Where is God?
This sermon was preached at Tayport Parish Church on the third Sunday in Lent, the last Sunday before the Lockdown.
The Word of God – Exodus 17-1-7 and St. John 4;5-15
‘Is the Lord among us or not?
Covid 19 has certainly made a global impact but we cannot see the virus nor can we accurately predict the outcome of its endeavours. It has demonstrated the limitations of medical science. We may not be living through a medieval plague but our defencelessness makes us just as vulnerable.
People are encouraged to self-isolate. Workers are being asked to work from home. Travel is prohibited and conference calling is becoming common place. Instead of affirming the value of intimacy and physical contact, we are retreating into virtual technological communities.
But despite the disruption and fear, the virus has encouraged us both to value what is being lost and to imagine what can be done anew. For not only did the Chinese manage to build a new hospital in Wuhan in less than a fortnight but they have been exploring the possibility of using robots to work in them.
An experiment has just been taking place in a new hospital in a converted sports centre. On 7 March, there were two hundred patients who had tested positive for the virus. There were no staff inside the wards. They were outside programming a series of robots to carry out basic tasks.
They were delivering food, drinks and drugs to the patients whilst also keeping the ward clean. The patients were fitted with sensors which recorded heart rates and temperature. This was all recorded on a screen outside the ward for the staff to see and monitor.
With such a virulent virus, you can see the benefits. Seemingly, the patients loved it. The boredom of being in isolation was relieved by the fascination of the robots moving around them. Some had humanoid faces which made them even more human.
Clearly, the Covid 19 Pandemic exposes our vulnerability. The fragility of our humanity is laid bare by a hidden but virulent virus. Our creatureliness contrasts with God, the Creator and puts our relationship into its proper perspective. When we get back to basics like food and water, we are creatures and not the Creator.
It brings us right back to the desert and the wilderness wanderings of the people of God. Having made their escape from a cruel Pharaoh through the Red Sea, they are now heading for the Promised Land. But it’s taking a long time and supplies in the supermarkets are running out! They have no water to drink.
It is an interesting study in leadership. For the people turn against Moses. Clearly, they have forgotten how much he did for them at great personal expense. He didn’t want to be their leader but God called. And now he cries out to God, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me?’
Whereas the faith of Moses is undisturbed by the lack of water, it is said of the people that they asked the question which many have asked since, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ If he was, wouldn’t he provide for our need? Since he hasn’t, what more can we say, ‘There is no god!’
The incident was never forgotten. It was seen as the classic case of the people’s faithlessness. ‘Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah.’ sings the Psalmist. Sometimes, this incident is seen as the people testing God. At other times, it is seen as God testing the people. Either way, the people are in a testing situation.
And so are we. Something unexpected has happened to our world which has turned our daily lives upside down. It tests us and challenges us to rethink the way we live our lives, the trust we put in politicians and scientists, the faith we have in God . ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ we may ask with the Israelites.
Fast forward into our New Testament text. Here we have that beautiful tale about Jesus and his encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. Like our Old Testament text, it is all about our need for water. How many days can we survive without it? Only three!
But in our tale, it is not the people of God who long for water to drink. It is the Son of God, the Saviour of the World. ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ we may ask with the Israelites but not for long. There he is, tired out by the journey and sitting down by the well. He is absolutely exhausted. And his weariness makes him thirsty.
‘Give me a drink.’ he asks the Samaritan woman. This happened at noon. Strangely enough, it was in the noon of the day that Jesus was handed over to be crucified! Hanging on the cross, the dying Christ makes this request. ‘I thirst!’ And so we are introduced to the humanity of Jesus.
The thirsty Christ at Jacob’s Well and the thirsty Christ hanging on the cross, embraces our humanity in all its painful poverty and shameful indignity. And so he says to the righteous in the Parable of the Sheep and the goats. ‘I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.’
