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‘Do Not Worry’: Sermon Preached at St Oswald’s, Glasgow, 19 February 2017 (Epiphany 7)

Matthew 6: 25 – 34

25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

We seem to be living in a ‘through the looking-glass’ world, with ‘alternative facts’ being accorded the same status as real facts. Tweedledum or Tweedledee (does it matter which?) said something to the effect that ‘the words I use mean what I want them to mean’, and examples of this approach abound in certain kinds of political discourse. Serious journalism is being discounted in favour of social media, and there is a sedulously cultivated  disdain for scientific and other kinds of expertise.

It is a time of anxiety such as I personally have not experienced for half a century. What does the post-Brexit future hold for our country? What will the most powerful leader on the globe say or do next?

The advice in today’s gospel not to worry seems, at first glance, rather naive; we are not, after all,  ‘birds of the air’

The passage could also encourage us to assume that God will sort out all our problems for us, and consequently that God can be blamed when things go wrong: ‘Where was God on 9/11? Why did God not prevent it?’

If, however, God were to communicate with us directly, he would probably say something like: ‘I can’t guarantee to protect you against all difficulties, especially those created by your folly and selfishness, but please try to trust me. I’m still here; I haven’t gone away. But I gave you freedom so that you could take sensible decisions about your future. Furthermore, it would help if you prayed a bit more, if you reflected on my nature and my lordship over creation in the light of scripture, and took responsibility for co-operating with each other, and even with those who still don’t acknowledge me, to build my realm of peace and justice. It will be tough, but you are not alone.’ As one of my fellow-students remarked, during our training for ministry, ‘God engages, but doesn’t micromanage’.

The gospel passage is really about excessive and self-centred anxiety, the antidote to which is trust, and turning outwards from our own concerns to respond to the needs of others. In short, the traditional triad of faith, hope and love is as relevant as ever.

Paul knew about sustaining hope in difficult times, and in the passage from the Epistle to the Romans which formed our second reading (Romans 8: 18 – 25), he articulates it very forcefully. ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Rom. 8:18). He had good reason for referring to the ‘sufferings of this present time’, for he himself had been the target of suspicion and hostility from the Jewish converts at Jerusalem, some of whom could never quite bring themselves to believe that he was either a genuine Jew or a genuine Christian, since he had been a persecutor of the church (rather like the situation of Muslims in the US or the UK, who often don’t feel they are regarded as really American or British). Furthermore, by the time he wrote the Epistle to the Romans, he had suffered imprisonment, had been beaten severely, and was the target of a murder conspiracy. Throughout all these dark years, however, he was sustained by hope.

For Paul, the hope promised in the resurrection is the start of a dynamic process which will ultimately be completed when Christ is all in all, and all things are brought under the rule of love.

It has fallen to us to live in dark days, but others have been there before us. As Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple, he knew that it had been destroyed before, that the cohesion and identity of the nation had been shattered, their government and institutions destroyed, and the population imprisoned in a foreign land. A situation comparable in some respects to what we are experiencing now. Despite all this, the Israelites had survived as a people of faith.

It is not given to us to know what the future holds, but in the meantime we are called to look for and to nourish life, to hold fast to faith, hope and love: a faith that can, if necessary, withstand the destruction of all we hold dear; a hope that even if ‘All humanity is grass’, in the words of Isaiah, nevertheless, ‘the word of the Lord remains forever’; and a love which will make us support and encourage each other in the work of building the kingdom of God.

Sermon preached at Christ Church, Lanark, on 28 February, 2016 (Lent 3)

Lk. 13:1–9

Last week, I purchased a birthday present for my wife. I searched for it online, in the course of which I discovered I could arrange to collect it on a stated day from a location near to where we live. In due course I received a text message telling me to check my e-mail, which would contain a bar code, which I was to print out and take to the collection point, along with some form of photo ID.

So far, so efficient; but also so impersonal, and so super-contractual. For although I had agreed to purchase the item, and paid online, I could not receive the package into my hands unless all the paperwork was in order. The bar code was useless without the photo ID, and vice-versa.

It set me thinking about how much of our interaction with others is contractual. Every day we enter into binding arrangements which impose obligations – to provide goods or services in exchange for payment, or to incur penalties in case of default. Our society makes intensive use of the discourse of entitlement, and much of our interaction is predicated on a system of rewards and punishments – every quid has a quo.

Even some of our intimate relationships with family and friends can have contractual character: ‘If you give up smoking, I’ll take you on a cruise to the Bahamas’ (‘and if you don’t, I’ll take you on a cruise to Rockall and leave you there’).

