Easter 4 (C) – 8 May 2022

sermon preached at St. Margaret Newlands

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

The Greek work ekklesia, which in the New Testament is generally translated “church” means more generally “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly.”[1] Because of that, it is sometimes said that the church is the community of those who are called.  And in different ways, all of our readings today explore what it means to be called by Christ and to respond to that call.  That call – the fact that each of us is called by Christ – is ultimately the reason we are gathered here today, and it seems to me worth spending time reflecting on these stories of calling, and seeing how – or whether – they relate to our own stories.

Our gospel reading, from John perhaps addresses the theme of calling most explicitly: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” The shepherd calls the sheep; they know the shepherd’s voice and they respond.  Back when my mother still had her own sheep, I remember how she would stand at the gate in the winter at feeding time and call: “Sheep, sheep!”  And the flock would come running across the field at the sound of her voice.  In the Palestine at the time of Christ, shepherds would call their sheep together to separate them from the sheep that looked to other shepherds.  Jesus’s voice is like that for his disciples: Jesus calls and they respond.  He calls them to be his followers.

We may need to be careful here that we don’t see Jesus’s call as a call into factionalism. I’m reminded of Paul’s words: it is not about being a follower of Paul, or a follower of Apollos, but a follower of Christ.  This is not a closed group.  Our reading from Revelation reminds us that the community of those who are called is inclusive. It is indeed radically inclusive:

there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes
and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in
white, with palm branches in their hands.

This was one of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s favourite passages of scripture for its vision of people “from all tribes and peoples and languages” gathered before God’s throne. He saw this a complete counter to the apartheid system in South Africa. He describes the first democratic election in South Africa with joy:

People of all races were standing in the same queues, perhaps for the very first
time in their lives. Professionals, domestic workers, cleaners and their madams – all
were standing in those lines that were snaking their way slowly to the polling booth. …
People shared newspapers, sandwiches, umbrellas, and the scales began to fall from
their eyes. … [T]hey realised … that they shared a common humanity; that race,
ethnicity, skin colour were really irrelevancies.[2]

There is a welcome sign that you find in some churches that emphasises this radical inclusivity. Here’s part of the version from St Saviour’s Riga:

We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced,
gay, filthy rich, dirt poor. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying
new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds. … You’re
welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t
care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury,
or haven’t been in church since Christmas 10 years ago. …[3]

As Lionel Blue used to say, “We are commanded to love our neighbours and what a jumbled and unlikely lot they are.”[4]  Hearing Jesus’s voice is not about joining an exclusive club, but about becoming part of the radically inclusive community made up of all whom Jesus calls.

Elsewhere in the gospels we see some of the other voices Jesus thinks might call people to follow them:  the voices of power, or of money, or voices that in the gospels are sometimes presented as possession by demons. What voices do we hear, I wonder, that sometimes drown out the voice of Jesus’ call?  Power and money continue to be such voices; perhaps also for me such voices might be busy-ness, or tiredness, or the seduction of word games.  But there might also be voices telling us that we are not good enough, or that we don’t need faith, or that it doesn’t much matter anyway because nothing we do can make any difference.  There are myriad voices calling us.  Perhaps part of what we need to do is to stop and just listen:  to listen to the ways that Jesus speaks to us, hear the ways that he calls us.

Over the past couple of years I have been undertaking a course in spiritual accompaniment with the Ignatian Spirituality Centre here in Glasgow, and I also was privileged to go on a thirty-day retreat last summer.  Looking back I suspect that part of me was rather hoping for some radical call like Tabitha’s (or Dorcas’s) rising from death to life that we heard about in this morning’s reading from Acts.  But actually what I have discovered is that it is the small daily disciplines of listening to God that keep me alert to God’s presence with me and in my life.  Morning prayer said online with others from St Margaret’s is such a space, and recently I’ve being saying evening prayer online with a friend from the course from another parish. Another friend on the course introduced me to an app called “one minute pause” which invites me to stop for a minute, or three minutes, or five, or even ten (though not often ten for me) and commend everything that I am doing and all that I am thinking to God.[5]

You may find that your space for listening to God comes through scripture, or through a practice such as the Jesus prayer.  You may find it helpful to journal, or to go for a walk, or to gaze at a painting or an image, or to ponder a poem.  Perhaps you particularly experience God’s presence when you are with your children or your grandchildren, or your friends. Perhaps you hear God’s voice when you work out. Jane Vennard talks about a whole range of spiritual practices, which are practices allowing us to listen more deeply: caring for your body, rest, silence, solitude, community, hospitality, service, and letting go.[6] All of those are places where we may hear the voice of Jesus, where we may encounter God’s presence in our lives.

I use the language of “listening” and “hearing” here, but perhaps that is not quite accurate. Sometimes we may hear words, as Ivan Mann writes: “Maybe it will be a few words from Scripture of from some other spiritual reading. Maybe it will be a few words of a song or of a film or TV show.”[7]  But Jane Vennard offers a word of caution, seeking to manage expectations of what this voice might sound like:

If you expect to hear a clear message coming from beyond yourself, from God or
from the emptiness, I imagine you will be disappointed. Although a few people do hear
a divine voice, all I hear when I am silent is more silence. It has taken me a
long time to make peace with this reality. Expecting to hear something when
I finally discovered moments of inner quiet, I blamed myself for hearing
nothing. I was sure I was doing something wrong. Then I was sure that God
did not find me worthy of a response. At times I wondered if God had gone missing.[8]

Hearing Jesus’s voice may sometimes be precisely about waiting in that quiet, in that nothingness, until something becomes clear, in a sort of deep sense of knowing. 

There is no question that our responses to hearing Jesus’s voice may sometimes be quite dramatic.  This morning’s reading from Acts does indeed show us one such extraordinary response.  Dorcas – Tabitha – was lying dead with all the followers of Jesus, male and female (the saints and the widows mourning her), and Peter came in to her and said: “Get up.” And she did, and she was alive.  That is the most dramatic call: the call from death into life.  Calls can sometime be a complete change of direction.  For me the call to ordination came as a complete surprise; I had thought I was headed for chartered accountancy or computer systems engineering. And then later there was another call, to the study and teaching of church history rather than to parish ministry.  But a lot of the time, in my experience, Jesus’ calling of my name – of our names – is a lot more low key.  It is more a recognition that God is with us in our lives, giving a different dimension to whatever we do, reminding us that there is always something more.

In many ways Psalm 23 speaks of this kind of calling in knowing God’s accompaniment of our lives:

He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake. …
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in
the house of the Lord for ever.

That sense of being on the right path, of being not alone, of being surrounded by goodness and mercy: these are ways that we hear Jesus’s voice.

Psalm 23 reminds us that God’s call may also bring us the cup that is running over. But it says too that God’s voice can come to us and call us in times of sorrow, in those dark times in which we may feel and experience the presence of God despite everything:

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

This may feel quite tentative or even fragile.  Ivan Mann writes movingly about the time when his wife Jackie was dying of motor neuron disease:

For months during that period I found myself so exhausted by giving twenty-four hour
care that I could hardly pray.  One word stands out – Emmanuel. “God-with-us.”  It
seemed to be enough some days just to hold that word.  It didn’t stop the anger,
frustration or exhaustion, but it gave a different texture to the day and made it
somehow sustainable.[9]

In this kind of listening, he emphasises, “What we hear from God is often fragile … the fragile voice at the heart of creation that says “I love you, come to me.”[10]  All of that is part of being called by Jesus, of being one of the sheep that hears his voice.

“Come to me,” says God to those who listen. And this surely is the promise that Jesus speaks in today’s gospel reading: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”  What is Jesus saying to you just now?  What do you hear?  What do you need to hear?

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”  Following may not be dramatic.  It may sometimes feel quite fragile.  But it will lead us into eternal life.

Amen.


[1]   See https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g1577/kjv/tr/0-1/.

[2]   Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (London 1990), 4.

[3]  See https://anglicanriga.lv/home/about-us/.

[4]  Lionel Blue, Kitchen Blues (London 1986), 89.

[5] See https://www.pauseapp.com/.

[6]  See the chapter headings in Jane Vennard, Fully Awake and Truly Alive: Spiritual Practices to Nurture your Soul (Nashville 2014).

[7]   Ivan Mann, Breathing I Pray (London 2005), 17.