His request established a true community, a true communion. He not only asks for water at the well, he offers the gift of water in return, the life-giving water which will quench our thirst forever. It is like a spring bubbling up within us, nourishing the dryness in our hearts and bringing forth a joyful spirit, a generous heart.
In answer to the people’s question, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ we not only have the alignment of God with our humanity in the person of Jesus but we also have insights into how God can transform our humanity into something divine. For Jesus illuminates three important things in our life together.
Firstly, boundaries are broken. In the time of Jesus, Jews would not naturally walk through Samaria. On their way to Jerusalem, they would skirt its borders. The people there were different at least, they belonged to a different branch of the religion and were treated suspiciously.
Jesus pays no attention to the conventional wisdom and walks through Samaria. He not only speaks with a woman but a Samaritan woman and a Samaritan woman with a questionable reputation. The disciples are astonished when they see him in action but they say nothing.
This is the Christian attitude to borders and boundaries. By their very nature, they inhibit the life of heart and soul. They confine our thinking and don’t encourage us to make more interesting and vital connections with people. We are called to be more reflective about reaching out to others not least the strangers in our midst!
Secondly, the ministry of women is celebrated. It took the Kirk a long time to acknowledge this. However, it is now over fifty years since the ordination of women to the eldership and to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. It is almost universally acknowledged that this was one of the best gifts to the twentieth century Church.
In this tale, the woman at the well is so deeply affected by her encounter with Jesus that she has to tell others. She is so excited that she leaves her water-jar behind and goes back to the city to tell everyone about the Messiah. They in turn come to the well to meet Jesus.
The beauty of her ministry is not so much her evident calling to share the good news but that in the end her ministry is forgotten. After the people had met Jesus, they said to the Samaritan woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe …’ She, like any minister, is not important. It is Jesus.
Thirdly, the harvest doesn’t necessarily belong to us. This is the most significant insight of all and it comes at the end of the chapter. Jesus is discussing what has happened through the Samaritan woman’s ministry and says, ‘I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured and you have entered their labour.’
In other words, the good we celebrate today may not have been the fruit of our labour but of those who have gone before us. And, conversely, the lack of evident success in what we do today in the kirk may in God’s time reap a harvest which will not belong to us.
The work which matters most in our day as in any other is the work of God working through us and across our manmade boundaries and borders. And the fruit of our labour may not be seen in our own day but that doesn’t mean it will not enrich another enormously!
According to Calum Brown’s study on ‘Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707’, the decline in the Church of Scotland did not begin in the mid-fifties and accelerate throughout the permissive sixties and seventies. It began over a hundred years ago with the decline of the Sunday School Movement.
In 1891, 52% of all children in Scotland between the ages of 5 and 15 were enrolled in a Sunday School. In 1911, it was 46%. In 1931, it was 38% and in 1981, it was 13%. ‘The fall in Sunday School enrolment after 1890 was followed by the reduced growth in Church membership after 1900.’ writes Brown.
‘The Presbyterian churches lost their most valuable outreach into the community and through this failure in evangelisation of the young were left vulnerable to losses thereafter.’ He’s right, of course. The Church has neglected young people for a long time and has been diminished as a result.
Whilst this explanation of our evident decline is strangely comforting because it is the result not simply of our neglect but the neglect of the past hundred years, it remains a challenge. For one thing is sure, without children and their parents, the Kirk is dying!
And we are thrown back immediately onto the ministry of Jesus who not only identifies where God is in our troubled world but also shows us how to play our part in transforming our world into the Kingdom of God. We must reconnect not only with the young people and their families but with our parishes!
The Kirk Session has paid me to work in the parish for one day a week. They have asked me to do some pastoral visiting and to pick up on the school chaplaincy. In addition, I have been asked to reconstruct a group of parish visitors which had been a feature of congregational life in the past. I am delighted to fulfil this ministry.
