St Andrew, Brechin, 10th December 2017
Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40, 1-11; St Mark 1, 1-8
Every time I encounter today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, and the gospel accounts of the ministry of John the Baptist, I find myself taken back to a time in my mid-twenties when I was beginning to find the way out of a profound loss of faith.
Things had started to fall apart for me spiritually soon after leaving school, and throughout my years at university, even though I kept on going to church, I found it increasingly difficult to believe in the reality of God. There was nothing particularly unique about my experience, however, because lots of young people brought up in the Christian faith start to question what they were taught to believe in childhood. Many of them drift away from the Church and from any kind of belief in God, and increasingly few ever find their way back again. The disturbing absence of so many younger adults in our churches today is evidence of this drift.
True faith in God is never a matter of making yourself believe what someone else has told you to believe; it must be grounded in some kind of personal experience. In the same kind of way, people cannot make themselves fall in love with one another; it’s something that happens, and unless it’s rooted in their personal experience of one another, it’s simply not appropriate to call it love in the full sense. So, people cannot be made to believe in God; something has to happen deep down in their personal lives.
The challenge facing us in our churches today is that for most people believing in God simply isn’t happening, and some of the people for whom it isn’t happening are, as I was in my early twenties, still attending church. The last thing we should ever want to do is make them feel unwelcome, but unless the church is the kind of place where difficult questions regarding the reality of God can be raised and sensitively discussed, we will never find ourselves in the position of being able to help people with what, surely, is their deepest need of all – finding a meaning for life, and finding that meaning in God.
In the Season of Advent, we focus our attention on the world and the religious environment into which Jesus was born. Whatever else may be said of the years preceding the birth of Jesus, they were for many people a time of deep questioning very similar to our own today. If we today pretend that these questions either don’t exist, or don’t matter, the sceptical world out there will simply go on pretending that we, the Church, either don’t exist in any significant way, or have no relevance whatsoever to their own lives.
As part of my own journey back into faith, all those years ago now, I wrote a longish poem, much of which was based on the kind of imagery that we find in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, and in today’s gospel from St Mark. The poem’s title is ‘The Wilderness’, and I’m not going to read all of it to you, but it describes a journey through loss of faith into an elusive but deeper certainty.
The first section of the poem is based on the vision of the prophet Ezekiel, who saw a valley filled with dry bones that represented the people of Israel at a time of loss and despair similar to our world today. Ezekiel was called by God in his vision to prophesy to the bones and bring them back to life, but I took the liberty of adding a twist to the vision. As soon as the bones became alive again, I had them starting to fight one another, so that soon the valley was filled with dead bodies that before long would be bones again. The prophet blames God for having told him to prophesy the bones back into life, and God’s response is to ask, ‘Why did you listen to me?’ At a time when we, the people of the Church, are supposed to be taking on the world and all its woes, often we expend our limited energy in fighting one another instead.
In the second section of the poem, the valley of dry bones is transformed into the withered remnants of the Garden of Eden. God is again searching for Adam and Eve, and directs them to what are supposed to be the tree of life and a spring of living water, but they find only dust. Isn’t this exactly our problem as the Church today? We promise people life and hope and joy, if only they will come and join us, but sometimes their experience is the exact opposite.
There are two things I want to ask of you today, and the first is this: Be realistic, realistic regarding the challenges that face us as individual congregations struggling to survive with shrinking numbers and reduced resources, but realistic also regarding the challenges that face us in reaching out to a world that takes us less and less seriously from year to year. That’s the first thing I’m asking of you – realism.
But this is the Season of Advent, and if there’s one word that sums up this Season, it’s the word ‘hope’. So, the second thing I want to ask of you is this: Have hope. We have good reason to hope that the Christian Message is not going to be drowned in a torrent of secular ranting and fake news. We have good reason to hope that the Christian Church is not going to be obliterated by the combined forces of Islamist barbarism and materialistic consumerism. We have good reason to hope that our individual congregations are not doomed to extinction, and that they have a continuing and vital role in their communities.
Why do we have good reason to hope? Because God is the eternal ‘I AM’. God has not abandoned us. The presence of God is ever with us; the voice of God is never completely silent. Jesus in speaking of himself as the ‘I AM’, as he so often did in his teaching, gave us the assurance that in him were fulfilled all the promises that we remember each Advent. He is the Light of the World; he is the ‘I AM’, God with us, whose divine Presence we celebrate in the Holy Eucharist.
This brings me to the third section of the poem, which I read to you now:
A voice compelling me
to cry, cry, cry
in the wilderness, prepare
in the wilderness a cry.
Who are you, Lord or voice?
I am who you say
What can I cry
in the wilderness?
of the wilderness, you
who say I am.
is there to hear my cry?
The cry is yours, from you,
for you. What need have you
of hearers? Say I hear you,
say you hear my answer
in the echo of your cry.
‘Where are you, God?’ This is a desperate question that countless women and men fire out into the dark wilderness that constitutes the world of today. ‘Say I hear you,’ says God, ‘say you hear my answer in the echo of your cry.’
Did you follow the tragic recent story of the Argentinian submarine lost in the South Atlantic? For those sailors, alas, all hope is abandoned. May God have mercy on their souls, and comfort their loved ones. But while there was still hope, one of the techniques used to try to locate them will have been sonar. We’re familiar with sonar through old war films. A steady beeping sound is sent out, and when it echoes back from a nearby ship or other object, an analysis of the returning sound can give an indication of what it is that’s out there. It isn’t that an entirely different sound is transmitted back; it’s the same sound that was originally sent out, but when it echoes back it contains subtle differences that indicate the genuine presence of the other ship or object, and also provide information regarding its location and physical characteristics.
‘Say I hear you,’ says God, ‘say you hear my answer in the echo of your cry.’ The critics of Christianity sometimes accuse us of simply liking the sound of our own voice. They say that if we keep banging on about God the way we do, all that happens is that we start convincing ourselves that the things we believe really did come to us from someone or something out there, rather than from the depths of our own imaginations. But sometimes we do hear the voice of God concealed within the echo of our own cries and questionings. God is never completely silent.
So, this Advent, and this coming Christmas, listen for the voice of God, and perhaps you’ll be surprised at what you hear.
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Holy Rood, Carnoustie
Sunday 19th November, 2017
St Matthew 25, 14-30
I have an Italian friend who was brought up in a village high in the mountains of Tuscany. Growing up alongside my friend was a young lad who seemed to have little going for him. He was the despair of everyone who had an interest in his future welfare. It seemed that he could learn nothing, and do nothing worthwhile with his life. But that same lad, the contemporary of my friend, was to emigrate to Australia, and there discovered that he had an enormous talent for working with wrought iron. He started off repairing people’s gates, but soon he was designing and making his own gates, and then he started engaging other people to work for him. Eventually he established a thriving and expanding business, becoming a very successful entrepreneur.
To have become as successful as that, it’s obvious that he must have had more than just a single talent for working with wrought iron, but it was only when he started using that one special gift, that all his other potentialities were awakened.
I find this Italian’s life story a helpful way of entry into today’s parable from St Matthew’s Gospel. As told by Jesus, the parable seems a little remote from our world of experience. But as with most of Jesus’ parables, as soon as we try to spin too much out of the details, we’re liable to become distracted from the main point he was seeking to make.
What’s the main point of this parable? I think it’s this: At the conclusion of our lives here on earth, each of us as an individual will go through a process of evaluation. What did we make of our life here on earth? Now some people might prefer to see this process of evaluation as being conducted by God; others may prefer to see it as a process of self-evaluation. I don’t think we need to choose between these alternatives, because by then we’ll be seeing ourselves as God sees us, and by then there will be no hiding away from the truth regarding either what we were, or what we might have been.
That evaluation of our lives here on earth will not, however, be a matter of comparing our own lives with those of other people. You can think of this wrong view in two ways. You might find yourself pointing at someone else, and saying, ‘Look at him,’ or ‘look at her. I certainly did a lot better than that!’ On the other hand, you could point to someone else, and say, ‘Look at him,’ or ‘look at her. My life was a pathetic failure in comparison.’ No! In the great evaluation at the end of your life, God will look, and you will look, only at yourself. You will see with total clarity all that God made you able to be or do, and you will know then the extent to which you realised the potential with which God endowed you. What we are as human beings isn’t determined by what we are in comparison to one another; its determined by what we are in and as ourselves.
Look at how the parable begins: “The kingdom of heaven is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” ‘To each according to his ability’ is the crucial point to bear in mind here. A talent, remember, was a unit of currency in the time of Jesus. Telling the parable today, in this country, Jesus would speak in pounds, or, more likely, hundreds of pounds, or thousands of pounds.
Now why did the man give one of his slaves five talents? For the simple reason that that particular slave possessed the ability to make profitable use of that amount of money. The same was true of the slave to whom he gave two talents. But what of the third slave to whom he gave only one talent? Can you imagine that slave looking at his fellow-slave with five talents, and falsely thinking to himself, ‘If only I had been given five talents, what a lot I could do with my life. But he’s only given me one talent, and what use is that in comparison?
This leads us to a second way of stating the main point of the parable, and it’s this: The value of our lives isn’t determined by the number of abilities that each of us possesses; it’s determined by the use we make of whatever abilities we happen to have. What’s the point, you could ask, of boasting that you won the sack race at the local village fête, if you had it in you to win the London Marathon? But if you happened to be a little child who had never won a single race in your whole life thus far, might winning the sack race not awaken in you the realisation that you could be the winner of something far more important in life?
To return to the example with which I began, it was through the realisation that he had the skill to mend people’s gates, that the friend of my Italian friend made his fortune. He didn’t look back to his previous work, and think to himself, ‘What a bore to be doing this for the rest of my life.’ On the contrary, he looked forward to what the future might hold for him, and thought to himself, ‘What more could I make of this ability that I’ve discovered within myself?’
This brings me to a third way of expressing the main point of the parable, and it’s this: Make the fullest possible use that you can of the little you know you have, and then, perhaps, you’ll discover just how much more is already within you. If this isn’t too far-fetched an example, it’s as though you were to go out into your garden and dig up some potatoes, only to unearth beneath them a batch of gold nuggets! The man with only one talent had been given that one because he had within him the ability to make one more. The fact that he hadn’t the ability to make good use of five talents, didn’t mean that he was an individual of little or no worth. His potential value as a person consisted entirely in his ability to make profitable use of what had been given to him.
How can we best apply this parable of Jesus, to our individual lives as Christians, and to the life of our individual congregations?
Firstly, to our lives as individuals. Pretend for a moment that this for you is that great day of evaluation at the end of your life. Look at yourself, through your own eyes and through God’s eyes. What do you and God see? Whatever you may see, and however disappointed you might be at what you see, remember this: It’s not too late to take even one step closer to whatever it is you know God has made you able to be. Go home from church today, and do the one thing that for you could be a first step towards opening up a whole new world of possibilities. You have it in you. Get on with it, and perhaps you’ll be amazed at what follows.
Secondly, how can you relate this parable to the life of your church here? Now I’m not flannelling you when I say that I really look forward to celebrating the Eucharist here with you. I could tell you why, but I’m not going to. Ask yourselves, rather, this question: Why should anyone look forward to worshipping here? Look for everything that God has made you able to be and to do as a congregation, and get on with being that and doing that more and more. Be honest, of course, regarding anything that you’d be better not to be or to do. But look for your God-given abilities, and get on with the business of realising them to their full potential.
Are you wondering if I’m going to skate over the final reference in today’s Gospel to “weeping and gnashing of teeth?” Well, I’m not! The thing about weeping, and about gnashing of teeth, is that these are things we do ourselves, not things that are done to us. This takes us right back to the point I made earlier, that the evaluation that takes place at the conclusion of our lives is one that we ourselves conduct, through either our own eyes, or God’s eyes. I hope, then, you will see, not the things you never got round to doing, but to all that you did, and all that you were, because God made you that way. Go for it! That’s the best advice that jumps out at us through this parable.
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St Mary’s, Broughty Ferry
All Saints Sunday, 5th November 2017
Revelation 7, 9-17
I would feel sad if I thought there were people here today with no more journeys they would love to make, or no more places they would love to visit. As I look back over the years, I’m conscious of a good number of journeys and places that for me have been very special, and I feel grateful that it’s been possible for me to experience them. But I’m conscious also of the journeys I would like to have made, and of the places I would like to have visited. I’m sure I’m not alone among us this morning in accepting that I’ll never be able to fulfil all these dreams, but that doesn’t matter at all; the main thing is to keep on dreaming. It’s sad if we arrive at a stage in life where the future seems so bleak, so empty of every possible joy, that all we can do is hang on grimly from day to day, from week to week, never daring to hope for anything better.
We must be sensible about this, of course, for the passing years do find us living within a shrinking circle of possibilities. But if we try our best to confine our dreaming to what we can realistically acknowledge to be practicable, we’ll surely be able to draw up our own personal list of journeys still to make and places still to visit, and to do so in the hope that some at least of these dreams will come true.
This is the season of the year when we remember the loved ones who have gone before us, and sometimes we do so wistfully, remembering the dreams that for them remained unfulfilled. My father never did realise his lifelong dream of visiting the war grave in France of his own father, who was killed in action six months after his birth, but twice it’s been my privilege to make that journey, to pay that visit, and each time I’ve been conscious of the fact that I’ve been doing so, not just for myself, but for him as well.
Don’t forget, in this season of remembrance, that our departed loved ones are not only alive in God, but alive to us. May it be that they can see in us something at least of what they themselves longed to be. Their principal joy, of course, is joy in God and in one another, but why should they be denied the further joy of witnessing the fulfilment of our own dreams?
In case we should think this a hollow exercise in wishful thinking, remember these words of Jesus: “Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” When Jesus walked this earth, the great saints of old, whose company he had enjoyed in the fellowship of heaven, were hearing his every word, watching his every movement. Yes, they will have experienced the joy that he brought into the lives of those whom he healed and helped, but they will also, surely, have felt the Good Friday sorrow of Blessed Mary, of John and of Mary Magdalene, so movingly captured in our east window.
Our first reading from the book of Revelation evokes for us the “great multitude that no one [can] count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white…” John, the author of Revelation, was privileged to see that great multitude in heaven. And if it was possible and permissible for one among that number, namely Abraham, to witness the life and times of Jesus here on earth, is it not perfectly reasonable for us to believe that among that heavenly multitude there are those who with joy, though perhaps also with sorrow, can witness us in our lives and our times? Should this not spur us on to be, in God’s strength, the very best that we can be, and to the fulfilment of our dreams, not just concerning our own lives, but for our loved ones, our friends and our Church here at St Mary’s?
These words from the Epistle to the Hebrews are awesomely relevant in this Season of Remembrance: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us… run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfect of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” What these words tell us is that even as he hung and died upon the cross, apart from the terrible moments when he experienced for us the horror of God-forsakenness, Jesus was aware of the bigger picture. The two Marys and John had no idea what it was all for, and there are times in our lives when we can’t help wondering what it’s all for, and if God has forsaken us. But in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, they and all his earthly friends got the bigger picture, and now in heaven they witness all our lives and all our joys and sorrows.