[8]  Vennard, Fully Awake and Truly Alive, 34.

[9]  Mann, Breathing I Pray, 16.

[10]  Ibid., 17.

Easter 2 (C) – 24 April 2022

sermon preached at St. Mary the Virgin, Bridge of Weir and St. Fillan’s, Kilmacolm

Acts 5: 27-32
Revelation 1: 4-8
John 20: 19-31

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Probably all of us know the story of doubting Thomas.  Thomas who was not there when the risen Christ appeared to the other disciples.  Thomas who would not – could not – believe the others when they told him what they had seen. Thomas who wanted to be sure – to see Christ’s wounds, touch his mutilated body – before he would believe.  We call him in English doubting Thomas, and the Germans call him unbelieving Thomas, but his response has always seemed to me quite reasonable.  Would you have believed the disciples?  Honestly?  If they told you that your friend who had died a horrible death had reappeared to them, speaking words of peace into their fear, would you have said yes, sure: I believe that Christ has destroyed death and is risen?  

Perhaps you would and perhaps you wouldn’t, but Thomas doesn’t. He wants to see for himself.  He wants to believe his own eyes.  And remarkably, he is given that opportunity.  Jesus comes back; the risen Christ appears again.  The risen Christ offers Thomas the chance to see and touch his wounded body.  Reach out your hand; touch and see!  We don’t know if Thomas does or if he doesn’t, but what John does tell us is that Thomas believes: “My Lord and my God!” he cries. Paula Gooder points out that Thomas

is the first person in any of the gospel accounts to work out what [seeing the risen Christ] means and proclaim “My Lord and my God”. Where the others are still working out that Jesus has risen, Thomas has recognized it, understood it, and proclaimed its meaning.[1]

Thomas in this moment is not so much doubting as believing – the first to do so.

We call him doubting Thomas because John adds a bit of a sting in the tail here, probably a reminder that already by the time that he is writing his gospel most of his audience will not have known Jesus alive, and did not have the opportunity to encounter the risen Christ directly.  John has Jesus say to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  And that speaks to us, for we are those who have not seen directly and who have nonetheless come to believe.

On that level this story of Thomas might well be comforting to us, and so it should be.  But I think there are other aspects of the story which might speak to us as well.  There is, to start with, the appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples, afraid and hiding away after the death of their friend and leader. In the midst of that fear, Christ comes to them and brings them words of peace. Peace, eirene means lack of conflict, but has connotations also of lack of fear, of trust.  The worst has happened; the disciples are afraid, terrified; they have no idea what will happen next. And yet Christ brings them words of peace, of calm, of tranquillity.  In our own times of turmoil, does Christ perhaps speak words of peace to us?  If he does, are we open to Christ’s words of peace?  Can we trust?

Perhaps this seems an inappropriate suggestion in our world which seems so full of pain and conflict on so many levels.  We may not be hiding away as the disciples were, but we are all too aware of the horrors that are happening around us, in Ukraine particularly, but also in Yemen, in Afghanistan, Syria, and so many parts of the world. So many people are afraid.  What does it mean to say that the risen Christ comes into situations of fear and speaks words of peace?

Judy Hirst offers one way of thinking about how Christ does this:

We need to learn to see our lives illuminated by the story of Christ. Not just in the wonderful moments but in the misunderstandings, the pain of rejection, the betrayal and abandonment of friends, the loneliness, the anxiety, the powerlessness, the fear of suffering and suffering itself, the humiliation and terrible physical and mental pain.[2]

We see something of how Christ’s words of peace might do this in what John tells us about the appearance of Christ’s risen body.  Christ’s risen body is wounded and mutilated. Commenting on this passage, Angus Paddison writes:

Jesus rises from the dead – because the violence of the world was no match for the love of God – and he rises with his wounds. … In rising with his wounds Jesus does not erase what the world has done to him by returning to his ‘original’ state. rather, by taking our sin and past deeds with him into the future he transfigures them.[3]

Christ’s risen body is a reminder that he has found himself at the centre of the brokenness of the world.  Paddison sees this in terms of redeeming sin or at least past actions:

The resurrection is not that kind of ‘fresh start’ or ‘second chance’ (take your pick of cliché) which simply chooses to forget the past, skip by it, or deny it as ours. Our future can only be re-imagined when we lay claim on our past sins as ours, when we recognize what we have done.[4]

But this is not all about sin. It is about the reality of where we are and the limitations of our own bodies and our own histories. Nancy Eiesland, a theologian who herself lived with disability, saw the mutilated wounded body of the risen Christ as a profound reminder that Christ – and God – experienced and redeemed all aspects of human frailty: “In emptying himself of divinity, Jesus enters the arena of human limitation, even helplessness. Jesus’ own body is wounded and scarred, disfigured and distorted.”[5]  For Ellen Clark-King, that Christ’s risen body still shows the marks of the crucifixion is a profound affirmation that the resurrection touches and redeems us not in some abstract way, but in and through our own particular physical reality:

Our history is to some extent written on our bodies – in our scars and in our posture, in our stretch marks and our wrinkles, as well as in our choice or not of tattoos and piercings. As we age we carry in our faces a physical memory of who we are and what we’ve experienced.[6]

Janet Morley writes of “the bodies of grownups” that they “come with stretchmarks and scars / faces that have been lived in / relaxed breasts and bellies / backs that give trouble / and well-worn feet.” We inhabit bodies which are “no longer straining to be innocent / but yearning for redemption.”[7]  And for me this is not just about our own imperfect, broken bodies but also about the imperfect, broken body of the world.

Jane Vennard suggests that this has implications for our spirituality: “the spiritual challenge is to … cherish our bodies and not turn them into enemies.”[8] That means acknowledging our brokenness and our imperfections. For Ellen Clark-King the resurrection appearances speak into that human reality:

Our God has taken our disability and scarring and disfigurement [and I would want to add the disability and scarring and disfigurement of the world – CM] into the very heart of Godself. Our impaired bodiliness is not something shameful, or something that make us less worthy of respect and love. It is just a fact of our human experience, a fact which has been transformed, along with all our finite limitations, in the glorious new life of the resurrection.[9]

Christ, writes Judy Hirst,

is not risen pristine, he is risen wounded and I guess that is where many of our lives are as well. We are challenged neither to be trapped forever by the pain of our suffering as if there were no resurrection nor to behave as though nothing has happened.[10]

Perhaps this encapsulates the peace that Christ speaks to the disciples’ fear. Perhaps it is this sense of being met where he is – in his own broken reality – that leads Thomas to proclaim Christ as Lord. 

John’s gospel, writes Paula Gooder,

speaks of God’s aching love for the world that can only be satisfied by offering the greatest gift of all – his son. …  [It] teaches us the importance of retraining our sight to see the world not as it appears to us, but as it appears to God – a world that to us can seem cruel and hopeless, but to God is one that calls out for love and transformation.[11]

Christ’s appearance to the disciples, and to Thomas manifests God’s offer of love and transformation to us, as we are.

And where is Christ meeting us?  Let us open our eyes to see him in the brokenness of the world around us. And let us pray, in the words of Janet Morley:       

          Risen Christ,
whose absence leaves us paralysed,
but those presence is overwhelming:
breathe on us
with your abundant life;
that where we cannot see
we may have the courage to believe
that we my be raised with you.[12]

Amen.


[1] Paula Gooder, This Risen Existence: The Spirit of Easter (Canterbury Press, 2009), p. 58.

[2]   Judy Hirst, A Kind of Sleep-Walking … and waking up to life (DLT 2014), 36.

[3]   Angus Paddison, “19th April: 2nd of Easter – The Easter Truth,” Expository Times 120 (2009), 288-290, at 288.

[4]   Ibid.

[5]   Nancy Eiesland, “Liberation, Inclusion, and Justice: A Faith Response to Persons with Disabilities,” Impact 14:3 (Winter 2001/02), cited in Ellen Clark-King, “11th April: Second Sunday of Easter,” Expository Times 121 (2010), 301-302, at 301.

[6]  Clark-King, “11th April: Second Sunday of Easter,” 301.

[7]  Janet Morley, All Desires Known (SPCK, third edition 2005), 116.

[8]   Jane E. Vennard, Fully Awake and Truly Alive: Spiritual Practices to Nurture your Soul (Skylight Paths 2014), 6.

