The Pharisees and Sadducees could look around them and see nothing of value in the desert stones, or more importantly in many of the common folk who flocked to John for baptism. In a similar way we can look around us and feel tempted to recognise little or nothing of any value, not just in the sometimes neglected buildings of our city centre, but in some of the bedraggled and seemingly aimless individuals who wander around our streets. How wrong we are! With care and attention old buildings can be transformed into urban showpieces, and with the right kind of help and support the most hapless of individuals can be restored to dignity and self-worth.
Transforming and restoring – if God is doing this work, the sky’s the limit. “God” said John the Baptist, “is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” There was in pre-Christian times no human dignity higher than that possessed by a child of Abraham, and no more justifiable sense of self-worth than the knowledge that one was a child of Abraham. In Old Testament times, and right up to the ministry of John the Baptist, to be counted a child of Abraham was thought of as being to enjoy a special privilege reserved to Abraham’s physical descendants alone. But with the advent of Jesus, and in consequence of his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension, the privilege associated with being a child of Abraham was extended to the whole human family. From then on to be a child of Abraham was transformed, in the truest and deepest sense, into being a child of God.
In the Season of Advent we, as children of God, prepare ourselves once again to celebrate the coming of the One more powerful than the Baptist. “He”, said John, “will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The preparation required at that time of those who would and could accept the Coming One proclaimed by John can be described in one word: repentance. “‘Repent,’ preached John, ‘for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
Repentance is a concept with an unfortunately forbidding pedigree, not least here in Scotland. It conjures up the image of ranting and self-righteous preachers, thundering out denunciations on their quivering flocks. But we need to see beyond this too-convenient caricature, for the call to repentance is asking of us something less confrontational and intimidating, but still of enormous importance. It asks us to think and to adjust.
One day recently I called in here at the Cathedral and found the organ tuner busily at work. The tuning of a pipe organ consists of two basic activities – thinking and adjusting. Of each note, or group of notes, the tuner thinks, ‘Does this sound right?’ If it doesn’t sound right, the tuner has to make whatever adjustments are necessary. Thinking and adjusting go hand-in-hand where organ tuning is concerned, and so it is with repentance in its true sense. To repent is to think about your life, and to make whatever adjustments you realise are necessary in a child of God.
Now this leads us back to our earlier thoughts this morning, for thinking and adjusting are the human counterpart of God’s activity in transforming and restoring. It’s when our human thinking and adjusting is matched by God’s transforming and restoring, that we attain the fullness of human dignity, and can justifiably rest in the knowledge of our own self-worth.
But what if our lives – or the lives of people whom we encounter day by day – seem like a pipe organ so ravaged by dampness and chomping mice that no amount of tuning can restore them to a playable condition? This can, alas, be said of many a pipe organ (not ours here, thank God!), but can it be said of any human being that he or she is totally beyond the power even of God to transform and restore? Of course not! “God” said John the Baptist, “is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” John is, of course, speaking metaphorically, but the truth behind his words is that God can work wonders with the most unpromising of human material.
A few years ago I had the awesome pleasure of visiting the world-famous quarries at Carrara in Tuscany, and seeing gargantuan, rough-hewn blocks of marble whose transformation into sculptures of exquisite beauty was hard to imagine. A skilled craftsperson can produce a stunning semblance of life from an inert block of marble, but it’s only a semblance of life. God’s desire for every single one of us here on earth is that in us should be produced, not the mere semblance of life in its fullness, but it’s reality. And the fullness of life, that God seeks to work in us, is life that binds us to the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. “He”, said John, “will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Through the Holy Spirit we are united with Christ, and through God’s refining fire we are transformed into what we can be, though so imperfectly, here on earth, with a view to what we shall be to perfection in eternity.
Just as the marble fireplace up the road from my manse looked out of place in its relatively modest surroundings, so there are times when we can feel out of place in a world that can seem desperately at odds with what God desires for our planet and its people. But our work of thinking and adjusting, and God’s work of transforming and restoring, are not intended to render us acceptable in a secular society that often cares little for the things and the values of eternity. We are being rendered fit for eternity.
Never despair of yourself; never despair of anyone with whom you share your life; never despair of the bedraggled and aimless stranger you encounter out there in the city streets. “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” For “children to Abraham” read ‘children of God’. That’s who we are now. Think and adjust in the light of this truth!
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St Martin’s, Dundee, Sunday 20th November 2016
Christ the King
Jeremiah 23, 1–6; St Luke 23, 33–43; Colossians 1, 11-20
A number of years ago, I found myself in conversation with someone who was very party-political in outlook:
“I’m sure,” I asked him, “that you believe in democracy?”
“Yes, of course,” he replied.
“And would you agree,” I then asked, “that any healthy democracy depends upon the existence of a credible opposition to hold authority to account, and to act as a safeguard against the abuse of power by the elected government?”
“I suppose I would have to agree to that,” he responded.
“You’ve acknowledged your belief in democracy,” I said. “Would you go so far as to say that democracy is such a good thing that even God approves of it?”
“I’m sure that’s right,” he agreed.
“Well then,” I continued, “if democracy is such a good thing that even God approves of it, and if healthy democracy depends upon the existence of credible opposition, then whenever an election takes place, the people who vote for the side that loses, are also voting the way God wants them to. In other words, by voting for what is going to be the opposition, they too are fulfilling God’s will.”
This man was very partisan in outlook, which is fair enough. Any political party depends upon the passionate support of a goodly number of its members. But he had been taking the matter further, and had implied that people who believe in God could only vote intelligently or sincerely for what happened to be his particular party. He had been shrewd enough to understand that my line of questioning was leading him into an awkward corner, and he was cautious enough at the end simply to treat me to a coy smile. Neither of us had any wish to become involved in a heated argument which would have got us nowhere, so I pursued the matter no further.
Democracy, as we know it, has taken a long time to develop, and we find ourselves far removed from the older principle of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ that now belongs to the distant past. I have a childhood memory of my father deploring some action that a previous government had taken. I asked him, “Why didn’t the King step in and prevent the government from doing that?” He explained, as we all know, that ours is a constitutional monarchy in which the Crown has no authority to step in and overrule the actions of the democratically elected government.
If our present Queen were ever to attempt to exercise any kind of divine right to overrule the government of the day, that would be the beginning of the end of our monarchy, but the strength of the Crown lies in the fact that we have been well-served by a succession of strictly constitutional monarchs who have done their best not to become embroiled in the cut and thrust of party politics. The principle of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’, where our country is concerned, has long since been consigned to where it belongs – the dustbin of history. But this is perhaps why today’s celebration of ‘Christ the King’ might to some people seem not only a little peculiar in our modern world, but even contrary to the fundamental principles of democracy and individual freedom.
Ours is a world in which great numbers of people consider it to be their natural right to strive against any kind of authority, not just the authority of self-evidently evil dictators (which is fair enough, and often a costly duty), but even against democratically-elected governments or heads of government. And the determination to challenge legitimate authority can extend to the active endeavour to subvert the will of the people as expressed in an election or referendum. Where the Kingship of Jesus is concerned, we are all liable at times to do what he asks of us only when it suits us, and to deny his authority when doing what he wants would prove too costly, not just in financial terms, but in terms of our preferred lifestyle.
Viscount Melbourne was the Prime Minister of Great Britain during most of the 1830s. He is remembered, among other things, for the following notorious statement: “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life.” He had just sat through a sermon very much not to his personal liking. I don’t know what the sermon will have been about, but if it was one that faithfully reflected the teachings of Jesus, then all we can say is that Viscount Melbourne must clearly have been unprepared to acknowledge the Kingship of Jesus in every area of his life. But let’s not be too hard on him. How many of us are prepared, on any and every occasion, to allow the religion that we profess to invade our private lives? It’s the easiest thing in the world for professing Christians to say that they accept Jesus Christ as their King; it’s a far harder thing to submit yourself to the authority of Jesus in every single area of your private and public life.
One situation in which it can be particularly difficult to do what Jesus the King is asking of you, is when obedience to his authority seems to require that you take a different path from those around you – at your work, in your circle of friends and acquaintances, even in your own family. It’s usually far easier to go along with the crowd, which is fine if the crowd is travelling in what you can honestly defend as being the right direction. But what if the crowd is travelling in what you suspect deep down to be a direction that can never be squared with Christian teaching? That’s when it can prove really costly to live under the authority of Jesus Christ as King.
A deeper dilemma can arise when you find yourself in fundamental disagreement with your fellow-Christians. I began today by mentioning my conversation with someone who seemed to think that people who believe in God could only vote intelligently or sincerely for his particular party. But it’s one of the strengths of our democracy that there are sincere and committed Christians in all but the most extreme fringes of our political spectrum. None of our mainstream political parties can legitimately claim to be the sole custodian and executor of Christ’s teaching. And when it comes to contentious issues such as Scottish independence or our place in Europe, there is, and can be, no single Christian position. Healthy governments and healthy oppositions, alike, are all the healthier through the presence of committed Christians within their ranks.
Where does all this leave Christ the King? Is his to be the role of a constitutional monarch, never directly challenging what we are resolved to do, but at most, like our Queen with her Prime Ministers, privately hinting that perhaps we might think a little more regarding our chosen path? Or do we, like Viscount Melbourne, want to take the matter even further and insist on Jesus being the kind of king who would never presume to interfere in our private lives? This is not the sort of king that Jesus wants to be.
Jesus knew his Old Testament, and will, therefore, have been familiar with the ancient prophecy concerning himself which we heard this morning: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” And see what St Paul has to say about Christ the King in today’s Epistle: “[I]n him all things in heaven and on earth were created…., whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him…. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.” Neither of these scriptures sounds to me like the description of a constitutional monarch!
In today’s Gospel we heard of the mocking inscription fixed to Jesus’ cross: “This is the King of the Jews.” It was mocking by intent, but true in reality. And more than this, Jesus is King of all the earth. To honour his authority in our society, in his church, and in our individual lives, is never easy, but to this our faith commits us. This is his Divine Right; ours is the responsibility, so far as we can, to live by his teaching. There will always be times when, as Christians, we differ regarding the way forward. But if we let ourselves be guided at all times by his rule of love for God and for our neighbour, we will never stray too far from the path along which he calls us.
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St Mary’s Broughty Ferry, 30th October 2016
The Season of All Saints
Do you ever find your mind wandering here in church? I’m sure this must happen to all of us from time to time. A potential source of distraction for some of us will surely be our rood screen, which serves also as our memorial to the two World Wars. I’ve sometimes glanced through these names and thought of the sacrifice of those who gave their lives to preserve the freedoms that too often we take for granted in our modern world. In some instances the people commemorated here share the same surname. Will these have been members of the same family, brothers perhaps? If so, then this serves all the more to highlight the tragic cost of war.
But how many of us today can glance through these names and say that we know anything at all about any of them? For most of us these are just names, and the same can be said of many of the persons recorded in the Memorial Book in our side chapel. Does this mean that none of these people matter any more? Of course it doesn’t! Every single one of these individuals, whether recorded on our War Memorial or in our Memorial Book, mattered deeply to those who loved them, and matter above all to God.
Today, in our observance of the Season of All Saints, we will hear the names of those whom we as individuals have asked to be remembered at this time. For each of us as individuals, many of these names will evoke no memories whatsoever as persons whom we ourselves have known and loved. But if we cannot share together our actual memories of these people, we can at least sustain one another in the sure and certain hope that death is not the end, and that in God’s own good time we will experience a blessed reunion with all the saints, great and humble, in the glories of heaven.
Having been brought up in a church environment that was still to some degree influenced by the mindset of the austere Calvinistic Protestantism of former times, I have no memories of the Season of All Saints having been given any kind of recognition. I doubt, however, if many of us still believed in any strictly literal way that the dead remain truly dead until the Last Trumpet at the end of time, and that only then will the righteous be raised physically to eternal life, and the unrighteous to eternal damnation. On the contrary, we believed that our departed loved ones were already secure with God in heaven. But we also believed that in some kind of mysterious way that was hard to describe in words, our loved ones were still with us, an unseen but ever-real presence.
And so it was that, accompanying my grandmother Jessie Dick, whose name you will hear today, I made many a childhood visit to Currie Kirkyard, where lie buried the mortal remains of her beloved and only son who died in his teenage years. It never occurred to us as a family that he was anything other than, in a very real, though unseen, sense, still a living and present person. Yes, he was now at home with God, but he was also with us still, bound up with us in cords of love that not even death can sever.
I always find it moving when people confide in me the fact that they like to speak regularly to their departed loved ones. In all but the most narrowly Protestant strands of our Anglican tradition, the constant awareness of our departed loved ones is not something regarding which we are better-advised to keep a discreet silence. And just as it’s perfectly right and proper that we should ask our friends still here on earth to remember us in their prayers, so, I firmly believe, we may legitimately treasure the prayers of our friends in heaven – in that heaven which is all around us. During their earthly lives we mattered to them, just as they mattered to us, and nothing has changed as a result of their departure. This is the confident faith that today we celebrate together in this Season of All Saints.
Today’s appointed readings are less explicit than some regarding the life of heaven and the relationship between heaven and earth. But we should take note of St Paul’s words in our reading from Ephesians, where he speaks of the hope to which God has called us, and of the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, after recalling by name many of the great heroes and heroines of the Faith, assures us that we are ever surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Again and again, as we read through both the Old and New Testaments, we are made conscious of women and men who, faithful to God in their own day and age, have their place among that great cloud of witnesses who constantly watch over us, sometimes rejoicing, sometimes, alas, in prayerful concern.
This links us appropriately with last week’s Bible Sunday. Many years ago I was conducting what we in our tradition would call a Confirmation Class. One of the attendees of the class was a young librarian. In all innocence she floored me with this question: ‘How often have you read the Bible?’ To her, as a librarian, a book was typically something that people read from beginning to end. With no little embarrassment, I found myself trying to explain to her that the Bible isn’t that kind of book. I don’t know how satisfied she was with my explanation, but I went home that night feeling more than a little guilty that I had never, in fact, read the entire Bible from beginning to end. I decided there and then to do something about this. Over the next two or three years I several times read the Bible right through, and over this past year I ‘ve been doing so once again.
If you’ve ever tried to read the Bible straight through, I’m sure that for you one of the most discouraging aspects of this enterprise will have been the seemingly interminable lists of names, names mentioned only once, and of which the Bible tells us nothing whatsoever beyond the fact that we are being asked to accept that these in their day were real people like you and me. As individuals, their identity is as obscure to us as are most of the names on our War Memorial and in our Book of Remembrance, but to God they were and are every bit as important as are you and I.
Another discouraging aspect of the Bible, and more particularly of the Old Testament – something, I must confess, that I’ve found myself recoiling from in horror – is the mayhem and slaughter that it sometimes so graphically describes. Again and again I’ve found myself inwardly protesting, ‘But this is exactly the same kind of genocidal behaviour that we see perpetrated in our own time by the so-called Islamic State!’ What we have to understand, however, is that with disconcerting frankness the Old Testament portrays Israel as one among many mutually hostile nations, all of which in those barbarous times were able to survive only at the cost of the kind of appalling bloodshed from which we recoil, and so rightly recoil, in the world of today. But the slaughter of two World Wars, and of innumerable other modern conflicts, should be to us a timely and humbling reminder that, human nature being what it is, the kind of barbarism that characterised both the history of Ancient Israel and our own British Isles, can, and still does, rear its ugly head. This is not, of course, in any way to defend the murderous manifestations of human nature at its worst. To God such evils are indefensibly odious, and to us they must be also.
Let’s not pretend that the Bible is anything other than a difficult book to read, especially to read in its entirety. There are a number of patterns and methods that people have found useful in systematically exploring the Bible, and we can direct you to some of these if this is a path you feel led to follow. Just remember this: the Bible is the frank and not always pleasant story of what our forebears in the Faith understood to be their ongoing relationship with God. But those forebears, at their best, are to us a shining example of what it means to be a woman or man of God. In this Season of All Saints we give thanks for all whose faithfulness in their own time, and according to their own lights, kept alive the flame of faith, so that we in our time can pass it on to those who follow us.
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Dundee St Martin’s, Sunday 9th October 2016
Jeremiah 29, 1-7; St Luke 17, 11-19
Imagine for a minute or two that you’re Jesus, and that you’re walking down the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. You’re just leaving a village, and an earnest-looking individual – it could be a man, but let’s say it’s a woman – approaches you, a clip-board tucked under her arm.