There’s a beautiful reference in the Book of Revelation to heavenly beings falling on their knees before the crucified Lamb and holding in their hands “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” What can this mean but that in heaven the saints of God offer ceaseless prayers to our risen, ascended and enthroned Lord Jesus on behalf of all who need God’s grace and mercy? And why should the prayers of the saints, offered to God through the Lamb of God, our Great High Priest, not include us in all our need?
I began today by reflecting on the journeys and visits of which we here on earth dream. Ever since I fell in love with the German language and culture at school, it became my dream to journey down the River Rhine and visit the romantic and legendary Lorelei rock, towering high above the river gorge. I’m happy to say that I’ve been there twice in recent years, but now my dream has expanded. I would love the opportunity to cruise up the Rhine, to cross over to the Danube, and then to cruise down that other great European river until it disgorges into the Black Sea.
Perhaps – you never know! But if I can journey down the Danube one day, I will want to visit en route a remarkable neo-classical structure towering high above the river’s north bank. It’s called Walhalla, and it contains monuments to Germany’s greatest politicians, sovereigns, scientists, artists and saints. In the days of my youth, the horrors of Nazi Germany were so fresh in people’s minds that it was easy to forget the enormous contribution to our civilisation, down through the long centuries, of Germany’s great and good. Walhalla is a place of pilgrimage for Germans who wish to remember with gratitude the men and women who built and enriched their great nation. And also for foreigners who value all that is good in German culture, and who wander among its busts and memorials, Walhalla is a place of remembrance and thanksgiving.
But you don’t need to cruise down the Danube and visit Walhalla in order to have that kind of experience. All you need to do is spend a little time quietly wandering around our beautiful church here at Saint Mary’s. In window after window we are reminded of the great saints of God, most of them made known to us through the pages of the Bible, but some, like Margaret and Cuthbert, for example, outstanding servants of God in the history of our own nation.
Last Friday, visiting my son who lives in Bo’ness, I decided on impulse to journey up to the village of Shieldhill and visit the very first church of which I was minister. This brought back a flood of memories for us, but the building was locked. Even if it had been open, however, I wouldn’t have experienced the kind of rich remembrance that means so much to me here at Saint Mary’s. I find it a great joy to wander from window to window, and to say to each of the saints depicted here, ‘You are my friend in heaven, and I thank you for the inspiring quality of the life you lived here on earth, and the prayers that you now offer for me in heaven.’ Above all, in so many of our windows the person of Jesus is depicted in all his majesty and love. He is “the Lamb at the centre of the throne.” On this All Saints Sunday, let us rejoice in our risen Lord, and in the friends in heaven who sustain us through their prayers, and await us in the glories of heaven.
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St Salvador’s, Dundee, Sunday 24th September 2017
St Matthew 20, 1-16
My earliest years in the Christian Ministry were spent in a couple of former mining villages. Each village had its own primary school, and as the Parish Minister I was made welcome in these schools, and given the opportunity to visit the individual classrooms to speak with the children. On one occasion I decided to test out on the children the parable of Jesus that constitutes today’s Gospel: The Labourers in the Vineyard.
I drew up a table on the blackboard. Down the left-hand column I listed the various times of day on which the owner of the vineyard went out to the market-place to hire labourers. Some were hired at nine o’clock in the morning, some at noon, some at three o’clock, and the last at five o’clock. In the second column I entered the number of hours that each group of labourers would have worked.
This left the third column to be completed, and I explained to the children that I would enter there what each of the labourers was paid. I can’t remember what I told them the hourly rate would be, but if I were doing an exercise like this today I would probably make it ten pounds.
‘Well, girls and boys,’ I said, ‘let’s start with the labourers who did a full day’s work – nine hours. What would they be paid?’ The answer was simple: nine times ten equals ninety. I wrote ninety pounds at the top of the third column. ‘Now, girls and boys, what about the labourers who were hired at noon? They worked for six hours, so what do you think they were paid?’ I got the answer I was expecting: sixty pounds. I wrote that down. The other two groups of labourers had worked for three hours and one hour respectively. We did the same calculation for them, and the sums of thirty pounds and ten pounds were entered in the appropriate spaces in the table.
‘Now, girls and boys,’ I said, ‘I want you to listen very carefully to a story that Jesus told long ago.’ Making sure that I was reading it slowly enough for all the children to follow, I read to them what for us constitutes today’s Gospel. As soon as we reached the point where Jesus tells us that all the labourers were paid exactly the same – a full day’s wage – I could see a look of puzzlement on the faces of some of the children, and in others an expression of indignation. But I kept on reading, and at the end I went up to the table and crossed out the sixty pounds, the thirty pounds and the ten pounds, and alongside each of these figures wrote ninety pounds.
Well, you can just imagine how the children reacted as soon I gave them the opportunity to have their say. ‘That’s not fair,’ was the general consensus. And this, I should explain, was the early 1970s, the era of the Miners Strike and the heyday of trade union militancy. I formed the clear impression that there were one or two aspiring Arthur Scargills in that classroom! For perfectly understandable reasons the children insisted that the labourers who had worked for the full nine-hour day should have been paid far more than those who had only worked for one hour. I was left with quite a bit of explaining to do. What on earth had Jesus meant by telling a story like this, with at its heart a seemingly monstrous injustice?
Before I try to explain the meaning and purpose of this parable, there are three surface details of the story that need to be pointed out in the vineyard owner’s defence:
Firstly, the labourers who had worked for the full nine hours were paid exactly what they had been promised – the usual daily wage. And that was what they had agreed to accept. They hadn’t been cheated out of anything that was rightly theirs.
Secondly, there wasn’t any fault on the part of the labourers who had worked for less than the full nine hours. The simple fact was that no other employer had engaged their services. They had been willing to work for a full day, but the opportunity had been denied them.
Thirdly, the vineyard owner’s money was his own, and he had been perfectly entitled, if he so chose, to be generous to the labourers denied the opportunity of a full day’s work. So, the response to his generosity on the part of those who had worked all day amounted to envy.
Despite these mitigating factors, there remains something deeply unsatisfactory about this parable if, and I emphasise the word ‘if’, we take it as indicating the way in which the economy of a country should be run, or the way in which individual employers should behave towards their workers. Imagine how quickly the situation would degenerate into chaos and manifest injustice if everyone were automatically promised a full day’s pay regardless of the number of hours each individual had worked. Fewer and fewer people would bother turning up in the early morning, and the most cunning and unscrupulous among them would spend the bulk of their days doing whatever took their fancy, only to turn up at the last possible moment to do the minimum work necessary to earn their wage packet.
The thing we must realise is that Jesus never intended this parable to be a picture of how a country should be run, or of how, in worldly terms, employers should remunerate their workers. So, what is the purpose of this parable? The owner of the vineyard is intended by Jesus to be a picture of God, and the predominant lesson taught to us by this parable is the astonishing generosity of God. And what makes God’s generosity so astonishing is the fact that God offers it to all women and men, regardless of how much or how little they have done, or been able to do, to earn it for themselves.
The Christian Gospel isn’t grounded in any principle that the more we do for God, the more we will get back for ourselves, either in this life or in the life to come. Think of the penitent thief, crucified beside Jesus. What had he done to earn his way into heaven? Precious little, if anything. All that was required of him was to say, and to mean what he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And on the strength of this plea alone, Jesus was able to reassure him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Now just as my schoolchildren were shocked at the generosity of the vineyard owner in paying a full day’s wage to the labourers who had worked only one hour, so in the ears of many people does the generosity of God appear truly shocking when it seems to take no account whatsoever of how much or how little we have done for God during our earthly lives when it comes to the business of whether or not we are allowed to spend eternity in God’s nearer presence. But this is the Gospel, and if it flies in the face of what we consider to be natural justice, then that’s just too bad. The fact of the matter is that God is generous, God is gracious, no matter how late in the day we turn to God, either because the opportunity to do so never came our way in former years, or because we deliberately chose not to turn to God. If, even at the very last moment, we truly and sincerely open our hearts to God, we will never be turned away.
I have no doubt that the penitent thief left this world in a state of great bewilderment, with deep remorse at the wasted life he had lived here on earth, and with a great deal to learn about God. But might not this be said of all of us, to a greater or lesser extent? Yet the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ assures us that no matter how prepared, or unprepared, we might be to enter into God’s nearer presence, if we do so trusting in God’s mercy and generosity, we will not be turned away.
It’s in this spirit that we approach the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour. We come, not to satisfy any earthly need of food or drink, not boasting of how much we have done and are doing for God, but simply to say, with the penitent thief, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he shall, for he is, to us, the mercy, the generosity, the grace of God. “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”
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Church of the Holy Rood, Carnoustie
Sunday 10th September 2017
St Matthew 18, 15-20
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” These recorded words of Jesus are ones with which most, if not all, of us are very familiar. Usually they’re understood to be words of comfort and encouragement, and so they are. The enormous relevance of these words is obvious when we gather together, as we’re doing this morning, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. When Jesus tells us to do this in remembrance of him, the very last thing he has in mind is the kind of toasting of absent friends that might take place during the course of an official reception or formal dinner. In the context of the Eucharist, remembrance of Jesus involves far more than simply calling to mind the things he did and said during his life here on earth.
When we gather before the altar, we’re celebrating the living presence of our risen Lord. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their collective thoughts.’ What we remember at the Holy Eucharist is what Jesus says to us regarding the gifts of bread and wine that are brought forward for consecration. Of the bread he says, “This is my Body”; of the wine he says, “This is my Blood”. And we believe what he says. What we celebrate whenever we gather before the altar, is the presence of the crucified and risen Jesus, and in making himself present to us, he reminds us of all that he won for us by coming to dwell among us, as one of us.
One of the great privileges of celebrating the Sacrament, and of administering the chalice, is that you’re given a little precious time during which you can gaze into the chalice and contemplate the awesome mystery cradled in your hands. Today in our beautiful and moving Offertory Hymn, a great favourite of mine, we’ll sing of that mystery: “Sweet sacrament divine, hid in thy earthly home… In thy far depths doth shine thy Godhead’s majesty.” Make a special point today, as you receive in your hands the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation, to remember in his presence Our Lord Jesus and all that you owe to him. We here today are far more in number than two or three, but no matter how few or how many may be gathered before the altar, the promise of Christ always holds good: he is there among his people.
The final sentence of today’s Gospel records the comforting and encouraging words of Jesus upon which countless numbers of Christians have depended down through the long centuries, not least in times of personal trouble or sorrow. But did you notice the context in which these words of Jesus are recorded by St Matthew? Yes, he gives us these words as a general truth that’s valid in any and every circumstance, but he does so immediately after having dealt with the difficult issue of how to proceed when things go wrong.
The situation envisaged by St Matthew in which things have gone wrong, is that someone within the church has spoken or behaved in a manner that someone else has found offensive or hurtful. Set out here is the due process by which a matter like this should be resolved. First of all, the offended person or persons should have a private word with the individual or individuals concerned. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, the matter should be pursued in front of witnesses, and if even that doesn’t work, it becomes the responsibility of the whole church to decide on what should be done. As a last resort it may prove necessary, in effect, to excommunicate the offending individual or individuals.
What’s asked of us here is something that goes against the grain of the relatively free-and-easy, live-and-let-live culture both of our Scottish Episcopal Church and of our wider society. We can be very squeamish in the face of disagreement or conflict, and shy away from any course of action that could expose us to the charge of being judgemental towards others. The course of action set out in today’s Gospel is not one that would come naturally to most of us, most of the time.
But what follows in today’s Gospel creates a further difficulty. Envisaged here is a situation in which a decision has been reached by the church as a whole. St Matthew records Jesus as having said this: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Does this mean that whatever we today decide as the Church here on earth, God will automatically endorse? How could this possibly be?
Let me relate this to one very difficult contemporary issue: same-sex marriage. In view of how divisive this issue has proved to be, both within other provinces of the Anglican Communion, and in the wider Church, I’m impressed by the way in which our own Scottish Episcopal Church has wrestled with this question and approved a procedure that allows for same-sex marriage while respecting the conscience of individuals and congregations who cannot accept it. This, to me, is not indicative of a couldn’t-care-less free-and-easy attitude, but of the right kind of live-and-let-live approach that is so often the hallmark of our Province.
But just this past week a motion was proposed at the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia that both deplored our decision to allow same-sex marriage, and would have had the effect of excommunicating our two Provinces from one another. The excommunicating dimension of the motion, thankfully, wasn’t approved, though the fact remains that we and our sister Province in Australia are at loggerheads over this issue. And Jesus is reported by St Matthew as telling us that whatever [we] bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever [we] loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Which Province, therefore, can legitimately claim the endorsement of God?
Now this is just one issue among many upon which there’s no unanimity right across the ecumenical spectrum. How, therefore, can we hope to discern the mind of God in situations where there is no general agreement? Regarding these difficult words in today’s Gospel, is the way forward perhaps to recognise that Jesus here is addressing, not any and every branch of the Church for all time coming, but the Apostles whom he chose to lay the foundations of the Church for all time? As the Creed says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” The Church today, of which our Province is a branch, is apostolic, but not in the sense that we or our leaders are Apostles in the same way that the original disciples of Jesus were. We and our leaders, rather, are called by God continually to build upon the foundations laid by the original Apostles. And what we must never forget is that the Apostles themselves were building upon the foundations laid by Jesus himself.
As we immerse ourselves in the life and ministry of Jesus, as reflected in the Four Gospels, we encounter a Lord who was enormously sensitive to the individual circumstances of the men and women to whom he ministered, not least when their lives were all mixed up. The kind of judgementalism that has so often characterised the attitudes and behaviour of individuals and churches, finds no place in the ministry of Jesus, except when he confronts the same censoriousness and negativity in his own opponents that has occurred again and again in the history of the Church down through two millennia.
The lesson we need to learn from all this, is that if and whenever we try to settle our differences in forgetfulness of the fact that the risen Jesus stands forever in our midst, we are bound to become enemies of one another, as has so often happened down through the centuries. The Reality whom we celebrate in the Holy Eucharist, is the same Reality whose continual presence we should acknowledge and honour in all our life and activity and decision-making as his Church. If we let our life together begin and end at the altar, then perhaps we will find there God’s answer to the misery that afflicts both the Church and the world around us.
Let me conclude by quoting the second verse of our Offertory Hymn:
Sweet sacrament of peace,
dear home of every heart,
where restless yearnings cease,
and sorrows all depart,
there in thine ear all trustfully
we tell our tale of misery,
sweet sacrament of peace,
sweet sacrament of peace.
In a short while we’ll share that peace together. Let’s do so longing that the peace of Christ will embrace this congregation, this Diocese, our Province, our Anglican Communion and the Church of Jesus in all the world.
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St Mary’s Broughty Ferry, Sunday 2nd September 2017
Jeremiah 15, 15-21; Romans 12. 9-21; St Matthew 16, 21-28
Yesterday our Clergy Team, together with David Stanley our Lay Representative, attended a special meeting of our Diocesan Synod. The meeting was chaired by Bishop Mark Strange, our new Primus, and its purpose was to give us the opportunity to discuss our Episcopal vacancy, and the kind of qualities that we should hope to find in our next Bishop.