It highlights the two most important things about the church – nurturing the spiritual life of young people and being compassionate towards those in need. For if you were to ask me in your bewilderment, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ I would say that he is here where children are welcomed and those who suffer are healed.
A young man enters the vestry after the Harvest Thanksgiving and tells me that he has an inoperable tumour in his heart. I am deeply shocked. He has a young wife and family. What is he going to do?
As it happens, he is one of only two people who ever asked me to anoint them with oil. I do – on his heart. But he dies at the end of the year. Of course, I return to visit the young widow and her family.
One day, she says to me, ‘David, thank you for visiting us. It seemed to me that when you came to the house, God came too.’
She had noticed something hidden but very profound. It wasn’t the diligence of the parish minister who was only doing what he was trained to do. It was the power inherent in the office into which he had been ordained.
It has nothing to do with the one who holds the office for they are largely oblivious to the transforming power of God. And that’s good because it tempers our pride and puts a value on losing ourselves.
The young widow’s remarks have been an inspiration to me throughout the past quarter of a century especially when I doubted the efficacy of what I was called to do. You see, as the Samaritan woman found out, it’s God who is the Harvester.
We simply go out to sow. Paul counsels us to do our work whether anyone notices or not. And Jesus says that some will sow and never see the Harvest of their labour. But all in the end is Harvest for the Lord has been among us afterall!
Walking the Parish
This sermon was preached at Greenbank Parish Church, Edinburgh at the invitation of the parish minister, the Revd. Martin Ritchie. He knew about my custom of walking the parish in the early mornings and invited me to reflect on this theme for an act of worship in his series on Creationtide.
The Word of God – Psalm 25;1-11, St. Matthew 21;23-32
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
On goes the river
And out passed the mill
Away down the valley
Away down the hill.
Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.
When I was minister at Traprain in East Lothian, I sometimes recited Robert Louis Stevenson’s words to myself in the early morning as I passed the eighteenth century Preston Mill, crossed the white bridge over the Tyne and walked round the fields of barley and wheat bounding my parish.
The title of the poem is a question, ‘Where Go the Boats?’ and is part of ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’. There is a mystery about the river’s meandering ways but the child is sure that if he places his paper boats into the water, the river will take them downstream, a hundred miles or more, where another child will be the beneficiary of his anonymous gift!
A Child’s Garden was very much a part of my childhood in Ardrishaig. My mother had the Puffin edition with the beautiful pencil drawings or decorations as they were called by Eve Garnett. We learnt some at school – ‘The Swing’, ‘My Shadow’, ‘From a Railway Carriage’.
Despite inhabiting ‘the land of counterpane’ as Stevenson called his bedridden childhood, the poems breathe the fresh air, the sunshine, the wind, the rain and the energy of a childhood, my childhood spent out of doors playing imaginative games on the shore, in the woods, down the frozen hill on tin trays, building houses in the trees.
The games we made up were not always successful but they generally differed from the games which adults play in one particular. We changed the rules as much as possible to keep everyone in the game for as long as possible. Our imaginative play was inclusive. And so, the games like the plays in the back green never came to an end.
But our imagination extended our world in another way. We embraced the physical environment with ease including the danger zones – the pier, the canal and the reservoir. And we mapped out our own imaginary land onto this physical environment.
There were two churches in our village – the Parish Church and the Shiloh Hall which belonged to the Brethren. Interestingly, that part of the Ardrishaig landscape was called ‘The Holy Land’. Nearby, there was a little burn which was nicknamed by the community the ‘River Jordan’.
This intrigued us for our Sunday School lessons had introduced us to both. Did we really have the Holy Land in our own village? There is something attractive about mapping out the significant features of the Biblical landscape onto the geography of your own community.
It is no longer an ordinary place but a holy land, a land where God’s presence is evident in the hills, fields, burns and seashore where you live. And so we didn’t need to travel to the Holy Land to encounter the white robed Jesus, we could meet him just where we were.