‘Excuse me, sir,’ she begins, ‘have you a few moments to spare?’ Well, being Jesus you know that you’ve always got time to spare. ‘Of course,’ you reply. Then she asks if you’ve been doing some kind of work in the village you’re just leaving. ‘Yes I was,’ you reply. ‘Would you mind telling me,’ she now enquires, ‘on a scale of 1 to 10, how effective your work was today?’ ‘Very effective,’ you tell her. ‘In fact, I’d rate the effectiveness of my work as 10 on your scale.’ ‘Excellent,’ she exclaims. ‘Can you now answer this question, again on a scale of 1 to 10: How would you rate the response of those for whom you were working?’ ‘Well,’ you reply, ‘it wasn’t very encouraging. On your scale of 1 to 10, I can only give it a 1.’
I have, of course, been offering you an imagined sequel to the story in today’s gospel. Ten lepers had approached Jesus in search of cleansing, and he had healed all of them. In terms of effectiveness, that day’s work was worth a score of 10 out of 10. Nine of the lepers immediately headed back into the village to search out the local priests and to obtain from them official recognition that their leprosy was, indeed, healed. Jesus watched them disappearing into the distance, and probably he never saw most of them again. One of the lepers, however, seeing that he had been healed, thought it far more important that he postpone his visit to the priests. For him the top priority was that he should return and respond to his healing by thanking Jesus for giving him his life back. As for the other nine, for all we know they may never have given Jesus another thought. In terms of the response he received, Jesus could only give that day’s work a score of 1 out of 10.
Now let’s be clear about this: Jesus didn’t go around healing people so that he could bask in pride and self-satisfaction as he saw how effective his healing powers were. He had no thoughts of building up a great reputation for himself and earning the admiration of all concerned. His sole intention was to embody in his own person the loving presence of God, and to answer whatever human need happened to cross his path. And because it was the saving power of God that shone in and through his humanity, of course Jesus hoped for a favourable response, but whether or not that favourable response was forthcoming, the work of healing had to go on. It was God’s work, and to God was due the praise.
It’s important for us to understand that the gift of healing wasn’t unique to Jesus. It may have found in him its most powerful expression ever, but as a gift of God it has been exercised by countless women and men down through the centuries, and it’s still a potent reality in the lives of many today. I have a friend who, from the earliest years of her adult life, has known that she possesses a remarkable healing gift. I’ve seen that gift at work on many occasions, and in many people’s lives, and I’ve experienced it for myself, not least in recent times when, as some of you know, I was in receipt of disturbing news regarding my own health. All I want to say at this point is that, for no obvious medical reason, I appear to be facing a far brighter future than I was being led to expect a few months ago.
My healer friend doesn’t exercise her gift out of pride or self-satisfaction, or in order to gain a great reputation and win people’s admiration. Her sole concern is to help others in their need, and to her a very important aspect of her work is that it often helps them to come to a deeper awareness of the reality and power of God. It’s only reasonable, however, that she finds encouragement and fulfilment in the knowledge that she has been used by God to help individuals in their need. Sometimes she has bumped into people a long time after having given them healing, and only then have they told her of the help it was to them. How much more reassuring it would have been if they had let her know at the time! It’s when she gets no response, no feedback, that she can easily begin to question the effectiveness of her gift.
Even Jesus, and for the best of reasons, liked to witness the effectiveness of his healing work. On the day he cured the ten lepers, only one of them came back to offer thanks. And the important thing to note is that he knew he was offering thanks, not simply to the human Jesus, but to God, whose presence and power were radiating to him in and through the human Jesus.
Apart from the fact that he returned to give thanks for his healing, this leper has a special place in the gospel story, for he was a Samaritan, a foreigner. The Jews often looked down on foreigners in general, and on the Samaritans in particular. In this they misunderstood the nature of their special status as God’s chosen people. As the prophets often reminded them, they had been chosen by God, not so that they could enjoy special and unique privileges at the expense of the rest of humanity, but so that through them the presence and power of God might become known to the whole of humanity. God’s desire was to bring blessings to all the earth, and the intended purpose of the Jewish people was, and still is today, that, secure in their own God-given land, they should be the means through which these blessings can be shared by the people of every race and nation.
But repeatedly, over these past three thousand years, the rest of humanity has turned with hatred against the Jewish people. Even in our supposedly more enlightened modern world, we see this hatred in the pernicious antisemitism that surfaces again and again, not least in our own country. Modern-day antisemitism finds particular focus in a visceral antagonism towards the restored state of Israel, whose very existence is continually under threat, just as it was in Old Testament times.
In today’s Old Testament reading we find the prophet Jeremiah writing in earlier desperate times, for King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had conquered the Promised Land, the land of Judah and its capital city of Jerusalem, and carried off into exile a great many of the Jewish people. Jeremiah, however, had already assured them that their exile in far-off Babylon would not be forever, and that one day they would be restored to their own land. Decades later they did return, as promised, but meanwhile, speaking as God’s prophet, Jeremiah tells them not to wallow in self-pity, but to build houses, to plant gardens and eat their produce, to marry and produce sons and daughters, to multiply and not decrease. And, most importantly of all, Jeremiah writes this: “[S]eek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Concern for the welfare of foreigners, including Samaritans, characterised Jesus’ own ministry. The one truly grateful healed leper was a Samaritan, a foreigner. It’s naively utopian to imagine a world in which there are no nation states, no distinctive ethnic groupings, indeed, no foreigners but only fellow-citizens of one vast all-embracing state. But this is no excuse for each individual nation state to seek to prosper at the expense of every other. This is no excuse for one ethnic grouping to regard itself as superior to all the rest of humanity. This is no excuse for the kind of xenophobia that despises all but one’s own nation or nationality.
The Jewish people were called to radiate the light of God’s presence into all the world. Jesus gave unique expression to that calling through his loving acceptance of all whom he encountered, regardless of their nationality, gender or religious background. We, today, as God’s Church throughout the earth, are called to bring light, to bring healing, to bring joy and peace to our dark, wounded and strife-torn world. We are called, in other words, to be Jesus, so that in and through us the love of God can embrace and renew the whole of humanity. Let’s ensure that we play our due part in this wonderful work.
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St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee, Sunday 2nd October 2016
St Luke 17, 5-10
There are occasions when preaching on a particular Sunday’s gospel reading can present a challenge because it seems to be saying something manifestly absurd. There are other occasions when the challenge consists in the fact that the gospel reading appears to be saying something manifestly unfair. Today in St Luke’s Gospel we’re presented with something that appears manifestly absurd, and something else that appears manifestly unfair. Two challenges for the price of one! And between these two challenges there doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection.
I think there is a connection between the two separate teachings of Jesus that are set alongside each other here, but that’s for later. Meanwhile, I want to look at each of these teachings in turn, starting with the second – the one that appears to be saying something manifestly unfair.
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” To our modern ears this teaching, attributed to Jesus, sounds not only manifestly unfair, but downright callous.
One of the challenging things we have to come to terms with in the teachings of Jesus and throughout the New Testament is the uncritical acceptance of the institution of slavery by the early Christian community. But it’s often wrong to take our current western values and adopt these as a standard with which to judge and condemn the past. This doesn’t apply only to the way in which we approach the very distant past, but even the early 20th century.
My grandmother, for example, was the eldest child of a large family, six of whom survived into adulthood. My great-grandfather was a mill worker, and although as a family they weren’t among the poorest of the poor, my grandmother had no alternative but to enter into domestic service at the age of thirteen. Though among the brightest of her contemporaries, there was no possibility of her continuing her schooling and perhaps even getting to university. But at least she married well and happily, and had the satisfaction of seeing her two grandsons availing themselves of the kind of educational opportunities that could never have come her way.
For a girl of thirteen to be employed in domestic service nowadays would not only be shocking, but downright illegal. And for many less fortunate than my grandmother, domestic service proved to be a form of slavery. But at its best it offered countless young women a reasonable start in life. Judged by the standards of that time, and not by those of our own time, domestic service often made a valuable contribution to the welfare and cohesion of society.
Now if we go back in time to the world of the New Testament, we find a society in which the institution of slavery was accepted as entirely normal. But as with the domestic service of past generations, when operated with humanity and compassion slavery was a more acceptable social system than some of its possible alternatives. Indeed, in St Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians (4, 1) we find this injunction: “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” And elsewhere in the New Testament we find the institution of slavery working in a manner that in terms of the standards of that distant age could be reasonably enlightened.
But what are we to make of today’s gospel reading? We might well ask what on earth Jesus was thinking of, in a seemingly uncritical fashion describing an owner who demands that after working all day out in the fields, his slave then busy himself immediately in the kitchen. Isn’t this exactly the kind of thoughtless behaviour of which nowadays some women justly complain? They spend a full day out at work and come home to spend their evenings with a husband or partner who won’t lift a finger to share in the responsibilities of running the home. And as if to add insult to injury, Jesus concludes with these words: “ ‘So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”
There are two things we can say about this difficult gospel passage. The first is that Jesus isn’t commending the behaviour of the slave owner as an example of good practice for ever after. He is merely reflecting on what was commonly accepted at that time. And we must never forget how Jesus himself was prepared to take on the role of domestic slave, as, for example, when to Peter’s horror he washed his disciples’ feet at their last meal together. As St Paul says in his Epistle to the Philippians (2, 7), Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” Whatever Jesus may have thought of the institution, he never thought of himself as being so high and mighty that the humble role of slave was totally beneath him.
But the more important thing about this difficult gospel passage is that Jesus isn’t concerned to promote a judgemental attitude that we should adopt towards other people who work for us, or who serve our needs. Jesus is inviting us to look self-critically at our own personal attitude towards the service we render at our work, in our domestic lives, and even in the life of the Church.
Do we like to bask in the imagined glory of how marvellous we ourselves are? Do we like constantly to remind everyone of how grateful they should be that they have folk like us slaving away on their behalf? The punchline that demolishes all our self-satisfaction and vanity is this: “[W]e have done only what we ought to have done!”
This is how we should understand the difficult expression, “worthless slaves”. By doing only what we ought to do, we add no extra worth, no additional value, to whatever service we render. We are only doing our duty, and in doing our duty we follow Jesus along the humble path of obedience. Today’s difficult gospel passage makes sense when we understand it, not as providing us with a way of belittling or condemning other people, but as encouraging in us the kind of humility that shines through the life and service of Jesus himself.
There’s nothing manifestly unfair about this teaching when we apply it to ourselves and our own motives. In the King James translation of the verse I quoted from Philippians, Jesus is described as having “made himself of no reputation”. Is it to gain a good reputation that we serve as we do, or simply in order to fulfil what we accept as being our duty? It troubles me to ask this question of myself. It can be very difficult sometimes to do the right things for the right reasons, but the example of Jesus himself requires of us that we at least try to be driven by the same motives that characterised his life of humble and uncomplaining service.
It’s here that we turn, briefly, to the opening words of today’s gospel, which I described as appearing to be manifestly absurd: “The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Here, as elsewhere, Jesus is resorting to absurdity to make a valid point in as memorable a way as he can. What does it take to live a life of humble and uncomplaining service? It takes faith! And faith requires of us that we aspire after what often seems not only counter-productive, but impossible. This is the connection between the two seemingly unrelated teachings in today’s gospel.
Often our modern world offers little encouragement to people whose lives are motivated by a spirit of selfless service, of humility, of duty willingly and joyfully undertaken. Instead, we are more frequently encouraged to insist upon our rights, our entitlements, and the praises that other people owe to us. This, we are told, is how to get the most out of life. The way of Jesus is entirely the opposite of this kind of self-assertiveness, and it’s because the way of Jesus doesn’t seem to make any sense in worldly terms that we can only go forward in the faith that this truly is the secret of discovering the life that really is worth living. Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” We are called, in faith, to follow his example.
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Sermon, Dundee St Martin’s, Sunday 25th September 2016
1 Timothy 6, 6-19; St Luke 16, 19-31
Money is the root of all evil, isn’t it? After all, that’s what it says in the Bible. No! That isn’t what the Bible says. In today’s Epistle we’re told something very different. There we read that the problem isn’t money as such, but the love of money. And more than this, we’re not told that the love of money is the root of all evil, but “a root of all kinds of evil”. I take this to mean that there are plenty of evils in the world that aren’t rooted in the love of money.
It’s obvious, of course, that the love of money lay behind the ruthless wheeling and dealing that caused the world-wide financial crisis from which we’re still struggling to recover. But I don’t see any direct connection between the love of money and the murderous fanaticism of the so-called Islamic State. Yes, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, but it isn’t the only one. When, however, people let the accumulation of wealth become the driving force that determines the entire shape and direction of their lives, evil is the inevitable outcome.
‘Money is the root of all evil’ is a misquotation that limits and distorts our understanding of what’s wrong with our world. There’s another biblical misquotation that’s relevant to our thoughts today, though it’s not so much a misquotation than an incomplete quotation that can result in the words of Jesus being used in an uncaring way that he never intended.
Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written, and the authors of Matthew and Luke based their own gospels on the text of Mark, adapting it as they saw fit. So in chapter 14 of Mark, Jesus is recorded as saying this: “[Y]ou always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish….” The author of Matthew’s Gospel, however, makes incomplete use of these words of Jesus in a way that sometimes lends false encouragement to people who prefer to adopt an insensitive and uncaring attitude towards the poor. “You always have the poor with you,” says Matthew, but the following words about showing them kindness whenever we wish are omitted.
When “you always have the poor with you” is quoted in isolation from its original context in Mark, it can be, and sometimes is, distorted into something callous that Jesus never intended: ‘There’s no point in trying to help the poor’ – I’ve sometimes heard this said – ‘because they’ll always be with us.’ This, presumably, was the attitude of the rich man in the parable of Jesus that constitutes today’s Gospel: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table…” An economic and social chasm separated the rich man and the poor man, and during this life that gulf might have been bridged, but after their respective deaths their roles were reversed and the chasm was found to be totally unbridgeable. What they had been could have changed during this life; what they were in eternity couldn’t. “Between you and us,” said Abraham to the rich man, “a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
“[Y]ou always have the poor with you,” said Jesus, “and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish…” The implication behind these words is that we not only can show kindness to the poor, but that we must. Make no mistake – this is a very challenging obligation that Jesus has placed upon us. And it’s a challenging obligation whether we’re confronted with isolated individuals like Lazarus, or with great masses of people. In either case it’s sometimes extremely difficult to know what can and ought to be done.
If, on your way into church this morning, instead of climbing our relatively few steps here at St Martin’s, you had had to negotiate the thirty-or-so steps that lead up to the entrance doors of our Cathedral, you would almost certainly have encountered at least one squatting beggar, and day after day, at every strategic point in our city centre, we’re liable to find our path partially blocked by tragic individuals like these. Those responsible for the provision of our social services assure us that there’s no need these days for anyone to beg in the street. Help, so we’re told, is available, and if a hard core of individuals refuse that help, there’s little that the authorities can do.
Now some of our street beggars have freely chosen that particular lifestyle, and manage to make a reasonable living off the accumulated loose change thrown their way by passers-by. Others, however, have a chronic addiction to alcohol or drugs, or have severe mental or personality disorders. Some street beggars, in other words, are a lot more deserving of help than others. Our problem as passers-by, however, is that we have no easy way of telling the difference.
It’s extremely difficult to know what can and ought to be done regarding the problem of our street beggars. But look carefully at today’s parable. The clear implication is that day by day Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate, and that the rich man knew perfectly well of his regular presence. What should any caring and compassionate householder do if confronted regularly by the same pathetic individual squatting outside his or her front door? Call out the police? Phone the social services? The more difficult, but the best and most compassionate, course of action might be to try to befriend the individual, to come to an understanding of his or her circumstances, and then to offer or to seek whatever help might possibly make a difference. This is precisely what our good folk at the Cathedral try to do with their beggars and squatters. It’s often a thankless task, but the important thing is that the Cathedral is trying to respond directly to what is an obvious need on its own doorstep.
Responding to the poor in our midst is a challenging obligation, whether we’re confronted with isolated individuals like Lazarus or with great masses of people. The most obvious example of the latter is the appalling situation that has developed in recent times across the English Channel at Calais. In a squalid encampment called the ‘Jungle’ thousands upon thousands of individuals have congregated with one aim, and one aim only – to gain entry, legally or illegally, to the United Kingdom. Many of these individuals are genuine refugees seeking sanctuary from persecution or possible death in their countries of origin; many, however, are economic migrants in search of a better life.
