Resurrection

I just want to share a wee story with you from today. A story which has melted my heart once again.

It’s late on Easter night, I’ve been awake for far too long, and I’ve finally broken my lentern fast of alchol, so you know, this might not end well.

Holy week has been intense this year for a number of reasons, and the path of passion was very real this time round. I’ve been walking with some folk whose way has been painful, including one elderly couple (who are happy for me to tell this story) who lost their son six months ago. Their son’s widow is naturally in great grief, but one of the expressions of that is that they have not been allowed to see their grandchildren since the funeral. The pain of that separation has been sharp and terrible, and I’ve prayed for them with tears as well as with hope.

On Maundy Thursday I knew they would be there, and it was hard to try and say anything of hope and good news when you know some people feel little but despair. I don’t believe in despair, I believe Christianity means there is no such thing, but for them the valley was dark indeed. How can you preach to people about the loss of Jesus when they have lost their own son? I don’t rightly know what I said to them, or if it helped, but if compassion means anything I know I shared their pain.

Even now I can’t really bear to think too hard about what it might feel to lose my own son, I know the idea is so terrible, so heart breaking that I cannot dare to imagine it. I know that their pain is darker than anything I have ever had to experience. I know that they are the kindest, most gentle, most decent of folk, the apotheosis of the sort of people you want to protect from harm and hurt, and I wanted to howl in outrage at what they are having to go through. To lose their son is one thing. To lose the hope of ever seeing their grandchildren again is devastating.

As time wore on, and there was nothing but silence, they began to feel that perhaps this was how it would always be. They are not young. They may not have long. All they have is a yearning love for their grandchildren, expressed in anxiety, pain and an inability to stop hoping.

After Easter Sunday Eucharist we always have a meal in our house for the congregation, and they always come along. Only this Sunday they couldn’t make it. Because on Holy Saturday, they got a card. Written in scrawly handwiting from their grandchildren. It was an invitation. To Easter lunch.

So we didn’t get to see them this Easter lunchtime. They were too busy being resurrected.

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Easter Sermon

And So the Easter Season hits us once again, and it won’t be long before the children have crashed from their sugar rush and the champaigne has kicked in, and finally I can watch Doctor Who.

It’s funny how something like Doctor Who both unites and divides the generations. It’s a rare communal talking point. But we all have our favourite Doctor – and perhaps our favourite companion. Did you have a favourite companion? Yes I’ll bet you did. Chris our organist liked the ditzy blonde one, John our server liked the intelligent brunette – me, I preferred the girls.

But where we divide depends on who “our Doctor” is. Because if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that Doctor Who isn’t as good as it used to be.

It’s like cricket or Pop music. The past was better. It has always been so. If there’s one thing constant in this world, it is that the older generation thinks the past was better than the present.

Now I’ve been perhaps a little frivolous about that but it’s an imporatant truth. There is a feeling, a seemingly authentic, honest, truthful feeling, that the world today is worse today than it was in our recent past. Because bad news feels true.

A couple of years ago there was a conference about church decline, and the statistics were being presented in a very depressing way. The piscy church as a whole was declining, the Church of Scotland and the catholics were in freefall, and the independent churches are only growing because one starts up as another diminishes. And I looked around and all the clergy in the room were doing that “sad but true” expression.

I’ve seen that expression a lot. Sad but true. Sentences that begin “the fact is” are going to be sad facts. Churches are declining, morality is sinking, community is failing, not like it used to be.

And I’ve seen that sad but true expression in the faces of so many people who say, they want to believe in God, but the sad truth is, it’s just a comforting fantasy. You remember that atheist slogan on the busses, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Most atheists feel sad that there’s no God, but feel it has a ring of truth. Because people believe bad news.

I used to think that. I was there, Sad but true. I wished God existed, but thought the sad truth was, it was just a make believe, a comforting fairy tale. And better to have the sad truth, than a comforting lie.

And it feels… cleaner, somehow, more noble, courageous, admitting cold hard reality. Because bad news feels true.

And if there is just one thing that I have learnt from Easter, it is that feeling you get, that feeling of the truth of cold hard reality, – it’s a deceit. It’s a lie. Bad news feels true, people believe bad news, but it’s a psychological tick, a quirk of humanity. Our Gospel today, our mad, strange Gospel, tells us not to be afraid of good news.