And that’s what happened in the Middle Ages. It was too costly for ordinary people to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and so the cathedrals incorporated the labyrinth into the nave where people could come and walk and pray and make their pilgrimage freely.
Later on, the Via Dolorosa was incorporated into local sanctuaries in the ever popular ‘Stations of the Cross’. And in more recent times, churches walk with a cross round designated sites on Good Friday and in my parishes we designed a Palm Sunday Procession out of doors bringing Bethany and Olivet to our doorstep.
In this way, the church is turned inside out and the landscape is transformed into a holy land. It is no longer a parish with boundaries which inhibit or protect nor an administrative unit which marginalises the imagination but a holy land where people turn aside, take off their shoes like Moses because they are standing on holy ground.
At the start of his essay on ‘Walking’, the nineteenth century American naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, tells us that the word ‘sauntering’ derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country in the Middle Ages and asked charity, under pretence of going ‘à la Sainte Terre’ to the holy land’.
And so when these people were seen in the village, the children would call, ‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer!’ a saunterer, a Holy-lander. I think the connection is well made for there is good reason not only to be a saunterer but to become one who embraces the environs of your parish wholeheartedly in a relaxed and playful way as a holy land, a place where God is to be found.
As a young father and also minister at Logie Kirk in Stirling, it was my duty to walk our children to school. Sometimes we sauntered too much. One child was reprimanded by his teacher for being late once too often. I apologised and so I was reprimanded too – by letter!
On my way home, I invariably met the lollypop man and he would shout for all to hear, ‘Is that you away to put up your feet now?’ Or, ‘Is that you away to do the hoovering?’ I smilingly felt his tease was one step closer to not taking my walking very seriously. And that is a problem about walking round the parish.
Martin asked me to preach about ‘Walking the Parish’. As his Presbytery Assessor in Lothian Presbytery, we got to know each other well. He was intrigued by my habit of walking the parish in the early morning and that’s why he invited me to preach in this season of creationtide.
The Psalm celebrates God’s way and Professor Davidson describes it as ‘the traveller’s guide for the person who has set out on God’s road’. Jesus is described as ‘The Way’ and before they were known as Christians, our forebears were ‘People of the Way’.
The connection between the physical and the spiritual has been a significant feature of Christianity since its birth. The ministry of Jesus was on foot. He may have travelled on a donkey and in a boat but his ministry was largely sauntering around Galilee teaching, healing, embracing the people.
‘Listen! A sower went out to sow … Consider the lilies of the fields how they grow … The kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field … His words breathe the outdoors. They are infused with the light of the sun, the sound of running water, the freshness of the Galilean breezes. Walking the parish embraces four disciplines.
Firstly, physicality. Viruses may actually do some good. Some are being harnessed to kill cancer cells without killing the healthy ones. And even Covid 19 has within it good and bad. It has enabled some people to engage more fully with their physical environment. But it has also turned the Kirk into a virtual reality.
But the physical is just as important as the spiritual. They are inter-related. The Church is built upon that Word made flesh and water, bread and wine are integral to its worship. Walking to the kirk on a Sunday morning is a political action which enables the church to become visible and it fulfils the Biblical injunction to meet together for mutual encouragement.
In ‘The Living Mountain’, Nan Shepherd reflects on years walking in the Cairngorms. Her philosophy isn’t, ‘I think therefore I am.’ but rather, ‘I walk therefore I am.’ And she celebrates the importance of not living one sense at a time but with all the senses atuned to the physical world around.
She celebrates the alpine flora which is Arctic in origin and have outlived the Glacial Period. They are the only vegetable life left in Scotland that is older than the Ice Age. Physically embracing her environment in this intimate way nurtures attentiveness. And this is a prelude to wonder and prayer.
Secondly, humility. ‘Make me know your ways, O Lord… Teach me your paths … Lead me in your truth …Be mindful of your mercy … Do not remember the sins of my youth … Our Psalmist is humbling himself before God. It is a spiritual discipline which is also evident in those who walk the parish.