Confronted with the Calais Jungle, the huge problem facing the British and French authorities is how to tell the difference between genuine refugees and economic migrants. ‘Send them all back where they came from!’ insist the more callous and xenophobic voices, usually of the far right. ‘Let them all in!’ cry the naïve do-gooders, who fail to understand that this would impossibly multiply the numbers seeking entry to the United Kingdom. ‘Let them all in!’ demand also the sinister far-left revolutionaries who would welcome the chaos that uncontrolled immigration would inflict upon our existing order. Somehow our Government has to strike a balance between the number of immigrants our society can reasonably absorb, and the far greater numbers that would flock to our shores the easier we made it for them to do so.
Accepting large numbers of refugees is a costly business, and so is looking after our helpless home-grown dependents. If we, the citizens of this country, allow ourselves to be driven by the love of money, then inevitably we will want to slam our doors, literally or metaphorically, in the face of any who turn to us for the kind of help that only money – only our hard-earned money – could provide.
It’s seldom easy to show those who really need it the sort of kindness that will make their lives better. The poor are with us always, and we will never be able to help all of them. But to use the fact that we can’t help them all as an excuse not even to try to show practical kindness to any of them, is to commit the same evil as the rich man in the parable. Money isn’t the root of all evil. Money, rightly used, can cure many an evil. But if we love our money so much that we grudge giving any of it away, that self-centredness on our part will only make our world a more evil place than it is already.
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Sermon, St Mary’s, Broughty Ferry, 11th September 2016
St Luke 15, 1-10
A few months ago I was driving with friends along a minor road in the depths of rural Perthshire. We crossed a high moorland, where the road was completely unfenced, and on the way I had constantly to watch out for the sheep that were liable at any moment to amble across our path.
Eventually we began a steep descent to the valley beneath. Half way down we crossed a cattle grid, and from then on the road was fenced in on both sides. After a while we encountered a stray ewe that must have squeezed through a hole in the fence. Her lamb was still on the far side of the fence, and the two of them were clearly distressed at having been separated from one another.
There was nothing I could do except head for the farm buildings at the foot of the hill, and see if I could track down whoever was responsible for the flock of sheep. Eventually I found a scruffy man who wasn’t the least bit grateful to me for politely advising him that one of his ewes had strayed onto the road. ‘If this,’ I asked myself, ‘is how he treats a fellow human being, I wonder how he treats the sheep under his care?’ His sullen attitude oozed with couldn’t-care-less-ness, and I drove away feeling very angry, very sad.
I’ve brought along this morning a wooden carving that I grew up with in our family home. It’s a representation of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, rescuing a sheep that has become trapped in a thorn bush. The details of this carving are really moving. The sheep, with wounds on each side of its head, is looking up at Jesus in weary expectation of release, and its now-free right foreleg is stretched out, almost in gratitude, to touch him. The expression on Jesus’ face is one of immense care and tenderness. But I’ll tell you a remarkable thing. I’ve been familiar with this carving from my earliest years, yet it was only the other day that I noticed, sticking out of Jesus’ right shoulder, a thorn from the bush in which the sheep has been trapped. He’s had to delve right into the bush, so it’s at considerable pain to himself that the Good Shepherd has come to the rescue of his lost sheep. What a contrast to the boorish and uncaring shepherd that I encountered in the hills of Perthshire!
Today’s Gospel from St Luke begins with the Parable of the Lost Sheep. “Which one of you,” asks Jesus, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.” I wonder if the unknown carver who created my Good Shepherd had taken note of the fact that the shepherd in the parable had laid the exhausted sheep across his shoulders. Will it have been for this reason that the thorn has been placed right where the weight of the sheep’s body would multiply the Good Shepherd’s pain on the long trek back home?
Whenever we read or hear the Parable of the Lost Sheep, our attention is liable to be focused predominantly on the care that the shepherd exercised towards his sheep. But we should go a little further than this, and ask ourselves what was the cost to the shepherd of that care. The most we can infer from the actual wording of the parable is that the shepherd must have been filled with anxiety, not just over the possible fate of the single lost sheep, but of the ninety-nine he had left behind in the unfenced wilderness. Our carver has applied a little imagination to the parable, and added to the shepherd’s mental pain the physical pain inflicted upon him by the thorn bush. And the mental and physical pain of the shepherd matches perfectly the agony that the sheep had been enduring. The two are fellow-sufferers in a cruel world.
One of the most horrible sights I’ve witnessed in the mountains was in my later thirties on a first visit to Ben Cruachan. Suddenly I encountered a recently dead sheep. Its horns were trapped high up in a wire fence, and its rear legs were barely touching the ground. I realised that it must have died a lingering and horrible death. There had been no caring shepherd around for that poor beast. It was the nearest thing I have ever witnessed to a crucifixion, and the memory of it will haunt me to my dying day.
Perhaps there’s more to the Parable of the Lost Sheep than the caring quest of the shepherd. In the legitimate imagining of our carver, shepherd and sheep are united in the agony inflicted upon them by the thorn bush. The shepherd, of course, is intended by Jesus to represent himself, just as the sheep represents the despised souls – described by St Luke as “tax-collectors and sinners” – whom Jesus had made it his mission to befriend and, if possible, transform. But what of the thorn bush? The thorn bush represents the Pharisees and scribes who were so scathing towards Jesus because of his befriending of the tax-collectors and sinners. And behind the Pharisees and scribes stands the appalling reality of this cruel world and the inhumanity that so defaces the ultimately good handiwork of our Creator God.
So we have the suffering shepherd of the parable, and behind him the suffering Good Shepherd who, in the person of Jesus, immerses himself in the agonies of his fellow human beings. Jesus cared completely, and to the uttermost depths of his being, and that caring would not have been complete unless it had involved his total empathy with those to whom he extended his friendship and compassion.
So the caring shepherd of the parable points us to Jesus the Good Shepherd. But we need to take the further step of asking to whom Jesus points us. The answer, of course, is that he points us to God, and for the simple reason that Jesus is what I would call the expression for us of God’s being.
For several centuries the early Christians agonized over the language that could best describe the mystery of Jesus. Some of them were content simply to say that Jesus was like God. But that word ‘like’ has its limitations. We’re all familiar with the experience of meeting a total stranger and immediately realising how like that person is to someone we know already. But the total stranger and the person we know already are, and remain, two completely separate individuals. The consensus emerged among the early Christians that to describe Jesus only as being like God was a completely inadequate way of doing justice to the Jesus who had lived bodily among their first generation, and who lived on still, a real, though unseen, presence in their midst.
For the early Christians, and for us, to encounter Jesus was, is, and remains forever, to experience the presence of God, and to find oneself drawn into the very being of God. Jesus isn’t just like God; he isn’t simply more like God than anyone or anything else that has ever existed. By all that he does, by all that he says, and by all that he is, Jesus brings the reality of God to us, and draws us into the reality of God.
In the Good Shepherd we find the expression of God’s being. What are the two most important things we need to take from today’s Parable of the Lost Sheep? The first thing is the reality of God’s care, especially God’s care for the multitudes of people who, one way or another, have lost their way in life. But how does God exercise this care for the lost? God does it, not by waving a magic wand, but through the care that we show one another. We are drawn into the heart of God so that we, too, can become expressions of God. Jesus wants to continue his ministry of good shepherding in us and through us, and for this he depends upon our cooperation.
The other important thing we need to take from today’s parable is the insight of the carver who included the thorn in the shoulder of my Good Shepherd. In the sufferings of Jesus the pain of God finds expression. God is not a remote and impassive autocrat, securely ensconced in a heavenly palace, infinitely removed from the agonies and woes of our weary world. God is with us, and we are with God. All that we are, including our pain, has been gathered up into God through Jesus. God’s pain is ours; our pain is God’s. We and God are in this together, and this alone is what makes our life worth living.
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Sermon, St Mary’s Broughty Ferry, Sunday 7th August 2016
St Luke 12, 32-40
There’s a lot to do with my schooldays of which I’ve lost all memory, but the things that still stand out, after well over half a century, are as fresh now as they ever were. Some of these memories are to do with our headmaster. He was one of the most dominant figures in my childhood, an intensely authoritarian man who ruled over the school with a metaphorical rod of iron. One of his scariest characteristics was that you never knew when he might suddenly turn up, so you were always vigilant in case he might appear, seemingly out of nowhere, and find you up to no good. We pupils were mostly terrified of him, and that was his technique for keeping us under control.
I couldn’t help hearing echoes of my schooldays when I read through today’s gospel passage from St Luke. We have the picture of slaves “waiting for their master to return from [a] wedding banquet…… Blessed are those slaves,” we read, “whom the master finds alert when he comes…” Then the metaphor changes, and we read this: “[I]f the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Much of today’s gospel has to do with what is commonly referred to as the Second Coming or Our Lord’s return. “[Christ] will come again in glory,” as we affirm in the Creed, “to judge the living and the dead…” This is a belief that we find rooted, not just in our eucharistic liturgy, but throughout the New Testament. What are we today to make of this belief? Before we answer this question, I’d like to ask another: What has the Church down through the centuries made of this belief?
What did belief in our Lord’s return contribute to the lives of the earliest Christians? Above all else, it brought them a profound and joyful sense of hope. As long as Jesus had been physically present in their midst, they had felt insulated from the hostility of the world around them. And though they were devastated and fearful following his death, their joy and confidence were fully restored through his bodily resurrection. But then came his ascension to heaven, after which, though they knew Jesus had promised still to be present with them, his presence no longer had a physical dimension. Increasingly they experienced much the same hostility that had been heaped upon Jesus, and with good reason they felt weak and vulnerable.
There’s no way of avoiding the clear impression that, though they knew him already as an unseen presence in their midst, the first generation of Christians also believed that Jesus would return visibly during their lifetimes. The hope that this belief generated, powerfully sustained them as they spread out from Jerusalem into the wider Mediterranean world, teaching, preaching and winning thousands of converts to Christ. These converts were themselves energized by hope in Our Lord’s visible return. But this never happened, and in many places throughout the New Testament we find clear evidence that increasingly the earliest Christians found themselves agonizing over the seemingly inexplicable delay in Jesus’ visible return to the earth.
Still the first Christians were filled with hope, but as more and more of the first generation died off, that hope acquired an increasingly transcendental dimension. They didn’t stop believing that Christ would return to the earth eventually, but their hope became focused more and more on the promise of eternal life in heaven.
Today’s gospel reflects this growing shift of emphasis. The first few verses give us a revealing insight into the life of the first generation of Christians. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” There’s no point in telling people not to be afraid, unless they truly are – and afraid many of the earliest Christians certainly were. In worldly terms, they stood to lose an enormous amount – even their very lives – for the sake of Jesus. But no matter how much they might lose in worldly terms, there awaited them in heaven incalculable spiritual riches that nothing on earth could ever destroy. So, in the sure hope of eternal life with God in heaven, they could afford to turn their backs on their earthly possessions. “[W]here your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
It’s against this background of the heavenly hope that St Luke witnesses to the continuing earthly hope of Jesus’ return. Two thousand years later Christ still hasn’t returned in the visible and final way that the New Testament describes, and for many Christians nowadays a literal understanding of our credal affirmation that “[Christ] will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead…” is problematic, to say the least, though they are deserving of respect by those who are still able to take it literally. But the hope that lies behind this belief doesn’t depend on a literal understanding of Our Lord’s return. However they picture it, that hope lives on in the hearts of all Christians.
I’ll come back to this in closing, but meanwhile I’d like to reflect on a very different, and most regrettable, way in which a literal belief in the Second Coming has sometimes been made use of in the history of these past two thousand years.
Rather than being presented as a source of hope, belief in Our Lord’s sudden and unexpected return has sometimes been unlovingly employed as an evangelistic tool. Search the gospels, and you’ll never find Jesus frightening people into following him by painting lurid pictures of what will happen to them if they don’t. How did Jesus win the hearts of men and women? He did so by embracing them in unconditional love, by healing them in body, mind and spirit, and by inspiring them to start a new and better life in his company.
Many people’s entire lifetime is spent growing into the knowledge and understanding of Jesus, but there’s a desperately judgemental type of evangelistic endeavour that seeks to bludgeon men, women and young people into Christian commitment by insisting that Jesus could return to this earth at any moment, and that unless he finds them already to be displaying the fullness of Christian belief, they will be lost for all eternity. This picture of Jesus is grounded, not in hope, but in fear, and transforms him from the loving, healing and inspiring friend whom we meet in the gospels, into the kind of terrifying ogre that many of us remember the typical old-time headmaster to have been.
What are we today to make of belief in the Second Coming? Together with the earliest Christians and Christians ever since, we believe in Christ’s unseen presence in our midst. Where belief in the Second Coming is concerned, it’s not my intention to undermine the faith of people who still find healthy and positive hope in Our Lord’s physical and visible return. But we need always to have respect for those whose hope is not grounded in a literal understanding of the Second Coming.
We live in a deeply uncertain world in which millions of people’s lives are overshadowed by fear – fear of economic collapse, of famine and disease, of social anarchy, of rampant terrorism, of catastrophic climate change, of nuclear warfare. The common assumption that lies behind this catalogue of fears, is the false belief that the future of our planet is determined entirely by human activity of one kind or another. And, of course, the things we either do, or don’t do, good or bad, make an enormous difference to the world around us, but given our human propensity for messing things up through greed and selfishness, it’s hardly surprising that whenever the sense of God’s underlying reality is left out of people’s reckoning, all that remains to them is a sense of despair, mitigated only by a strident activism that makes people feel good about themselves, but that cannot begin to solve the deep-seated problems that threaten our future.
At the very least, understand the Church’s traditional belief in the return of Christ to be saying that the final destiny of our planet lies in God’s hands, not in our own, and that no amount of human evil or folly can frustrate God’s good purpose both for time and for all eternity. This is the hope that lies at the heart of our faith. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The ultimate future is God’s gift to us; it’s not what we try to build for ourselves by our own human effort. Hope in God, not fear for what might lie ahead, is what our Christian Faith is all about.
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Sermon, St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee, Sunday 31st July 2016
Colossians 3, 1-11
Last Tuesday the barbarity of our age was highlighted in a manner of particular gruesomeness, when two Islamist terrorists burst into a church in Normandy during daily Mass, and brutally murdered Father Jacques Hamel. The full horror and blasphemy of what has been going on in the territories under the control of the so-called Islamic State, has manifested itself in our Western world in a way that it could almost anywhere, and at any time, not least here in Dundee. All churches, and all church people, lay and clerical, are well-warned to give careful consideration to their corporate and personal security.
At times like this, the media normally turn to the Church and its leaders, if not for guidance, then for some kind of reaction to whatever latest horror has gripped our world. The problem for the Church and its spokespersons is that we live in the age of the soundbite, and not all of us are terribly good at soundbites – pithy, self-contained and attention-grabbing statements that make good headlines or quotes. Ask most of us clergy to preach a sermon or write an article, and we’ll happily oblige. Ask many of us (and I include myself here) to come up with a good soundbite, and we’re liable to stumble out something that even a concerned atheist might say.
Last Tuesday, and not for the first time, I found myself in deep admiration of Archbishop Justin Welby. The soundbite that constituted his immediate response to the brutal murder of Father Hamel was issued via Twitter – a medium I’ve never attempted to use, precisely because it seems to me far too often to replace rational discussion with the worst kind of sloganizing. But this is what Archbishop Justin tweeted last Tuesday: “Evil attacks the weakest, denies truth and love, is defeated through Jesus Christ. Pray for France, for victims, for their communities.” What was so special about this tweet? In the space of only twenty-one words, the Archbishop said what no atheist could ever say. Woven into the very fabric of his statement were the person of Jesus Christ and the centrality of prayer. Down through the centuries, the Church has often been tragically replete with clerical twits. What it needs in our time is far more outstandingly good tweeters who can witness powerfully to Christian truth in no more than a couple of carefully-crafted sentences.
What can we Christians hold on to and proclaim in a world as dark as the one in which we live at present? Supremely, we need to place our Lord Jesus Christ at the heart and centre of all that we say and do. Over these recent weeks our Sunday lectionary has been taking us through St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. Again and again in this letter, we find St Paul placing Christ at the centre of all things. In chapter one he describes Christ as “the image of the invisible God”. In today’s reading he tells us that “[our] life is hidden with Christ in God.” And so he can conclude with these often-quoted words: “[T]here is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” St Paul, too, was a master of the soundbite!
“Christ is all and in all!” This is the most important thing that we Christians have to hold on to ourselves and do our best to share with others. In a world torn apart by aggressive nationalism and murderous sectarianism, only in Jesus Christ can the sorrowing and suffering people of our world find a true sense of belonging together as one human family. But it’s only when we give Jesus Christ his proper place as “the image of the invisible God”, that he is seen, not just as the human founder of Christianity, not just as one among many charismatic prophets, but as the full and definitive expression of God’s presence in the midst of our human race and its history.