But God doesn’t make contracts with us, nor should we try to make contracts with God, even though we do it all the time, especially in Lent: ‘If I give up wine or chocolate for six weeks, can my daughter get that place in university she has applied for?’

True relationships, relationships of value, between humanity and God, and among human beings made in God’s image, are not contractual but covenantal. A covenant is a relationship of support and trust, in short, of love. We speak of marriage as a contract, and in respect of its legal status it is. But as an interpersonal commitment to lifetime fidelity, patience and support, it is, or should be, a covenant.

The trouble is, we go on thinking of our relationship with God in contractual and legal terms. So sin is thought of as the infringement of a rule, for which we have to pay a penalty. Today’s gospel provides a good example of our tendency to assume that evil and suffering are punishment for sin: those whom Pilate killed, and those on whom the tower of Siloam fell, must have been very wicked. Most of us can remember the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when many people professing to be Christians were only too eager to say that this devastating illness was ‘the wages of sin’.

If our relationships, with God and with each other, are truly covenantal, impairment of any relationship is primarily a failure of trust and love. To be sure, there are occasions when restitution (say, of improperly obtained wealth) is a contractual necessity if the relationship is ever to be healed. But this is only the first step, and real restoration of trust and love can only happen through repentance and forgiveness.

Repentance is not quid-pro-quo restitution, but an acknowledgement of failure. It involves trusting that we shall be forgiven; it means dropping our defences and accepting our vulnerability. Jesus’ statement in today’s gospel (‘unless you repent, you will all perish as they did’ [Lk. 13:3, 5]) is not a threat or a statement about punishment or penalty, but a recognition of the destructive effects of lack of repentance, which is essentially the refusal to trust, to acknowledge our failure.

But what is the parable of the fig tree doing here? It provides a strange and seemingly irrelevant coda to the passage, but it is one of the many expressions in the Bible of the theme of the second chance, of the new beginning, of God’s patience. Time and time again, the Old Testament shows God ‘repenting of the evil which he had intended to do’. Even at the very end of the last book in the Bible, Revelation, that favourite of many a fundamentalist, with its dire warnings and terrifying images, the angel says (Rev. 22:10-11): ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.’

Rowan Williams has said somewhere that hell can be envisaged as a place where God is trying to push the door open while those inside struggle to keep it shut. What these words from Revelation suggest is that up to very last second of time, God holds door open to our repentance and return, for God’s generosity and patience are infinite. If we want to enter into true Christian freedom, we have to realise this, not just in our minds, but in the depths of our being.

Lent, then, is not a time of ‘doing things’ or imposing mortifications in order to redress the contractual balance, but a time when we reflect on whether we are living as people of the covenant, a covenant of love and trust in one who is infinitely generous and patient:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (Is. 55:8-9).

Starting out

I’ve been silent for some time, I know, but this seems as good a day as any to start  blogging again. For on this day fifty years ago, I graduated as BA in Modern Languages from Queen’s University, Belfast.

What my mentors had had in mind for me was that after graduation I would go back into the grammar school where I had been taught, and spend the next forty years imparting the complexities of French syntax to unwilling youngsters. I think I would have lasted two weeks at most. Fortunately, however, my University teachers encouraged me to go on to postgraduate work in my preferred subject, Spanish, and I eventually had a mostly happy and fulfilled career as a lecturer in Spanish Language and Literature.

Universities were different places in those days. The notion that students would later come to be considered ‘customers’ would have been unthinkable, as would the idea of our evaluating our lecturers. Nor did we imagine that there would come a time when students would finish their University courses with debts of £30,000 or more, which would continue to be a millstone round their necks until well into middle age.  Neither we undergraduates nor our lecturers felt any need to apologise for pursuing learning for its own sake, nor did anyone question that such a pursuit should be funded from the public purse.

But of course it couldn’t last. The downside was that there was little explicit acknowledgement of accountability to the long-suffering tax-payer, and little attempt to make a case for the social relevance of humanities disciplines in terms that the public could understand and support: their value was assumed to be self-evident. Though I was privileged to have excellent and committed teachers, some of my generation in other institutions were frankly sold short by self-serving and lazy academics. Looking back, I think my cohort was experiencing the last of the old elitist kind of higher education, which was just about to give way to the concept of mass education. It is hard to fault the demand that universities should give ‘value for money’, but the whole atmosphere of the sector is now much more competitive and utilitarian, and has thereby become less humane.