Walking is like washing feet, everyone can do it. You don’t need any experience nor qualification. Walking doesn’t add any profit to your account. Even pilgrimages cost money and put a price upon the alleviation of spiritual need. Walking knows none of this.
In walking the parish, you will see the pussy willow form and hear the blackbird call. You will discover where the heron sits and the kingfisher makes it fluorescent flight. You will see the little dipper swimming underwater with her wings and on a rare June day catch the bright blue dragonfly rising from the riverbed.
Embracing the anonymity of the child and his boat bring us closer to God’s creation. Realigning ourselves as creature to the Creator through nurturing humility, we find a serenity and a joy which is surprisingly momentary and eternal and we begin to come to terms with what it means to be mortal.
Thirdly, stability. Those who walk the parish don’t just walk in fair weather. For if they waited until the weather suited, their walking days would literally be numbered. No! Those who walk the parish, walk in all weathers. For the storm and tempest have as much to teach us about him who says ‘Peace be still’.
In his Rule, St. Benedict talked about the workshop where spiritual disciplines were exercised. It had two dimensions. The one was ‘the enclosure of the monastery’ in other words their physical environment. The other was ‘stability in the community’. This was much less tangible but without it the foundation of the community would be very shooglie indeed.
For our Psalmist, the root of this stability is to be found in a covenant or relationship initiated by God. This is built upon a promise not only to be with us but also to sustain and enrich us with his steadfast love and faithfulness. This is our stability, our ability to be committed to this place, this parish, this vocation.
It isn’t Christian who sings, ‘Who would true valour see, let him come hither/ One here will constant be/ come wind come weather’ but Mr. Valiant-for-Truth celebrated in one of your own stained glass windows. It’s a memorial to a former member, a scientist, a veritable valiant-for-truth, whose hospitable garden is seen in the stained glass through another window at the foot of the Pentlands.
Lastly, ministry. A love which is firm and unwavering coupled by a commitment which is undying enables us to walk the parish and participate in the ministry of Christ. It is not always an easy task as Moses and Jesus found out.
Walking through the desert, Moses was severely criticised. Fearing for his life, he puts his trust in God and is led to Horeb that place where he first turned aside and stood on holy ground to see the burning bush and hear his calling.
When Jesus was challenged in the Temple with a question, he didn’t indulge in divisive debate but asked another, stopping his adversaries in their tracks. His equanimity was undisturbed, revealing hidden paths of steadfast love and faithfulness.
The open air is conducive to telling tales, asking questions, listening to another. And so, we turn our kirks inside out and walk the parish in the company of those who may or may not belong. For in the last twenty-seven weeks, I have noticed that it only rained on two Sunday mornings during our time for worship.
We are too pessimistic about Scottish weather. And so the Parish of Traprain established an Easter morning service on top of the Law. Although it’s neutral ground, the kirk has every right to walk up there too and share its Easter Gospel, witnessed 2,000 years ago by no-one else in the parish except the Law itself!
Families, young people, members, non-members, people living in the community embrace the open air, walk the parish together to see the sun rise, listen to the lark, transform common ground into a holy land and shout once again from the top of the hill in the shadow of a large wooden cross, ‘Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!’
This sermon was preached at Boarhills and Dunino linked with St. Andrews: Holy Trinity at the beginning of my term as Interim-moderator.
The Word of God – Deuteronomy 34
I have let you see the land with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run.
Keats wrote his ode ‘To Autumn’ in 1819. It was published in 1820 and he was dead in 1821, aged twenty-five. He had nursed a younger brother with tuberculosis and contracted the disease himself. He died and was buried in the Protestant graveyard in Rome.
Interestingly, he didn’t not want his name written on his memorial stone. Instead, he wanted this epitaph, ‘Here lies one whose Name was writ in Water.’ It is a reflection of his sorrow that people mocked his impoverished background and the quality of his poetry.