I’m sure that quite a number of our diocesan preachers this morning will have noted what St Paul has to say to us in our Second Reading from chapter twelve of the Epistle to the Romans, because his words could be addressed directly to our next Bishop. Let me paraphrase Paul’s words a little:
‘Dear Bishop, let your love for us be genuine; hate what is evil and promote whatever is good; give honour where honour is due; serve the Lord and us with zeal and enthusiasm; radiate a hopeful joy; be patient when things don’t go well; keep praying for us; look after our needs and be hospitable; seek the good even of those who oppose you; be with us in our joys and our sorrows; live at peace with all of us; don’t act high and mighty, but get alongside us ordinary folk; try not to show us how clever you are; don’t pay people back in the same way if they do you wrong; look for everything that is best.’
Who would want to be our next Bishop if all this is what we’re asking of him or her? But Paul isn’t writing these words only to bishops or to Church leaders. Earlier on in chapter twelve he writes these words: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you…” and he launches immediately into the practical advice that includes today’s Second Reading. This advice, as Paul says, is addressed to everyone, and that includes you and me. So it isn’t the case that we should be looking for a bishop with personal qualities far in excess of our own. On the contrary, our next Bishop should be able to look at us, and see in us the very same qualities that we are looking for in her or him.
Each of today’s Readings has something to say about the kind of person that we would like our next Bishop to be, and the kind of person that every single one of us should aspire to be. Note, for example, these words of the Lord given to us through the prophet Jeremiah: “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth.” Of course we hope that our bishops shall share with us the words that God wants us to hear, but it isn’t only bishops who bear this responsibility; it isn’t even the responsibility only of our clergy and lay readers. All of us, by the things that we say to one another and to all the people whom we encounter in our daily lives, are called to be God’s voice in the Church and in the world. So it’s important at all times that the words which pass our lips are, as Jeremiah says, precious and not worthless.
Do you have a favourite Saint? Apart from our Blessed Mother Mary, mine is St Teresa of Avila. These words of St Teresa are particularly appropriate in the light of all that I’ve been sharing with you this morning: “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks in compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
There are two adjectives that sum up all that I find so wonderful in St Teresa: ‘fearless’ and ‘formidable’. Woe betide even any bishop who stood in her way. But Christ doesn’t only want to find embodiment in the Church’s Episcopate and Priesthood; we are all called to be members of the Body of Christ, so we must never ask of our Pastors more than we are prepared to be ourselves. As Teresa says so eloquently, we are Christ’s body; we are his hands, his feet, his eyes. No one, and especially no bishop or priest, is appointed to fulfil this task on our behalf. We are all in this together.
This brings us to today’s Gospel. Look carefully at what St Matthew says here. Jesus is addressing his words to those who happened to be with him at that particular moment, in other words, to his immediate disciples, the Apostles, those closest to him. But what he goes on to say doesn’t relate only to his inner circle. What Jesus says is this: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” That word ‘any’ includes me and you. There are no double standards in the teachings of Our Lord. What he asks of one, he asks of all. What we should be looking for in our next Bishop, is what we should see in ourselves and in one another. Every single one of us is called to be a disciple of Jesus.
During this month of September, we here in Saint Mary’s are going to focus on two of the most fundamental aspects of discipleship, namely, the Word of God and prayer. Listening to God and speaking to God are not the kind of activities in which only bishops and priests are called to engage. God’s Word is addressed to every one of God’s people, and prayer is the means through which, as individuals and as Christ’s people together, we address words of our own to God. These two things – Word and prayer – also feature in today’s Readings.
Jeremiah expresses it so beautifully: “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart…” What do we mean by the ‘words’ of the Lord? We mean whatever God speaks to our hearts as we read the Holy Scriptures. In other words, whatever jumps out at you when you read or hear the text of the Bible, is what God is saying to you. It may be that what jumps out at you may not be the same as what jumps out at somebody else, but that doesn’t matter. It will often be the case that God is addressing a personal word to you, and it may not necessarily follow that God is saying precisely the same to the person next to you. On the other hand, marvellous things can happen when a lot of people together hear and take to heart exactly the same word from the Lord.
This hearing of the same word together is what we are hoping for here in Saint Mary’s during this month. Over these next twenty-eight days each of us is invited to embark upon what I’ve called an Odyssey through the New Testament, using the booklet I’ve prepared for this purpose. It doesn’t follow that every single day’s reading, comment and prayer suggestion will speak to all of us each time, but I certainly hope that as, to use Jeremiah’s metaphor, we ‘eat’ these words, they will become to us a joy and delight, and equip us more fully to be the kind of disciples that Christ wants us to be.
Jeremiah points us to the role of God’s Word. St Paul urges us to “persevere in prayer”. In the booklet, I’ve tried to avoid including the kind of prayer words that we can simply rattle off without giving them too much thought. What I’ve done is make suggestions that I hope flow out of that day’s Scripture passage, and that I hope will help you to devise words of your own as you open your heart to God.
Regarding prayer, let me just say this, with tongue in cheek, I hope you’ll realise: God would make a rotten English teacher. It doesn’t matter in the least to God how fluent or grammatical our attempts to express ourselves in prayer happen to be. God doesn’t listen to our voices; God listens to our hearts. It’s what we mean that matters to God, not how we try to say what we mean. To “persevere in prayer” is to keep prattling on to God in the sure knowledge that however unacceptable your words might be if offered in public worship, God understands exactly what you’re trying to say.
So this month of September we are devoting to the Word of God and to prayer. And in so doing, we seek, with God’s help, to become better disciples of Our Lord. Let’s hope that our next Bishop will find encouragement in what we in St Mary’s are making together of our discipleship.
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St Kessog’s, Auchterarder
Sunday 30th July 2017
1 Kings 3, 5-12; Romans 8, 26-39; St Matthew 13, 31-33 & 44-52
Today’s Gospel reading is all to do with the future, the future for which we hope, the future that will only be realised if the right kind of actions are taken in the present. Indeed, each of today’s readings invites us to look forward in a positive way to what God might be wishing for us as individuals, for our local congregations, for our Scottish Episcopal Church, and for the Church throughout the world.
In our Old Testament reading we find the newly-crowned King Solomon reflecting on the enormous task that lies ahead of him. “I am only a little child,” he says. He doesn’t mean this literally, of course, because by now he’s a young man, but he feels like a child as he faces the prospect of succeeding his father, the great King David. So this is Solomon’s prayer to God: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people.”
These words have an immediate relevance to your Diocese of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane and ours of Brechin, because in each the process is under way to find the bishop of God’s choice to lead us into the future. And just as Solomon prayed for an understanding mind, so we must pray for the people responsible for the current process in each of our dioceses, that they will be led to the right candidates to bring before us, and we must pray for the women or men eventually elected, that they will receive from God, as promised to Solomon, “a wise and discerning mind” to shepherd us in these uncertain times.
And these are uncertain times. Most church buildings were designed to accommodate more people than the number of regular attenders at the time, and this was expressive of the hope that the congregation would grow. So empty seats, or empty pews, is not a new phenomenon, but what is certainly new in most congregations is the increasing number of empty places compared with ten, twenty and thirty years ago. And in most congregations the average age of the regular Sunday congregation has been steadily rising. In one way this is a good sign, because more people than ever are living on into a reasonably healthy old age, but what cannot be disguised is the generally declining number of young people and younger adults.
The inevitable result of declining numbers is that the burden of maintaining even the status quo becomes heavier and heavier, and to stir up enthusiasm for new and challenging ventures can prove increasingly difficult. ‘We’ve never done anything like this before’ becomes an excuse not even to attempt whatever the proposal might be, rather than an expression of enthusiasm for a new idea that might make a transforming impact upon the life of the congregation. I’m sure, however, that both here at St Kessog’s and at St James’s you are able to point to things that have been suggested and tried since Tracy began her ministry in your midst, and that you are able to say that these things have been of real benefit to your life and witness.
Maintaining the status quo can become an increasingly onerous burden, but is maintaining the status quo what we‘re here for? Is this all that God is asking of us? Today’s gospel reading consists of a succession of short parables of Jesus, none of which has anything to do with maintaining the status quo. Two of these parables are to do with growth and with development. Let’s look at each of them in turn.
We begin with the mustard seed. Left on its own, a mustard seed is tiny and achieves nothing, but planted and nurtured it grows into a large shrub. Now as a shrub it will flower and produce its own seeds, which in turn can be planted to produce more shrubs. In other words, the seeds can be planted simply to maintain the status quo of the mustard species. But note how the parable ends. Out of a single tiny seed has grown a habitat for entirely different species, namely, the birds of the air.
Congregational growth starts with each individual offering herself or himself as a seed, but what are we offering ourselves for? Is it simply so that more people exactly the same as ourselves can fill our church and eventually take over from us the maintenance of the status quo? But where, out there in our communities, are all these people exactly the same as ourselves? I want to suggest to you that by and large they don’t exist. The world and its people have moved on, and if we are to have any continuing relevance in our communities, we have to let our churches become a home for people who may be very different from ourselves, just as in the parable there is a huge difference between a shrub and a bird. If, as it were, there are no birds nesting among us shrubs, then we’re not being what Jesus wants us to be. The Church exists primarily for the good of those who do not yet belong to it, and if we offer who we are and what we are with that aim in mind, though without in any way compromising or watering down the Good News of God’s love in and through Our Lord Jesus Christ, then we will see a revival of the Church in our time.
The second parable of growth has to do with yeast that transforms a stodgy lump of dough into a light and nutritious loaf of bread, but only if the leavened dough is fired in the oven. Some of us may be content to remain inert lumps of dough. Some of us may be prepared to accept the kind of leavening that does no more than enable our own self-development. But our calling is to become bread for the world, and that we will only be if we are prepared to endure the necessary heat of change, change in our lives as individuals and in our lives as congregations. Until we are oven-ready, and until we are fired by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, we will have little to offer the world into which Jesus wants to send us as his messengers and servants.
What of the next two parables, the treasure in the field, and the pearl of great value? These are, by implication, also parables of growth, but primarily they are parables of commitment. In each case it’s only by investing all that we have and all that we are in the pursuit of what we desire above all else, that the object of our desire becomes a reality in our lives as individuals and in our lives as congregations. Think of the Church as we should like it to be, and as it will need to be in order to survive in the future. Let that be your desired treasure, your desired pearl of great value. But what is it going to cost you, and are you prepared to bear that cost? These are parables of commitment, and without commitment there will be no treasure, no pearl of great value, no growth.
There’s one more parable in today’s Gospel, and you could say that it’s to do with success. The fishers cast their net into the sea, and bring in a large and very mixed catch. Some of the bystanders on the shore may be inclined to say, ‘Look at all that rubbish you’ve hauled in today. What a waste of time and effort!’ But the fishers will say, ‘No, look at all the good fish. Yes, it’ll take us a bit of time and effort to sort out the good from the bad, but today’s fishing has been really worthwhile.’
This is a parable of success, but we can be so blinded by the things that don’t work out for us, that we fail to notice all the good that has resulted from our endeavours. And sometimes we cling on far too long to the things that haven’t worked, instead of casting them aside so that we don’t squander any more of our time and effort on them, to the neglect of all the good things that are working.
What, finally, of today’s Epistle? We’ve looked at growth, and at success. What is it that makes growth and success a reality? Is it all to do with mere human endeavour? This glorious passage from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans reminds us that the securing of our future as individuals and as congregations is ultimately God’s work, not our own. There truly is nothing “in all creation [that can] separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What more can I say, therefore, except this: Go for it!
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St Martin’s Dundee
Sunday 16th July 2017
St Matthew 13, 1-9 & 18-23
Today’s Gospel is the well-known Parable of the Sower. The sower in the parable is usually thought of either as being Jesus himself, or as someone spreading the Good News of Jesus. The seed that the sower scatters is the Christian message, and the hearers of the message are usually invited to see themselves in one or other of the different types of soil on which the seed is scattered. ‘What type of soil am I?’ This is the question we’re normally invited to ask of ourselves, and it’s a valid and important question, because the seed that falls on the wrong kind of soil has no chance of growing to maturity.
There’s an alternative way of understanding this parable, and I want to look at that a little later, but meanwhile let’s take each kind of soil in turn, relate it to ourselves, and see how this more usual way of interpreting the parable works out in practice.
The scene pictured by Jesus is very different from what we would see nowadays. I live in rural Fife, and my house looks out directly on a broad expanse of fields. This summer a crop of barley is ripening almost on my doorstep. When our local farmer was planning to sow barley, he will have worked out the exact area to be covered, and will have bought in only the quantity of seed necessary to do the job. His farm equipment includes a machine that evenly distributes the correct amount of seed for the area concerned. Every care is taken to ensure that none of the expensive seed is wasted, and that it all lands in the good soil of the field itself.
The scene in our parable is very different. The farmer has none of the sophisticated machinery that we know nowadays, and the land at his disposal isn’t divided up neatly into the fenced-off and deep-ploughed fields with which we’re familiar. The farmer will have done the little he could to prepare the ground, but at the time of sowing all he has at his disposal is a basket of seeds which he holds in one arm as he scatters a handful here, a handful there, until the basket’s empty. Because the area he’s sowing is of varied quality in terms of potential fruitfulness, all he can do is hope that enough seed has landed in the right kind of ground. And that hope isn’t a vain one, because at harvest time he’s able to reap a good crop. It’s a primitive way of doing things by our modern standards, but it works for him.
Now as I said, ‘What type of soil am I?’ is the question we’re normally invited to ask of ourselves
Some of the seed sown by the sower fell on the path, and the birds ate it up. So you find yourself being asked if you’re the kind of person who hears the Christian message, but hasn’t a clue what it’s all about, so that very soon you can’t even remember what you heard. It’s all gone, and it’s done nothing for you.
Some of the seed sown by the sower fell on rocky ground, and because it couldn’t put down any roots, it grew for a little while then withered away. So you find yourself being asked if you’re the kind of person who hears the Christian message and responds to it with initial enthusiasm, but it never becomes deeply rooted in your life.
Some of the seed fell among thorns, and very soon these thorns choked the life out of the growing corn. So you find yourself being asked if you’re the kind of person who hears the Christian message, but is so overwhelmed with life’s troubles, or so preoccupied with material things, that a strong Christian commitment has no chance of developing in your life.
Some of the seed, however, fell on good ground, and yielded a fruitful harvest. So you find yourself being asked if your life is fertile ground in which the message of Jesus can take root, grow healthily, and result in a lifetime of productive Christian service.
‘What type of soil am I?’ This is the question that normally arises out of the parable of the sower, and though it isn’t a wrong question, it can lead us into an unhealthy kind of introspection, and leave us feeling that we’re no use, to ourselves, to other people, and especially to Jesus. If we’re not the right kind of soil, then what hope is there for us? But there’s another and far healthier way of interpreting the parable. Don’t think of yourself as the soil; think of yourself as the sower, and think of the good harvest that resulted, despite all the things that went wrong along the way.
How do you feel when you look back over the life you’ve lived down through the decades? It may just be me, but I have to confess that I have life-long tendency to think of someone I’ve known in the past, and immediately to remember something I wish I’d never said. Or I think of a situation from the past, and immediately think of something I wish I’d never done. But it’s too late. What was said or done can never be changed, and all I’m left with are vain regrets. To adopt the imagery of our parable, I find myself frequently in danger of asking if perhaps I’m just the wrong kind of soil.