[9]  Clark-King, “11th April: Second Sunday of Easter,” 302.

[10]  Hirst, A Kind of Sleep-Walking, 38.

[11]  Gooder, This Risen Existence, 54-55.

[12]  Morley, collect 22: “Easter, Presence of Life,” All Desires Known, 11.

Transfiguration (C) – 27 February 2022

Sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
Luke 9:28-36

May I speak in the name of God, who creates, redeems and sustains us.

It’s been a difficult, frightening week, as we have watched the Russian attacks on Ukraine.  Against that backdrop, I’ve spent a good deal of the last two days in meetings (online, so that I could get to key bits of both of them). One was a European regional meeting in preparation for the World Council of Churches Assembly in Karlsruhe this summer. The programme was rearranged so that we could spend much of Friday morning hearing about the situation in Ukraine and the churches’ responses. The other was a conference of the German ecumenical institute, which was looking at migration and its impact on churches.  There too we were very conscious of the number of refugees who are already gathered at the Polish border seeking safety from the Russian forces.  These two conferences – along with a comment made by Rowan Williams at a book launch I attended (also online) earlier this week – alerted me to the fact that religion is central to what is going on. 

The history of Russian Orthodoxy is probably not familiar to most of us.  I am a church historian but in this area I have had to do some rapid catching up.  It is only in the last few days that I have grasped the political significance of the recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church by the Patriarch of Constantinople in 2019 and the acrimonious split in Orthodoxy which followed.  The Ukrainian church was asserting its independence from the Russian church, and the Russian Patriarch objected strongly.  But this is not only a debate within Orthodoxy; it has political implications. The Ukraine – and Kyiv[1] in particular – is significant because it is regarded by the Russian Orthodox – including Vladimir Putin – as the birthplace of Russian Christianity.  Kyiv was the place where Vladimir of the Rus was baptized in 988, along with the citizens of Kyiv, a precondition for his marriage to the sister of the Byzantine emperor Basil II. Giles Fraser explains:

Many people don’t appreciate the extent to which the invasion of Ukraine is a spiritual quest for [Vladimir Putin]. The Baptism of Rus is the founding event of the formation of the Russian religious psyche, the Russian Orthodox church traces its origins back here. That’s why Putin is not so much interested in a few Russian-leaning districts to the east of Ukraine. His goal, terrifyingly, is Kyev itself.[2]

Over the last few days, the accuracy of Fraser’s analysis has become clearer.  What strikes me about this reading is the way it sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine is about the reclaiming of – or the reassertion of power over – a Russian holy place. That might perhaps give us pause for thought:  what is happening when a place is declared so holy that war is fought over it?

We can trace a similar pattern with the Holy Land, which became conceived as such under Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.  Julie Ann Smith points out:

When Constantine became a Christian, there was no “holy land”; however, over the succeeding one hundred and thirty years Christians marked and identified many of their holy places in Palestine … claim[ing] the holy places for Christianity, constructing the land as topographically Christian and mediating this view of their world through their pilgrim paths, buildings, liturgies, and texts.[3]

It was that account of the Holy Land as the sacred space of Christian origins which centuries later would give rise to the series of wars we know as the crusades. The veneration of holy space and the association of particular places with particular stories of origins can give rise to violence, and this is part of what we are seeing at the moment.

Now this is a sermon, not a lecture in church history. But we read and pray texts in the context of what is happening to us, and it is right that we should.  Perhaps we found ourselves praying Psalm 99 more fervently today than we might have done a week ago:  it is a strong affirmation that it is God who is sovereign over the powers of this world:

O mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God and fall down before his footstool; he is the Holy One.

Certainly for me at present this is a fervent prayer.  Let God’s justice and righteousness, God’s peace and mercy prevail.

And then there is Luke’s account of the transfiguration, and what it implies about the potential dangers of attaching holiness to a particular place.  At least, I think that is part of what is going on here.  Jesus goes up a hill with Peter and John and James to pray, and has the kind of enlightening experience that Moses is described as having in our first reading: Jesus is lit up by his encounter with God. His other-worldliness shines through. Paul Foster comments: “This is one of those seminal moments when a glimpse of the true nature of Jesus’ divine status is seen alongside his true humanity.”[4] Then two other Old Testament figures appear: Moses and Elijah. Jesus’ importance is clear: not only do such “shining figures”, as readers of the Old Testament would have recognised, “belong to the heavenly realm”,[5] but Jesus is here depicted as standing in the tradition of the patriarchs and prophets; they speak of his “departure”, which in Greek is “exodos”.[6]  Jesus is to fulfil that exodus tradition and by fulfilling it transform it. 

It is, as Paul Foster reminds us, a daunting prospect, for the Exodus is a death march:

the voice in Luke’s gospel declares Jesus to be ‘my chosen one’. But chosen for what? Simply this: to undergo his exodus in Jerusalem, to suffer, to be mocked, derided, repudiated and then crucified. And yet the voice also commands its hearers to ‘listen to him’. Paradoxically as it may seem, the exodus, that death march to Jerusalem, is also the journey to a better land, a heavenly land.  The Transfiguration may give a glimpse of heavenly glory, but it also provides a clear picture of the fate that awaits Jesus. To lead his people home, he must become the Crucified One.[7]

This encounter points towards the road to Jerusalem and ultimately therefore to Jesus’s crucifixion.

The transfiguration then marks is a turning point in the synoptic gospels’ narrative of Jesus’s life.  As at his baptism, a voice sounds from heaven. At his baptism the voice had affirmed Jesus and his ministry: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).  Now the voice says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  The transfiguration therefore looks back to Jesus’s baptism, but it also looks forward to his crucifixion, pointing to the road to Jerusalem.  And the glory that shines through Jesus seems also to point beyond his crucifixion to the transformation of death that is his resurrection.  This is why transfiguration Sunday falls in our lectionary as the Sunday before Lent.

The key to understanding the transfiguration, Michael P. Knowles suggests, is precisely the moment of glory:

the ‘exodus’ Jesus will soon undergo is an act of salvation so unmentionably shameful, so hideous and cruel, that disciples and onlookers alike would not be amiss to see it as proof of divine displeasure, even abandonment. So glory beforehand – however unexpected and mysterious – is meant to forestall misunderstanding and discouragement.[8]

Knowles here draws on the poetic exegesis of the fifth century theologian Ephrem the Syrian:

[Jesus] led them up the mountain and showed them
his kingship before his passion,
and his power before his death,
and his glory before his disgrace,
and his honour before his dishonour,
so that, when he was arrested and crucified … they might know that he was not crucified through weakness, but willingly by his good pleasure for the salvation of the world…
[9]

This will be a transformative suffering, a suffering which is not the end of the story.  Writing to the Corinthians, Paul suggests that we too will be transformed and transfigured by this glory: “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Consequently, for Knowles the Transfiguration offers us hope:

For disciples of every age, and every level of understanding, the Transfiguration offers a glimpse of glory amidst the suffering that life too often brings. It offers a foretaste of God’s ultimate purposes, a welcome assurance that affliction, injustice, and death will not have the last word.[10]

That is indeed a welcome assurance, and one that we, and particularly the people of Ukraine, need to hold onto at present: that affliction, injustice, and death will not have the last word.

But what about holy place?  Peter’s response to all this is to hold onto this moment of transformation by building dwellings for the three shining figures. He wants to make this place sacred, and perhaps he wants to stop what is about to happen.  But, says Luke laconically: “Peter did not know what he said.”   Duncan MacLaren comments: “God cannot be bottled like a genie.”  And he issues a challenge, to Peter and to us: “when we try, let’s ask ourselves why we are tempted to do it. Is it because a god we can manage feels so much safer than the challenge of an encounter with the living God?”[11] Is it because we want to own God?  To own our stories or the places with which they are associated?  Part of the challenge to us may be to inhabit our stories of transformation, to tell the stories of our origins, without trying to hold fast to particular versions them, or wanting to possess the places with which they are associated.

I want to finish with Janet Morley’s collect for the Transfiguration, and with the prayer for Ukraine issued by the Chruch of England’s Diocese in Europe, which has a chaplaincy in Ukraine, Christ Church Kyiv.