So does our first reading. Abraham was locked into his grief at not having children. So locked in that he really didnt’ believe God when God told him he would have a son. Abraham knew the truth. Abraham knew the cold hard reality. Abraham has actually just won a great battle, and he’s become a very rich man But he had no children. And he was old, very old, and so was his wife. What is the point of all this, all this battle, all this striving, if he had no-one to pass it on to? There was something missing. He was grieving for the children he never had.

And this time, along comes God, all hail fellow well met, and he says to him, “Fear not, Abraham, cheer up! Everything’s going to turn out really well! It’s not as black as you think it is!”.

And Abraham, only just manages to keep his temper. You don’t know the half of it. I have no children, he said. You have not blessed me. You dont’ know the half of it.

And God took him gently by the hand, and led him out into the stars, led him out of his enclosed grief and his set-in sorrow. He led him out into the vast majesty of creation and said, “Look. Look at all of this. Don’t be afraid. It is you, who don’t know the half of it.”

The Apostles were locked into their grief, they were well versed in the rituals of despair, and they were living them out. They were ready to accept failure. Sad but true. The venture had failed. The women had brought along embalming fluid for Jesus. They were locked into their rituals of despair, they knew how to cope with bad news. And tthen they saw the empty tomb. And they were terrified. The Apostles refused to believe it even when they saw it, and even when Jesus appeared to them. They knew the future was bleak and they didn’t take kindly to Jesus taking away their certainty.

It takes a lot of guts to believe in the resurrection. Not the appearing after dead stuff, that’s piddling. Any scientist worth his salt will say what is reported in the resurrection can be explained. But the faith to me is not about the physical stuff. It’s about more than that.

Throuhgout the scenes of holy week, we have seen atrocity and degredation, humanity at it’s worst. Just as we see today in Syria. We have seen Jesus, even Jesus feeling abandoned by God, despairing for the world. And through all of that we come to today. Through the twisted world of human sin and evil, into something which is strange, and mind-bending and somehow beautiful.

The faith that we are required to have in order not just to believe the resurrection, but to live it, is the faith that God can take all of that horror and evil and turn it into something beautiful. and good.

The jews said “his blood be upon us and upon our children” and God took that and turned it into a blessing. Saved by the blood of the lamb. Peter’s betrayal caused bitter tears, but because of his betrayal, he became the greatest apostle. God takes all the evil in the world and in his time and if we allow it, he transforms it into goodness, and beauty.

If we truly believe that, then there is no place, no place at all, for despair.

Because that sad but true face is not true, it is never true. There is no room for despair in a world where God’s love can transform everything.

There are places in the world which are as dark and as horrific as Gethsemane and Golgotha. There are people in the world who suffer just as Jesus did, and the easiest, the safest, the most childish and the most selfish thing in the world we can do is to despair. Because it requires us to do nothing, to make no effort, to help no-one, to throw up our hands and say “what can we do?” and to decry the world of God’s creating as evil and forsaken.

We cannot be followers of Christ if we seek refuge in despair. Our only option it to exercise compassion, to share the suffering of those who have nothing, and to find it unbearable, so that we are moved into action, to know that we can and we shall and we will make a difference, because there is never room for despair, there is never a point at which our compassion cannot change the world, there is never, never a point at which love cannot transform everything.

And when we truly believe that, we are living that risen life, and the question no longer is “what can we do” but “what shall we do” – because we can always do something and because our comapssion for those who suffer mean that we will never be beaten down by despair.

You know how much I love Doctor Who, so let me quote a little of it.

‘There’s a mountain made of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it, and an hour to walk around it. And every hundred years, a little bird comes, and sharpens it’s beak on the diamond mountain.
And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed.’
You might think that’s one hell of a mountain. I think that’s one hell of a bird.”

We are the bird. And we will not stop until those mountains of injustice and suffering are chiselled away. Because our faith tells us we can, and our compassion tells us we must. And our love tells us we will.