In this past half-century and more, there’s been an unfortunate tendency among some Christians, and some of the Church’s leadership, to play down the centrality and uniqueness of Jesus Christ. ‘Let’s not go on too much about Jesus,’ so the cry goes up, ‘in case we give offence to the increasing number of non-Christians in our midst.’ And so, not just when it’s soundbites that the world out there is looking for, we offer moralising platitudes that could just as easily have been said by a spokesperson for any of the world’s great faiths, or even by a compassionate and concerned atheist – of whom there are far more than we often realise.
I’ll return to the question of the identity and centrality of Jesus Christ, but meanwhile I want to reflect on how we lesser mortals understand our own identities, and also on the appalling ‘us and them’ mindset that finds murderous expression in the hideous inhumanity of religious and secular ideologies whose adherents treat those outside their own closed circles as mere vermin, if possible to be exterminated.
Imagine, for a few moments, that you find yourself seated in a room with a dozen or so other people. Imagine also that you happen to be dressed in red, whereas everyone else is wearing blue. How would you feel about this? Some of us might feel a little embarrassed, but the more individualistic or extravert among us might be perfectly content not to be the same as everyone else. But then a deranged gunman bursts into the room with murderous intent. How would you feel then about being the only person dressed in red? If the gunman were to shoot only one person, that person would almost certainly be you.
Some people feel secure only when they’re basically the same as everyone else around them. Others feel secure only by being different from everyone else. To put it another way, some people find a sense of personal identity through belonging to something bigger than themselves; others find a sense of personal identity through being nothing beyond their individual selves. In most cases, however, our sense of personal security and identity is a healthy mixture of belonging and yet being different. It’s only when we feel ourselves to be in threatening situations that we either completely submerge our identities in that of a wider group, or retreat into a state of isolation from those around us.
Is this the key to how and why certain individuals end up being sucked either into narrow political or religious cults, or into murderous movements like the Islamic State? They can find no sense of personal identity in belonging where they presently find themselves. This leads them to a situation where they feel lonely, isolated and vulnerable. But then they discover a closed circle that offers them a fresh and exciting sense of personal identity. That closed circle lets them be completely different from the wider world upon which they’ve turned their backs, but still offers the security of belonging to something bigger than themselves. This is where an ‘us and them’ mindset can so easily find murderous expression. As soon as people retreat into a closed circle that consists of what they regard as the sum total of all true ‘believers’, the rest of humanity can go to hell, and be speeded on their way by whatever foul means is available.
To our historical shame, the Christian Churches have sometimes set themselves up as the kind of closed circles I’ve been describing. But whenever they have done this in the name of Jesus Christ, they have monstrously betrayed the One whom they have claimed to be serving.
Jesus Christ was and is no mere prophet and religious founder, but the centre of all things. The eternal openness of the one and only true God has found human expression in the person of Jesus. This is what St Paul means when he describes Christ as “the image of the invisible God”. Our entire universe has been gathered into the very being of God, and it’s through God’s self-manifestation in Jesus that we can say that all humanity is “hidden with Christ in God.”
Whenever the Christian Church has set itself up as an exclusive and excluding cult, it has acted blasphemously against God and against the eternal openness of God that has found human expression in Jesus Christ. It’s in Christ that we and all people are called to find our true identity as individuals. But it’s also in Christ that we and all people are called to discover a true sense of belonging within something than which there is nothing greater, namely, the eternal being of God.
“Christ is all, and in all!” It’s our mission to proclaim this Christ to our weary world. To fail to do so is to abandon God’s world to the hopelessness and futility that we see all around us day after day.
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Sermon, St Mary’s Broughty Ferry, Sunday 17th July 2016
Amos 8, 1-12; Luke 10, 38-42
How do you respond upon hearing bad news? My grandmother had a catch-phrase that she always came out with whenever she heard bad news: ‘Mercy on us!’ If, for example, we were listening to the radio, and word came through of some terrible catastrophe, ‘Mercy on us!’ would be her instinctive response. Or it could be that she had suddenly learnt of someone’s serious illness or death; ‘Mercy on us!’ would again be her reaction.
The horrible news this past week from the French city of Nice will have evoked from people all over the world a similar cry for mercy. What depth of depravity can lead the driver of a hired lorry deliberately to propel his vehicle into seafront crowds, crushing to death scores of adults and children? The perpetrator of this latest in a terrifying series of atrocities presumably believed he was acting in the name of God. His and his fellow terrorists’ perverse religious ideology may pay lip service to the concept of God as merciful, but if God were the bloodthirsty tyrant whom the terrorists and their controlling masters clearly believe God to be, then ‘Mercy on us!’ would be an utterly pointless cry.
‘Mercy on us!’ is either a cry of faith, or it’s a waste of our breath. If God truly is merciful, then we’re entitled to hope that in every crisis, either world-wide, or in our individual lives, we can hope for signs of God’s mercy. But if God is not merciful, or if there is no God to be merciful, what other sure hope can there be? During this past week, unless we’ve been totally insensitive to the world as it is, all of us have had to face up to the challenge of bad news, and for some of us, this week has brought bad news of a deeply personal nature. So let it be said that unless our hope is grounded in the mercy of God, a mercy that’s real and present, despite all appearances, what else is there to hope in? But real and present mercy comes to us from God, through the mercy that we show to one another.
We live in desperate times, but a realistic assessment of our world and our society should lead us to the conclusion that little has changed down through the long centuries. Today we heard from the prophet Amos a devastating verdict on the society of his time. He likens it to a basket of summer fruit, with the implication that soon it will be over-ripe, with no further fruit to take its place. Amos envisages piles of dead bodies. He castigates predatory commercialism and the neglect of the poor. He laments that the voice of God is heard less and less throughout the land.
Would Amos feel moved to speak more positively of our world today? I doubt it. Like so many of the Old Testament prophets, he deplores the fact that God’s people have lost sight of the bigger picture. No longer are they centred upon God. Instead, they focus all their energies on satisfying their self-centred and short-term desires. Amos peers into the future with prophetic eyes, and sees only approaching desolation: “On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.” It’s a catastrophe that godless humans bring upon themselves.
We, like Amos, live in desperate times, and have to contemplate the fact that with all the potentialities open to us through modern technology, it has never been easier for evil people to cause destruction on a massive scale. What hope is there, humanly speaking, for a world like ours? Humanly speaking, not a lot. So let’s, with my grandmother, cry out ‘Mercy on us!’ But because the undergirding reality that sustains all of creation is the God of mercy, ‘Mercy on us!’ is a cry of hope, not of despair.
At times such as this, it’s far too easy for the Church’s spokespersons to offer the media what they’re looking for: nice, pithy soundbites that encapsulate the fears and uncertainties that beset our society, but that make no mention whatsoever of God. So we get the depressing spectacle of hapless clergy popping up in television interviews and appearing to have said nothing more than would have been said by the most convinced of secularists.
Some of you, if I were to name him, would recall the trial and imprisonment of a notorious mass-murderer who preyed upon young men in London several decades ago. The family of one of his victims had a vague connection with my former parish of North Leith, and in the absence of any significant physical remains, they asked me to conduct a memorial service for him. The BBC got wind of this, and asked if they could film the service. I refused, because I felt it would be an unwarranted intrusion upon the family’s privacy, but after the service was over, I allowed them to make an audio recording of the short address I had given.
In the address at that memorial service, I talked initially about the terrible way in which the lure of the big city can attract vulnerable young people, some of whom land up in desperate trouble. I then tried to view the situation in the light of God’s love, and ended on what I hoped was a positive Christian note. But what did the BBC do with my recorded words? They broadcast only my introductory remarks regarding the dangers facing young people in the big city. My carefully-crafted attempt to centre our thoughts on the love and mercy of God was completely ignored. The BBC weren’t the least bit interested in allowing the bigger picture to be presented. God never got a look-in.
I should add here that Archbishop Welby is probably fully aware of the trap that I fell into, because he seems to have the knack of weaving God into the soundbites that he knows the media will find themselves having to use. All that we do, all that we say, needs to be centred on God, and particularly so when we know that the wider world is watching and listening.
It’s a far cry from the mayhem and slaughter of Nice to the village home of Martha and her sister Mary, but here in today’s gospel we again see the importance of centring our words and actions on God, in particular, on God whose nature as merciful and loving finds expression in the person of Jesus.
Poor Martha has often been treated unfairly down through the centuries. She busied herself as any caring and conscientious householder would, if welcoming an important guest, but there’s a hint of sisterly jealousy in the way she resents that from the start of the visit Mary does nothing more than sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he’s saying. “Martha, Martha,” says Jesus, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Look at it this way: if neither sister had sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to him, his would have been a wasted visit. On the other hand, if neither sister had attended to all that true hospitality entailed, Jesus would have been subjected to gross discourtesy. Mary’s fault was that she didn’t give any thought to how she could help Martha also to spend time with Jesus. Both sisters needed to centre themselves on Jesus, and that’s true for all of us.
What’s the very first thing that the Church, and that we as congregations and individuals, should be saying and doing in these troubled times? We should be centring ourselves upon Jesus, sitting, as it were, at his feet, and then, by our words and actions we should become the servants and ministers of God’s mercy in Jesus. If we leave God and Jesus out of the picture, we turn ourselves into just another lot of well-meaning do-gooders.
The news is bad these days. ‘Mercy on us!’ cries our world. The mercy the world needs most of all is God’s mercy in and through Jesus. But it’s only when we allow the world to know of God and Jesus, that the mercy it seeks so much will become a reality in the lives of those who most need it. We are only doing our best when, through our own example, we encourage others to join us at the feet of Jesus. Never lose sight of this bigger picture!
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Sermon, Sunday 10th July 2016, St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
Colossians 1, 1-14; Luke 10, 25-37
Let me confess that today’s gospel passage from St Luke is one that I used to find troubling. But it wasn’t the Parable of the Good Samaritan itself that troubled me; it was the context in which we find it.
Here’s a lawyer asking Jesus what he must do in order to inherit eternal life. Put more plainly, his question is: ‘How can I get to heaven?’ We’ll look in a few moments at the answer Jesus gives him, but let’s think first of all of the answer that we find elsewhere in the scriptures.
Think of this greatly-loved verse from St John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” How do you get to heaven? According to these words, you get to heaven by believing in Jesus.
Think, now, of the occasion when Paul and Silas were thrown into prison in the city of Philippi. During the night there was a great earthquake that burst open the prison doors. The jailer, fearing that his prisoners would all have escaped, was about to kill himself, but Paul reassured him that they were all still present. The jailer in gratitude fell at the feet of Paul and Silas, and asked them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” “Believe on the Lord Jesus,” said Paul,” and you will be saved…” How do you get to heaven? The answer again is that you get to heaven by believing in Jesus.
The same answer is found in St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” How do you get to heaven? The answer here is that our entitlement to heaven is a gift from God, a gift that comes to us through faith, through believing in Jesus.
Now what was the answer Jesus gave to the lawyer who asked what he must do in order to inherit eternal life? Jesus got the lawyer to answer his own question out of the Hebrew Scriptures: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” How did Jesus respond? “You have given the right answer,” he said; “do this, and you will live.”
Do you see why I used to find this gospel passage so troubling? It seems to contradict what we’re told again and again throughout the New Testament, namely, that we inherit eternal life, that we are saved, not as a result of anything that we ourselves do, but through believing in Jesus. But here, in St Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus himself saying that if you love God and love your neighbour, you will live eternally. Jesus didn’t say to the lawyer, ‘believe in me’, yet from the earliest days of the Christian Church our mission has been to invite all people to believe in Jesus, and thus to inherit eternal life.
So how do you get to heaven? Is it by believing in Jesus, or by living a good life according to the pattern of the Good Samaritan? How, in other words, are we saved? Is it by faith, or by good works? This question has been a source of trouble right from the dawn of Christianity. If you read the Epistle of James, you see just how deep the faith versus works controversy ran, and you can trace it right down through the centuries. Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, hated the Epistle of James. He called it an ‘epistle of straw’ because it argues that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” As far as Luther was concerned, the Epistle of James undermined the whole principle that we are saved by grace through faith.
Luther had tried to live a life devoted to the doing of good works, and had been defeated. The discovery of salvation by grace through faith was to him utterly liberating. From that moment on he found himself bitterly opposed to any suggestion that we, by our own good works, can earn eternal life, and his opposition to that belief was rooted in the realisation that even the best among us can never sufficiently love God and our neighbour. Only by the grace of God – only by God’s unmerited kindness – can we get to heaven.
So it is, or should be, a little puzzling that Jesus tells the lawyer that if he truly and actively loves God and his neighbour, he will inherit eternal life. Compare the story of the lawyer with St Luke’s account of of the penitent criminal at the crucifixion. Remember his words to his fellow-criminal: “[W]e indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he turned to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” How did Jesus reply? Did he say, ‘You’ve left it far too late, I’m afraid’? No, Jesus said to the penitent criminal, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
To the lawyer Jesus set the challenge of trying fully and consistently to love God and his neighbour; from the penitent criminal Jesus asked for nothing. As I said at the start, today’s gospel passage from St Luke is one that I used to find troubling. It seemed to me that Jesus was portrayed here as teaching that we can earn our way to heaven by our own good works, and that this teaching contradicted what Jesus himself has said elsewhere, not least to the penitent criminal.
Let me explain how I’ve found myself able to understand what was going on when Jesus answered the lawyer’s question in the way he did. “Which of these three,” asked Jesus, “was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer replied. “Go,” said Jesus, “and do likewise.”
One of the striking things about Jesus is that in every encounter we read of in the gospels, he says to the person or persons in front of him exactly what the situation requires. “Go, and do likewise,” was his advice to the lawyer. And it was necessary advice in the circumstances, because the lawyer had far too high an opinion of himself. Jesus was quite deliberately asking of him the impossible. Only by trying genuinely and consistently to live his whole life after the example of the Good Samaritan, could the lawyer be led to the point of self-realisation where he had to acknowledge his inability to inherit for himself eternal life. Only by telling him what he needed to try doing, could Jesus open up the way for that lawyer honestly to face up to his inability to earn his ticket to heaven by his own good works.
What is left to any of us when even our best endeavours fall short, as fall short they do, of the standard of perfection set before us by Jesus? All we can do then is plead, with the penitent criminal, “Jesus, remember me.” And remember us he will. Truly and sincerely to ask Jesus to remember you, is to believe in him with all your heart, and so to believe in him is to inherit the eternal life that he promises.
The heart of the Christian gospel isn’t the dual commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” The heart of the gospel is that when we have done our very best for God and for our neighbour, and have failed truly to love them as we ought, there remains to us the awesomely unconditional love of God towards us, a love promised in and through Jesus. To accept God’s love in Jesus is what is meant by believing in Jesus, and whatever good works we do – and do them we ought – in obedience to Jesus’ teaching, are done in response to God’s love.
In today’s reading from the Epistle to the Colossians, a healthy balance is struck between faith and works: “We have heard,” writes St Paul, “of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” It does matter that we love God and one another to the best of our ability, but that love doesn’t earn us our ticket to heaven. Heaven is God’s free and gracious gift, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
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Sermon, St Salvador’s, Dundee, 26th June 2016
Galatians 5, 1 & 13-25; St Luke 9, 51-62
There’s an ancient Greek legend concerning a particularly nasty character called Procrustes. Procrustes used to seize people and force them to lie down upon an iron bed. If they proved too long for the bed, he would cut off as much of their legs as necessary to make them fit into it. And if they proved too short for the bed, he would stretch their bodies until they fitted it. From Procrustes’ legendary behaviour is derived the saying that to reduce people to one standard, to one way of thinking, or to one way of acting, is to force them onto a ‘Procrustean Bed’.
A relatively light-hearted example of a Procrustean Bed could be the traditional church pew. At this very moment, in countless churches up and down the length and breadth of the land, there will be people ruefully thinking to themselves, ‘I don’t know whose posterior this pew was designed comfortably to accommodate, but it certainly wasn’t mine!’ To oblige all the attendees of a particular church to compress their bodies into ‘one size must fit all’ hard wooden pews, is to force them onto a Procrustean Bed.
But here’s a more troubling example. Millions of people aren’t in church today. There’s a wide variety of reasons for their absence, but some of these reasons will have to do with many people’s perceptions of the Church. They are liable to think of the Church as being an institution that only makes people welcome if they conform to a certain lifestyle, if their dress or manners are counted as acceptable, if they subscribe to a particular set of beliefs, or if they are prepared to worship in exactly same way as everyone else.