Christ, our only true light,
before whose bright cloud
your friends fell to the ground:
we bow before your cross
that we may refuse to be prostrated
before the false brightness of any other light,
looking to your power alone
for hope of resurrection from the dead. Amen
.[12]

Father of all, your Risen Son gave new hope to his apostles with words of peace and the assurance of his presence: send your Holy Spirit upon the peoples of Ukraine. Bless them with Christ’s gift of peace, and strengthen the resolve of all who labour for an end to this conflict; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

The Scottish church leaders have also issued a prayer:

Living God,
Creator and giver of life to all people:
We ask that you would hear our prayer for peace amongst the nations
And for ending of conflict in Ukraine.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Living God,
Who shall judge between the nations:
We ask that that you would lead the nations in the paths of peace
And that the dividing wall of hostility would be broken down.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Living God,
Who has inspired faith across the ages:
Grant peace in the midst of war
And bring harmony to the commonwealth of nations.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Living God,
Who gave his only Son that we might have life:
We ask that you would pour out your Holy Spirit
And inspire in us hope that peace will be renewed.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.


[1]    For the spelling and pronunciation see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/25/how-to-pronounce-and-spell-kyiv-kiev-ukraine-and-why-it-matters.

[2]    Giles Fraser, “Putin’s spiritual destiny” https://unherd.com/2022/02/putins-spiritual-destiny/.

[3]   Julie Ann Smith, “‘My Lord’s Native Land’: Mapping the Christian Holy Land,” Church History 76 (2007), 1-31, at 1.

[4]   Paul Foster, “Exegetical Notes on Luke 9:28–36,” Expository Times 118 (2007), 188-189, at 188.

[5]   Ibid.

[6]    Ibid.,

[7]    Ibid, 189.

[8]   Michael P. Knowles, “From One Degree of Glory to Another,” Expository Times 121 (2010), 189-191, at 189.

[9]   Ibid., 190.

[10]  Knowles, “From One Degree of Glory to Another,” 190.

[11]  Duncan MacLaren, “Just the ordinary God (Luke 9:28–36),” Expository Times 118 (2007), 234-235, at 235.

[12]  Janet Morley, All Desires Known (third edition, London: SPCK 2005), 38.

Epiphany 3 (C) – 23 January 2022

Sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands

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

May I speak in the name of God, who gives us life, who bears our pain, and who makes us love.  Amen.

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

This is quite a beginning to Jesus’ ministry as Luke portrays it to us.  It always reminds me of an old joke I came across in a German church joke book, in which the minister addresses the people:  “Dear congregation,” he says, as German preachers do: “Liebe Gemeinde! Today there will not be a sermon. Today I have something to say to you.”

There is no doubt that Jesus has something to say to that congregation in the synagogue in Nazareth. And there can also be no doubt that this was a powerful message:  Christ has been anointed, sent, to personify the transformative message of Isaiah, to bring good news, release, sight, freedom and the year of the Lord’s favour. This is a message of transformation and of healing, and it is perhaps a message that is particularly apposite to us at the moment.  For while often when I have preached on this passage in the past, I have focused on the way in which we may be drawn into that transformative work, what struck me when I read it this time was that there is in fact no explicit call for us to be involved.  Rather Jesus presents this ministry as his responsibility.  He comes that the world might be transformed and healed. While I think it important that we don’t lose sight of where we may be called to be drawn into that ministry and to assist that transformation, equally we need not to forget that Jesus comes to touch our lives too: we too are to be transformed and healed.  Where we are blind, we will be gifted new sight; where we are sad or distressed, good news, where we are trapped, release and freedom.  In other words, Jesus comes to heal and transform us. And that may be a particularly important message for us to hear at the moment.

For we are all very much still caught up in the trauma of these past two years. A friend pointed me yesterday to a short podcast by an American theologian and writer called John Eldredge. In it, Eldredge talks about our need to acknowledge the ongoing trauma of the pandemic, and our need to be healed.  Part of that, he suggests, is about cultivating what he calls benevolent detachment in the face of news and information overload. Yes, he says, find out the basics, but remember: “it’s traumatising to subject yourself to the heartache of the entire planet.  You’re actually not meant to know the death toll in Delhi. The human soul is not God.”[1] We need to share God’s love for the world without feeling responsible for the well-being of the whole world. “I’ll do what I can to love you, but at the end of the day, Christ is your saviour, not me.”[2]  Eldredge suggests, “take up practices that replenish your union with God.”  Shortly before the first lockdown, in February 2020, Eldredge published a book called Get Your Life Back: Everyday Practices in a World Gone Mad.[3] Associated with that he has put together an app called “One Minute Pause”, which invites us to do just that: stop, and pause for a minute, contemplating God. To give all that is weighing us down to God: “I give everything to you, God. I give everything and everyone to you, God.”[4]  That may be one way of experiencing God’s transformative love, of letting ourselves be freed.

Rowan Williams, in an Easter sermon preached some years ago, reflected that “we must learn to see ourselves as caught up in a world where the innocent are scapegoated and killed and where we are all unwilling, to a greater or lesser degree, to face unwelcome truths about ourselves.”[5]  But, he says, as well as that, “we must learn to see that we cannot by our own wisdom and strength cut ourselves loose from the tangle of injustice, resentment, fear and prejudice that traps the human family in conflict and misery.”[6]  In that recognition, we learn to look for God’s love “among those we have … dismissed or shut out”; allow God to turn our understandings of success and failure upside down; turn to those we have hurt and ask their forgiveness.[7]  But in that recognition we also learn that it is not us but God, through Christ, who offers that “indestructible love.”[8]  Give everything to God: place everything in the light of that indestructible love. Know ourselves to be in the light of that indestructible love.

That is, receive God’s love.  Stop, and be open and receive that love.  Perhaps that is particularly difficult for us because we have so much.  That was Desmond Tutu’s insight: “If we have been brought up in an environment that values achievement at any cost, over and above the worth of simply being human, we find it extremely difficult to be comfortable with the ethos of grace – of sheer gift.”[9]  He notes that “so many who come form affluent societies do not understand the wonder of grace, freely bestowed by a deeply generous God.”[10] Grace is a free gift. That was Luther’s great insight, but it is deeply rooted in Paul’s writings about faith in Christ, which is where Luther found it, but also in stories of healing and in much of the Old Testament too, for instance in the passage Jesus quotes from Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord … has anointed me to bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”  Not that they – that we – should work for it, jump through hoops for it, but that they should receive gifts freely given.

What we are talking about here is the true meaning of Sabbath.  Rosemary Lain-Priestley writes of Sabbath as “rest in the sense of doing something different or differently in order to recognize that all of life is extraordinary and sacred.”[11] As Nicola Slee, reflecting on Wendell Berry’s poem “Sabbath” puts it, “We must leave the labour of the fields in order to go amongst the trees and be still.”[12] The one-minute pause is an invitation to do that too.  It seems to me increasingly that this is about experiencing the year of the Lord’s favour.

I want to finish with a blessing written by John O’Donohue, “For One Who Is Exhausted.”  It is quite a long blessing, which takes us into the experience of stress and tiredness – which may not be yours, in which case do not be drawn down by it – and then leads into a series of short pauses, inviting us – as does the one-minute pause – to become aware of God’s presence and his gift of sight, release, and freedom:

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the soul like an endless, increasing weight.

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laboursome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have travelled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of colour
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.

Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells deep within slow time.[13]

Amen


[1]   John Eldredge, “Benevolent Detachment” (podcast),  https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/renovar%C3%A9-podcast/john-eldredge-benevolent-jx-UoW1J7rg/?t=923,15:35.

[2]   Ibid., 21:15.

[3]   See https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Get-Your-Life-Back-by-John-Eldredge/9781400229147.

[4]   The app is available here: https://www.pauseapp.com/.

[5]    Rowan Williams, Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral (Bloomsbury: London 2013), 186.

[6]    Ibid. 186-187.

[7]   Ibid., 187-188.

[8]   Ibid., 187.

[9]   Desmond Tutu, In God’s Hands (Bloomsbury: London 2014), 88.

[10]   Ibid.

[11]  Rosemary Lain-Priestley, The Courage to Connect: Becoming all we can be (London: SPCK 2007), 67.

[12]   Nicola Slee, Sabbath: The hidden heartbeat of our lives (London: D.L.T. 2019), 43.