All this came home to me thirty years ago, when I found myself, in my early forties, faced with a potentially life-threatening condition that, as you can see, had a happy outcome, but for a number of years I had to live in great uncertainty. In the midst of all that turmoil, I found myself overwhelmed with regrets at what seemed a catalogue of failures, and felt that I had been living my life totally in vain. But one day I sat down, pulled myself together, and wrote out a list of all the good things that had happened in my life, all the happy memories of people and situations where things had gone well, all the positive achievements regarding which I could, I hope humbly, but nevertheless honestly, feel a justified sense of pride. It was a surprisingly long list, and because I still have an inbuilt tendency to view the past through gloomy spectacles, I keep on having to remind myself that despite my many failures, I haven’t lived my life in vain. There has been, and there continues to be, a good harvest.
Imagine yourself in the position of the sower in Jesus’ parable. What do you see before you? It may be that your eyes are immediately drawn to all the things that haven’t gone well for you.
To raise a family is like sowing seed, and sometimes we can be bitterly disappointed at the outcome, especially if we we’re looking for the fulfilment in our children of dreams that never came true for ourselves. We can, let’s face it, sometimes feel great sadness as we look back over our years of parenthood and their eventual outcome, but were there never any good times; are there no lasting achievements to set alongside the failures?
The same kind of challenge can present itself as we look back over our working life. Was it all a waste of time? Did we apply to our work situation gifts and enthusiasms that at the end of the day achieved nothing, or has there been something at least to show for our endeavours? And think of our personal health situation as we approach our later years. Do we perhaps regret not having looked after ourselves better in the past, or have we been overtaken by health problems that seriously curtail our enjoyment of life and that can’t be put down to past neglect.
Don’t grieve over what you can’t do any longer. Think of all the positive good you can still achieve. I knew a woman once who had been bedridden with a severe arthritic condition throughout the whole of her adult life. She was an avid letter writer, and did a great deal of charitable work despite her physical helplessness. The overwhelmingly positive lesson of today’s parable is that despite all the discouragements, despite all the setbacks, despite all the efforts that came to nothing, there was a rich harvest.
Don’t do yourself down by thinking that you’re just not the right kind of soil to sustain a fruitful life. Think of yourself as the sower, and of all the potential that lies in the seed that you have scattered in good soil and in the seed that you still can scatter in days to come. None of us has lived a totally useless life; none of us faces a completely barren future. For all of us, by God’s grace, there has been, and shall be, a harvest worth reaping.
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St Martin’s, Dundee, Trinity Sunday, 11th June 2017
Genesis 1, 1 – 2, 4a
I’d like you to join me on a journey of imagination. Picture before you a blank sheet of paper. Now draw a picture that represents everything that exists. The simplest way to do this is to draw yourself at the centre of the sheet, and spreading out from the centre our church here, the city of Dundee, Scotland, the United Kingdom, the continent of Europe, our entire planet, the Solar System, our Galaxy, the billions of other galaxies, and everything else that belongs to the universe of space and time.
By now, I’m sure, your sheet of paper will be more than completely full, but this is only a mind game, so start again if you need to, and this time make sure that your picture of everything that exists occupies only the central area of the sheet. Next, draw a circle around your picture. Inside that circle is everything that exists; outside the circle is nothing, absolutely nothing. Now, in your imagination, rub out everything inside the circle. Everything that used to exist has now ceased to exist, and all you’re left with is a sheet of paper with an empty circle drawn on it.
Your next imagined task is to rub out the circle. What lies before you now is a representation of total nothingness, but our mind game isn’t finished yet, because the blank sheet of paper still exists in your imagination. Get rid of this as well, and all you’re left with is yourself, the imaginer, except that you aren’t imagining anything. But the one thing you cannot do now is imagine yourself out of existence, because you have to exist in order to imagine that you don’t exist!
Perhaps you feel that by now I’ve got your mind all tied up in knots, but if you do feel that way, don’t worry, because that’s how I begin to feel as soon as I try to imagine pure nothingness. It’s something I simply cannot do, even if on a really bad day, when everything is going wrong, I could wish that I and the entire universe had never existed!
At this point let me ask you one very important question: when you drew your picture of everything that exists, did you include God in that picture? If you did include God in your picture of everything that exists, and if in your imagination you then drew a circle round God and everything else, you were making a big mistake. Now please don’t feel insulted or offended when I say this, because it’s a very common mistake.
Look at it this way: If I were to draw for you a picture representing everything that is, you could point to any detail in that picture and ask me the same basic question, either regarding how it came into existence, or who made it. How did that flower come into existence? Who designed and built our bridges over the River Tay? How did the Solar System come into being? Who painted the Mona Lisa? You could add endless similar questions of your own, but the point I want to make is that if I were to include God in my picture of everything that is, you could rightly ask of me exactly the same kind of question: How did God come into existence? Who made God? And as soon as we ask questions like this, God ceases to be God, and becomes simply one object among countless others in the universe.
‘Who made God?’ is an excusable question on the lips of a little child, but it’s one that thinking believers should know better than to ask. The trouble is that sometimes we who believe in God do speak as though God were one entity among countless others in the universe, and then we don’t know what to say when people who don’t believe in God ask us who made God. It’s a legitimate question, but only if God is possessed of the same kind of reality as ourselves and everything else around us. If, however, God isn’t that kind of reality at all, then there’s no need to ask how God came into being, or who made God.
The opening verse of today’s reading from the Book of Genesis puts all this into perspective: “In the beginning…. God created the heavens and the earth.” God is the uncreated Creator; God wasn’t made by anyone or anything; God is the Maker of everything that is not God. What we’re told right in the opening verse of the Bible is that there was a beginning of all things. And if we try to cast our minds back to what there might have been before that beginning, we’re faced with two basic alternatives: either there was God, or there was total and absolute nothingness. And when people who choose not to believe in God opt for an alternative belief in prior nothingness, they invite this inevitable question: how can anything possibly come from nothing? If by ‘nothing’ is meant total, complete and absolute emptiness, then the question ‘Why isn’t there just nothing?’ can have only one answer, and it’s this: there never has been just nothing, because God exists from all eternity and to all eternity.
I began this morning by asking you to go on a journey of imagination, to take a blank sheet of paper, and to draw a picture of everything that exists. Once you had drawn and encircled your picture, rubbed it out again, and disposed of your paper, pencil and rubber, all you were left with was yourself, but the one thing you couldn’t get rid of was your imagining self, because you needed to exist in order to do any kind of imagining. The thing we have to realise, however, is that when we human beings create something in our imaginations, no matter how awesomely real it may seem to us, as long as it resides only in our imaginations, it isn’t real at all in the full sense. But with God things are very different, because when God imagines something, it becomes totally real, either in the mind of God, or as part of the universe of time and space.
Our reading from the Book of Genesis is punctuated again and again by the words, “And God said….” The reading would make just as much sense if for the word ‘said’ we were to substitute the word ‘imagined’. All that we are, all that we ever shall be, all that we ever see around us in this incredibly vast and amazing universe of ours, exists only because it originated in the imagination of the eternal God, and from the eternal God all this derives its reality.
I’m trying to share with you an understanding of God that doesn’t reduce God to a mere object alongside all the other objects that constitute our universe of time and space. God is the uncreated Creator. Before there ever was a universe, before even there was that higher dimension of being which we call heaven, in which by God’s grace we are created to dwell for all eternity, before all this, God existed, and everything that is not God, including ourselves, is the product of God’s creative imagining. God, in other words, isn’t some remote object totally detached from us and from our universe, but a dynamic Presence, in and through whom, as St Paul expressed it in his address to the rulers of Athens, “we live and move and have our being.”
Now I’m not dodging the fact that today is Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate the mystery of One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If, however, you start with the human Jesus and try to fit him into the mystery of God, then you face a very difficult task. But if you start with the eternal God in whose imagination the passion is forged to enter really and truly into the universe of space and time, in what more convincing way could that be achieved than to be born as one of us, truly divine, yet also truly human? And if you start with mysterious tongues of fire descending upon the Apostles at Pentecost, and try to deduce from these the reality of God, then again you run into difficulties. But if the eternal God is resolved to become an all-pervading Presence throughout the whole of creation, manifested in fire and power, why should this be so difficult to understand?
We believe in One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a dynamic God, rooted beyond all space and time, yet choosing to live among us as one of us, and filling the whole of creation with light and power. Only an eternal and omnipotent divine imagination could achieve all this, but this is the God who is, the God in whom we believe.
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St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
Pentecost, Sunday 4th June 2017
Acts 2, 1-21; St John 20, 19-23
What is the connection, in my mind, between the Festival of Pentecost and an electric kettle, not any electric kettle, but one that I encountered for no more than a few seconds about sixty years ago? Let me explain:
On the main bus route into Edinburgh from my family home there stands an old stone cottage. Nowadays it’s surrounded by modern houses, but in my childhood days it stood alone, neglected and to all appearances long-uninhabited. One afternoon my father and I went a walk in that area of the city, and found ourselves about to pass this cottage. To me it had always looked a bit mysterious, creepy, even, so I was delighted when my father suggested that perhaps we might take a closer look.
We picked our way through a tangle of vegetation, and headed for the front door. A single push was all that was necessary for it to swing open, and we found ourselves in a short corridor. An air of deadness hung over the whole place. We passed on into a completely empty room, bare and lifeless, except for one thing: on the floor, and plugged into a nearby socket, sat an electric kettle, and we could hear the sound of it about to come to the boil.
In an instant our feelings towards that seemingly derelict cottage changed. Curiosity gave way to acute embarrassment. “Let’s get out of here,” said my father, and we scuttled back into the street. And all because of an electric kettle! We had thought ourselves to be completely alone, but obviously we weren’t. Somewhere, inside or outside that building, there had been a human presence, and that presence had made itself known to us by the power that the kettle was drawing from the still alive electric circuitry, and whoever had switched on that kettle had done so for a purpose.
I make no apology for being alliterative this morning. ‘P’ stands for Presence, for Power and for Purpose. ‘P’ stands also for Pentecost, and aren’t Presence, Power and Purpose what Pentecost is all about? I’ve never forgotten that electric kettle, and for me that episode from my childhood years points to the very heart of what Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, means for us.
I wonder if you noticed an apparent discrepancy between our reading from the Acts of the Apostles and our Gospel passage from St John? In the second chapter of the Book of Acts we have the account of how, on the day of Pentecost, ten days after the Ascension, the Holy Spirit descended upon the embryonic band of Jesus’ followers, transforming and equipping them to carry the Gospel out into all the world. Had they and their successors not been filled with the Holy Spirit, their task would have been a hopeless one.
But now for the apparent discrepancy: As recorded in St John’s Gospel, late on the first Easter Day the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples, “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit….’” The clear implication of St John’s words is that the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit there and then, fifty days before the Day of Pentecost. So when did the Holy Spirit descend upon the first Christians? Was it on Easter Day, as St John implies, or at Pentecost as described in Acts?
The solution to this apparent discrepancy is obvious as soon as we ask a further question: Who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit isn’t some kind of invisible entity that exists apart from God; neither is the Holy Spirit something different from God but that emanates from within God. The Holy Spirit is God, and the vital thing to realise is that the Holy Spirit, as God, has existed from all eternity, and shall exist to all eternity.
There is no discrepancy here. The Holy Spirit was as present on Easter Day as on the Day of Pentecost, and, indeed, is as present to us today as on any other day since the dawn of creation. What we need to understand about the Day of Pentecost, however, is that the presence of the Holy Spirit was experienced on that occasion with an intensity that the followers of Jesus had never previously known, even on Easter Day, but, of course, at Easter their primary focus had been on the risen presence of Jesus himself. Now that Jesus had ascended to heaven, they needed the reassurance that God was still with them, and that reassurance came in the person of the Holy Spirit, symbolised in the tongues of fire that descended upon each of them.
But let’s get back to the electric kettle and what it can tell us about the Holy Spirit.
It was the near-boiling kettle that awoke in my father and me the realisation that this was no empty and abandoned cottage, but one pervaded by an unseen human presence. That cottage reflects, for me, the alternatives that face us as we contemplate the apparent emptiness and abandonment of our world, our universe. For two or three years during my time at university a private bit of me was trying desperately to embrace an atheist view of reality, but that was something I found impossible to sustain, for eventually a sense of Presence overwhelmed my whole being, and that Presence I knew to be the Eternal God. To say that God is the Holy Spirit is to say that God is no remote deity infinitely removed from the universe of time and space, but a Personal Presence who pervades all things.
Just as the electric kettle triggered my awareness of an unseen human presence in that cottage, so there are situations and occasions that for me trigger the awareness of God’s Presence. It can be something as simple as a beautiful landscape viewed through the windscreen of my car, or something as subtle as a particular combination of sounds in a passage of great music; it can be something as poignant as the realisation that all the wretchedness of this world cannot possibly be the ultimate nature of reality, or something as profound as the experience of gazing into eyes of unconditional love. Different things will, for each of us, trigger the awareness of God’s Presence, but God is Presence, and to sense that Presence is to sense God the Holy Spirit, who fills all things.
The letter ‘P’ points to our second word to do with Pentecost: the word Power. The apparently abandoned cottage was encircled by a ring of electrical power that on this occasion was being drawn upon to boil the kettle. God isn’t only Presence, but Power. How was it possible for the first Christians, so few in number, so ill-equipped in terms of their natural capabilities, to journey from town to town, from country to country, spreading the good news of Jesus in the face of ridicule, of persecution, and for many of a martyr’s death? God’s Presence with them was the Power that alone could enable them to succeed in this most momentous of tasks. That Presence, that Power, was God the Holy Spirit, and as we seek to be faithful servants of Jesus in our own time, we, too, need that same Power, or else all our labours will come to nothing.
Presence, Power, and now our third letter ‘P’: Purpose. Have you ever casually switched on an electric kettle but then forgotten all about it, so that you returned later to find it still warm, but having been boiled to no purpose? It was the realisation that the kettle in the cottage must have been switched on for a purpose that led my father and me to scuttle off the premises the way we did.
I hope this doesn’t sound too strange or elusive to grasp, but I would prefer not to say that God has purposes that we are being called to fulfil. I would rather say that God is Purpose. The purpose of a boiling kettle is external to, and separate from, the kettle itself. But to say that God is Purpose is to say that all that God desires to be and to do exists within the being of God. God’s Purpose as Presence and as Power is to fill the whole of creation and transform it into a heaven and earth made new.
There’s a lovely verse in today’s Psalm 104, that I prefer to quote in the King James Version: “Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.” For us, every day can be a Day of Pentecost as we experience God’s Presence, as we rely upon God’s Power, and as we are drawn into God’s innermost Being. That is God’s Purpose for time, for eternity, for you and for me.