Underlying this regrettable situation is the often unacknowledged ethos of the particular Christian communities that people happen to have experienced. That ethos can find expression in the simple rule that there are only two ways of being or doing, our way and the wrong way, and our way becomes a Procrustean Bed upon which we try to make everyone else fit, especially any newcomers.
Now, to avoid any misunderstanding, let me say something very important at this point. Our Episcopal Church is a wonderful antidote to the ‘our way and the wrong way’ kind of narrowness, because within our communion there’s a healthy spectrum of belief and practice, a breadth of tolerant inclusiveness of which we can be proud. My own instincts and preferences fall towards the Catholic end of the spectrum, but I know from two recent midweek visits here, that when I have the privilege of celebrating the Eucharist in St Salvador’s, I inevitably do or say things a little bit differently from what you’re accustomed to. Nevertheless, you’ve made me feel very welcome, very much at home, and that’s exactly as it should be. I don’t feel that here I’m being forced to lie on a Procrustean Bed, but if I did choose to lead your worship in a manner completely alien to your own traditions, the fault would be mine, not yours! The overall ethos of our Scottish Episcopal Church is one of sensitive respect towards those whose comfort zone is different from our own.
These thoughts lead us directly into today’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples are journeying from Galilee to Jerusalem, and in their path lies a Samaritan village where they hope to stop over. Immediately they find themselves at the receiving end of an ‘our way and the wrong way’ mindset. The Jews and the Samaritans worshipped the one true God, but each in their own way, and the hard-liners in both traditions regarded their own way as being the only right one. So the occupants of this Samaritan village denied hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. The villagers’ intolerance was matched by that of Jesus’ disciples, who would have liked him to call down fire from heaven to consume them. Jesus will have been filled with sorrow at the negative attitude of the Samaritans, but he was also livid with his disciples.
Think of Jesus’ own gracious encounter with the Woman of Samaria, recorded in St John’s Gospel. Jesus had no time for any ‘our way and the wrong way’ attitude. Think of how life-transforming the woman’s meeting with Jesus was. And think of what the people of today’s Samaritan village missed out on because of their refusal to welcome Jesus. He wouldn’t have tried to force them to lie on a Jewish Procrustean Bed. He would have accepted them just as he found them, and perhaps even exercised his wonderful powers to bring them healing of body, mind or spirit, whatever their greatest need might be. Let’s make sure that we never cause people to feel obliged to fall in with all our ways, for to do this could be to make it harder, or even impossible, for them to encounter the living reality of Jesus.
The legend of Procrustes’ Bed can also help us to explore the remainder of today’s Gospel, where we find three would-be followers of Jesus, none of whom, it’s implied, persevered in his initial enthusiasm. But I’d like to approach this story from a slightly different angle than usual. And just as we let the story of the Woman of Samaria shed light on the first part of the reading, so we can use here the gospel story of the Rich Young Ruler. Remember how he asked what was required of him if he wanted truly to follow Jesus, and Jesus told him to sell all that he possessed and give the proceeds to the poor. The young man, we’re told, went away sorrowful, for he had great riches.
If you try to make a Procrustean Bed of the command to sell all that he possessed, so that it’s transformed into a general rule that all genuine Christians must follow, you end up with an impossible situation. Down through the centuries, individual men and women – of whom St Francis of Assisi is the most well-known example – have made the kind of sacrifice that was asked of the Rich Young Ruler, but never has the Christian mainstream taught that everyone should sell all their possessions.
If it’s wrong in principle for anyone to have personal possessions, then if these were put up for sale, who could ever buy them without the guilt of possessing them being passed on to their next owner? And how could countless Christian philanthropists have had wealth to devote to the service of others, if they had been forbidden to accumulate wealth in the first place? The point of the story of the Rich Young Ruler was that in his individual case a love of possessions was making it impossible for him also to follow Jesus. The command to sell all that he had was never intended by Jesus to become a general rule that all Christians must follow.
So look at the three would-be disciples in today’s Gospel:
The first was so wedded to his home security and comforts that his obsession with these came as a barrier between him and Jesus. But to turn the abandonment of security and comfort into a general rule for all is to force everyone to lie on a Procrustean Bed.
The second would-be disciple was so determined to make the fulfilling of his family responsibilities the be all and end all of his life that in his case there was no room left for Jesus. But to imagine that all Christians should turn aside from their family responsibilities is to make a Procrustean Bed of the unique commandment given to this one individual.
The same is true of the third would-be follower. The implication is that if he had slipped off to say farewell to those at his home, he would never have returned to follow Jesus. But for all Christians to walk away from their folks at home without so much as a good-bye would be completely wrong.
What we find, throughout the Gospels, is Jesus adapting his call to discipleship to the individual circumstances of the people whom he encounters. He has no interest in laying down a Procrustean Bed on which he expects everyone to lie. Sometimes he makes very challenging demands, but never does he place such demands upon the shoulders of those for whom they are not in the least relevant or appropriate. He asks of people only what he knows to lie within their individual capabilities.
In today’s reading in Galatians, St Paul reminds us of this fundamental rule: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” This rule is no Procrustean Bed, because its fulfilment requires something unique from each one of us. “Follow me,” Jesus says to you. What is Jesus asking of you today? Of this you can be sure: It’s something you are able to do, and if you don’t do it, no one else can.
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Sermon, St Martin’s Dundee, 19th June 2016
St Luke 8, 26-39
A number of years ago I had a consultation with Jan de Vries, the famous natural health practitioner. Jan de Vries, now, sadly, deceased, was a Dutchman, and though he spoke perfect English, he did so with a strongly guttural accent. At the end of the consultation he gave me the following advice: “Avoid ze peeg.” Since then I’ve tried to reduce my intake of pork and bacon, but completely avoiding ‘ze peeg’ isn’t always the easiest of things to do!
I’m sure that a great many preachers, confronted with today’s gospel story of the Gerasene Swine (or the Gadarene Swine, as it’s more commonly called) would love to have been able to ‘avoid ze peeg’! This is a corker of a story that, like the wildest of wild boars, fairly bristles with problems.
Firstly, there’s the question of demons and demon possession. To our modern ears, talk of demons or unclean spirits sounds very strange, very primitive. The behaviour of the man who met Jesus is described in a way that to us appears like an extreme form of mental illness, rather than his having been taken over by malign supernatural entities the very possibility of whose existence would usually be denied in our modern world.
But this leads us directly into the second problem. Here, as elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus is identified as being “Son of the Most High God”, yet throughout the gospels he seems perfectly prepared to accept the reality of demons and unclean spirits. If there were no such things as demons and unclean spirits, wouldn’t Jesus have known this? If this is just an outdated and superstitious way of referring to mental illness, then how could it be that Jesus, especially, didn’t know any better?
Thirdly, there’s a major problem here regarding animal welfare. The St Luke’s Gospel account of the Gerasene Swine is based on the earlier version in St Mark, and there we’re told that the herd of drowned pigs numbered two thousand. Could it be that the figure of two thousand has been omitted by the author of St Luke’s Gospel because even he felt embarrassed by its enormity? This brings us back to the role of Jesus in the story. Did he have foreknowledge of what would happen to these unfortunate pigs, or, as “Son of the Most High God”, would he have been in possession of supernatural power such that he could have prevented the herd from stampeding into the lake?
These problems can be boiled down to a couple of basic questions. How can we come to terms with a world view completely at odds with our own understanding of reality, and how could it be that Jesus, being who he was, shared the ignorance of his contemporaries regarding what we nowadays suppose the real world to be like?
A few days ago I heard an interesting radio discussion about the fact that psychiatrists sometimes find themselves having to meet with patients who report that they keep on hearing voices in their heads. Half a century ago, hearing voices was commonly regarded as being a classic sign of schizophrenia, so that anyone presenting this symptom was liable to be dozed up to the eyeballs with powerful drugs and, if the doctors so decided, locked up in a hospital ward.
The situation nowadays, so I heard over the radio, is changing. Despite the fact that they keep on hearing voices in their heads, many people are perfectly capable of leading a normal life. Automatically to label them as schizophrenic is to do them a grave injustice, to deaden their senses with powerful drugs is an unwarranted assault on their persons, and to lock them up in a hospital ward is a grave injustice unless, as is the case in only very rare circumstances, their voices are telling them to inflict serious harm upon themselves or upon others. In other words, when people nowadays hear voices in their heads, we need to respect, and try to understand, the fact that this is how reality is for them. But for a psychiatrist to have said this half a century ago would have been to invite the ridicule of her or his colleagues. And who knows? – fifty years from now there may be a completely different current understanding of why some people hear voices.
The general lesson of this example taken from psychiatric theory and practice is clear: We should always beware of what I would call the tyranny of our current understanding. This applies in every sphere of our human life as we try to make sense of the world we live in. From generation to generation our understanding of ourselves and of our world is continually changing. Today’s latest theory is liable, sooner or later, to be replaced by another. Beware of the tyranny of our current understanding. The latest ideas may, meanwhile, be the best, but we must always keep ourselves open to the possibility that someday these latest ideas will be superseded by others.
The story of the Gerasene Swine brings us face to face with a world view completely at odds with our own modern understanding of reality. Belief in demons and unclean spirits still exists in many cultures today, though it’s largely rejected in our own. Be this as it may, the main thing to realise is that behind the, to most of us, outmoded belief in demons and unclean spirits lies a problem that every successive generation of the human race has had to face. How do we make sense of a world in which terrible things happen and keep on happening?
When the horrible and heart-breaking news came through last Thursday of the brutal murder of Member of Parliament Jo Cox, I found myself wondering how on earth I could still prepare a sermon on the Gerasene Swine. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that beneath the surface of this bizarre and incredible gospel story lurks the deeper question of why our world is such an awful place, and why so often God doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it.
The most important thing about the story of the Gerasene Swine is its human outcome. When Jesus came to this world, he didn’t come with a brain super-charged with all the advanced knowledge of our modern world. Jesus chose to live an ordinary human life within the understanding of the age into which he was born. So he accepted the reality of demons and unclean spirits, just as, if he had come to live among us in our modern world, he would have accepted the reality of things as we see them, even if centuries from now our human successors might regard him as having been mistaken. The outcome of the story is what matters, and the outcome is that this tragic man, so tormented by evil and destructive forces, was healed and restored to soundness of mind. If we try to answer the difficult question of the fate of the pigs, did Jesus know in advance that they would stampede into the lake, perhaps frightened by the terrible shouting of the man? No, he didn’t, and nowhere else in the gospels do we see him working the kind of miracle that would have been required in order to stop the stampede.
Again and again we find ourselves asking why God doesn’t intervene to stop all the terrible things that happen in our world. Why didn’t God step in to prevent the murder of Jo Cox? Let’s be honest about this – we don’t know. In the same way, we don’t know why God has allowed countless numbers of other atrocities to happen down through the centuries. But what we do know is that just as the ministry of Jesus was filled with individual acts of kindness and compassion, so the powers given to each of us by God enable us to do the little we can to intervene in situations where people need the kind of help that we can give. We can, and do, make a real difference through every single exercise of goodness.
Let’s never forget that everything good that is done by us becomes what God, through Jesus, is doing in our world. The activity of God in our world isn’t done in addition to what we do, but within what we do.
Let me close by quoting my favourite saint of all time, Teresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which he is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands by which he is to bless us now.”
Do what you can; that’s all that God asks of you.
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Sermon, St Mary’s Broughty Ferry, 29th May 2016
1 Kings 18, 20-39; Luke7, 1-10
A Church membership class I was running many years ago now included a young librarian. How often, she asked one evening, had I read the Bible? I realised immediately that this was a perfectly understandable question for a librarian to ask, and I found myself having to explain that though I had probably read all of the Bible at some time, I had never read it straight through from cover to cover. I explained to her that the Bible’s not a single book, like a biography or a novel, but a collection of different types of book, and that normally people read it by concentrating on its most important parts, especially what it tells us of Jesus.
I don’t know how satisfied that young librarian was with my answer, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt that I really should read the Bible through from cover to cover. So I worked out a plan that would take me right through the Bible in the course of a single year, and this I kept up for several years. I found it a valuable exercise, and even in some of the most obscure passages, that would never be prescribed for public reading, I kept on finding entrancing little spiritual nuggets that I enthusiastically underlined so that I could easily find them again.
Let’s wind forward to last summer. Knowing that Bishop Nigel had decided to ordain me into the Ministry of our Scottish Episcopal Church, I resolved once again, after a gap of many years, to read the Bible through from cover to cover. I drew up a fresh plan, but because it ran from January 1st to December 31st, I found myself, in the month of August, beginning in the middle of the Book of Jeremiah. This, and the remainder of the Old Testament, wasn’t too heavy going, but I was relieved to find myself starting the New Testament during the month of October. On January 1st this year, I turned back to the Book of Genesis, and thus far I’ve reached Second Chronicles.
As I explained a few moments ago, when I first read the Bible through from cover to cover, I kept on finding what I’ve described to you as entrancing little spiritual nuggets. I expected something very similar this time round, and the nuggets were still there. But more and more I’ve found myself distracted and disturbed by terrible things I must have read all those years ago, but without really taking them in. On page after page of the historical books of the Old Testament I’ve found myself ploughing through a record of slaughter and mayhem of a grotesqueness and gruesomeness that I could scarcely believe. How had I not noticed this previously? All I can say is that I had been so entranced by the spiritual nuggets that I was largely blind to the appalling morass in which they were embedded.
Today’s story from the First Book of Kings is a relatively mild example of what I’ve been describing. Ahab was a particularly evil king of Israel, who surrounded himself with several hundred prophets who represented the debased cult of a false god called Baal. The prophet Elijah was one of the greatest champions of the true God, and described here in First Kings is a dramatic contest between Elijah and the false prophets, a contest through which the presence and power of the one true God was demonstrated. Three cheers for the God of Israel! But the compilers of our lectionary have decided to sanitize the story by cutting it short. The very next verse tells us that on Elijah’s orders the prophets of Baal were seized, “and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.” Four hundred and fifty men were slaughtered in a single afternoon: this, believe me, is relatively mild compared with what I’ve been encountering elsewhere in the Old Testament.
There is, however, nothing unusually brutal in the historical books of the Old Testament. The history of the Ancient World as a whole is a record of slaughter and mayhem on the most appalling scale, and in this respect the people of the Old Testament were neither better nor worse than the peoples that surrounded them. ‘Kill or be killed’ was the rule that ensured the survival of the tribes and nations that constituted the Ancient World. One thing that can be said in defence of the Old Testament, is that it describes with brutal frankness what often seems to us to be the terrible behaviour of God’s own people. It’s easy for us to deplore Elijah’s slaughter of the prophets of Baal, but as with all such stories, we need to view it in its historical context.
Recently I’ve been refreshing my knowledge of the history of Britain from the end of the Roman Empire onwards, and this, too, is a record of atrocities, some as appalling as anything we’re liable to encounter in the Old Testament. And as I’ve made my way through the historical books of the Old Testament, again and again I’ve encountered the kind of murderous fanaticism that, in our own time, has characterised the conduct of the so-called Islamic State.
‘Kill or be killed’ is a rule as ancient as the human race itself. This isn’t to say that it’s a good or morally defensible rule – it isn’t – but time and again throughout history, when relative goodness has triumphed over monstrous evil, is has done so at appalling and indefensible human cost. This is the brutal paradox of our human condition. To Edmund Burke, the great 18th century political philosopher, this saying is attributed: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.” The problem is, of course, that the only practical alternative to doing nothing is sometimes the doing of things that are terrible in themselves. This is how Nazi Germany was defeated, and alas, it’s also how Islamic State will be destroyed.
I’m looking forward, in my reading of the whole Bible from cover to cover, once again to reaching the New Testament, and the Gospels in particular. How did Jesus respond to the brutal paradox of our human condition? I’m intrigued by the background to today’s Gospel. Jesus is approached indirectly by a Roman centurion whose slave is ill and close to death. We don’t find Jesus asking the centurion, ‘You’re a soldier; I wonder how many people you’ve killed in the course of your military career?’ Neither does he say to the centurion, ‘You’re a slave-owner; what right have you to regard your fellow human being as your private property possessing no rights of his own?’
The Jewish elders who brought the sickness of the centurion’s slave to Jesus’ attention, asking for him to be healed, must have been worried that Jesus would have refused his request as a soldier and slave-owner. This is why they spoke so highly of the centurion: “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” There was no need for these Jewish elders to make this kind of plea on behalf of the centurion. Jesus would have healed his slave anyway.