[13]  John O’Donohue, Benedictus: A Book of Blessings (Bantam: London 2007), 140-141.

4. Advent (B) – 18. Dezember 2021

Predigt in der Alt-Katholischen Gemeinde Bottrop

Micha 5, 1-4a
Hebräerbrief 10, 5-10
Lukas 1, 39-45

Der Engel ist zu Maria gekommen, und Maria hat ihr großes „Ja“ ausgesprochen.  Wolfgang Metz schreibt darüber:

          es könnte ein anfang sein
          wenn eine junge frau
          trotz aller ungewissheit
ja zu einem kind sagt.[1]

Es gibt eine Legende, dass Maria nicht die erste junge Frau war, zu der der Engel kam.  Sie war allerdings die erste, die Ja gesagt hat.  Das war ein großes Ja: Nach dem Engelsbesuch macht sich Maria auf den Weg zu ihrer Verwandten Elisabeth, die im hohen Alter ebenso unerwartet ein Kind bekommt.  Die Begegnung mit Elisabeth – diese Möglichkeit zum Austausch – gehört, meine ich, zum Ja dazu.  Durch diese Begegnung kann Maria begreifen, was mit ihr passiert, kann sie es annehmen – kann also das Ja bestätigen.

Es gibt eine Predigt aus dem späteren 16. Jahrhundert, in der diese Begegnung zwischen Maria und Elisabeth als erstes kirchliches Konzil verstanden wird, auf einer Ebene mit dem Konzil von Nizäa oder dem von Konstantinopel.  Das ist ein netter Gedanke: die schwangeren Maria und Elisabeth als Kirchenführend. Aber noch wichtiger ist für mich die Vorstellung, dass ihre Begegnung den zwei Frauen die Chance gab, sich über ihre Situation auszutauschen: ihre Freude, aber auch ihre Angst, ihre Hoffnung aber auch ihre Unsicherheit miteinander zu teilen. Stefan Schlager schreibt einen Wunsch für Advent:

          Zwischen den
Lichtern
Aufmerksamkeit
für das Dunkel

Zwischen den
Liedern
Raum
für Stille

Zwischen dem
Treibern
Ahnung
von Gelassenheit.

Zwischen dem
Glitzern
Wissen um
seine Tiefe

Und Sehnsucht
nach mehr[2]

Diese Begegnung zwischen Maria und Elisabeth hat etwas davon: sie bietet – oder so stelle ich sie mir zumindest vor –  Platz und Raum für Dunkel, Stille, Gelassenheit, Tiefe. Platz und Raum, um Unbehagen und Unsicherheit, Überraschung, vielleicht gar Verzweiflung, auszudrücken neben Vertrauen, Besonnenheit, Zuversicht.

Denn diese zwei werdenden Mütter wissen noch nicht richtig was mit ihnen geschieht.  Sie sind sicher zunächst nur erstaunt: Erstaunt über diese Schwangerschaften überhaupt.  Claudia Janssen schreibt, „Antikes gynäkologisches Wissen hält … die Schwanger­schaft einer unfruchtbaren alten Frau für ebenso ungewöhnlich wie die einer Jungfrau.“[3]   Durch die jeweilige Schwangerschaft erleben Maria und Elisabeth, dass für Gott nichts unmöglich ist.  Diese Erkenntnis „verbindet sie miteinander und beschreibt ihre jeweilige Erfahrung mit Gott, die sie veranlasst, zusammenzukommen. … Der Blick ist auf Gottes Handeln gerichtet, der Befreiung und Rettung bewirkt.“[4]  Die Antwort darauf ist das Magnificat, das Loblied der Befreiung. Claudia Janssen ist der Meinung, dass das Magnificat nicht nur von Maria, sondern auch von Elisabeth gesungen wurde. Sie meint, dass Elisabeth und Maria „die Erfahrung der Erniedrigung [teilen] mit vielen anderen jüdischen Frauen und dem ganzen Volk, das die Befreiung ersehnt. Hunger, Armut und politische Machtlosigkeit sind Realität der Menschen.“[5]  Im Magnificat wird „das Ende aller Unterdrückung verkündet.“[6]  Das Magnificat ist zwar ein „persönliches Danklied,“ ist aber kein Lied einer Einzelgängerin, sondern das Lied einer Gemeinschaft, die durch die Begegnung zwischen Elisabeth und Maria Gestalt nimmt und neue Hoffnung, Befreiung wahrnimmt.[7] 

Die Hoffnung kommt durch das ja zu Liebe. Antje Sabine Naegeli schreibt in ihrem Gedicht „Aber die Liebe“:

          Es ist unmöglich
          sagt die Angst.
          Es übersteigt meine Kraft.
          Es ist eine Zumutung.
          Ich bin auch nur
          ein Mensch.
          Das schaffe ich
          nie.
          Ich kann’s
          sagt die Liebe.[8]

Ich stelle mir es so vor, dass Maria gerade diese Unsicherheit gespürt hat, als sie zu Elisabeth gegangen ist. Vielleicht hatte Elisabeth sie auch gespürt. Zusammen konnten sie ihre Angst überwinden und die Liebe – die Liebe Gottes – vertrauen.

Was bedeutet das Ja der Maria?   Gott in sich wachsen zu lassen, damit sie Gott in die Welt bringen kann, damit die Welt Licht in der Dunkelheit erfährt. Schwangerschaft, halt, und eine Schwangerschaft brauch ihre Zeit. Pierre Stutz erinnert daran, dass „dieser innere Geburtsprozess einfach geschieht, wenn die Zeit reif ist. Meine Aufgabe ist, mich trotz Angst und Verunsicherung diesem Lebenslauf nicht entgegenzustellen.“[9]  Vielleicht geben Elizabeth und Maria einander Halt und Mut, um den Schwangerschafts- und Geburtsprozessen nicht entgegenzustellen.  Vielleicht können sie diese Begegnung gegenseitig in die Rolle der Hebamme treten. Einander begleiten, schließlich eine Art Geburtshilfe leisten.

Deshalb glaube ich, dass diese Geschichte eine Frage auch an uns stellt: Wo werden wir aufgefordert, ein Ja auszusprechen?  Welche Ängste und Unsicherheiten haben wir dabei?  Und wo finden wir den Raum, diese Ängste, diese Unsicherheiten mit anderen zu teilen, damit wir dem Weg zum Ja finden?  Wo finden wir die gegenseitige Unterstützung?  Die Geburtshilfe bei unserer eigenen Schwangerschaften mit dem Wort Gottes?  Ich wünsche uns alle, dass wir solche Begegnungen, solche Austauschmöglichkeiten, solche Begleitungen haben, damit auch wir unser Ja zu Gott aussprechen – und tragen und ausleben – können.

Amen


[1]   Te Deum, Dezember 2021, S. 196.

[2]   Te Deum, Dezember 2021, S. 124.

[3]  „Über mich hinaus! Begegnen – Begeistern – Bewegen mit Maria und Elisabeth,“ Arbeitshilfe Frauensonntag 18. September 2016, S. 10 (https://www.ekiba.de/media/download/integration/314786/2016__ueber_mich_hinaus._arbeitshilfe_frauensonntag.pdf).

[4]   Ebd., S. 11.

[5]   Ebd.

[6]   Ebd., S. 12.

[7]   Ebd., S. 11.

[8]  Lebensfreude. Wörter, die Stark machen, S. 112.

[9]  Ebd., S. 63.

Advent 2 (C) – 5 December 2021

Sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands

Malachi 3.1-4
Canticle: Luke 1.68-79
Philippians 1.3-11
Luke 3.1-4

“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.  The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, he is coming says the Lord.”

I wonder sometimes whether we need to see Advent differently.  We are accustomed to think of Advent as the time in which we prepare, in which we live in the hope and expectancy that God is coming to us, the time in which we wait actively upon the coming of the Lord. And of course that is true.  But Advent is also the time in which God longs to be with us. In Philippians, Paul writes of overflowing love: “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.“ Malachi talks about “the covenant in which you delight.”  This is a reminder that Advent is about delight – mutual delight.  Paul writing to the Christians in Phillippi, writes “How I long for you, for all of you, with the compassion of Jesus Christ.” “How I long for you…”  These are Paul’s words, but in them we hear a message which tells us something about God and where God is in Advent.  “How I long for you, long to be with you,” writes Paul, but this is not only Paul’s message, but God’s.  How God longs for us – so much that God sent Christ, God’s Son into the world for us.  God comes to us, not because God must, but because God will, because God loves us, and in that loving wants to be with us, to support our faith, to make us whole.  Advent is a time not just of waiting, but of longing, a time in which we may open ourselves to feel the power of God’s longing for us, open ourselves to feel the power of our longing for God and respond—as Paul wishes for the Philippians—by overflowing with love, knowledge and insight.