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Church of the Holy Rood, Carnoustie
Sixth Sunday of Easter
21st May 2017
1 Peter 3, 13-22; St John 14, 15-21
One of the most dramatic moments in the Passion Story occurred when Peter was standing in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. Three times people came up to Peter and challenged him to admit that he was one of Jesus’ disciples, and three times he denied it, the final time cursing and swearing. Then the cock crowed, and Jesus turned and looked at Peter. We’re not told how Jesus felt at that that moment, but it will have been a look of sadness and pity, because Jesus had known in advance that this would happen. Peter, on the other hand, must have felt a desperate shame, for we’re told that he went out and wept bitterly.
But listen to that same Peter, writing many years later: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” Some might think it hypocritical of Peter to have offered this advice that we read in today’s Epistle. But that wouldn’t be fair. How is it that we know of Peter’s earlier and curse-laden denial? Its fullest account is found in St Mark’s Gospel, and there’s a reliable early tradition to the effect that this gospel was based on the reminiscences of Peter himself. In other words, Peter made no secret of the fact that he had let his Lord down very badly.
When we know, as Peter did, that we’ve messed things up badly, the least we can do is encourage others not to make the same mistake. This is what it often means to speak with the voice of experience. If we can’t avoid making mistakes, we should at least learn from them, and Peter certainly did, because if you trace his life of service through the Acts of the Apostles, you discover that he was a fearless witness to his Lord.
The story of Peter is a tale of remarkable ups and downs. He and his brother Andrew were the very first people to respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship. “Follow me,” said Jesus, “and I will make you fishers of men.” Then at the mid-point in Jesus’ ministry, on the road to Caesarea Philippi, it was Peter who most clearly recognised that Jesus was the promised Messiah. But immediately afterwards Peter let himself down by his refusal to accept the kind of Messiah that Jesus had come to be. “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus had to say to him.
The next down in Peter’s life was the one with which we began – his threefold denial of Jesus. But then came the resurrection of Jesus, and in St Mark’s account of how it was the women followers of Jesus who first encountered the awesome reality of the empty tomb, the angel who met them there instructed them to pass on this message: “[G]o, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there are you will see him, just as he told you.” Why did the angel single out Peter in this way? He will have known how utterly devastated Peter was at having let down his Master so badly.
Then there is the beautiful episode beside the Sea of Galilee, when over breakfast Jesus three times asked Peter if he really loved him. In St John’s Gospel we’re told that “Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’” This humiliating reminder of his previous denial was a further down in the life of Peter, but it was immediately followed by Jesus’ assurance that he hadn’t been written off as useless, but that a life of faithful service lay ahead of him. And new Peter had risen out of the ashes of failure.
But how could this new Peter, indeed, how could this tiny band of Jesus’ followers possibly accomplish the task that had been set them? How could they possibly, as Peter puts it in today’s Epistle, give a faithful account of the hope that had been born within them? “[D]o not be intimidated,” writes Peter, and here again is the voice of experience, for Peter certainly knew what it was to feel intimidated. What enabled Peter and the other earliest Christians to overcome all their fears and become faithful witnesses to the hope that had transformed their personal lives? The answer lay in the glorious event that we will celebrate a fortnight today, namely, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Even after they had experienced the presence of the risen Christ in their midst, something was still lacking in his followers. In themselves they lacked the power to be and do all that was being asked of them as witnesses to the Christian hope. Only the Power of God, only the Personal Presence of God could transform them into what they needed to be, and that Power, that Presence was poured out upon them in all its fullness on the day of Pentecost. On that day the Peter of former ups and downs became the fearless champion of the emerging Christian community, always ready to make his defence to anyone who demanded of him an account of the hope that was in him.
Did the events of the Day of Pentecost catch the followers of Jesus by surprise? It shouldn’t have, because even before his Cross and Resurrection he had taught them that the Holy Spirit would be given to them. This is what we heard in today’s Gospel. “I will ask the Father,” said Jesus, “and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever.” The word that our version renders as ‘Advocate’ is so rich in meaning that translators have always found it difficult to express. The original Greek word is ‘parakletos’, and from this we get our word ‘Paraclete’. Its literal meaning is ‘called across’.
If you find yourself engaged in a task that’s too difficult to do on your own, you’ll welcome the presence of someone whom you can call across to help you. When we set out to do the work to which God calls us, as the Paraclete, as the Holy Spirit God is ever waiting to be called across to assist us in this task. This is something we must always remember as the Church when we find ourselves confronted with the sobering reality of dwindling numbers and overstretched resources. We are never expected to do God’s work on our own; God is with us for ever, just as Jesus promised.
I’ll come back in closing to the word ‘Advocate’ and what it tells us of the Holy Spirit’s work on our behalf, but I thought it might be interesting to see what to see what our friends across the Channel have made of this rich word ‘parakletos’.
In my French Bible I find the word ‘consolateur’, the same as our English word ‘consoler’. A consoler can offer you a shoulder to cry on, and sometimes we need the presence of God for just that. But a consoler can also offer us an arm to lean on, and often the presence of a steadying arm is all we need to achieve a challenging task. For what is God offering you a consoling arm today?
What do our German friends make of the word ‘parakletos’? A translation I like is the word ‘Stellvertreter’, which means someone who takes your place, or acts on your behalf. There are situations in which all we can do is step aside and let God do all the work. And if we don’t step aside, if we insist on trying to do everything ourselves, God the Holy Spirit is allowed no room to do for us what is necessary. Is there anything that you are preventing God from doing for you because of your refusal to get out of the way?
Let’s drop in on the Italians. One of their translations offers the word ‘difensore’, which means ‘defender’. The Holy Spirit is the Power of God, and that Power is, if necessary, our defender. Is there some challenging situation in your life in which you feel the constant need of God’s protection? That protection is there in the Person of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, our English word ‘Advocate’. An advocate is someone who says on your behalf what you don’t know how to say for yourself. Whether you’re struggling with your prayer life, or faced with the challenge of defending your faith, the Holy Spirit wants to give you the words you need. Open your heart and mind to the Spirit’s leading, and you’ll be given what needs to be said.
The ‘parakletos’: called across to be beside you, your consoler, the One who takes your place, your defender, the One who speaks on your behalf. You don’t have to choose between these meanings. Choose each, as you require it. All this is the work of the promised Holy Spirit.
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St Mary’s Broughty Ferry, Third Sunday of Easter
30th April 2017
St Luke 24, 13-35
Have you ever written a letter to our Prime Minister? I felt tempted to do so recently, and in these terms: ‘Dear Mrs May, I’ve just heard the terrible news that you have called a general election for Thursday 8th June. I’m sorry, Prime Minister, but this simply will not do. Ross, my grandson, has a birthday party the following day. How can you possibly expect me to stay up all night watching the election results, and then drive all the way to South Ayrshire to be with my family? I beg you to reconsider this most inopportune decision, and choose a more suitable election date. Yours etc.’
I don’t expect I will be able to switch off my television on election night, and I will make every endeavour to attend Ross’s birthday party, so I suppose I’ll just have to drive carefully, because it’s a journey of some 120 miles each way. And that, as we learned from today’s gospel reading, is rather more than the 7 mile walking distance between Jerusalem and Emmaus.
Like me, countless motorists will have no alternative but to take to the road on Friday 9th June, the day after the General Election. For some it will be a happy day, but for others it will be a journey of sadness, of disappointment and of incredulity. It will be a journey of sadness because their party lost; a journey of disappointment because they find themselves coming to terms with the ‘other lot’ running the country; a journey of incredulity because they cannot understand why millions of people were so misguided as to vote for the ‘other lot’.
For some motorists on the day after the General Election their journey will be not dissimilar to that of the two disciples described in today’s Gospel. For Cleopas and his unnamed companion the sadness of defeat was lingering on. Jesus had been condemned to death and crucified. They had lost the dearest friend they had ever known. And on top of their sadness was the disappointment that all the hopes they had placed in Jesus had come to nothing. And to make matters even worse (and you can hear the incredulity of these two disciples) some women of their group had come back from Jesus’ tomb with the frankly unbelievable story of angels having told them that Jesus was alive.
Sadness, disappointment, incredulity: theirs was a wretched journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus that first Easter Day. The misery of their journey, however, was alleviated by the presence of the stranger who drew near and walked with them on their weary route home. Note carefully what we’re told regarding this stranger: “[T]heir eyes were kept from recognizing him.” We know, of course, that this stranger was the risen Jesus, but they didn’t, and it isn’t just the case that their grief was so intense, and their eyes so downcast that they failed to recognize Jesus. The clear implication of the text is that no matter how closely they had scrutinised this stranger, they still wouldn’t have realised who he was.
Did they recognize the risen Jesus once he started to explain to them how the Old Testament scriptures had foretold that the Messiah would suffer in the way he had, and only then enter into his glory? Well, we’re told that their hearts were burning within them as the stranger explained the scriptures to them, but still they had no idea that it was Jesus himself who was walking by their side. How did they come to recognize him? It was only when he entered into their house, sat at table with them, “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then,” we read, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” But immediately “he vanished from their sight.” They must have expected him to linger on in their company, but no! As soon as they realised who he was, he disappeared.
Jesus “had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” There are two questions we always need to ask ourselves when we’re reading the gospels. The first question is this: What will these events have meant to the people who were present with Jesus at the time? As far as today’s reading is concerned, the answer to this first question is obvious. Here, for them, was all the proof they needed of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But the second question we always need to ask ourselves is this: What will the record of these events have meant to the people for whom the gospel was written, in the case of St Luke’s Gospel a good number of decades after the earthly life of Jesus? For St Luke’s readers the story of the two disciples from Emmaus related directly to their own regular experience of the Eucharist.
What is St Luke saying to his readers? He’s saying this: ‘Here is the record of the very first Eucharist to have been celebrated in the history of the Christian Church. When you meet together to celebrate the Eucharist, exactly the same is happening as took place in that house in Emmaus. When you take the bread, when you pray in blessing over the bread, when you break the bread, and when you give the bread to one another, then with the opened eyes of faith you recognize the real and true presence of the risen and ever-living Jesus.’
What were St Luke’s readers intended to make of the fact that as soon as the bread had been given Jesus vanished from sight? We have to remember that Jesus had not yet ascended to heaven. His risen body wasn’t, however, the same as the restored body of Lazarus. The restored Lazarus had exactly the same kind of body as you and I have. Lazarus died again. We, too, shall die one day. But the risen Jesus didn’t have that kind of body any more. He was able to appear and disappear at will. There’s no record, however, of his having been able to make himself bodily and visibly present in more than one place at the one time. Why did he vanish from the house in Emmaus? To me the answer is simple: he had now to reveal his risen presence elsewhere.
As soon as Jesus had convinced Cleopas and his companion that he really had risen from the dead, the time had come for him to move on. But why didn’t he move on sooner, once he had explained to them the meaning of the scriptures concerning himself, and once he had witnessed the burning of their hearts within them? What St Luke wants his readers to understand about their own situation is that the life of the Christian Church is built upon the twin pillars of Word and Sacrament, and that the fullness of Jesus’ living presence is only experienced when Word and Sacrament are each given their rightful place.
Without the Word, without the Church’s teaching ministry, without the opening of the scriptures, the Sacrament becomes a quaint ritual whose meaning and purpose is not at all apparent. This is why, even if there is no sermon or homily when the Eucharist is celebrated, the words of the Liturgy have been designed in order to explain to us what it’s all about. Have you not experienced the warming of your heart during the Eucharistic Prayer, even before the bread is taken and consecrated? “Praise and thanksgiving be to you, Lord of all, for by the Cross eternal life is ours and death is swallowed up in victory. In the first light of Easter glory broke from the tomb and changed the women’s sorrow into joy….”
Heart-warming indeed! But more is needed, and it’s only when the bread is consecrated, broken and shared that what is proclaimed to us in the ministry of the Word becomes in the fullest sense the living presence of Jesus in our midst. Within our world-wide Anglican tradition there’s room for more than one understanding of the manner and mode of Jesus’ presence at the Eucharist, but the fact remains that his is a real presence. The Sacrament that we share today is in essence exactly the same as what took place at that first-ever Eucharist in Emmaus. That Eucharist wasn’t celebrated in Jesus’ absence, but in his risen presence, and so it has been for every Eucharist from that day to this. This is no mere memorial of something that happened two thousand years ago. And because the risen Christ is ascended and glorified, he is able to be present, unseen but real, whenever and wherever his people break bread together.
Whatever the choice you make at the General Election, choose today to set aside all sadness, disappointment and incredulity. Draw near with faith and receive the living Christ, our hope, our joy, our life in God.
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St Martin’s, Dundee
Easter Sunday, 16th April 2017
St Matthew 28, 1-10
Why is it always a good idea, if you can, to read more than one newspaper? The reason is that each individual newspaper will cover the same story, or the same event, from a different angle. This doesn’t mean that only one of the papers will carry the true version of events. It simply means that each individual reporter will focus on the things that she or he regards as being the most important. And the role of the editor comes into play here, for each individual newspaper will have its own particular view of the world, which it will want to project to its readers. So when you’re trying to get to the truth of what has happened, it’s helpful to be able to compare a number of newspaper accounts with each other, and when you discover the things upon which they are all agreed, you can be reasonably confident that these common factors are the closest to the truth that you’re likely to get.
Some people find themselves troubled by the fact that if you turn to the Four Gospels you get four differing accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus. This doesn’t mean that one of the Gospels must be true, and the other three less than true. It simply means that each of the gospel writers is recording the Resurrection of Jesus from a different perspective. But there are three things at least upon which the four gospel writers are found to be in complete agreement:
Firstly, they all testify to the fact of the empty tomb. The stone had been rolled away, and there was no trace of Jesus’ body. There were, of course, claims then – just as there have been ever since – that the body must have been stolen, but attempted explanations like that run into all kinds of difficulties. For a start, and as murderers down through the ages have discovered again and again, disposing of a dead body can prove extraordinarily difficult. The simpler explanation of the empty tomb is that something miraculous happened to the dead body of Jesus, so that it was no longer there.
Secondly, the Four Gospels all testify that women followers of Jesus were the first on the scene, and the first witnesses to the fact that something remarkable had happened inside the tomb. In those days there was nothing whatsoever to be gained by making up the story of women being the first witnesses, for the testimony of a woman was falsely accepted as being less reliable than that of a man. The Four Gospels tell us that the women were first on the scene because that is what actually happened, and if the first witnesses to the resurrection were women, I fail to understand how some churches and people can still argue that it is wrong for women to be priests or bishops.
Thirdly, each of the Gospels tells us that at least one angel was present either in or at the tomb of Jesus on that first Easter Day. I don’t know about you, but I would regard it as the height of arrogance for us humans to claim that there are no beings superior to ourselves in the whole of God’s creation. I’m not talking here about aliens from other planets; I’m talking about the heavenly realms, the higher planes of reality, and heaven as the highest. Are we to suppose that the heavenly realms are populated only by God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and the innumerable host of human saints, great and humble, who have left this earthly plane to spend eternity in God’s nearer presence? What is to prevent God from having created a host of heavenly beings whose role sometimes is to be an active presence in this world of time and space? These are the angels, and no less eminent an authority than the great Dr Billy Graham has written a book testifying to the reality of angels as God’s messengers.