Some issues were specific to Queen’s. The University prided itself on being an oasis of tolerance in a society riven with sectarian conflicts, and on the whole it managed to sustain this ethos, at least until the conflicts intensified in the 1970s. No-one during my time as an undergraduate could have envisaged that a lecturer in the Law Faculty would later be murdered on campus by republican paramilitaries. But there was a price to pay for maintaining this illusion of pluralism. Many of the lecturing staff were from outside Northern Ireland, and adopted an attitude of Olympian detachment from local problems. Furthermore, the relative avoidance of internal sectarian conflict was only achieved by a tacit agreement to leave one’s tribal loyalties at the door when one entered — but they were often picked up again on the way out.

On a brief visit to Belfast last February, I walked round the Queen’s campus at night, and was impressed with the number of new buildings (including a handsome new Library) and the vastly improved amenity of the environment. In every way, the University seems to have gone from strength to strength.With all its limitations in the 1960s, my alma mater provided me with a passport to what has been a richly fulfilled life. Thank you, all of you who have helped me along the way.

We will meet

I’m a somewhat intermittent blogger, and since February I haven’t thought of anything to post that the world might be interested in. By a rather poignant coincidence, however, this post follows on from the last paragraph of what I wrote then. One of the people referred to there, whom I last saw on our graduation day in 1963, phoned me early in the New Year, and we planned to meet up when he next came to Scotland. Sadly, I heard from a mutual friend about ten days ago that he had recently died .

I had looked forward not only to the usual business of ‘catching up’, but more particularly to hearing about the spiritual journey which had recently led him, after a life-long and faithful commitment to the Presbyterian Church, to joining the Church of Ireland, where he found the same spaciousness which I had experienced on a similar journey 35 years ago.

We didn’t manage it this time, Robert, but we’ll meet in the place where there are no more disappointments.

Rest in peace, old friend.

Nothing is ever wasted

I spent last weekend in Northern Ireland to attend the funeral of an uncle, someone for whom I have always retained great affection, as I have for all his family. As is often the case with funerals, perhaps especially in Ireland, it was an opportunity to meet relatives I don’t see very often, first, second and even third cousins, their spouses and children. With most of these people I have very little in common, in terms of shared memories, shared interests, work background, or life experience. Yet it was a reminder that once lives touch each other, however briefly or glancingly, some sort of bond is established, if only because awareness of difference can encourage us to discover and affirm our own individuality. We do not make ourselves, and, for better or worse, we are shaped by those we have related to in any way in our journey through life. Moreover, the experience of meeting again after a long time can be rendered poignant by the sense of regret that the passage of time, and the fact that our lives unfold along different trajectories, have too often made it impossible to get to know our extended families in any significant depth, or to be enriched by their distinctive personalities and gifts.

Coincidentally, I have also recently re-established contact with people I last saw on our graduation day nearly fifty years ago. It is a reminder that we never cease being part of a community which is greater than our immediate or most cherished relationships. No human contact ever goes to waste: ‘this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me’ (Jn. 6:39).

Happy New Year to all readers, bloggers, lurkers, commenters and general moral supporters. May 2012 be a year of blessing, growth and peace.

Christmas Restored

Here’s something I got from a friend of a family member in Canada:

 *Twas the month before Christmas*
*When all through our land,*
*Not a Christian was praying*
*Nor taking a stand.*
*See the PC Police had taken away,*
*The reason for Christmas – no one could say.*
*The children were told by their schools not to sing,*
*About Shepherds and Wise Men and Angels and things.*
*It might hurt people’s feelings, the teachers would say*
* December 25th is just a ‘Holiday’.*
*Yet the shoppers were ready with cash, checks and credit*
*Pushing folks down to the floor just to get it!*
*CDs from Madonna, an X BOX, an I-pod*
*Something was changing, something quite odd! *
*Retailers promoted Ramadan and Kwanzaa*
*In hopes to sell books by Franken & Fonda.*
*As Targets were hanging their trees upside down*
* At Lowe’s the word Christmas – was no where to be found.*
*At K-Mart and Staples and Penny’s and Sears*
*You won’t hear the word Christmas; it won’t touch your ears.*
*Inclusive, sensitive, Di-ver-si-ty*
*Are words that were used to intimidate me.*
*Now Daschle, Now Darden, Now Sharpton, Wolf Blitzen*
*On Boxer, on Rather, on Kerry, onClinton!*
*At the top of the Senate, there arose such a clatter*
*To eliminate Jesus, in all public matter.*
*And we spoke not a word, as they took away our faith*
* Forbidden to speak of salvation and grace*
*The true Gift of Christmas was exchanged and discarded*
*The reason for the season, stopped before it started.*
*So as you celebrate ‘Winter Break’ under your ‘Dream Tree’*
*Sipping your Starbucks, listen to me.*
*Choose your words carefully, choose what you say*
*Shout MERRY CHRISTMAS!