It is powerful, this desire.  Powerful and disruptive.  Both today’s passage from Malachi and the reading from the Gospel remind us of the potential power of the coming of God.  When the Lord comes into the world, the whole world will change: “Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth.”  Everything will change, all that was before will be altered, and so too with the people:  for in the encounter with God people will see what they have done, will repent of their sins, will turn to salvation.  For the Lord is like a refiner’s fire or like fuller’s soap, as a refiner and purifier of silver—and the encounter with the passionate love of God will confront us with who we really are, will strip away all that is impure, unnecessary, extraneous, will reduce us to our essentials.

These are not easy images.  On the contrary, they can be frightening and unrelenting, even while they are invigorating and inspiring.  These images tell us – warn us – that the love of God is not going to leave us untouched, that it will call us to become our true selves, to realise what really matters.  To give up what we should not be in order to become what we are called to be.  To be pared down, sculpted, until we are become the essential person that God calls us to be. This is the deep, true encounter with God’s love.  It can be very painful, but it can also be of great joy: joy and fear are here intertwined, as so often in the prophets.  God’s love for the world, God’s desire for us, is in the deepest sense of the word “passion”.  It is passion in the sense of love, which takes form in the incarnation, but it is also passion in the sense of suffering, for we know that it will end with Christ’s death on the cross, and his resurrection which gives the world new meaning.

That means that it is often in the deep experiences of love, of passion, of death that we encounter God and learn about the truths of our lives and our selves.  Michael Mayne writes:

There are in every life, except perhaps in the most diminished by disability or circumstance, days when we cannot avoid the transcendent and the mysterious.  The most obvious have to do with birth and falling in love, illness and death.  These times may be at once deeply spiritual and deeply carnal experiences, putting in us touch with levels of experience that we sense but may find it difficult to describe.[1] 

Falling in love, or the process of expecting and then having a child, which is one aspect of what we are remembering in Advent, can call you into “transcending yourself [to] become more, not less than you are.”[2]  And so too do the dark moments, times of pain and loss, of crisis, in which we are confronted with the depths of existence, of the questions about who we are and what life is, of what meaning life can have.  These are experiences which take us beyond ourselves and confront us with the essential.

They are also experiences which can leave us wondering where God is in the world. On retreat this summer, I spent some time (as Ignatius directs) thinking about the Trinity’s decision that Christ should be incarnate. The intention, I am sure, was that I should contemplate God’s desire to be in the world. But I found myself asking: what difference has the incarnation made? The world is still such a damaged place; people are so cruel to each other; the problems seem so intractable; in the face of this fallenness, what does it mean to say that Christ was incarnate and redeemed it?  Some words of Elizabeth Goudge offer a perspective on such questions:

It may be difficult, in the face of human suffering, to believe in God, … but if you destroy God you do not solve your problem but merely leave yourself alone with it … A ghastly loneliness.[3] 

Perhaps these testing experiences of refining fire teach us of our need for God.  They show us that God desires us – and desires that we become our most essential selves – but they also show us that and how we need God.

It is this kind of challenging, astringent encounter with God for which we preparing throughout Advent.  It is the kind of encounter with God’s desire for us which we may not actively seek, for it is an encounter which focuses, refines, pares down, in order not to diminish but to enhance and reveal. That is the encounter with the God who is coming into our world. Advent challenges us to listen, to encounter the refining fire of God amongst all the business that fills our lives, to open ourselves to the encounter with the essentials, with what is “really real”.

It is no accident, I think, that in the Bible such encounters often seem to take place in the desert.  For deserts are surely places in which life is reduced to its essentials, where it becomes very clear what is necessary, what is unnecessary, what leads to life and what leads to death.  And in that sense, deserts are not geographical places.  Those of us who do not have the pain or the privilege of living in the desert may find our deserts in different times and in different places.  In moments of joy or crisis, but also in taking time to be apart and slow down and open ourselves to God; in the moments which we find to be alone and let the thoughts and the intimations of God come to us, however unlikely a place or a context it might seem. “My desert is three stops on the Paris metro,” someone once said, three stops on the metro, surrounded by people, but alone with God. 

In the times and the places when we are open to the mystery that lies at the heart of things, in the moment in which we know that someone, something is calling to us, “when everything beckons us to perceive,” as the poet Rilke puts it.[4]  We God’s desire for us calls us to enter into the places in which we open ourselves to the overwhelming love of God, to God’s passion for us.  Love, says Paul, is what gives everything its true meaning.  God’s love, God’s desire, God’s passion for the world gives it – and with it us – true meaning.  Let us open ourselves to God’s desire for us – as we are, as God delights in us.

“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.  The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, he is coming says the Lord.”

Amen


[1]   Michael Mayne, This Sunrise of Wonder, p. 51.

[2]   Ibid., p. 52.

[3]   Elizabeth Goudge, A City of Bells, pp. 372-373.

[4]   Cited by Michael Mayne, This Sunrise of Wonder, p. 31.

Proper 25 (B) – 24 October 2021

sermon preached at Drumchapel Scottish Episcopal Church

Jeremiah 31.7-9
Hebrews 7.23-38
Mark 10.46-52

John Bell tells a story called “The Teachers” which I want to share with you this morning as we think of the story of the healing of the blind man called Bartimaeus.  The story goes like this:

I met him on the train.  He said he was in education, learning for life he called it.  I said I was interested in education too, so he invited me to come with him to where he taught and learned.

Across the room came a wheelchair.  A paraplegic boy of 18 sat in it. And a boy the same age pushed it.  ‘It’s great when  friends help each other,’ I said.  ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘the boy in the chair is teaching the other how to walk.’

A doctor was talking to a group of young couples about family planning.  He spoke slowly and clearly and used sign language. ‘Deaf people need to know about these things as well,’ I said.  ‘Oh, they know,’ he said.  ‘They are teaching the doctor how to listen.’

Confused and not knowing what to say, I sat down.  After a while I felt I could speak.

‘Seeing all this,’ I said, ‘I want to pray.  I want to thank God that I have my faculties, I now realise that I can do much to help.’

But he said, ‘I don’t want to upset your devotional life, but I hope that you will also pray to know your own need, and I hope that you will never be afraid to be touched, to be ministered to, to learn from those you thought you were sent to.’[1]

When we read stories like the healing of Bartimaeus, it’s very easy to think that we know who is being healed, who is ministering to whom.  John Bell’s story reminds us that the picture may be a bit different.  And I was reminded to John Bell’s story because in preparing this sermon I came across a reading of the healing of Bartimaeus that asks some important questions about who in the story is healed, and how.  The article is by Erin Raffety, an American Presbyterian theologian who works on (among other things) the interface between ecclesiology, disability, and culture.[2] 

Raffety points out several aspects of this passage.  Firstly, in this story, there is mention of healing but not of forgiveness of sin.  Bartimaeus’s blindness is presented as a factor that shapes his existence, but not as some kind of punishment.  There are other healing stories in the New Testament that do relate different abilities to sin, but this is not one of them.  This might be an important challenge to us to think about how we understand the relationship between difference and sinfulness.  Do we have norms that we assume are also representative of righteousness?

Secondly, Raffety suggests that it is not only Bartimaeus who is healed but also the crowd.  Many people in the crowd start out by trying to keep Bartimaeus away from Jesus.  They tell him sternly to be quiet.  But when Jesus stops and calls Bartimaeus to him, they change their tune: “they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’”  Raffety sees this as the healing of the crowd, a shift from trying to hide Bartimaeus away because he is blind – or differently abled – to understanding that he too might be a follower of Jesus.  The crowd’s efforts to silence Bartimaeus point to their own blindness.  When Jesus stops and calls Bartimaeus to come to him, the crowd’s eyes are opened.  Where do our eyes need to be opened to those whom we seek to silence or whom we do not see as deserving – or able – to enter the kingdom of God?