The centurion was a good man, a man of faith. As a Roman soldier, however, he may have had to do some pretty awful things over the years. We don’t know. But what we do know is that the broader picture was of no concern to Jesus when it came to the sickness of the centurion’s slave. Jesus did the good that lay immediately before him, and this is all he asks of you and me as we wrestle with the moral complexities of our individual lives, and as we look out on a world where terrible things happen, and where terrible actions seem to be the only practicable way of preventing the happening of things even more terrible. To do whatever good we can do, and to do that good with the help of God and with no thought of what’s in it for ourselves, is to do what Jesus wants of us. This is how Jesus himself lived, and it’s all he expects of us in our often brutal world.
Be appalled, of course, by the brutality that confronts us in page after page of Old Testament history. Be appalled, also, by the brutal record of our own nation’s past, and by the terrible history of our own times. But don’t be discouraged. Do the good that can be done, and leave the broader picture in God’s hands. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.” If, today, you do even one thing that helps to make our world a better place, you do the work of Jesus.
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Sermon, St Ninian’s, Dundee
Trinity Sunday, 22nd May 2016
Romans 5, 1-5; St John 16, 12-15
How good are you at reading the ‘small print’? Often, when we’re shopping on line or filling in an official form, we’re required to tick a box indicating that we’ve read the terms and conditions of what we’re signing up for. Like many of us, I’m sure, I normally tick the box without bothering to plough my way through paragraph after paragraph of turgid and convoluted legalese. That legalese, that lawyer speak, is what is meant by the ‘small print’. Sometimes it’s so small that we can hardly read it. But read it we should, because usually there are matters of real importance buried beneath all the verbiage.
Does our eucharistic liturgy contain what might be described as ‘small print’? Are any of the words we hear or say together similar to the ‘small print’ that confronts us when we purchase goods or services? What usually deters us from reading the ‘small print’ is the complicated language in which it is framed. That complicated language can be discouragingly legal, and in the case of our liturgy what appears to be ‘small print’ can be discouragingly theological. We repeat it because that’s what’s expected of us, but we don’t necessarily understand why it’s there, or what it all means.
The most obvious example of discouragingly theological language in the liturgy would, for many of us, be found in the Creed, where we describe Jesus as “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father.” These words may seem to us a good example of ‘small print’, but they are saying something of real importance.
Today is called Trinity Sunday, on which we proclaim and celebrate our belief, as one of our great hymns expresses it, in “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” Today we focus on the profound mystery that God is Three in One and One in Three. Now as soon as we start to speak of God in mysterious language like this, complaints are liable to start flooding in: Why does it all have to be so complicated? Why don’t we keep everything nice and simple? One is one and three are three, so why make everything so difficult to understand? And if Jesus came to tell us what God is like, then surely that’s all we need to know?
We mustn’t forget that these aren’t new questions. They were being asked right at the dawn of Christianity, and they’ve been asked again and again down through the centuries. Repeatedly it’s been asked why the simple message of Jesus has had to be cluttered with so much extra theological baggage. The reason behind all this apparent clutter is rooted in the experience of the earliest Christians. The conclusion to which that experience pointed was so mind-blowing that it took the Church several centuries to discover a way of expressing it. The way agreed on by the Church, after a great deal of agonizing, is what we have in the Creed, where Jesus is described as “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father.”
Let me try to explain what lies behind these difficult words that we might be tempted to dismiss as mere ‘small print’. The earliest followers of Jesus were Jews, and as Jews their faith was grounded in the oneness of God in heaven. They could pray to God, and they believed that God was in control of the world, but as Jews they accepted that God and the world occupied completely separate levels of reality. Along came Jesus, and the more they grew to know him, the more they realised that Jesus had an astonishing and unique closeness to God. Jesus had a wonderful relationship of prayer with the One whom he called his Father in heaven, and he possessed an amazing power of healing and miracle-working. Then, despite what seemed his crushing annihilation at the Cross of Calvary, Jesus rose again from the dead, possessed of a reality that belonged not to this world alone, but to the glories of heaven.
As Jews, believing in only one God, God in heaven, the first followers of Jesus struggled to understand the fullness of his person. Yes, they knew Jesus as a real and full human being, but more and more, and especially after his resurrection, they found him to be far more than merely human. So despite their Jewishness, despite their belief in only one God, they found themselves increasingly forced to conclude that Jesus wasn’t just a uniquely wonderful human being, wasn’t just a heavenly being like one of the angels, but that in and as Jesus the personal reality of God had come to live among them. To know Jesus hadn’t been simply to know someone as close to God, or as God-like, as any human ever could be. To know Jesus had been truly and fully to experience what they could only describe as being the one and only living God, come to share with them their life here on earth.
So how did the earliest Christians make sense of this mystery? Heaven hadn’t been empty while Jesus was here on earth. And when Jesus said his prayers, he did so in the confidence that his heavenly Father heard him. How was this possible, they asked, if the reality of God was present in and as Jesus? The awareness grew among the first Christians that there must be what we might call a two-ness in God, however challenging such an understanding might be to all that they had been brought up to believe as Jews.
At this point the mystery deepened even further. Jesus ascended to heaven, and ten days later, on the Day of Pentecost, they found themselves immersed overwhelmingly in a Power so great that they knew it to be nothing less than the unseen Presence of God. God the Father was, as ever, God in heaven. God the Son had returned to heaven. And now, as St Paul says in our reading from Romans, “God’s love [had] been poured into [their] hearts through the Holy Spirit that had been given to [them].” To experience the fullness of the Holy Spirit was to experience the unseen presence of the loving God, a presence as real as the loving presence of God that they had experienced through their encounter with Jesus.
So these early Christians didn’t just find themselves having to come to terms with a two-ness in God, but a three-ness. Now they discovered the fullness of God to be all around them and within them. That fullness of God, present permanently with them here on earth, was the Holy Spirit. And through the Holy Spirit the continuing reality of the heavenly Jesus was a real presence in their midst. The promise of Jesus had been fulfilled. We heard that promise in our Gospel reading: “[The Spirit] will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Thus it is that the Christian understanding of God came to be our foundation belief: God is Three in One and One in Three. We believe in One God: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Now don’t imagine for one minute that the early Christian Church held on to this belief simply for the fun of it. In the face of virulent persecution many of them died for this faith, just as in our own time Christians are persecuted and sometimes martyred by fanatical Muslims because of their refusal to deny the true and full Divinity of Jesus.
Belief in One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit lies at the very heart of Christianity, and let’s remind ourselves, in closing, of why this belief so important. How do you feel when you see wealthy celebrities dropping in on some of the poorest people on this earth? I’m sure they mean well, but how can they really experience for themselves the misery and squalor in which so many of our fellow human beings have to spend the whole of their lives? Because the true and full reality of God found human embodiment in the person of Jesus, we know that the fullness of our humanity has been taken, and taken forever, into the very heart of God.
How does God know what it really means to be a human being? God knows, because God has been here with us, as one of us. God is forever with us, in and as the risen and ascended Jesus. And the reality of Jesus is ever present in our midst, through the Holy Spirit. This is the faith that we affirm this Trinity Sunday – our unity with God, through the Holy Spirit, in the risen and ascended Jesus.
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Sermon, St Martin’s, Dundee, Pentecost, 15th May 2016
Acts 2, 1-13; John 14, 8-17 & 25-27
Next Sunday the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is coming to the Caird Hall, and a friend and I have tickets for what we’re sure will be an enjoyable occasion. Lots of strange thoughts can run through your head before and during a concert, and one of these thoughts I’d like to share with you. It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times: Where is the music?
I hope you don’t think me a little peculiar for asking a question like this. On the contrary, I hope you’ll allow me to explore it with you, because it can help us to understand something of the mystery and wonder that we celebrate on the Feast of Pentecost.
Picture me, sitting next Sunday in the Caird Hall. I’m waiting for the start of the concert, and I’m asking where the music is. Already I’ve seen someone coming in and laying the full score on the conductor’s desk. The score consists of page after page of musical notation by means of which the composer has told the orchestra what to play and how to play it. Where is the music? In one sense the score is the music, and there it is on the conductor’s desk.
But the music is far more than page after page of notes and symbols printed in a book. A skilled musician can pick up that book and follow the score right through, internally ‘hearing’ the music in her or his imagination. Where is the music? In this further sense, the music exists in the mind of the musician, just as originally it existed in the mind of the composer before it was ever written down.
Where is the music? It’s perfectly reasonable to say that the music first existed as an idea in the mind of the composer. The music was then transformed into a manuscript and published in book form. But as soon as the conductor enters at the start of the concert and raises his or her baton, the question of where the music is can be answered in a far richer way. The music begins to flow out of the orchestra, and to fill the entire auditorium. The members of the audience discover that the music is all around them, and that they are immersed in its beauty and power.
Where is the music? As I’ve tried to explain, this question can be answered on a number of levels, but the deepest and most potent level is the richly-blended sounds that constitute a live performance of what began in the mind of the composer. As soon as the performance gets under way, the music is everywhere within the space of the auditorium.
What has all this to do with the Feast of Pentecost? The question ‘Where is God?’ is one that children are liable to ask, but there’s nothing childish about asking it, and it’s certainly not a question that we should stop asking as adults. Where is God? God, above all, is the Personal Presence who fills all things. God is everywhere, around us, within us, and if you compare our whole universe to a concert hall, God is like the music that flows through the orchestra and bathes the entire audience in its beauty and power. This is the wonderful truth that we celebrate on the Feast of Pentecost. The Personal Presence who is God can be known by anyone, anywhere, because God the Holy Spirit is everywhere.
But it isn’t only as the Holy Spirit that God has been made real. In today’s gospel we find Philip, one of the disciples, saying to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus replies, “[W]hoever has seen me has seen the Father.” It’s been estimated that from the dawn of history 108 billion human beings have lived on this earth. How many of those 108 billion human souls have had the opportunity and privilege of seeing Jesus during his earthly life? Ten thousand? Fifty thousand? I’ve no idea, but what I do know is that of the 108 billion people who have ever lived on earth, only the tiniest, tiniest fraction could ever have seen Jesus for themselves.
Let’s extend our musical example a little further. Currently, the world’s population is just under seven and a half billion. How many people living today could pick up an elaborate musical score, read it through page after page, and ‘hear’ the music in their heads? Only a tiny, tiny minority of the human race. I have more musical knowledge than some people, but reading a score in the fullest sense is a skill I don’t think I could ever develop. The only way I can ever experience for myself a complex work of music, is either to put on a recording or the radio, or to hear it in a live performance.
God, we believe, was made present to our world through Jesus. To meet Jesus, and really to know him, was to sense that you were in the presence of God. What a privilege, but a privilege granted only to the very few among whom he lived two thousand years ago. If it’s only through the earthly Jesus that the presence of God has been made known to the human race, then you and I, along with almost everyone else who has ever lived on this planet, could have no personal experience whatsoever of the presence of God. But God hasn’t been made known only through the earthly Jesus. God is the Holy Spirit, who fills all things. The Personal Presence of God is all around us, just like the music that we listen to in a recording, on the radio, or in a concert hall. And just as you don’t need a university degree in music to be able to enjoy it, you don’t need all kinds of specialist knowledge and skill to experience the presence of God for yourself.
This is important to remember as we look at the story of the Day of Pentecost. We read there of the coming from heaven of “a sound like the rush of violent wind”. You might well want to say, along with me, ‘Well, I’ve never experienced anything like that.’ Then we read of “tongues, as of fire” resting on each of those present. Have you ever experienced anything like that? I certainly haven’t. And as for suddenly acquiring the ability to “speak in other languages”, for those of us who can get by in at least one foreign language, this is a hard-won skill we had to work at in order to acquire. Does this mean that you and I have had no genuine experience of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Not at all!
On the Day of Pentecost, the rushing wind wasn’t in itself the Holy Spirit. It was only a sign pointing to the presence of God the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the tongues of fire weren’t in themselves the Holy Spirit. They were only signs of the Spirit’s presence. And the sudden ability to speak in previously unlearnt foreign languages was a special work of the Holy Spirit on that particular occasion and with those particular people.
There’s a dangerous tendency in some Christian charismatic circles to place too much emphasis on the more spectacular signs of the Holy Spirit recorded in the New Testament. This can result in the same kind of elitism that’s found in musical circles where people with special knowledge and skill look down their noses at ordinary folk who simply enjoy listening to good music without possessing any special skills of their own, and without knowing any of the theory that lies behind it.
What are the evidences of the presence of God in and as the Holy Spirit? Seldom are these evidences the sound of rushing wind, tongues of fire, or the sudden ability to speak a foreign language. The ordinary evidences of the Spirit are listed by St Paul in his Letter to the Galatians. They are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Where these qualities are present, the Holy Spirit is at work; where these virtues shine in and through our lives, the presence of God is manifest.
“I will ask the Father,” promised Jesus, “and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth…” As we all know, an advocate is someone whose responsibility is to say on our behalf what we aren’t able adequately to say for ourselves. The only thing that really matters, is that in whatever way is best for each of us we experience the Personal Presence who is God. We don’t need to be able to express in words what it is to know God’s presence. Whenever you find yourself in the midst of a God-filled space, you are experiencing what the Feast of Pentecost is all about.
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Sermon, St Mary’s Broughty Ferry, 1st May 2016
Revelation 21, 10 – 22, 5; John 14, 23-29
In 1792 a young musician took up residence in an attic room in Vienna. His clothes were ill-fitting, and in the sophisticated ears of the Viennese his Rhineland accent sounded harsh and uncouth. Musicians were ten a penny in 18th and 19th century Vienna, so there was no reason to suppose that this young man should make his mark, except for the fact that he was not only a superb pianist, but a brilliant improviser. Presented with just a few notes, he could spin out of these the most dazzling improvisations that could last for up to an hour and more, leaving his audience spellbound.
Now if a gift for improvisation were his only asset, all we might know of his genius would be the reputation he quickly gained. Only fifty years after his death did it become possible to make what, at first, were primitive sound recordings. Until then, an improvised keyboard performance could survive only as a fading memory on the part of those privileged to have been present.
It’s not, however, on the strength of his gift for improvisation that this young man is revered today. Seated at his desk, there flowed from his creative genius some of the most sublime music that the world has ever known. His name? Perhaps you’ve guessed already: Ludwig van Beethoven.
It’s only because Beethoven committed his formal compositions to paper that we can hear for ourselves the music that so captivated the audiences who first heard it. His keyboard improvisations are lost for all time. His compositions, however, will live on for as long as the record of them survives.
But how long might that be? Are we talking here about centuries, millennia? Before I go on to reflect on the question of how far into the future the music of Beethoven might survive, I want to anchor our thoughts in the wonderful and reassuring words that we read today from the Book of Revelation, written at a time when the storm clouds of persecution were hanging over the still relatively infant Church. John, its author, had himself been exiled to the island of Patmos for refusing to keep silent regarding Jesus, and already the emperor Nero had turned murderously against the Christians. Worse, much worse, was soon to follow, and of this John had been warned in his visions.
Those were dark, dark days for the Christian Church, but the overall message of the Book of Revelation is one of hope, of light, of joy, especially in its two closing chapters from which we heard today.
Do you remember the ancient legend of the Tower of Babel? Human beings had grown so conceited that they imagined that by their own endeavours they could build a tower so high that it would bridge the gap between earth and heaven. It was a vain and hopeless project that came to nothing. From the dawn of history human beings have embarked upon utopian projects designed to create heaven on earth and make gods of themselves. Always these endeavours have fallen hopelessly short. Here in the Book of Revelation, written in the face of the mighty Roman Empire and its deified emperors, we are told that the New Jerusalem isn’t a human construct, but is to come down out of heaven from God. When the dark night of persecution has wreaked its worst on the people of Christ, God will have the last word. “[T]here will,” writes John, “be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.”
This promise is as true for us today as it has ever been. We live in a world of grave uncertainty. The dark clouds of potential destruction hang over our civilisation, and if the chief enemy facing the Christian Church in the West is apathy and ridicule, in many other countries Christians have to survive day by day under the threat of vicious persecution, and, for some, martyrdom. What’s the point, it’s tempting sometimes wonder, in holding fast to our faith in a world that seeks at best to sneer at it, and at worst to wipe it off the face of the earth? The point is that the future is in God’s hands, not our own. The eternal consummation of time and history is of God’s building, not our own.
Most of us, like Beethoven’s improvisations at the piano, are destined, as far as the life of this world is concerned, increasingly to fade in the memories of those who knew us. Our names may be recorded in the genealogical records, but of us as persons there will be no lasting direct memory and little detailed record, if any, of our words and deeds. For the few who have made a real impact on the times in which they lived, there may be the kind of lasting memorial that exists in the formal compositions of Beethoven. Similarly, the distinguished architect Sir Gilbert Scott speaks to us today in the design both of St Mary’s here and of St Paul’s Cathedral, and the voice of our great 19th century Bishop Forbes of Brechin can still be heard in the records of his episcopate and in his published writings. But for how long? Centuries from now, millennia from now, will even the music of Beethoven still be heard?