And when we do, as we always do, fall into that darker place, where hope seems thin and the world seems an anxious place, when we fall back into the comforting memory of the past, and retreat from the anxiety of the present, then let us remember the story of the Resurrection, and to allow God, as Abraham did, to take us gently by the hand, so that he can say once again to us “It’s okay. Because there is so much more than this. You don’t know the half of it. And the half that you don’t see, is wonderful.”

And that is hope. That is faith. That is love. That is resurrection.

Amen.

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Sermon for Good Friday

GOOD FRIDAY SERMON

Today is the day when we perform that most extraordinary, bizzarre twists that any religion could have chosen. We feel pity for our God.

It’s unremitting, is Good Friday, this death of Jesus. The Gospels don’t spare us. When it comes to Jesus’ own suffering, we find the crucifixion scene so troubling, that it is tempting to underplay the idea of pain and suffering, as though because he’s the son of God it barely touches the sides. But in the Gospels there’s none of that,  no joyful skip on to the end. Jesus is a broken man, who feels abandoned by God, there’s no way out of that. The Gospels take us deep down into those places of sorrow and grief, and show us that Christ, like us, was not spared any pain.

The gospels are cruel to us. They stick our noses into the horror of the real world. Look at death, they say, look at this corpse, look at the evil in the world, look at the suffering of the innocent and the poor, look at the injustices. Dont cover them up by ritual, don’t whatever you do, do that. Make the rituals amplify the hurt, don’t let them be an anelgesic. Don’t find ways of dealing with it, don’t use coping mechanisms, don’t find ways of switching to another channel. Don’t dare look away, says the God of compassion and love, because he knows if we look away we do nothing, and if we look, we can’t bear it. So we look at a broken man we call God, and we feel such compassion for him that we have to do everythign we can to stop anyone else ever having to feel like he did.

The gift God gives us on Good friday is the gift of compassion. Compassion literally means with pain. We are made to feel compassion. Because his whole journey to this place, to this awful, terrible place, this charnel house of suffering, has been an act of compassion on his part. This journey of salvation has been because of his love for us, for his friends, for his enemies, his love for those who were mocking him, nailing him to his death. The compassion we feel for him is the journey of the cross, the purpose of his story. His suffering draws compassion out of us. It causes us to want to help. It makes us better people.

That is why today is so important, as important and as great a feast as Easter. Because Compassion, that essence of love, is the stuff of God. What we feel within us is God at work. When we are moved to help the suffering, the refugee, the homeless, the helpless, the innocent, the poor, when we have to help because we have to do something, that is God at work within us. And every time that happens within us, and in our actions and deeds, then God has been made incarnate, written into that moment, in that place and in time. That moment of God’s incarnation will never be taken away. And we become truly ourselves. In that moment.

And our job as the followers of the ragged God of the cross, is simply to make more moments like that. To be unafraid of compassion, and of love, and to fill the earth with them. And as Christ showed in his last words, we can do that even when the very worst in happpening. Even in the point of cruel, unjust death, love can be made incarnate.

And in that is our hope and our salvation.

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Maundy Thursday

Here’s my sermon for Maundy Thursday.

Tonight I simply want to share with you a story I shared recently on the radio. Something that happened to me a few years ago, in fact six years ago, almost to the day, one Sunny Maundy Thursday when I was in Linlithgow.

It was a Maundy Thursday afternoon, I’d come home from the Chrism mass at the cathedral and we had just adopted out son Gavin. Just – as in, he’d been with us for five days. And at the Rectory door knocked a young man who I’d got to know. He was homeless, and had been hanging around Linlithgow for a while. I had an arrangement with the local shops so if he went in and presented my card they would phone to say it was okay and I’d pay for the food, so I knew he’d been around.

So he turned up at my door, and it was a sunny day and I wasn’t going to let him in the house because Gavin was there and I was feeling a bit protective. So we sat in the Sun and asked for the money to go back to Edinburgh where his family was. We’d spoken a bit about his family and they weren’t very good for him.

He was only 17, althoguh looked older. I don’t know if he was ill but he was thin. He could never look me in the eye. In my job there are lots of different types of people in need. There are those who have mental health or addiction issues, there are those who can’t stop talking, those who want to challenge you those who feel the need to try and fool you into giving them money for their own sense of self worth, and there are those like this young man who couldn’t meet your eye, just was in need and didn’t know how to ask for help without feeling that a part of him was being taken away.