Finally, Raffety points out that Jesus made no assumptions about what Bartimaeus wanted.  He asks, ‘What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus responds: “My teacher, let me see again.”  But Jesus does not assume that what he wants is sight.  Raffety reflects on the importance of not assuming what people want, whatever their abled-ness.  Do we sometimes make assumptions about what people want?

I hope you can see now why Raffety’s article took me back to John Bell’s story.  Like Raffety’s reading of the healing of Bartimaues, John Bell’s story challenges our assumptions about who teaches who, and about the ways in which we learn from each other.  It encourages us to reflect about whom we might teach, and how, perhaps especially if we are used to thinking of ourselves as having nothing, or not much, to offer.  It encourages us to reflect about who we learn from, especially if we are often in the position of giving or teaching.  (And I am aware of the irony of my coming in and preaching this sermon as a guest!) Raffety’s reading of this story encourages to reflect also on the ways that we are all in need of healing.

In recognising our own need for healing, it’s important to remember too that we do not need to be healed in order to be acceptable to God.  Jeremiah gives us a vision in which all people, of all abilities, all statues, are gathered by the Lord:

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labour, together; a great company, they shall return here.

Those who are blind and those who are lame – we might add those who are deprived or marginalised or excluded in any way – are gathered with all the others and brought to God.  They don’t have to be healed; they are a part of the people of God. Just as they are. And they have a lot to offer, just as they are.

Let us finish by coming back to that final sentence of John Bell’s story:

I hope that you will also pray to know your own need, and I hope that you will never be afraid to be touched, to be ministered to, to learn from those you thought you were sent to.

And we could add: may you never be afraid to teach those who think they were sent to you. 

May be this our prayer too. Amen


[1]   John Bell, ‘The Teachers,’ in: He Was in the World. Meditations for Public Worship, Wild Goose, Glasgow, 1995, 15-17.

[2]   Erin Raffety, “From Inclusion to Leadership: Disabled ‘Misfitting’ in Congregational Ministry,” Theology Today 77 (2020), 198-209.


Proper 24 (B) – 17 October 2021

Sermon preached at St Margaret’s Newlands

Isaiah 53.4-12
Psalm 91.9-16
Hebrews 5.1-10
Mark 10.35-45

It’s very good to be back with you after so long.  What an extraordinary time this has been, and indeed still is.  Today’s readings from Isaiah and from Hebrews are grappling with questions of suffering and the meaning of suffering.  What might these readings say to us about our own experiences over the past eighteen months and more?

In Christian interpretations, Isaiah’s suffering servant is generally understood as a precursor of Christ.  “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”  The sufering servant songs are a reminder that already in the Old Testament there is a strand of teaching that suffering may be redemptive.  Reflecting on today’s readings, John Foley SJ writes, “Suffering may well stretch and widen the human soul, making it large enough to know God.”[1] And indeed it may.  I want to emphasise may, as I don’t think this is at all something to be taken for granted.  And yet there are many accounts of the ways that suffering or hardship can be stretching or even essential to development. Preparing this sermon I came across the story of a visitor to an orange grove:

The irrigation pump on one farm had broken down. The season was unusually dry and some of the trees were beginning to die for lack of water. But then the man giving the tour took the visitor to his own orchard where irrigation was used sparingly. “These trees could go without rain for another two weeks,” he said. ”You see, when they were young, I frequently kept water from them. This hardship caused them to send their roots deeper into the soil in search of moisture. Now mine are the deepest-rooted trees in the area. While others are being scorched by the sun, these are finding moisture at a greater  depth.”[2]

There are similar stories about people finding a butterfly or a moth emerging from the cocoon and deciding to help it emerge by cutting open the cocoon. The problem is that that the butterfly or moth develops its wings by struggling to free itself from the cocoon.  “The ‘merciful’ snip,” write one author, “was, in reality, cruel. Sometimes the struggle is exactly what we need.”[3] 

We may not always recognise what we have learned from painful experiences. Sometimes it takes talking to someone to help us realise how we have been deepened or changed by suffering. Bob Benson tells a story about his friend who had a heart attack. At first it didn’t seem like the man would live, but eventually he recovered, Months later, Bob asked him:

“Well, how did you like your heart attack?”
“It scared me to death, almost.”
“Would you do it again?”
“No!”
“Would you recommend it?”
“Definitely not.”
“Does your life mean more to you now than it did before?”
“Well, yes.”
“You and your wife have always had a beautiful marriage, but are you closer now than ever?”
“Yes.”
“Do you have a new compassion for people—a deeper understanding and sympathy?”
“Yes.”
“So how did you like your heart attack?”[4]

Suffering can reveal to us our true priorities, offer us new ways of thinking about things, lead us to a deeper understanding of God. Malcolm Muggeridge once reflected:

I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I
can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained.[5]

I would be cautious about being this categorical: my own experience is that I have gained important insights from being happy as well.  But these are all stories which remind us of how meaning can emerge from suffering.

At the same time, I think we need also to be very cautious about offering interpretations to people in the midst of suffering.  There is no question that suffering can also be debilitating; no question that it doesn’t always seem to result in redemption.  People may find their faith shaken by the experience of deep suffering, or a sudden loss. Giving meaning to suffering needs to come from – be discovered by – those who are experiencing that suffering, perhaps in conversation, but it must be their experience. Meaning cannot be imposed from outside. 

Trying to give meaning to suffering can come across as lack of care, or as trite platitude. Alia Joy writes of a time when her child was very ill.  The doctors did not know what was wrong; they had no answers.  But, she writes, “though the medical community struggled to sort it all out, my faith community seemed to have every answer.”

God would provide, one said, because God would respond to my great faith. God was setting up a miracle, another said. God works all things together for good, I was reminded. Platitude, platitude, platitude. I smiled through all of them, even nodded. Silently I wondered, Did all those words amount to anything, well-meaning though they were? Hunched over my son, all those platitudes haunting, my phone rang.

I looked at the screen, read the name. It was a pastor from a church in my hometown, and as I answered the phone, I wondered what platitude I might hear. There was a purpose in my son’s suffering? Everything has a Kingdom purpose? After an exchange of greetings, I clenched my jaw. Stiffened. Braced myself.

Through the phone, I heard only three words: “I’m so sorry.” There was a pause, and he told me to shout if I needed anything. He said he’d be praying. And that was that. It was a moment of selfless solidarity, a moment in which this man of the cloth didn’t force-feed me anaemic answers or sell me some fix-all version of a bright-and-shiny gospel.

Instead, he did the work of Christ himself; he entered into my suffering. And years later, after a long season of healing (both my son’s and my own), his words served as a reminder of the Christian response to suffering—we enter into it together, share in it together, lament with each other.[6]

I’m so sorry.  So sorry.  I hear your pain.  Sometimes that is all we can say.  All we need to say.

Max Lacado tells a story which reminds us that we should not be too quick to seek meanings. We may not always understand what we are experiencing. We cannot always judge:

Once there was an old man who lived in a village. Although he was poor, he was envied by all, for he owned a beautiful white horse. One morning he found that the horse was not in the stable. The other people in the village came to see him. “You old fool,” they scoffed, “we told you that someone would steal your horse. You are so poor. It would have been better to have sold him. Now the horse is gone, and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”
The old man responded, “Don’t speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”
The people of the village laughed. They thought that the man was crazy.
After a while, the horse returned. He hadn’t been stolen; he had run away into the forest. Not only did he return, he brought a dozen wild horses with him. Once again the village people gathered around the woodcutter. “Old man,” they said, “you were right and we were wrong. What we thought was a curse was a blessing. Please forgive us.”
The man responded, “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. Say that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not? You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge?”
“Maybe the old man is right,” they said to one another. So they said little. But deep down, they knew it was a blessing. With a little work, the twelve wild horses could be trained and sold for much money.
The old man had a son. The young man began to break the wild horses. After a few days, he fell off one of the horses and broke both legs. Once again the villagers gathered around the old man.
“You were right,” they said. “The dozen horses were not a blessing. They were a curse. Your only son has broken his legs, and now you have no one to help you. You are poorer than ever.”
The old man spoke again. “You people are obsessed with judging. Say only that my son broke his legs. Who knows if it is a blessing or a curse? No one knows. We only have a fragment. Life comes in fragments.”
A few weeks later the country went to war. All the young men of the village were required to join the army. Only the son of the old man was exempt, because he was injured. Once again the people gathered around the old man, crying because their sons had been taken. There was little chance that they would return. The enemy was strong, and the war would be a losing struggle. They would never see their sons again.
“You were right, old man,” they wept. “God knows you were right. This proves it. Your son’s accident was a blessing. His legs may be broken, but at least he is with you. Our sons are gone forever.”
The old man spoke again. “You always draw conclusions. No one knows. Say only this: Your sons had to go to war, and mine did not. No one knows if it is a blessing or a curse. No one is wise enough to know. Only God knows.”[7]