We do not know how dark may be the future of our world. We see the relentless persecution of Christians in Pakistan, India and elsewhere. We see the terrible destruction caused by Isis in Syria and Iraq, and by wider Islamic terrorism, and there lurks the dreadful thought that sooner or later nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of fanatics prepared to use them. Whether or not the world-wide changes to our climate are the direct result of human activity, these changes inject a massive uncertainty into our prospects of future prosperity and security. And because it’s never been easier for thousands upon thousands of hapless refugees to cross whole continents in search of a safer or better future, we face the possibility that the more refugees we make welcome, the more shall inevitably follow, until a breaking point is reached when our Western nations, with even the best will in the world, can absorb no more without becoming engulfed in economic meltdown and social strife.
You’ll realise why I preceded these gloomy but realistic thoughts by referring to the promises of God in the Book of Revelation. Sometimes it can seem as though our whole world is like a huge boatload of refugees adrift on an endless ocean, with no friendly ship to rescue us, and no hope of safe landing even on a still-distant shore. Nothing could be further from the truth. We must rest at all times on the promise of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
There are two things that we must avoid at all costs. The first is the delusion that we can, by our human cleverness and strength, build our own heaven upon earth. This is the false dream, not just of the fanatics of Isis, but of all who, with far more honourable intentions, believe that we can take our destiny entirely into our own hands and build for ourselves a perfect future.
That’s the first delusion that we have to avoid. The second delusion is that if we cannot build for ourselves a heaven on earth, there’s no point in even trying to build a better world. It’s the imperfect and flawed efforts of generations of caring and hard-working women and men that prevent our world from becoming even worse than it is already. We cannot build for ourselves a heaven on earth, but if we do nothing whatsoever to make our world even a little better, it will only become even more of a hell than it is at present.
There is no reason whatsoever why Christian people should sink into despair after taking a realistic look at our world and the present and future threats that face us. The overall message of the Book of Revelation is one of hope, of light, of joy, not for this life alone, but for all eternity in God’s nearer presence. In this Season of Easter we renew and reaffirm our confidence in the life everlasting.
If this life were the only life, we would have every reason to despair. But in the Resurrection of Jesus, and in the assurance that he is with us always, we look forward in confidence to that fuller life of which this life is only a pale reflection. By this truth we shall live with God forever.
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Sermon, St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
Sunday 10th April 2016 Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 9, 1-6; St John 21, 1-19
Among my childhood memories are occasions when my parents were called up for jury service. On one of those occasions, my mother arrived back home earlier than we might have expected. The trial had begun, she explained, but as soon as the witnesses were called, their testimonies were so contradictory that the sheriff had halted the proceedings and thrown the case out. In a situation where the witnesses are in complete disagreement with one another, the truth can prove impossible to establish.
Imagine, however, a very different court case. The witnesses are called, one after another, and each tells exactly the same story in exactly the same way. In most cases the sheriff would begin to smell a rat. Research has shown that witnesses even to the most commonplace of situations can often, and in complete sincerity, tell stories that don’t entirely agree with one another. If all the witnesses are in total agreement regarding every single point of detail, the likelihood is that they have put their heads together beforehand, made up a common story, and agreed to stick to it.
So, if no one is in agreement with anyone else, or if everyone is in agreement with everyone else, in either situation we need to stop and think. Where does the truth lie, and how much of the truth is recoverable? In some extreme situations, we may never be able to find out. On the other hand, if we discover a common thread to be running through a series of stories that differ from one another on certain points of detail, we may well conclude that some, at least, of the truth can be established.
Let’s apply these thoughts to what the New Testament tells us about the first Easter. If you try, as many well-meaning people have down through the centuries, to fit all the resurrection stories into a single and completely consistent narrative, you’ll find this to be a well-nigh impossible task. But the very fact that there are differing points of detail, demonstrates that the first Christians didn’t put their heads together and settle upon an official version of events to which they all felt obliged to adhere. The resurrection of Jesus was such a mind-blowing event for all concerned, that the last thing we should expect of honest and independent witnesses is total agreement about everything. But what we are entitled to expect is general agreement on the most significant aspects of the Easter story.
This general agreement is exactly what we find. To take just a few examples, we have the empty tomb, the women witnesses, at least one angel, the physical presence of the risen Jesus, and the initial difficulty some of his followers had in recognising him. The resurrection stories aren’t a hopeless tangle of contradictions; but neither are they suspiciously identical. On the contrary, they are exactly what we should expect of honest and independent witnesses, each of whom is telling the story from his or her individual perspective. This is why there are solid grounds for our accepting that the Christian Faith is rooted in the resurrection appearances of Jesus as real historical events that we, too, would have witnessed had we been there at the time.
Whenever you’re exploring the truth behind an historical event, it’s always a useful exercise to turn to the earliest available record of it. In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, the earliest record isn’t found in one of the four Gospels, but in St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where he says this:
“[Christ] was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and…. appeared to [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15, 4-8)
What Paul is referring to when he says that the risen Jesus appeared also to him, is his experience on the Damascus Road, of which we heard today in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul found himself engulfed by a dazzling light, and fell to the ground. Then a voice spoke to him, the speaker identifying himself as Jesus. It’s unfortunate that our lectionary stops short at this point, because the following verse tells us that “[t]he men who were travelling with [Paul] stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.” As described here, his Damascus Road experience was far more than simply a private event in his own mind. The clear implication is that the risen Jesus appeared before Paul in the midst of the dazzling light. Paul’s companions didn’t see Jesus, but at least they heard his voice. In other words, we are presented here with an event that for everyone present took place in the real world, an event that for Paul was every bit as historical as the appearances of the risen Jesus in the weeks immediately following Easter Day.
But Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road brings us face to face with a problem. St Matthew and St Luke describe the risen Jesus as having ascended to heaven forty days after Easter. This has normally been taken to mean that from the Ascension onwards Jesus ceased to make himself present to his followers in any tangible, visible or audible form. Yet here he is, some years after the Ascension, appearing in a manner that Paul considers to be every bit as real as the Easter appearances.
Paul is aware of the problem, because he describes himself as having been like “someone untimely born”. Does he consider his own experience to have been completely unique in the history of post-Ascension Christianity? Not necessarily. But it’s often suited the official leadership of the Church throughout the past two millennia to play down the possibility that the risen and ascended Jesus can make himself really and truly present to individual men and women. There is, of course, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist – a presence that the small ‘c’ catholic tradition understands as transcending mere symbolism. But that’s not what I have in mind here. What has often troubled the Church’s official leadership, is the suggestion that ordinary lay men and women can and do have real and utterly compelling experiences of the presence of Jesus in their lives.
Let me share with you the story of one now quite elderly woman, known to me personally, but not of our congregation here at St Mary’s. She and a group of friends were attending Mass in a Roman Catholic Church. It was a first time for each of them, and they knew they weren’t officially permitted to take Communion. At the point where people were going forward to the altar, she looked up and saw Jesus – really and truly saw him. He was looking at her with a gentle expression on his face. Then he held up his hand in a gesture that invited her to look along a clear path that led all the way down to the altar. In an instant, she knew what Jesus was telling her to do. She and her friends went forward and received Communion.
The Church, in all its branches, is seldom comfortable with private and personal spiritual experiences that bypass its official spokespersons, especially if these experiences pose a challenge to its long-cherished rules and regulations. But Jesus himself challenged the rules and regulations of his time, and sometimes he invites us to do likewise.
I don’t believe for one minute that, with the exception of St Paul’s Damascus Road experience, the risen Jesus has ceased ever to make himself real to us other than in the Eucharist. I accept that there’s a big difference between the kind of overwhelmingly physical resurrection appearance that we read of in today’s Gospel, and the more private and ethereal experiences like the one I’ve just described, but each, in its own way, is totally and utterly real to the person or persons concerned.
The Easter stories are of value, not just because they root the resurrection of Jesus firmly in the history of what for us is the real world of space and time. They are also of value because they reveal the possibility that we too, in our own way, even in far less spectacular fashion, can know the living presence of our risen Lord. Jesus is there for us at the Eucharist, yes, but at other times and in other ways also. “I am with you always, to the end of the age” – his parting words in St Matthew’s Gospel. Take him at his word, and let him, in his own time and his own way, prove to you its truth.
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Sermon, St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
Easter Sunday, 27th March 2016
Acts 10, 34-43; St John 20, 1-18
There is no passage in the whole of Scripture more moving, more tender, more dramatic – but also more astonishing, and to some people more challenging – than St John’s description of the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Jesus. I’ll come back later to the astonishing and challenging aspects of the story, but let’s reflect first of all on what makes it so moving, so tender, so dramatic.
“Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’” My father had a great love of this story, but he was sometimes critical of the way in which he heard it read in church. For him, everything depended on the manner in which the single word ‘Mary’ was rendered. A whole world of meaning and emotion is packed into this word, if read with due feeling. Through the hearing of a single word – her own name – Mary knew beyond every shadow of doubt that her crucified Lord had risen from the dead and was standing bodily before her. There is no scriptural incident more moving, more tender, more dramatic than this, and if on this Easter Day we can capture even a tiny fraction of what Mary must have experienced, we will be blessed indeed.
But what makes this incident so astonishing and so challenging? I’m not thinking here of those who simply cannot believe in the reality or the possibility of life after death and who, therefore, cannot accept the historical truth of the gospel record. I’m thinking of people now, as then, who do believe in the resurrection, but who find this particular Easter story difficult to handle.
The unanimous testimony of the Four Gospels is that a number of Jesus’ friends and followers – male and female – witnessed the empty tomb. The empty tomb, however, was not in itself any proof of his resurrection. There could have been a number of possible explanations for Jesus’ physical remains to have gone missing. Only his bodily reappearing was sufficient to establish the fact that he had truly risen from the dead. The astonishing and challenging circumstance of his reappearance was that Mary Magdalene was the first and earliest witness to the resurrection.
That a woman should have been the earliest witness to the resurrection became a very inconvenient truth indeed. We are accustomed nowadays to hearing the criticism that in Islamic Sharia law the testimony of a woman is worth only half that of a man. But this bias against women isn’t only found in Islam. It was widespread throughout much of the Ancient World. So what possible incentive would St John have had to report Mary as having been the first and earliest witness to the resurrection of Jesus, unless he were recording what was known to be the truth? If the resurrection stories were nothing more than pious inventions, we might well find St John attributing to Peter the role of prime witness.
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles we have a good example of how the resurrection was proclaimed by the earliest Christians. “God raised [Jesus] on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” These are Peter’s words, and they are true as far as they go, but there’s no mention here of Mary Magdalene as having been the first and earliest witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, she isn’t mentioned anywhere in the New Testament apart from the Gospels. Now I know that arguments from silence can be dangerous, but could it be that even within the pages of the New Testament the central role of the outstanding women who followed Jesus was already being downplayed? As the good news of Jesus spread out into a pagan world where women were relegated to an inferior role in society, the Church became increasingly male-dominated, and it’s only been during the lifetime of most of us here today that this terrible injustice has been generally recognised for what it is – absurd.
What I’m about to offer is an example of the wider problem rather than a criticism of one particular denomination. On Easter Day around ten years ago, I was listening to the Gospel being read from St John chapter 20. It’s to the credit of our own Scottish Episcopal Church that our current Lectionary, approved in the 1990s, includes within today’s Gospel the meeting between Jesus and Mary, but on the non-Scottish Episcopal occasion I’m speaking of, the reading stopped short at the point where the disciples are recorded as having returned to their homes. Why, I wondered, were we not being allowed to hear that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection? Perhaps we would hear of Mary on one of the subsequent Sundays of Easter? No! A quick check through my service book revealed that this crucial incident was completely ignored in every one of the Sunday readings. But out of fairness we should note that the earlier lectionaries of our own Anglican tradition reveal the same injustice where Mary Magdalene is concerned. Her inconvenient prominence right at the heart of the Easter story has been too much for a male-dominated Church to stomach down through the centuries.
Now it’s not only the simple fact that Mary Magdalene was a woman that makes her presence here at the heart of the Easter Gospel so astonishing and challenging. Perhaps in order further to relegate her to the shadows, the early Western Church merged her identity with that of the unnamed woman of questionable morality described in St Luke’s Gospel chapter 7. That unnamed woman is recorded as having washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, but it’s perniciously speculative to assert that she and Mary Magdalene were one and the same person. This false identification will be another reason why down through the centuries Mary’s crucial role as the first witness to the resurrection has been downplayed. Jesus, by way of contrast, was lovingly open-hearted to all the women whom he is recorded as having encountered. So even if Mary Magdalene and the unnamed woman of St Luke chapter 7 had been one and the same, that wouldn’t have been any problem where Jesus was concerned. The same, alas, cannot always be said of his Church.
Let’s consider more briefly what seems a strange point of detail in today’s Gospel. “Do not hold on to me,” said Jesus to Mary, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Why did he discourage Mary from reaching out and hugging him? There have been all kinds of complicated explanations regarding why he should have said this. To me, the simplest explanation has to do with the awesome physical miracle that had just taken place inside the tomb. Jesus’ dead body hadn’t vanished; it had been brought back to life, but in such a way that though he could eat and drink just as he had before, he could also pass through closed doors and appear and disappear at will. It was the real Jesus who appeared to the witnesses of his resurrection, but his body was now transformed into what it needed to be in order to be able to function, not just on this earthly plane, but in the splendour of heaven. A massively powerful physical event had taken place inside the tomb, an event that fundamentally transformed the atoms and molecules of Jesus’ dead body. Could it be that in the immediate aftermath of his resurrection, Jesus’ body was too unsafe for Mary to be able to touch him? Why not, if we believe that the resurrection was a physical event in the real world of space and time?
When we say together the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm our belief in the resurrection of the body. What we mean by this, and what Jesus shows us by his resurrection, is that in heaven we won’t be disembodied spirits floating around in empty space. As with Jesus himself, what we have been here on earth, we shall be in heaven, but in heaven our reality, like his, shall immeasurably transcend the limitations of our physical existence here on earth. All that the scriptures teach us, all the evidence shared with us by generations of seers and mystics, and all that those privileged to have passed through a near-death experience are able to tell us, is that heaven is infinitely more real, infinitely more beautiful than anything we can ever know during our lives here on earth.
“Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’” Listen today for Jesus calling you by name, and find in his risen life the confidence that we too shall rise to be with him, and with one another, in the joys of eternity.
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Sermon, Dundee St Martin’s, 28th February 2016
3rd Sunday of Lent
Luke 13, 1-9
Most of us here will probably know where we were around lunchtime on Sunday 30th June, 2013. Perhaps the date may not ring a bell for all of us, but the event certainly does. It was the day they blew up the Hilltown Flats out there, and the day they didn’t flatten St Martin’s Church in the process!
On my way home that Sunday, I took two photographs from the car park at the Fife end of the Tay Bridge. In the first photograph, the Hilltown Flats are the most prominent feature on the distant skyline. In the second one, taken from exactly the same spot a second or two after the explosion, all you can see on the skyline is a cloud of dust.
No one came to any harm when the Flats were reduced to rubble, but the same can’t be said of a tower whose collapse is recorded in today’s Gospel. Nothing is known of the tower of Siloam, other than what is recorded here by St Luke, but eighteen people were killed when it fell.
There’s a terrible falsehood that many believed two thousand years ago, and that too many still believe nowadays. It’s this: Good things inevitably happen to good people, and bad things inevitably happen to bad people. One half of this terrible falsehood is given unfortunate expression in the musical and film, The Sound of Music:
Nothing comes from nothing,
Nothing ever could.
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good.
Whether you’re thinking about something good that’s happened in your life, or something bad, if you ask the question, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’, you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not only untrue, but wickedly untrue to claim that good things inevitably happen to good people, and bad things to bad people. It’s wickedly untrue, because it encourages people either to become puffed-up with false conceit regarding their own self-worth, or to be consumed by the worst kind of self-loathing if things don’t work out well for them.
This is a falsehood that Jesus was determined to contradict. The occasion recorded by St Luke begins when Jesus is told of an atrocity ordered by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. A group of Galileans had been hacked to death in the course of a religious ceremony in which they were participating. This story has an ominously contemporaneous ring, as we consider the murderous outrages committed by the so-called Islamic State against Christians and other religious minorities.