Another contemporary writer on the subject of angels is Lorna Byrne, an Irish Catholic woman whom a friend and I went to hear speaking in Aberdeen just over a week ago. Perhaps you’ve seen her book, ‘Angels In My Hair’. She has just launched her latest one, ‘Angels At My Fingertips’. Lorna says that she sees our guardian angels, and I have no reason to disbelieve her. Neither have I any reason to disbelieve the Gospels when they tell us of the presence of angels at the tomb of the risen Jesus.
So the Four Gospels are united in testifying to the empty tomb, to women as the first witnesses of the Resurrection, and to the presence of angels. But there is one significant point of detail on which the gospel writers are not all agreed. St Luke makes no mention of the risen Jesus having appeared in Galilee. And when it comes to Jesus taking leave of his disciples at what we call the Ascension, St Matthew records it as having taken place in Galilee, whereas St Luke tells us that the Ascension took place in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. My own feeling is that it was for the followers of Jesus such an awesomely transcendental experience, that the question of its exact location took second place to the fact of its having happened. Let’s stick today with St Matthew’s account, and see what it tells us about the risen Jesus and his significance for us today.
On the wall of my living room I have two pictures mounted in a frame. Each is set on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In the first, at the start of his earthly ministry, Jesus is calling the fishermen in their boat to leave their nets and follow him. In the second picture, the risen Jesus – a scene depicted in St John’s Gospel – is calling the disciples out fishing to pull into the shore and share breakfast with him. One of my favourite modern hymns is ‘Lord, you have come to the seashore’. I asked for it to be sung a year-and-a-half ago at my ordination to the Diaconate in our Cathedral of St Paul, and every time I look at these two pictures on my wall, they remind me of this beautiful hymn with its haunting words:
Lord, you have come to the seashore,
neither searching for the rich nor the wise,
desiring only that I should follow.
What is so important about the risen Jesus having appeared to his disciples in Galilee? For most of them, and for the fishermen especially, Galilee was their native territory. In other words, Jesus came to them in all his risen glory right where they had been accustomed to living their normal lives. Galilee was where their homes were located; Galilee was their working environment. They didn’t have to go to some alien or exotic place in order to meet the risen Jesus; the risen Jesus came to them in the place that was most familiar to them, namely, the territory of Galilee into which they had been born, and to which they still belonged.
What this tells us is that we today must look for the presence of Jesus in our ordinary, everyday lives, and for us, of course, this must include the life that we share together here in St Martin’s. What are we doing when we come forward to receive the Communion of Christ’s Body and Blood? Are we, as it were, toasting an absent friend? Of course not! We are celebrating the Real Presence in our midst of the risen Jesus, who gives himself to us in and through the consecrated Bread and Wine.
And what of the life we live at home and, for some of us, at work? Home and work are our Galilee, and the risen Jesus seeks to be with us there also. Sensing his presence at home and at work can be a difficult thing because of all the pressures and demands of our daily life, but we must rest in the assurance that he is with us whether or not it feels as though he is.
To believe in the resurrection of Jesus is not simply to accept that something very wonderful happened two thousand years ago; it’s to believe, and to know, but the same Jesus is still with us today. May all of you experience his presence, in whatever way is best for you, this Easter Day and in all the days to come. Christ is risen – he is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia!
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St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
Passion Sunday, 5th of Lent, 2nd April 2017
Ezekiel 37, 1-14; St John 11, 1-45
Did it happen? I’m referring, of course, to the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Did it happen? Until we address this question, anything else we choose to say regarding this gospel story is only so much beating about the bush. Thousands of sermons will be preached on this passage today, and it’s only fair that those listening should have some idea of where the preacher is coming from.
I’ll return to the story of Lazarus shortly, but meanwhile you’ll remember that today’s Old Testament reading is also a story regarding the raising from the dead, not just of a single individual, but of what there is called a “vast multitude”. Did that happen? Not in any literal sense. The story of the dry bones records a frighteningly realistic vision that presented itself to the prophet, but it was only a vision. At no point are we asked to believe that this event took place in the ordinary, everyday world.
The Ezekiel story isn’t offered to us as a miracle, but as a vision of what God would do one day for the entire people of Israel. And that is what happened! After their long years of exile in Babylon, they were restored to their homeland, and were able to set about rebuilding their life as a nation. Ezekiel’s story of the valley of dry bones was only a vision of what was going to happen. In no sense was it a miracle.
But the Lazarus story is something very different, and for many people a real problem. Why are so many inclined not to believe the story of the raising of Lazarus? For the simple reason that it flies in the face of our common sense view of the world. There are, of course, any number of stories regarding people who were presumed to have died, but were subsequently discovered still to be alive. So down through the centuries there have been numerous attempts to argue that Lazarus wasn’t really and truly dead when he was placed in his tomb. The trouble with all these attempts to explain away the miracle is that usually the sceptics are prepared to take at face value the other details of the story. The only detail that they refuse to accept is the one that defies common sense. But how can we prove that even the common sense elements in the Lazarus story are a record of what actually happened?
It simply will not do to make your way through the Gospels and believe absolutely literally everything that common sense tells you could have happened, but then to discard the rest. How can you prove that even the things that could have happened really did happen? In most cases there is no independent means whatsoever of verifying the truth of what you’re reading. The story, for example, of Zacchaeus climbing up the sycamore tree to see Jesus is perfectly believable, but this doesn’t mean that therefore it must have happened.
Let me make it plain to you now that I’m prepared to accept that the story of the raising of Lazarus is a record of something that very probably did happen. I accept that Lazarus did die, did lie dead in his tomb for several days, and that Jesus did restore him to life. Why do I accept this? Because I’m some kind of fundamentalist who will believe anything, provided I find it written in the Bible? No! I ‘m prepared to accept that the raising of Lazarus very probably happened, for the simple reason that I believe the four Gospels to be a faithful record of the sort of things that the historical Jesus did and said.
The gospels reveal to us the sort of things that Jesus did and said, but I can’t take any single action or word attributed to Jesus, and prove that he must have done that, or must have said that. What I can do, however, is look at his recorded deeds and sayings as a whole, then ask this simple question: How on earth could the earliest Christians have got away with giving us, in the four Gospels, a record of Jesus that bore little or no relation to the real historical Jesus? More specifically, why on earth would Jesus have been portrayed as a worker of miracles if, in fact, he had never performed a single miracle in the whole of his earthly life?
I believe that Jesus was a miracle worker. And so, when it comes to a specific miracle like the raising of Lazarus, what I’m able to accept is that this is the sort of thing that Jesus could have done, and will have done. And that’s good enough for me. Having accepted the miracle as a matter of fact, I can then go on to explore what it means for us today. But there’s so much to be found in today’s Gospel, that I can only scratch the surface.
The first thing we should note is that this miracle, like every other recorded in the Gospels, had a purpose. Jesus didn’t work miracles purely for the fun of it! As we see early on in the Lazarus story, the purpose of this miracle was to reveal the glory of God. Where in our vast universe is the glory of God most in evidence? It’s revealed in the wonder of life.
God was glorified in the living Lazarus, and no one was more aware of this fact than Lazarus himself. How effectively do you and I radiate a sense of the presence of God by the way we use the miracle of life that God has planted within us? The glory of God isn’t revealed only in spectacular events like the raising of Lazarus. The challenge to us is to live our lives day by day in such a way that those around us are enabled to see within us the reality of God. This is what it means to reveal the glory of God. Before today is ended, try to have done even one thing that made it easier for someone else to sense the presence of God in you.
The second thing we should note in the Lazarus story is that Jesus didn’t rush immediately to Bethany. He allowed an already difficult situation to become even more difficult, and only after two days did he set out for Bethany. Neither Martha nor Mary could understand why Jesus had taken so long to respond to their urgent plea for help. Each of the sisters addressed to him the same complaint: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But the fact that Jesus postponed his response made possible an even greater miracle than if he had simply given healing to a still-living Lazarus.
Perhaps this can teach us something about the perennial problem of seemingly unanswered prayer. We always think that we know what’s best for us, and when God doesn’t give us what we ask for, or give it when we think God should, we sometimes start to question the love and wisdom of God. But God knows best, and we must always trust God to do what is best, even if we find it hard to understand God’s ways. So keep on praying, even if the answer – or the apparent absence of an answer – leaves you perplexed at times.
The third and last thing we should note in the story of Lazarus is the fact that Jesus wept before his tomb. Why did he weep? Surely he was about to perform one of his greatest miracles. But he was weeping in the face of life’s deepest sorrow – the loss of a loved one. The loss was, above all, that of Mary and Martha. When you believe in the reality of the life everlasting, it’s still perfectly normal and natural to feel horror and grief in the face of inevitable death, and it’s normal and natural that we should weep with others in their loss and grief.
But could it be – and this is for us to ponder in the season of Lent – that Jesus wept because of what he realised lay ahead of himself? The next time Jesus is recorded as weeping is in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the full horror of his impending death bore down upon him. Even the gentlest of deaths is an appalling phenomenon, but what Jesus faced – and faced for us – was death at its most horrible. The least we can do, as we prepare to enter into Passiontide, is to weep with Jesus and for Jesus.
“Take away the stone,” said Jesus. Is there a stone that for you needs to be taken away? When it is, perhaps in your life too there’s a miracle just waiting to happen!
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St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
Sunday 19th March 2017
St John 4, 5–42
One of the most moving episodes in the entire scripture story takes place at the Cross of Calvary. It’s a scene with which we here in Saint Mary’s are very familiar, because it’s depicted in the stained-glass windows above our altar. In the centre we see the crucified Jesus. To our left we see Mary, Jesus’ mother, and to our right the Apostle John.
Let me read the passage on which these windows are based: “Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” (St John 19, 25-27)
It’s true of many a great man that his mother played a deeply significant role in his human formation. Humanly speaking, none was greater than Jesus, but we should never allow ourselves to fall into the trap of imagining that his humanity came into our world pre-formed in heaven. The babe in the Bethlehem manger had no more humanity than any other baby born into this world. The human being whom we encounter in the Gospels grew into his perfect humanity, and that growth didn’t take place in a vacuum. Of all the human influences that shaped the humanity of Jesus as he emerged from infancy, through his years of childhood, and into adulthood, none will surely have been greater than that of his mother Mary.
This is not in any way to deny or neglect the uniquely divine status of Jesus as Son of his Father in heaven, or the fundamental importance for our salvation of the eternal bond between Father and Son. But we must never forget that Jesus was in every sense a true and full human being. For his having become the human person whom we meet in the gospels, no one is more deserving of credit and honour than the mother who brought him into the world. It was through her teaching and example that he learned the meaning of human perfection.
But Mary wasn’t mother to Jesus only. As I read to you earlier, in a very special sense Mary was appointed by Jesus to become the mother also of the Apostle John. We are told that John took Mary into his own home. Can you imagine any more formative merely human influence upon your own life than to welcome into your own home the mother of Our Lord? Would her presence not transform your whole being? Life could never possibly be the same again. What an influence for good Mary must have been in the life of John! And that influence is bound to be reflected in the Gospel that bears his name.
Towards the end of his Gospel, John writes these words: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and That through Believing You May Have Life in His Name.” (St John 20, 30-31) On what basis did John select the materials to be included in his gospel? As he himself says, he selected whatever he felt would be most helpful in bringing men and women to believe in Jesus. So if Mary had been taken into his own home, it must surely be the case that as they talked together endlessly about Jesus, her influence will have shaped and clarified his understanding of Jesus.
Today’s gospel reading is the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Samaria. What shines through this story is the enormous respect Jesus had for this woman, and I’ll come back to that in a few moments. But what we see here is just one example of what we encounter on a number of occasions as we read through St John’s Gospel. The Jesus whom John portrays was particularly sensitive towards women. He treasured their company, he showed them great kindness and courtesy, and supremely it was to one of their number, Mary Magdalene, that he accorded the supreme privilege of being the very first human being to whom he appeared in his resurrection glory.
Why did women mean so much to Jesus? With a mother like his, how could he not have grown up to respect them and revere them? And this, remember, was a society, like so many others throughout human history, that treated women as inferior beings compared with men. Jesus knew better, and so, eventually, did the Apostle John. For this, humanly speaking, we have Mary to thank.
Let’s turn now to today’s gospel reading, and find in it three wonderful examples of how Jesus related to women during his ministry:
The first thing to note is the fact that he was prepared to speak to her at all. John tells us that the disciples “were astonished that he was speaking with a woman”. And note that John himself was one of these disciples. What a lot John still had to learn! It simply wasn’t the done thing for pious Jewish men to engage in one-to-one conversation with women on their own. In our world today, not least in strict Islamic societies, the same rule applies. In the eyes of Jesus, any such rule was and is an abomination.
But let’s not pretend that the Christian Church has always been immune to such criticism. A dear friend of mine passed away a week or two ago. Sister Germaine was a Franciscan nun, and she used to tell how in her younger days if she or her fellow sisters happened to encounter a priest in a corridor or on a staircase, they were under strict instructions to keep their eyes down and never to look in his direction. He was a priest, a man, and to initiate any social contact with him was completely taboo. Could Jesus condone such a rule? Never!
The second thing to note is that Jesus was perfectly prepared to engage in a subtle theological conversation with the woman of Samaria. The fact that he began his encounter with her by asking for a drink of water, in no way implied that he saw the role of women as a menial one.
I’ll never forget the time in the early 1980s when I was watching the proceedings of the Labour Party Conference on television. The Party Chairman that year was the pugnacious Sam McCluskie, General Secretary of the Seamen’s Union and a bluntly-spoken Leith man. In one appallingly crass remark, for which quite rightly the assembled delegates howled him down, he referred to ‘the lassies making the tea’. The days of politics being men’s business are largely passed, but the churches still have some catching up to do in this respect. I wonder if, for example, our own Scottish Episcopal Church will soon appoint a bishop who happens to be a woman? Jesus was prepared to discuss theology and religious politics with the woman of Samaria. Can he be happy with the slow progress that some at least of his churches have made with regard to the equal status and function of women before God?
The third thing I would like us to note in this story is the sensitive, frank and non-judgemental way in which Jesus handled the woman of Samaria’s desperately tangled personal life. We’re used to hearing appalling stories these days of how women in some Islamic countries and communities are cruelly punished for sexual misdemeanours when the real blame should clearly have been apportioned to the man or men involved. But in more subtle ways the mindset sometimes prevails in our own culture that of course it must have been the woman’s fault all along.
Yes, Jesus speaks frankly of the woman’s marital confusion, but he does so, not in order to condemn her, but to heal and strengthen her, and in this he succeeded, for at the end of the story we find her, a former outcast within her own community, freely witnessing to the saving power of Jesus. Until she met Jesus, she had hidden herself away in shame, blaming herself for what may very well not have been her fault. But all that was now in the past. The unconditional love of Jesus set her free from all her fears.
Where, humanly speaking, did Jesus learn such a love? How did John the Apostle come so sensitively to portray the women who feature in his gospel? Both of them knew what it was to have sat at the feet of mother Mary. So this, a week early, is my sermon for Mothering Sunday! Thank God for mothers – especially for Mary!