He asked me if I had any spare clothes, and I gave him some, and he wanted shoes. I had a spare pair, but when he took his shoes and socks off, his feet were a mess. I’d worked with homeless folk enough to know how easy it is to get some horrible infections in his feet, so I insisted that we wash them. He didn’t want to because they were painful, but I got a bowl and water and washed his feet. It hurt him, but I took my time, and we waited in the sun as his feet dried and hardened off. He wasn’t a talker so we didn’t really talk about what was to come, but I felt a closeness to him and I desperately wanted to take care of him. But he wanted to get back to Edinbrugh so I bought him a train ticket and put him on the train and that was that, I never saw him again.

And then that evening I did what we will do now, washed the feet of my congregation. Differerent feet, different ages, different people. The lesson I learned.

You can’t do everything for people. They won’t let you. And you mustn’t. But the very little that we can do,we have to do. We must do that little, tiny thing, because not doing it is to despair and doing it is to have hope.

I wonder often how Jesus felt when he said those words – it sounded as though there was a bit of desperation in there. “See to it that you love one another”. He didn’t say “make sure you hang on to my beliefs” or “see that you uphold the doctrine”. It was “whatever you do, don’t let do of love.” Somehitng that he practiced as well as preached, even to the bitter, painful end.

Why did it matter so much? Because it is all that does matter. Because those small acts of love are not a means to an end, they are the end.

I preached before about how Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with her perfume, her one treasure. A small little gesture, but the perfume would still have been on his feet today when, inspired by her, he washed his own disciples feet. When we

remember the words of the penitent thief on the cross, those tiny words of grace in a horrific situation, then those little things become enormous, huge. Don’t ever underestimate the small kindnesses we do.

Jesus never stopped, even at the end, giving acts of kindness. It’s not about results, it is about pouring love into the world by every means that love may choose. It is about simply filling the earth with goodness and making that our only aim. Love is an intrinsic good in itself. If we learn anything about the new commandment, it is that. Love is not a means to a better world. It is the end in itself.

I have no idea what happened to that young man. I hope his life got better. I suspect it didn’t. I don’t know if he’s still with us. But I hope he remembers that at least, someone thought enough of him to wash his feet. And I hope that you know tonight, that someone thinks enough of you to wash yours.

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Philip North. The Jeffrey John of the conservatives?

Philip North has withdrawn his acceptance of the offer to become the Diocesan Bishop of Sheffield. He seems universally liked, and widely proclaimed as a “good man”. But as a theological conservative he  does not recognise the validity of women in holy orders. There was something of a storm of protest from those who could not reconcile his ministry with those he was called to serve and as a result he has decided to withdraw.

I feel desperately sorry for him – his translation to Sheffield must have been soon. Mentally he would already have been there, his thoughts and prayers being occupied with his new challenge.His statement on withdrawing has indicated his hurt at what has been said about him:

“The highly individualised nature of the attacks upon me have been extremely hard to bear. If, as Christians, we cannot relate to each other within the bounds of love, how can we possibly presume to transform a nation in the name of Christ? I hope though that this conversation can continue in the future without it being hung upon the shoulders of one individual.”

That indeed raises some very difficult issues for us as a church. A church which only consists of people who agree with me is not the sort of church I want to be a part of. Whilst I genuinely can’t understand his theological position, I have always wanted to find a way for them to stay not only part of the church but part of the conversation.

We are very bad at conversation in the church – so afraid of bad conflict that we refuse to exercise good conflict. When we do engage well, it is wonderful. When we don’t then the church slips into either boredom or acrimony.

What I find truly astonishing is that this scenario had not been thought through years ago and a plan devised. The strategic thinking of the C of E is breathtakingly bad sometimes. That I think is symptomatic of a church which does not talk to one another enough. Philip North is currently Bishop of Burnley, a suffrogan. That he is a suffrogan but not an assistant Bishop is significant. A suffrogan is a bishop under the juristiction of a Diocesan Bishop, but responsible for a specific area. Presumably in Burnley there were women priests, did anyone think to ask them how things had gone? The fact that, as far as I can see, North’s track record was good implies that they made it work somehow.