And, taking our cue from the collapse of the tower of Siloam, if the relatively harmless destruction of the Hilltown Flats is little more than a footnote in the history of Dundee, the same can’t be said of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Ask an Islamist why several thousand people died on 9.11, and you’ll be told that it was because they were wicked unbelievers who deserved to die, and that the greatness of God was proclaimed through their destruction. This is the monstrous evil that our world is up against today, and whenever, for fear of not sounding ‘nice’, we fail to denounce that evil for what it is, we are in danger of implicitly condoning it.
Jesus made it perfectly clear in his teaching that there was nothing particularly bad about the murdered Galileans or the victims buried beneath the rubble of the tower of Siloam. But he did go on to say what some, then and now, would regard as having been less than nice: “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Could it be said that here is Jesus teaching that good things inevitably happen to good people, and bad things to bad people? But this isn’t what he means at all. He simply wants to jolt us out of any false sense of superiority when we compare our own relatively comfortable and uneventful lives against the lives of those far less fortunate than ourselves. It’s not because we are better than them that we are spared the things that they have to endure. In many cases they may be far better people than us. The point is that in the life of every single one of us there is always room for improvement, and that improvement begins with what Jesus calls “repentance”.
What is repentance? It’s an unpopular word because it conjures up images of the kind of ranting and raving that has always disfigured the Christian Church.
There’s the old story of the hell-fire preacher working up a head of steam in front of his squirming congregation: “Unless you all repent of your sins, you will be cast into the fires of hell, where there will be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth.” A couple of less-than-reputable characters were sitting down at the front. One of them looked up at the pulpit, pointed to his mouth, and called out, “Gnashin’ o’ teeth? Meenister, we’ve no goat ony teeth!” “Teeth,” roared the preacher, “teeth will be provided!”
A caricature, yes, but not wide of the mark regarding a too-common misconception regarding Jesus’ call to repentance. To repent isn’t to cringe in despairing self-mortification before a supposedly angry and condemnatory God. To repent is simply to think again about your life, and about what God is asking you to be and do, and to make whatever changes are necessary in order to bring you more into line with the life that God wants for you. In this Season of Lent, we need constantly to remind ourselves that true repentance may be a humbling experience, but it’s also a wonderfully refreshing and enriching activity that can transform both our individual lives, and the life of the world around us.
This takes us to the parable of the fig tree that constitutes the second part of today’s Gospel. “For three years,” complains the owner of the vineyard, “I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.” Always take note of the number 3 when you encounter it in the gospels. Often this is an invitation to focus on the three days that began with the death of Jesus on the Cross and concluded with the glory of his resurrection from the dead. But here, perhaps, we are invited also to consider a different three – the three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In particular, we should reflect on the role of Jesus’ disciples during those three years. What had the disciples themselves achieved over this time? A little, but not nearly enough. Like the fig tree in the parable, after three years they had failed to produce the abundant fruit that might have been expected of them as they accompanied Jesus.
The owner of the fig tree, however, didn’t have it cut down as useless. He ordered the soil around it to be loosened and manured. The tree was fed with the life-giving sustenance that would enable it to produce a harvest of fruit. After his three years of ministry, Jesus didn’t discard his disciples as useless. He fed them with the life-giving power of his resurrection, and equipped them through the gift of the Holy Spirit to go out and bear fruit. This they did, and the result was the immediate and astonishing growth of the Church.
At the end of their largely ineffectual three years as companions of Jesus, and in the light of his victory over death, the disciples had to think again about the direction of their lives. In other words, they had to repent. And repent they did! Filled with the inspiration and power that came to them through their risen Lord, they went out and proclaimed the good news of God’s love. And it’s only because of their decision to strike out in that new direction, only because, in other words, of their repentance, that you and I are here today!
What would have happened if the contractors responsible for demolishing the Hilltown Flats had got their calculations wrong? What if St Martin’s had been reduced to a pile of rubble like the tower of Siloam? Let’s not waste any time on negative speculation. I’ve a far more positive question I’d like us to ponder: What should we be doing now because St Martin’s wasn’t destroyed that day? We should see ourselves as being like the fig tree in the parable. Have we been spared simply in order that our life as a congregation can rumble on very much as it did before? Or are we being challenged to think again about what Our Lord is calling us to be and do in this area of our city?
Let’s use this season of Lent to think afresh of where we’re going. And in the power of Our Lord’s Resurrection, let’s strike out with confidence in everything new that he calls us to be and do.
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Sermon St Mary’s Broughty Ferry, 7th February 2016
Exodus 34, 29-35; Luke 9, 28-43
I heard once of a Church of Scotland minister who, in his weekly preaching, was working his way systematically through one of the gospels, chapter by chapter, verse by verse. It was quite a marathon, and would have taken a good many months to complete. But one Sunday, quite out of the blue, he launched into a new series on a different Bible book. He offered no explanation for this sudden change of tack. The reason became obvious when people looked up the gospel passage that he had been expected to preach on next. Yes, it was the event of which we heard this morning – the Transfiguration of Jesus.
The Transfiguration features prominently in each of the first three gospels, and its importance is evident in that it’s one of the appointed Feasts of the Church, celebrated each year on the 6th day of August. The Transfiguration has always been understood as constituting an important occasion in the life of Jesus. But it’s also an awesomely supernatural event that stretches the credulity of people who are comfortable only with a this-worldly view of reality. Regarding the minister who suddenly abandoned his preaching series, it was obvious to all concerned that he had no idea what on earth to say about the Transfiguration!
What do you make of this remarkable story? Picture yourself as a neutral observer on that mountain top. Would you have seen with your physical eyes the appearance of Jesus transformed into a dazzling white? Would you have seen with your physical eyes Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus? Would you have heard with your physical ears the voice of God: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him’? What I’m asking you to consider is whether you regard the Transfiguration of Jesus as having happened in the every-day world of space and time, or whether you might prefer to regard it as no more than some kind of inner and perhaps even illusory experience on the part of Peter, John and James.
I’ve offered you two choices: either the Transfiguration took place in what we normally refer to as the ‘real’ world, or it was a purely mental experience with no reality beyond the imaginations of the three disciples. But in offering you only these two choices, I’m creating a false distinction that can only prevent you from fully grasping what might have been happening on that mountain top.
What I would like to suggest is that the Transfiguration was a real event in the ‘real’ world. It’s something we would have seen if we, too, had been there with Jesus and his three closest disciples. But the reality of the Transfiguration wasn’t exclusively of this world. On that momentous day, in that very special place, what is normally thought of as being the impenetrable barrier between earth and heaven was shown to be anything but impenetrable.
Heaven isn’t a far-away realm, completely sealed off from the universe of space and time. Heaven is all around us, but meanwhile, as creatures of space and time, we must never neglect the practicalities of daily living. You all know the common accusation that some people are so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly use. If, however, we live day by day without any sense of heaven being all around us, our lives will be a pale shadow of what God wants them to be.
It’s always important to consider each individual gospel story in the light of its wider context, and this is how we need to approach the Transfiguration. The Gospels make it clear to us that in his teaching ministry Jesus was concerned to give his disciples early notice of what lay ahead. From a week before his account of the Transfiguration, St Luke records these words: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (9, 22) For reasons of his own, St Luke makes no mention of how the disciples reacted to this ominous warning, but St Matthew and St Mark record Peter’s horrified reaction: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” (Matt 16, 22) This was the occasion on which Jesus had sternly to rebuke Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” (16, 23)
Jesus may have surrounded himself with a willing band of disciples, but it’s easy to overlook the fact that on many occasions he must have felt a desperate loneliness, especially when he realised that even his closest followers simply couldn’t understand him.
I remember, many years ago now, leading a Bible study on the Transfiguration. A member of our group, who had only recently come to the fullness of Christian faith, made a beautiful comment. “You know,” he said, “I think Jesus must have been feeling a bit homesick.” He was referring, of course, to the appearing of Moses and Elijah. In his pre-incarnate life in heaven, the Eternal One who became Jesus had enjoyed the company of Moses, Elijah and all the great saints of Old Testament times. Unlike his uncomprehending disciples, Jesus’ friends in heaven knew and understood his purpose in coming to live among us, and the terrible ordeal of suffering, rejection and violent death that lay ahead of him. It’s little wonder that Jesus, in all the frailness of his human nature, sought comfort and reassurance at this time.
And so for Jesus the veil between heaven and earth was lifted, and his face shone with delight and joy as Moses and Elijah appeared before him. “They appeared in glory,” St Luke tells us, “and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Peter, John and James were terrified out of their wits. What they were witnessing was real, awesomely real, but not of this world. Heaven was seen to be all around them, and for a little while at least Jesus found relief from his desperate homesickness.
Why Moses, and why Elijah? On one level these spiritual giants represent between them the Law and the Prophets, the twin pillars of the Jewish Faith. But let’s dig a little deeper. Of all the great figures of the Old Testament era, Moses is the one who drew closest to God. In our first lesson we read of his own mountain-top experience, during which the veil between heaven and earth was lifted and his face shone with the radiance of eternity.
Jesus knew that after his death and resurrection he would be caught up into the glories of his heavenly home. This is what is meant by his Ascension, but there would be times in the course of his sufferings and death when that wonderful prospect would seem a dim and distant prospect. What else can we make of his terrible cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”? (Mark 15, 34)
Why was the presence of Elijah such an encouragement to Jesus at the time of his Transfiguration? The Second Book of Kings records the mysterious circumstances of Elijah’s departure from this life: “Elijah,” we’re told, “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” (2, 11) The direct renewal of his acquaintance with Elijah at this time, was to Jesus a reminder that no matter how dark and desperate life might be for us here on earth, heaven is our home, and to heaven we shall be called when the day of our departure dawns.
Is transfiguration, the lifting of the veil between earth and heaven, something that we can experience for ourselves? Of course it is! It may not happen in the spectacular fashion that it did for Moses, for Elijah, for Peter, John and James, and for Jesus himself, but at any time, and in any place the awareness of heaven can well up in our consciousness, and bathe us in the radiance of God.
For us, the veil between earth and heaven can be lifted at the Eucharist, in the stillness of an empty church, in prayer, in the ecstasy of worship, or when we sense deep down the presence of a departed loved one. We can experience the reality of heaven on earth in the depths of loving human relationships, in a beautiful landscape or seascape, or in the awesome glory of music and art. In any number of situations unique to ourselves, the personal experience of transfiguration can set us aglow with the awareness that heaven is all around us.
For some, the effects even of one transfiguration experience can last a lifetime. These compelling glimpses of eternity are a gift from God, and in their light we find hope and encouragement, just as Jesus himself did. Open your hearts to the assurance that heaven is all around us. Know this for a fact, and you will shine with a radiance that nothing can ever extinguish!
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Sermon, St Martin’s, Dundee, Sunday 17th January 2016
The Wedding at Cana: John 2, 1-11
It’s good to be here this morning in St Martin’s. As this was to be my first time with you, I thought I should do a little reading on the subject of the great Bishop of Tours after whom your church is named. Perhaps you’ll all be long familiar with the following story, but it’s worth repeating, because I found it helpful in trying to get my head round today’s very strange gospel story of the Wedding at Cana.
Whether this is history or legend, we don’t know, but it’s recorded that as a young soldier Martin was stationed at Amiens. Martin’s parents were pagans, but at this stage in his life he was under instruction in the Christian Faith. On a bitterly cold winter’s day, Martin encountered an almost naked beggar shivering at the city gate of Amiens. An inner voice impelled Martin to take his soldier’s sword, cut his own cloak in two, and give one half to the frozen beggar. During the following night, Martin had a dream in which he saw Jesus wearing the half of his cloak that he had given away to the beggar, and Jesus was saying, “Martin has covered me with this garment.” Martin realised that the inner voice had been that of Jesus himself, and in the light of this knowledge he sought Christian baptism at the earliest opportunity. Martin did what he had been told to do, and the life-changing decision to share his cloak with the beggar was a crucial factor in his being led eventually to be consecrated as one of the great bishops of the Christian Church.
At the Wedding in Cana, and faced with the wine having run out, Mary told the servants to do whatever Jesus told them. They were given a command to do something far stranger than Martin’s cutting of his cloak in two, but we’re told that they obeyed. On the assumption that a half pint of wine would put anyone over the current legal limit, I would calculate that we’re being invited to imagine that enough wine was created that day – at least 120 gallons – to lose around 2,000 drivers their licenses!
As I said earlier, this is a very strange story, but I don’t want to get side-tracked on the questions of how historical it is, or how symbolic some of its details. Behind these questions lies the more basic and general truth that whenever we obey the voice of God, or, more specifically, the voice of Jesus, remarkable things are liable to happen. “Do whatever he tells you,” and you never know what might happen next!
Let’s relate this general truth to the Seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.
We begin with Mary. No one, in all the history of the human race, has been asked to do more for God than this young Hebrew woman. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will give him the name Jesus. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Of Mary was asked her cooperation in the seemingly impossible. “How can this be,” she wondered, “since I am a virgin?” Her consent was asked, and she could have refused. But what was her response? “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
If Mary had been unwilling to cooperate in the seemingly impossible, and if no one else had been willing to take her place, then Jesus would never have been conceived, and God’s loving purpose for the human race would have been completely stymied. No wonder that at the Wedding at Cana Mary was able to say with such confidence, “Do whatever he tells you.” She knew from her own experience that out of such obedience wonders are born.
Now think of Joseph. He and Mary were engaged, and she was found to be pregnant. Who was the father? Joseph knew that he wasn’t, so he would have been entitled in Jewish law to call off the marriage and “expose [Mary] to public disgrace.” But in a dream he was told, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her 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.”
Like Mary, faced with the seemingly impossible, Joseph was prepared to go along with what was being asked of him. If Joseph had publicly denounced her, she might very well have been stoned to death, and Jesus would have perished with her. Instead, he let it be generally presumed that Mary’s child was also his own. Joseph did what he was told, and without his willing obedience, the wonder of Jesus’ life and ministry might never have been.
The Seasons of Advent and Christmas are grounded in the obedience of Mary and Joseph. We turn now to the Season of Epiphany.
Do whatever God tells you, and you never know what might happen next! Guided by their life-long study of the heavens, the Wise Men discerned the voice of God in the movements of a mysterious star. Convinced that they were being called obediently to follow that star, they found their way to Bethlehem, and there they paid homage to the infant Jesus. We’re told that the Wise Men were “overwhelmed with joy”, but that joy had been totally dependent upon their willingness to do what they were told.
Too often in the history of Scotland, and more generally in the history of Christendom, obedience to the voice of God has been thought of as joyless enslavement to constricting rules and regulations. Joyless enslavement? Our Anglican heritage begs to differ. Consider these familiar words: “Eternal God, the light of the minds that know you, the joy of the hearts that love you, and the strength of the wills that serve you: grant us so to know you, so to love you that we may truly serve you, whose service is perfect freedom…” Through their willingness to make the long journey that God was asking of them, the Wise Men entered into the light, joy and perfect freedom that are meant for all of us – if only we do whatever God tells us.
“Do whatever he tells you,” said Mary at the Wedding at Cana. Let’s reflect more solemnly for a few moments. Aren’t the murderous fanatics of the so-called Islamic State doing whatever they believe God is telling them? How can we say with confidence that God cannot possibly be ordering the unspeakable brutality of Isis? Jesus offers us a simple test: “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7, 16) Are light, joy and freedom the fruits of the Islamic State? No! Its fruits are darkness, misery and enslavement. And let us say also, in total honesty, that darkness, misery and enslavement have too often been spread by those who have imagined themselves to be true followers of Christ. The test that must be applied to Isis, we must apply also to ourselves and our own heritage. Only where light, joy and freedom are to be found, can we say that the voice of God is heard and obeyed.
Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men and also St Martin were obedient to the inner voice of God. Through their obedience their lives were wonderfully enriched, and through them enrichment spread to countless others. In our own relatively modest lives, we are called to follow their example.
Sometimes you know very well what God is asking of you, but you aren’t sure that you would be capable of doing it. Be confident of this, that with God’s call to service comes whatever strength you need to see it through.
Sometimes you know what God is asking of you, but you’re unwilling to face the effort or cost that would be demanded of you. Ask God to heal and transform your will, and then you’ll see the task in an entirely different light.
Sometimes you genuinely don’t know what God is asking of you. If that’s the case, you need to ask God for openness of mind and heart, so that you’re ready to hear God’s call when it comes.
In all circumstances we need the wisdom to recognize whether what we’re doing really is spreading light, joy and freedom, and if it isn’t, then perhaps God wants us to be doing something different. Often it’s only by trial and error that we discover what God wants. Even if it’s something seemingly as pointless as the equivalent of pouring 120 gallons of water into half a dozen stone jars, just do it! You never know what might happen next!
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