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St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
Sunday 19th February 2017
Leviticus 19. 1-2, 9-18; St Matthew 5, 38-48
Of all the recorded words of Jesus, which are the most discouraging? I can’t think of anything more discouraging than what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel reading: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
“Be perfect.” I’ve never forgotten what someone said to my face many years ago: ‘I’ve never done anyone a bad turn in the whole of my life.’ I suppose that someone with the brass neck to say this wouldn’t find the command of Jesus to be perfect the least bit discouraging. But I wonder what such a person would make of the words that we say together at Holy Communion: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.” Why is it that we beseech the Lamb of God to have mercy upon us? It’s because we aren’t perfect. It’s because, even if only in little ways, we find ourselves sometimes doing bad turns to our fellow human beings.
Last Thursday I was in Edinburgh. With time to spare before catching my train home, I had a wander through an area of the Old Town that I’ve known and loved from my schooldays. Eventually I found myself heading down one of the flights of steps that lead in the direction of the Waverley Station. Halfway down I encountered a squatting beggar. With an embarrassed shake of my head I continued down the steps, and heard the familiar ‘Have a good day, sir’ ringing in my ears.
What would being perfect have required of me in that situation? It had troubled me to thread my way past the paper cup in which he was collecting whatever coinage the passers-by were prepared to fire in his direction, but there are so many street beggars these days, and so many stories about how some of them make quite a good living out of their trade, that it really is difficult to know how best to show them the kind of love that Jesus demands of us. And in case we fall into the trap of imagining that it was Jesus who originally thought up the command to love our neighbour – the command that we encounter in today’s gospel – we need always to remember the fact that this command is embedded in the moral teachings of the Old Testament also.
Both in today’s gospel and in today’s reading from the book of Leviticus, the command to love our neighbour stands out as the perpetual reproach that it’s meant to be. What would Jesus do, confronted with a street beggar? He certainly wouldn’t do what most of us probably do most of the time. With never a train to catch, and with none of the urgencies that dictate the often frantic pace of modern living, Jesus made time for anyone and everyone who turned to him for help. But Jesus – let’s face it – was perfect! He alone, of all the myriad human beings who have walked this earth, fully and totally embodied the neighbourly love that he asks of us. And who among us has ever, or could ever, match his perfection? Not one!
I told you earlier of the person who, to my face, claimed never to have done anyone a bad turn. I’ll tell you now of something that many years ago I was told someone had said of me behind my back: ‘Mr Neill says we are all sinners, and we don’t like that kind of thing.’ How do you suppose I felt on hearing this? My first reaction was puzzlement. Never in all my years of pulpit ministry have I addressed a congregation as ‘you sinners’, and never would I. Always, if I’ve felt it necessary to say anything of the kind, I’ve been careful to say ‘we sinners’, including myself in so doing. But the more I thought about it, the more it dawned on me that probably when I was saying ‘we sinners’, I was saying it in such a manner that to some of my hearers it sounded as though it was ‘you sinners’ that I really meant. But if you say ‘we sinners’ gently, if you say it humbly, if you say it in such a way that you’re manifestly including yourself, and if some people still take offence at your words, what can you do? Our liturgy doesn’t invite us to say ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on everyone else, but don’t bother about me, because I’m perfect and I don’t need your mercy.’
Look at the enormous challenge that confronts us in today’s reading from the book of Leviticus. Read it through, line after line, delving down deeper than the surface meaning of the words in order to expose the more searching principles that lie behind each command in turn. Jesus lived these commands to perfection. Do I? Do you? Do any of us?
Think now of today’s gospel reading. These past three weeks we’ve been visiting the Sermon on the Mount. One line of today’s reading certainly jumps out at me: “Give to everyone who begs from you….” What did I give to the beggar I encountered on the steps down to the Waverley Station? Nothing! What would Jesus have given him? Jesus would have given him whatever he knew to be best in the circumstances, and it might not have been money. Our problem is that often we don’t know what’s best in any given situation where we know we ought to show love to our neighbour. The result is that we end up doing nothing.
To claim that in any and every circumstance we are capable of being perfect is not only arrogant and self-deluded, but the height of absurdity. We are all sinners. We all come before God in need of mercy. Of all the recorded words of Jesus, therefore, none are more discouraging than what Jesus tells us at the conclusion of today’s gospel reading: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We must, of course, seek God’s help to be as holy, as perfect, as we can be, but always we’ll be left knowing that we could have done more, that we could have done better.
But now – and perhaps not before time! – let’s ask what are the most encouraging words ever uttered by Jesus. We don’t find them in today’s gospel, but St Luke records them as the very first words spoken by Jesus at his crucifixion: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” What is the most terrible sin to have been committed in the entire history of the human race? Is it not the doing to death of the One in whom the love of God was embodied to perfection? Again in St Luke, we hear the words of the penitent criminal who was crucified alongside Jesus: “[W]e are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Some people have the foolish notion that the heart of the Gospel – the Good News – of Jesus Christ is the command to love our neighbour as ourself. But this isn’t good news at all. It’s bad news, because the kind of love of neighbour demanded of us both in Leviticus and in the teachings of Jesus holds before us a standard of perfection which we can never hope to attain. The true good news is the grace of God that forgave even the crucifixion of Jesus. This is the grace upon which we depend each and every time we approach the Holy Table at the invitation of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Draw near with faith. In his body, broken for us, and in his blood, shed for us, is Christ’s gracious answer to me, to you, to every penitent sinner who turns to God for mercy.
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St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
Sunday 12th February 2017
Deuteronomy 30, 15-20; St Matthew 5, 21-37
How many motorists always keep strictly to the thirty miles per hour speed limit as they drive into Broughty Ferry? All of us, of course! But we’re the law-abiding exception. Aren’t we?
Speeding is a dangerous and expensive problem. How could this problem be solved? In a flight of fancy, I’d like us to imagine a hypothetical city that’s given complete autonomy over the setting of its speed limits. The council is holding a meeting to discuss the fact that very few motorists stick to thirty. But a traffic survey reveals that most drivers at least keep under forty. So the council decides to bow to reality and increase the speed limit to forty. What happens then? The majority of drivers simply increase their speed to well above forty, and the problem is no nearer a solution, but the good news is that most cars are at least doing under fifty. Yes, you’ve guessed what our hypothetical city council decides to do next! A new limit of fifty is set, and most drivers don’t stick to that either.
At this point the council decides to commission a detailed analysis of the accident statistics, and it becomes clear that there were far fewer accidents when the original speed limit of thirty miles per hour was in force. So the experiment is abandoned, and it’s back to thirty. This doesn’t result in most drivers sticking to thirty, but at least the accident level is back down to where it was originally.
No responsible authority, of course, would embark upon such an experiment. But this purely hypothetical scenario exposes a deeper question that underlies the choices that face any organised society. Should the law of the land reflect and legitimise whatever the current behaviour of most people happens to be, or should the law of the land set before people an ideal standard of behaviour that most of them won’t observe to perfection, but that will at least give to everyone a standard to aim for? Responsible authorities seek always what they hope will promote the best outcome for society as a whole. Sometimes they do feel it necessary to adjust the law so that it falls into line with current behaviour; sometimes, however, they think it best to maintain a more ideal standard in the hope that this will prevent things from getting any worse than they are at present.
Human nature being what it is, there can be no such thing as a perfect society. But if we lose our vision of what a perfect society would be like, or if we abandon any attempt to strive towards that ultimately unattainable perfection, we will end up either legitimising whatever happen to be the current norms of our society, or casting a blind eye to those whose destructive life choices fall short of these current norms. Either way, our society finds itself on a slippery slope downwards.
To return to the example with which I began, by increasing the speed limit to reflect the current behaviour of most drivers, all you succeed in doing is increasing the accident rate. Perhaps I’m showing my age when I say this – I hope not – but it’s my fear that our society – indeed, our whole world – is heading for an almighty car crash. And the only thing, humanly speaking, that can prevent this looming disaster is a return to the kind of ideals that are reflected in our Judaeo-Christian heritage.
Did the Jewish people of old always live according to the standards given to them by God? They certainly didn’t, but whenever they did, or at least whenever they tried to do so, things went better for them than they would have otherwise. This is reflected in today’s Old Testament reading from the book of Deuteronomy in words attributed to Moses: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”
In what here are called “the commandments of the Lord” we find the ideal standard that undergirded the social life of God’s ancient people. But successive generations found it impossible to follow these standards to perfection, so in practice, and unfortunately, they were modified in order to accommodate the imperfections of people’s everyday lives. This is the background to Jesus’ radical reworking of the law so as to restore it to its rightful place as the ideal to which God’s people should continually be striving. And so, in what we call the Sermon on the Mount, from which today’s gospel reading was taken, we find Jesus setting what appear to be impossibly high standards of behaviour, higher standards by far than the law of God, as originally given, was understood to be requiring.
Murder, for example, is an evil, but according to Jesus even to be angry with or to insult a fellow human being is as bad as murdering her or him. And to call someone a fool is to be worthy of hell! Adultery, says Jesus, is wrong, but equally wrong is the mere casting of lustful looks. These are, indeed, impossibly high standards, and they’re meant to be!
Then Jesus addresses the perennial and for many people agonising subject of divorce. Down through the centuries the Jewish authorities made divorce relatively easy – though only, alas, for the husband concerned. Jesus, however, laid down a rigorously high standard in this area that in some cases equated divorce with adultery, even where no physical adultery had taken place. Unfortunately, this ideal standard was found to be all-too-easily enforceable in the Christian centuries, and I can mention two very unfortunate car crash situations that have resulted. The first is the evils that accompanied the English Reformation because of the Pope’s refusal to grant a divorce to Henry VIII. The second car crash situation is the agony of divorced and remarried Roman Catholics, who to this day are officially denied the right to receive Holy Communion.
When we look at the rigorously high demands embodied in the Sermon on the Mount, it seems as though Jesus is digging for us a deep and treacherous hole from which we can find no possibility of escape. But this is to misunderstand his intentions. Jesus knew perfectly well that none of us can ever live up to the high ideals enshrined in his moral teaching, but he knew also that to abandon these ideals, and to replace them with lesser standards that reflect and legitimise the everyday behaviour of the average man or woman, would be to court disaster. The lower our legal and moral standards become, the easier it is for people to abandon any attempt to strive after the highest possible ideals.
So how do we escape from the hole that Jesus seems to have dug for us through his impossibly high ideals? It’s here that we need to notice just how revolutionary the teaching of Jesus was, compared with that of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy the Jewish people are taught that if they obey God’s commandments, God will bless them in the land that they are entering to possess. And if they don’t? Well, all that awaits them is condemnation. But with Jesus the word ‘if’ doesn’t enter into the equation. The attitude of Jesus towards us frail and fallible human beings is best expressed in these wonderful words: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8, 11)
Jesus doesn’t promise us that if we do not sin he will not condemn us. Jesus turns the teaching of Deuteronomy on its head. What he says to us is this: ‘I do not condemn you, therefore take to heart the standard of perfection that I have set before you in my teaching, and do your very best to live up to these ideals. But no matter how far short you fall of my standard of perfection, remember that my purpose is not to condemn you, but to lead you to the fullness of life that is enjoyed by all who follow me.’
The moral teachings of Jesus never commend or legitimise the second-best behaviour that characterises most of our lives for most of the time. The challenge remains to be the very best we possibly can, but when we have done our best, and even our best isn’t good enough, what we face isn’t condemnation, but the fullness of life in Jesus. It’s in this confidence that we draw near with faith to be nourished by the Body and Blood of Our Lord, so that in his strength we can go in peace all the better to love and serve him day by day.
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St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
Candlemas: Sunday 29th January, 2017
St Luke 2, 22-40
Two clergy friends bumped into one another one day. One of them was looking a bit stressed, so his friend asked him, ‘Is there something bothering you?’ ‘There certainly is,’ he replied. We’ve had a terrible invasion of bats at the church, and we just can’t get rid of them.’ Well, several months later these two clergy friends bumped into one another again, and the one who had been looking a bit stressed was now all smiles. ‘How did you get on with your bats?’ asked the other. ‘Just great,’ he replied. ‘And it was all very simple – I married them, I baptised their children, and that was the last we ever saw of them!’
I can’t help comparing those mythical bats with a young woman who belonged to my former Church of Scotland congregation in Ayr. When I first knew her, she was still living with her parents. She was a regular church attender, so it was a particular pleasure to officiate at her marriage a few years later. Her husband was not a church attender, but following her marriage I could guarantee that she would be in her usual seat Sunday after Sunday.
The best part of a year later it became increasingly obvious that she was pregnant with their first child, but never did she miss a single Sunday. Imagine my surprise one Sunday when I was taking leave of the congregation at the church door. Up she came towards me, carrying a bundle in her arms. It was her new-born child! She had gone into labour the previous Monday, and for her the most natural thing in the world had been to turn up at church on the very next Sunday. Thereafter, she and her baby were present every single week. You won’t be surprised to know that for me theirs was one of the happiest baptisms of my thirty years in the Kirk.
What a contrast with a giveaway remark I heard one time in conversation with a couple of strangers. Realising that I was a minister, one of them, having asked which was my church, said, ‘Well, the church we use is…’ – and it was named. ‘The church we use’ – these four words said it all as far as those people were concerned. Weddings, baptisms, funerals – the traditional rites of passage – these are the occasions when we are most likely to see those for whom the church is there simply to be used. I should add, however, that I always tried not to make such people feel unwelcome, for I never knew what seeds I might be sowing, but far more often than not I ended up disappointed. Like the bats, and unlike the young woman and her firstborn child, most of them were never again to be seen in church, unless it was the next occasion on which they felt it opportune to use us.
Today we celebrate the feast of Candlemas, whose proper date falls next Thursday. The name ‘Candlemas’ reflects the ancient tradition of lit candles being carried in procession to commemorate the carrying of the infant Jesus into the Temple, Jesus the Light of the World. Mary and Joseph may have been doing what was required of them by the law of Moses, but their bringing of Jesus into the Temple was to them the most natural thing in all the world, and we can be sure that sabbath after sabbath, as Jesus grew through boyhood into manhood, their normal and joyful practice was to take their places in the synagogue at Nazareth. Mary and Joseph were never mere users of the Temple or of their local synagogue. To them, and to Jesus, the house of God – whether Temple or synagogue – was their spiritual home, and there they were to be found week after week.
Those who merely use the church generally do so only on special occasions that relate to their own family circumstances. But for regular churchgoers special occasions have a far deeper significance, because they are, or should be, expressive of a living faith that brings them to church week by week.
Today’s gospel tells us of the special occasion – the rite of passage – that found Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple. It was forty days after Jesus’ birth, and the custom was for devout Jewish parents to mark that stage in their child’s life by bringing a sacrificial offering before God. But Jesus was no ordinary child, and this fact was recognised by two elderly people – Simeon and Anna – who saw in Jesus the Light of the World for whom they and all the devout among the Jewish people had long been waiting. For Mary, for Joseph, for Simeon and for Anna this was a very special occasion indeed.
St Luke tells us that Simeon took the infant Jesus in his arms and praised God in words of great spiritual beauty that have found their way into the regular devotions of the Christian Church. Their most familiar usage occurs during the Office of Evening Prayer, and they are never more beautiful or moving than when we hear their traditional wording set to music for Choral Evensong:
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation; Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
For Simeon the finding of the infant Jesus in the Temple was the consummation of a life devoted to hoping and waiting. We’re told by St Luke that “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” Simeon had never given up hoping that someday the fullness of God’s light would appear before him, and so he had been content to wait upon God to fulfil the Spirit’s promise. He was an old man now, conscious of the fact that his days on earth were numbered, but still he trusted that God wouldn’t let him down.