My own feeling is that I would feel very very uncomfortable working under a bishop who holds his views. I simply can’t see how my fellow clergy could manage it, male or female, to know that only half of our ministries are recognised – and of course for the women in his diocese that feeling would infinitely stronger. But could there have been anything done to make it work? The answer will always be yes – if there is the will to do it. Whether this was though a far more powerful assistant Bishop, or through alternative oversight, I’m sure a way could have been managed. In the church, the only things that are truly impossible are the things that we don’t want to happen.

I disagree with Philip North on most branches of theology and I fully accept that I am hardly in a position go be directly affected by his ministry. But if someone who seems to have been genuienly well regarded by everyone, cannot become a Bishop, then it does imply that there is a theological bar which is uncanonical and undoctrinal. Which is pretty much the complaint about how Jeffrey John was treated.

And let us not forget that the reason he has given for resignation is not the people of his diocese but the complaints and comments of those who opposed him online. This is a case where the more unpleasant tactics of my own theological community got their way. And that is not how I like it. I want to win the day with good theology, generous conduct and loving attentive listening. Not with anger and noise.

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Thoughts on International Women’s day

I was on Thought for the Day on Radio Scotland this morning, but with it being International Women’s Day part of me thought I really ought to have been a woman. Or rather, a women ought to have been doing it. But it is to all our benefit that women are treated not just with equal status but equal function in society, me included. And on a day like this I find myself looking at the history of the church and seeing just how very different and how very much more close to God the church might be had we been better at preserving the role of women in the church.

I spoke this morning about a woman in the bible called Junia. She’s mentioned by St Paul in the last Chapter of the letter to the Romans, along with a load of prominent women and men in the church. In this last chapter, Paul greets and names a lot of folk, including Phoebe, Prisca, Julia, Mary – the praise of women in St Paul comes thick and fast. More interestingly, Paul wrote this as a letter of introduction for himself to the church in Rome. Normally of course, other people wrote letters of introduction, so the fact that Paul wrote one for himself is suggestive that he was running out of friends at this point – or perhaps he just thought he’d do a better job of it. But the fact he mentions these people indicates not only that these women were known to him, but that they were important people in the life of the church – this final chapter was part greeting, part name-dropping.

The reaon that Junia is so interesting is that Paul referred to her as “notable/prominent among the Apostles” – ie he conferred a title upon her which he fought for himself. Calling someone an Apostle was as high a praise as Paul could muster.

Only you won’t find Junia in most Bibles. Because sometime in the medieval period or before, those who were copying out the Bible read that a woman had been called an Apostle, and changed her name – Junia – a female name, to Junias, a male one. The only reason we know the change is that Junias is not a name – no-one else has ever been called it, so the editorial change was obvious.

The lesson of those powerful women in the church is not that progress was rarely made – it is that progress often slips back.

In my other chosen field, music, we see the same thing. It is simply not the case that there were very few female composers, in any genre or time period of music. It is just that most of them have been lost to history, or never recorded in the first place.

In the medieval world, perhaps the most extraordinary musical compositions were from Hildegaard of Bingen – soaring, spiritual pieces from the Abbes of Bingen, which, if she were a man, would I am sure have influenced the world of music in ways which would have changed it greatly.

Have a listen…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UflHEjPmhNQ

Her music, along with her poetry and theology, didnt’ translate into Monasteries, partly I suspect because monks tended to stay within their own orders for visitations, and partly because convents and monasteries were regarded as different orders of importance.

Much monastic plainsong is anonymous, but by the time harmony was beginning to be introduced, in the 11th and 12th centuries, the composers became known. And as far as my limited research abilities tell me, there were in factpossibly as many female composers as male – many of whom like Hildegaard, lived lives of seclusion in convents and wrote for their nuns. Each monastery and convent, Priory and Nunnnery had it’s own musical tradition which woudl have required composers from each place.