This past week I was speaking at a clergy study day in the Diocese of Leeds, my first in person event since winter 2019/20.  I was asked to reflect on historical understandings of pandemic, and the church’s responses to it.  Afterwards, someone asked about what all that has happened to us, and how looking back on all that has happened in history tells me about God.  We’d been talking quite a lot about Job, who lost his family and all his property, but somehow held on to his trust in God, and in the end was granted a new beginning.  In the end, Job experienced the redemptive God, the redemptive God to whom Isaiah’s suffering servant also witnesses.  The God who offers us new beginnings, even when we find ourselves at our most bleak.  The God who gives us Easter Sunday after our Good Friday. The God who leads us into resurrected life.  That is the promise of our faith, but we may need to be patient, and we certainly need to experience it ourselves.

Let us pray:

Loving God, in times of trial,
I offer up to you my confusion:
give me clarity.
I offer up to you my despair;
give me hope.
I offer up to you my weakness;
give me strength.
I offer up to you my pettiness;
give me generosity of spirit.
I offer up to you all my negative thoughts, so that when I am asked “Where is Your God now?” I may respond, “Right here with me, giving me grace, as a Heavenly beam of light penetrating the darkness!”[8]

Amen 


[1]  John Foley SJ, “Ask?” online at:  https://liturgy.sluhostedsites.org/29OrdB101721/reflections_foley.html.

[2]   Online at: http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/s/suffering.htm.

[3]   Online at: http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/s/suffering.htm.

[4] Bob Benson, See You at the House (1986); online at: https://thepastorsworkshop.com/sermon-illustrations-2/sermon-illustrations-suffering/.

[5]   Malcolm Muggeridge, A Twentieth Century Testimony (1978); online at: https://thepastorsworkshop.com/sermon-illustrations-2/sermon-illustrations-suffering/.

[6]   Alia Joy, Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack, Baker Books, 2019; online at: https://thepastorsworkshop.com/sermon-illustrations-2/sermon-illustrations-suffering/.

[7]   Max Lucado, In the Eye of the Storm, Word Publishing, 1991, 144-147; online at http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/s/suffering.htm..

[8]   Amended from a prayer fund online: https://www.ourcatholicprayers.com/offering-prayers.html.

Easter reflections at Ripon Cathedral (7 – 26 May 2021)

Welcome to the last of our reflections on hearing Christ’s words from the cross in the light of Easter. It takes us out of the Easter season and into ordinary time. I’m Charlotte Methuen, Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Leeds and of Ripon Cathedral, and Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Glasgow. We’ve been reflecting over the last seven weeks on how Jesus’s last words from the cross speak into our resurrection lives. This week we reflect also on how the resurrection life is also our life of discipleship. The joy and challenge of the Easter message does not stop with Pentecost, just as the pain and loss of the cross do not stop with Easter Sunday. They reflect how we experience God, and the world, in our daily lives.

“It is finished.” Christ’s final words from the cross point to an end, a finality, as death. Easter turns that end into a new beginning. In the midst of their grief the disciples find themselves encountering Christ and drawn, or called, to new beginnings, to share their faith in new ways. And then we come to Ascension, to another ending, another farewell, and then to Pentecost, and the giving of the Holy Spirit, and another beginning: the call to be Christ’s body in this world. Ends and beginnings are always entwined with each other. T. S. Eliot wrote: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” Something is finished, but something new is starting. For me this is for me the particular insight that Easter brings.

The new beginning of Easter, the new beginning of Pentecost are just that: new beginnings. These are not easy, as Tina Beattie reflects: “Learning to let go in order to move on is one of life’s hardest and most important lessons. It’s an anguished process when the letting go isn’t chosen – through bereavement or other forms of profound loss – but even when it’s a fundamentally positive decision, it’s always a stepping away from a familiar path into the unknown.” What has been is integrated into these new beginnings, as we have been pondering over these past few weeks, but we are not going back to what has been. Christ invites us to eternal life. That is not a dragging out into eternity of a terrible time of grief or loss, although it may be a life lived in the awareness of the ways in which that grief or loss can also become a space into which the new and the transformative breaks.

And this is not only for Easter. Nicholas Lash wrote a book called Easter In Ordinary; the title is a reminder of the way that Easter continually breaks into our ordinary lives. There is a German hymn that marks this too: “Sometimes, in the middle of an ordinary day, we find ourselves celebrating resurrection.” (“Manchmal feiern wir mitten am Tag ein Fest der Auferstehung.”) We encounter resurrection when in our sadness we are surprised by joy; when we find our prose becoming songs; when our conflicts are transformed by peace; when the barriers that separate us are broken down.

Matthew’s gospel tells us that the risen Christ sent his disciples into the world: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Another ending, another beginning. What is Jesus calling you to do? How is Jesus calling you to proclaim his word and baptize in his name? However it is, whatever you are called to do, hear Jesus’s words: “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Let us pray:
Jesus Christ, remain with us: light in our darkness, power in our powerlessness, comfort in our grief, steadfastness in our temptation, compassion in our differences, courage in our fear, hope in our despair, life in our death, life of our life.
Amen.

Easter reflections at Ripon Cathedral (6 – 19 May 2021)

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Welcome to the sixth of our Easter reflections. I am Charlotte Methuen, Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Leeds and of Ripon Cathedral, and Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Glasgow. It’s very good to be with you to reflect on how Jesus’s last words from the cross speak into our resurrection lives. I am particularly aware at present of the need to integrate the pain and the difficulties of the past into our lives going forward. Christ’s resurrected body bore the scars of his crucifixion, and so too do we bear our own scars as we move into new lives after grief and tragedy.

This week we reflect on Jesus’s promise to one of the thieves who was crucified with him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” You probably remember Luke’s account: one of the two criminals derided Jesus, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other said to him: “Don’t you fear God? We have been condemned justly; we are getting what we deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong.” He asks Jesus: “Please remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus says to him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

This is the promise of salvation. It is a promise that when we confess our sins, when we come before God recognising who we are, we will be forgiven; we will be accepted; we will be saved. We will be with Jesus in his kingdom.

How do we live into salvation against the background of what has been? When the women come to the tomb, Luke tells us, the two men they encounter ask them: “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” Salvation is about looking for the living amongst the living. It is not about holding on to what has been. It’s a delicate balance this. What has been shapes us; we can’t go back to how things were before. But we also can’t find the answers by staying in the past, by focusing only on what has been. A father reflecting on the death of his young son in an accident twenty years later described how the roots of a tree in his garden tree found their way into the ground round a large rock. The rock was like his grief; the tree the life that had grown up with the rock entangled with its roots.

Janet Morley wrote a poem called “The bodies of grownups” which is about living into the future while bearing the marks of the past: “The bodies of grownups / come with stretchmarks and scars, / faces that have been lived in, relaxed bellies and breasts, / backs that give trouble, / and well-worn feet. … They also come / with bruises on their heart, / wounds they can’t forget.” “And yet,” she wrote, “there is a flood of beauty beyond the smoothness of youth … a grace of longing / that flows through bodies / no longer straining to be innocent / but yearning for redemption.” The thief on the cross accepted what had been in his past and yearned for redemption. The women in the garden who were grieving and afraid needed in their grief to turn away from the empty tomb towards a new life. In salvation, we are accepted by God, loved by God, with the past we bring. Salvation promises that our past forms us but does not trap us. All that we bring to God can be – is – redeemed.

Let us pray:
Jesus Christ, remain with us: light in our darkness, power in our powerlessness, comfort in our grief, steadfastness in our temptation, compassion in our differences, courage in our fear, hope in our despair, life in our death, life of our life.
Amen.