Some years ago I paid a final visit to a lifelong friend of my father, who lived in the Manchester area. I found him bedridden, and obviously drawing to the end of his life here on earth. I shared with him my confidence in the reality of the life everlasting, and he turned to me sad eyes. ‘Do you really think so?’ he asked, and it was clear to me that he had no such confidence himself. ‘Yes I do,’ was all I could say in reply, and I tried to do so in a way that I hoped he would find reassuring. But I left his bedside fairly certain that he, a regular churchgoer in his active years, had still not seen for himself the fullness of God’s light. I had, however, no reason to believe that he had actively rejected God’s mercy in Christ, so when I returned south for his funeral some months later, I found myself silently saying to this dear family friend, who had been the soul of kindness to me in my boyhood years, ‘Well, whether or not you departed in peace, you departed in response to the light of God that summoned you to the joys of eternity, and now, at least, your eyes have seen God’s salvation.’
But how much better that, like Simeon, we should discover now the fullness of God’s light, so that we can face our earthly life’s inevitable end in the confidence that there is nothing to fear in whatever might lie before us, either in time or in eternity. One of the most important lessons we can draw from the experience of Simeon is that it’s never too late to discover for ourselves the wonder of God’s salvation as it is found in Jesus.
If the Light of the World has already, in its fullness, shone into your heart, follow the example of Anna in praising God and witnessing to others of the child Jesus whose birth among us brought the redemption of the world. If, like my old family friend, you find yourself less than fully convinced of the life everlasting through God’s mercy in Christ, never stop hoping that someday the Light of the World will shine into your heart with an intensity that will banish every doubt, every fear.
For all of us, this and every Sunday should be a special occasion on which we give thanks – with Simeon, with Anna, with Mary, with Joseph and with all God’s saints – for the life everlasting that is found in Jesus. On this Candlemas come to the Holy Table where the Light of the World is shining for you, and as we return to our places, and then go out into the world, may the Light of the World, shine through us, that others may discover for themselves the wonder of life everlasting in Jesus.
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St Salvador’s, Dundee
The Second Sunday of Epiphany, 15th January 2016
St John 1, 29 – 42
A few weeks ago, half way through our service at St Mary’s Broughty Ferry, an unwelcome message was whispered in my ear: ‘I think your radio microphone has stopped working.’ Indeed it had! But I was in the fortunate position of having spent my early years of ministry in the Church of Scotland without the benefit of amplification of any kind, and during those years I developed what could be described as a big voice. Ever since, when occasionally required, that big voice has stood me in good stead!
I doubt, however, if I could ever have matched the vocal potency of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Victorian Baptist preacher. In 1857 Spurgeon had the unique opportunity to preach before a crowd of twenty-three thousand people in the massive Crystal Palace in London. According to his own account, a day or two before preaching at the Crystal Palace, he went there to decide where the platform should be fixed; and, in order to test the acoustic properties of the building, he employed the biggest voice he could muster to deliver a number of times these famous words of John the Baptist, words taken from the first verse of today’s Gospel: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” (Spurgeon was, of course, quoting from the King James Version.)
Now it so happened that a tradesman was working in one of the galleries of the Crystal Palace that day. Years later that tradesman, by then on his death-bed, told his remarkable story to a friend. He hadn’t been aware beforehand of Spurgeon’s intended visit to test out the building’s acoustics. All he knew was that the words, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” kept ringing in his ears. That man was a troubled soul, desperately in need of finding peace with God. He went home that day beholding with anguish the confusion in which his life had become enmeshed, but after a great deal of spiritual struggling, his mind became focused on the Lamb of God, whom he will have known to be Jesus. There and then he understood and took to heart that the Lamb of God had taken away his sins, and that in Jesus he had found new and eternal life.
It was John the Baptist who first described Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” These immortal words were early on incorporated into the Church’s Liturgy, and they find their rightful place at the point in the Eucharist where we are invited to come forward and receive for ourselves the living Christ. With our physical eyes we see only the consecrated bread and wine; with the eyes of faith we respond to the Baptist’s call and behold the Lamb of God who gave himself for us and for our salvation.
In today’s Gospel we’re told that on the next day “John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he [once more] exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’” Note carefully what happened next: “The two disciples heard [John] say this, and they followed Jesus.” Isn’t this exactly what happened so unexpectedly in the case of the tradesman minding his own business in the Crystal Palace? He heard and he followed.
I’m not aware of there being any record regarding the years that followed this man’s discovery of peace and life in and through Jesus. But of this we can be sure – lying on his death-bed, he could still look back to the day on which his life had been changed forever, and, acutely aware of his own mortality, could look forward with confidence to following Jesus into the light and joy of eternity. Had he, meanwhile, found his way into – or back into – the fold of the Church, so that his faith could be sustained and nurtured through Word and Sacrament? We simply do not know. But at the end of the day his heart was still in the right place – in the loving hands of the Lamb of God to whom it had been entrusted all those years ago.
To follow is both to set out on a journey, and to persevere in that journey. Over this past year, and approximately once a month, we at St Mary’s have been joining up on a Sunday afternoon with friends from an independent Christian fellowship based in nearby Barnhill. We meet downstairs at St Mary’s for informal discussion, followed by refreshments and a short time of worship together. This afternoon a few of us, myself included, have each been asked to say a few words about our own faith journey.
Let me share with you – because it’s relevant to today’s Gospel – something of what I’ll be saying this afternoon. For me, in the formal sense and in God’s eyes, the journey began at my baptism, two months after my birth. But on the conscious and deeply personal level, for me the decisive milestone was reached on Good Friday 1955. As a boy of nine I was listening alone in bed to Billy Graham preaching over the radio from the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. At the point where he invited people to come forward and give their lives to Christ, I found myself kneeling under my bedclothes and doing just that. And meanwhile, the choir were singing – as they always did at Billy Graham’s rallies – the hymn ‘Just as I am’. Each verse of that hymn ends with the words “O Lamb of God, I come.”
“O Lamb of God, I come.” – This was the response of the two disciples of John the Baptist of whom we read in today’s Gospel. One of them was Andrew, Scotland’s own Patron Saint. Andrew’s first impulse was to go and seek out his brother, so that he, too, could become a follower of Jesus. “O Lamb of God, I come.” – This was the response of Andrew’s brother, Simon Peter, chief among the Apostles. “O Lamb of God, I come.” – This was the response of the humble tradesman in whom faith in Christ was awakened through a mere sound test in the Crystal Palace. “O Lamb of God, I come.” – This is the response of all who hear and follow “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve:
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come.
I’m not comfortable with the hype and razzmatazz that so often accompany evangelistic and charismatic gatherings. My own comfort zone, like yours here in St Salvador’s, lies at the Catholic end of the spectrum. But unless our worship is grounded in our personal and positive response to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” we worship in vain. Ritual and ceremonial can wonderfully enhance and reinforce our faith, but in the absence of faith they achieve nothing worthwhile. In the Anglo-Catholic tradition we are able to enjoy the best of both worlds – on the one hand beautifully-ordered sanctuaries and ritual, richly-poetic prayer, sublime and ethereal music, and on the other hand the personal conviction that when we come forward to the altar in response to Christ’s invitation, we do so in the assurance that there we truly are fed, not with mere bread and wine, but with his own very self.
A few years before his untimely passing, my father told me of the hymns that he would like to be sung at his funeral service. Each was expressive of his own very deep personal faith. One of them, St Bernard of Clairvaux’s ‘Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts’, I asked to be sung at my priesting last year. Its third verse, for me, sums up everything that is essential to our faith journey and to our gathering before the altar:
We taste thee, O thou living bread,
and long to feast upon thee still;
we drink of thee, the fountain-head,
and thirst our souls from thee to fill.
“Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Is there any more fitting text than this for the Season of Epiphany? Epiphany is all about beholding, looking, recognising the Lamb of God as his glory is revealed in all the earth. But if, for us, Epiphany is mere spectating, we fail to understand its essential nature. For the Wise Men, for the first Apostles, for the tradesman in the Crystal Palace, for you and for me, Epiphany is a call to action. Epiphany is our summons to see, to hear and to follow. The journey upon which we are embarked will carry us through all the years of our mortal life, and into the glories of eternity.
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St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
The Epiphany, Sunday 8th January 2016
St Matthew 2, 1-12
Today – two days late because its official date is the sixth of January – we’re celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany. We have a valid reason for transferring our celebration to this, the following Sunday, because Epiphany is a Principal Holy Day in the Christian calendar, and it’s important that as many of us as possible are given the opportunity to observe it.
I have an Epiphany tableau that I’ve brought along with me this morning. I found it a number of years ago, and since then I’ve hung it in my living room window each Christmas. It portrays the familiar scene that forms the subject of today’s Gospel reading from St Matthew. I’ll come back to the tableau in a few minutes, but first of all let’s consider the somewhat strange background to today’s Feast.
Our English word ‘Epiphany’ is based on the Greek word ‘epiphaneia’, that means ‘manifestation’ or ‘showing forth’. At Epiphany it’s the ‘manifestation’ or ‘showing forth’ of Jesus that we celebrate. The history of this Feast is a little unusual, however, because originally it was held in honour of Our Lord’s Baptism. Apart from his boyhood visit to the Temple, the Gospels are silent regarding the thirty or so years that lie between Jesus’ infancy and his Baptism. These are often referred to as the ‘hidden years’. It was only from his Baptism onwards that Jesus was manifested or – to turn the noun into a verb – ‘epiphanied’ to the wider world.
In the Eastern Church it’s still Our Lord’s Baptism that is celebrated on Epiphany, but in the Western Church, the tradition in which we stand, the Epiphany came to be associated with the original and private showing of Christ to the Gentile world in the persons of the Wise Men.
The actual word used by St Matthew in describing the Wise Men is ‘Magi’. Magi were astrologers – people endowed with the ability to predict events and discern truths from the configuration of the stars, planets and other celestial objects. Before we rush to pour scorn on such an idea, we should consider the fact that in all sincerity St Matthew invites us to accept that it really was through their observations of the night sky that the Wise Men or Magi became aware of the birth of the Infant King, and found themselves led to the place of his birth in Bethlehem. Theirs was real knowledge that the New Testament presents to us without any embarrassment. This is not to say that we today should take as infallible guides the horoscopes that appear in tabloid newspapers and popular magazines – to take important decisions on the basis of these alone would be ill-advised – but it does make you think. The 19th Psalm tells us that “The heavens are telling the glory of God…” Perhaps they sometimes do so in stranger ways than we might expect!
Another thing we should note about the Magi is that there is no original record, and no other evidence whatsoever, of their having been kings, bearing the names of Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar. St Matthew doesn’t even tell us that they were three in number, only that they presented to the Infant Jesus three types of gift – gold, frankincense and myrrh.
So is that the Feast of Epiphany well and truly debunked? Of course not! If we dust off the peripheral details with which popular legend has embellished the story down through the centuries, what remains is the glorious fact that Jesus was conceived and born, not merely as the Messiah of the Jews, but as Lord of all the earth. St Matthew ends his Gospel with the command of Jesus that his apostles “go…. and make disciples of all nations.” The glory first manifested – first ‘epiphanied’ – to the Wise Men, is the glory that has shone through the Church ever since, drawing women and men of every race and nationality into its fold, making them disciples of Jesus in their own day and age.
But let’s return to my tableau of the Epiphany, and let’s assume, as tradition would have it, that the Wise Men were three in number. I would invite you, after today’s service, to take a close look at the way in which the Wise Men are depicted here. I know nothing of the artist’s original intentions, but wittingly or unwittingly the Magi seem to me to be engaged in anxious discussion regarding their arrival at the manger in Bethlehem. They had travelled a long, long way in expectation of honouring a new-born King. To the best of their knowledge, kings were born in royal palaces, not in smelly stables. Can they have been fully certain that they had been guided to the right location and to the right infant?
In my tableau, two of the Wise Men are kneeling before Jesus, one at his head, the other at his feet. They are holding their gifts, but haven’t yet handed them over. The Wise Man in the centre is looking rather darkly at his companion, and seems to be asking him, ‘Are you absolutely sure that we’ve come to the right place?’ His companion has a puzzled expression on his face, and seems to be replying, ‘Well, now that you mention it, this does all seem a little strange – hardly what we were expecting.’ The third Wise Man is standing a little apart from his companions and from Jesus, Mary and Joseph. He seems to be thinking to himself, ‘Yes, this is all a bit odd.’ And he has one hand held firmly over the lid of the casket containing his gift, as though he is wary of handing it over until he is absolutely sure that the baby to whom they have been led is, indeed, the promised King.
I love this tableau, because it invites all sorts of interesting questions. Too often the Magi can be portrayed either as cardboard cut-out figures, or as exotic fantasy characters hardly belonging to the normal world. On the contrary, we need to see them as ordinary men, privileged and educated, yes, but with their hopes, their fears, their doubts – though also with their open-mindedness to whatever might be revealed to them of the mysteries that undergird our existence on this fragile planet of ours. And, like us today, they were deeply conscious of the brooding evil that overshadows our human lives. For them that evil was manifested in the person of King Herod, of whom they were warned in a dream. I don’t need to elaborate on the evils that confront us in our own world today.
The Wise Men must have asked themselves at times whether what St Matthew describes as their overwhelming joy on reaching Bethlehem had been misplaced. How could a tiny, helpless infant, born into abject poverty, possibly be God’s answer to the woes of this world? And had they heard of the Holy Family’s terrified flight into Egypt, might this not have prompted further misgivings? We know nothing of their subsequent lives. We can only hope, for their sakes, that the Epiphany they experienced at Bethlehem really was for them a life-transforming experience.
Can Jesus really be God’s answer to our human predicament? Millions upon millions of people in our world today know and understand little or nothing of Jesus, so it’s hardly surprising that to them he is a complete irrelevance. But whose fault is this? I know we hear regularly of Christians who are either discouraged or prevented from manifesting their faith in their place of work or in their leisure activities. But if enough of us were determined to speak out for Jesus in whatever situation we might find ourselves, sidelining us, or silencing us, would prove impossible. What is it that prevents the Epiphany of Jesus in our world today? Is it not our doubts, our fears, our nagging suspicion that the answer to this world’s woes might not be found in Jesus at all, but in power, in wealth, in military might, in science and technology, in the wisdom of this world – certainly not in the wisdom of another world which we sometimes fear might not really exist at all.
Are we absolutely sure that in coming to Jesus we’ve come to the right place? Just as the Wise Men came with their gifts – and with themselves – to the infant Christ lying in the manger, so we come with our gifts – and with ourselves – to the Holy Table, there to bow before the living Christ whose Epiphany to us is pledged and sealed in the consecrated Bread and Wine. And after Christ has fed us with his own very being, will we really “go in peace to love and serve the Lord”? Or will we think to ourselves, ‘That’s it all over for another week. I’ll away home now and put on the tatties.’ The Wise Men did better than that, and so must we.
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