For instance, the music of Herrad of Landsberg. Again, it is less plain a plainsong that most music of the time (she lived approx. 1130-1195) but although largely ignored today, was the author of “the garden of earthly delights”, a book of music, poetry and art. Like Hildegaard she spanned all disciplines, and her book is a compendium of other work as well as hers, but the music is regarded as coming from a single hand.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0Y5jtvh1xE

Despite the popularity of Herrad’s work at the time, only one manuscript of her work was extant in the 19th century, and it was destroyed in a fire. What is left of her work is due to others copying that manuscript for their own studies.

It is interesting how easily (and how continually) the process of forgetting the role of women takes place. This is perhaps because of the “equal status, different function” ideas which separated women in convents from the theological and musical, artistic confluence of ideas in Medieval times. Hildegaard was not taught nor learned from any of the men in travelling Monasteries, and although her letters to the Pope were heeded because of her wisdom, her gender prevented male institutions using her as a theological resource, as would surely have happened had she been a man.

The only female composers who have anything at all left to us are nobles such as Castelloza or Iseut de Capio – and very little of their output survives. Not becasue it was no good, but because it was disregarded. It is interesting that there is a long list of “women composers” on wikipedia – but hardly any of them make it to the comparable “list of medieval composers”. Not because of quality or output, or even surviving output – just becasue… well becasue “women” are niche.

Just imagine what a female Bach might have done, or a woman Wagner. Imagine if all of Fanny Mendelssohn’s works were attributed to her and she became more famous than her brother. Imagine if Clara Schumann was listened to and had the same opportunities as her brother.

Imagine also, those still unjustifiably fringe voices of composers and theologians in our own churches and societies – and how easy it might be in times to come for them to fade from the memory as has done their ancestors. If we think this is less possible these days, then count the number of professional Cathedral Organists, conductors, composers, compared with the male. It’s not just easy, it’s very possible that their contribution could go the way of the women of the past. In a society where sexually assaulting men become Presidents, International Woman’s day should be a warning to us all. Equality for women isn’t something which will just happen because we think the world is probably going in that direction. It will only happen if we constantly, constantly strive for it.

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My children are in danger

I started one of those government petition things – to get the Government to debate the Dubs Amendment again. This is the Amendment which says the UK will allow child refugees from Syria into this country. It originally had a target of 3,000 on it.

Here’s the link – please please sign it and advertise it as widely as you can.

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/183921

The 3,000 figure was in David Cameron’s time, and now the number the government is permitting to allow in is 350. This deals only – and I emphasise, only – with those children who were already in Europe before March 2016. Those since are not permitted. That number – ie the number of kids seeking refuge before March 2016 – is 130,000. We are permitting 350 of them.

Why no more than that? Partly because allowing more than 350 would act as a “magnet”

That is, the Government think that if we allowed in more than 350 out of the 130,000 that are have been stranded in Europe without protection before 2016, families in Syria might abandon their children and make them walk hundreds of miles, or go on perilous sea journeys without supervision to this country – despite the fact we are not letting in any children post march 2016

I call that a pretty thin argument.

We are told we can’t afford them. To my knowledge there are thousands of families who have said they will take them in free of charge. The government even set up a Sponsorship Scheme to allow people to do this. But the administration and on-costs are not, it seems something we are willing to pay as a society.

When we adopted our son, we took him out of a foster home of four other children. One was nine, and had severe behavioural issues. One was eight and still had to wear a nappy – because of emotional trauma which he had not been addressed. Our own, beautiful, wonderful son, was so desperately in need of a family. I met them all, and wanted to take them all home with me. I would have done it if I could, even though it would have been hell to deal with, because they had no chance of a decent future.

I look at these children, covered in dust and fear, vulnerable and alone, and I see my children. I see children I never had, but wanted, I see children who are the brothers and sisters of my own wonderful son, I see children made in God’s image, and who are pulling at my heart. They are my responsibility, and they are yours.

We talk about privilege as though it’s a bad thing. It’s not. I am a very privileged person. I am privileged to be in a position to exercise power and responsibility for these children. You see, they look around them, at others in their position and feel despair. But we look at them, and we see the power we have to change minds, to change policy, to change the law, to change governments, and we are privileged with the one thing they do not have – hope.

Please, exercise your privilage. They are my children. They are yours too.

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