The epitaph reminds me of that beautiful verse in Psalm 77 where the Psalmist is celebrating the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea and remembers how God had gone before his people but remains hidden:
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
God’s footprints were writ in water just like Keat’s name! His movements cannot be seen but his work is celebrated not least in the changing seasons. Hidden in Keat’s most famous poem are intimations not only of autumn’s ripeness but also autumn’s mortality – ‘the soft-dying day’, ‘the small gnats mourn’, ‘the light wind lives or dies’.
There is no season as wonderful as autumn. For here we celebrate the bountiful harvest and the glory of death on the trees. It is a season of remembering – the saints, the fallen in war and all souls, the faithful departed. It is a season which embraces the beauty of our mortality, our eventual oblivion save for a name or a set of footprints writ in water!
Spring appears to have all the energy. ‘A sower went out to sow.’ said Jesus summing up our vocation. For the seed is the Word and our calling is simply to go out and sow. But the result of this energetic, youthful sowing is unknown until the autumn.
It’s only in the autumn of our lives that we can look back and assess the outcome of the sowing! And what do we see? The beautiful parables on the seed tell us all we need to know.
The first thing we see is that a lot of this sowing is wasted. It falls on the path, on rocky ground, in thorn patches and doesn’t produce a harvest. And that’s true of the sowing the Word.
Not everything we do will produce a rich harvest. Maybe most of what we do comes into this category. But we are called not to anticipate the end result but to go out in faith and scatter the seed!
The second thing we see is not that some falls on good ground and produces a rich harvest some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred fold but that we have nothing to do with it.
The third thing we see is that we don’t do anything to determine the time of this mellow fruitfulness. It happens but as Jesus says, ‘He knows not how!’ This mystery belongs to God. The farmer cannot force God’s hand. The timing is God’s!
Nowhere is this more true than in the life and death of Moses. He was so reluctant to accept his calling as he stood with his sandals off his feet at that surprising burning bush.
‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ Who indeed. For a start, he had a speech impediment! But he took with him the promises of God.
The first was his abiding presence. ‘I will be with you.’ God says. And the second, ‘I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’
He endured the indignity of Pharaoh’s refusals, the nine plagues, the glorious escape, the criticisms of the people, the building of a tabernacle, the climbing of a mountain for tablets of stone, the wickedness of the people in the golden calf …
It was an endurance test but he remained faithful to God throughout. Right at the end, when they were about to step into this promised land, God says, ‘I will let you see it with your eyes but you shall not cross over there.’
I remember studying this passage with a group of young people. They were upset that Moses didn’t get to lead the people right to the end. But why should he? It wasn’t his end. It was God’s. And he entrusted this final step to his successor, Joshua.
It may not have been a good ending for Moses but God wanted it to be the beginning of a new ministry. Some people cannot see this and never get it. We are only instruments of God’s grace not initiators.
We hold office only through his will and when we try to force it like Abraham, disaster befalls us. Some people hold on for too long and do not sense the right time to hand over to a younger Joshua.
The surprising thing is that although Moses was an old man, we are told that ‘his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated’. He had much more to give but it was not the will of God that he should continue to lead the people.
He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab but it is said, ‘no-one knows his burial place to this day’. It was shrouded in anonymity. There was no possibility that a shrine to his honour could arise. The honour was God’s and not his.
For he lived and died in the spirit of Jesus who says, ‘One sows and another reaps. I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured and you have entered their labour.’
We may not live to see the harvest of our hard work, patience and even endurance. But we let go in faith knowing that in the mystery of God’s grace, others will be the beneficiaries of our life’s work while no-one knows the place of our burial.
This is the ministry of the midwife and it belongs to those who are in the autumn of their lives. It is characterised by two things. The first is a ministry of letting go and not holding on to power, control, situations, offices.
The second is a ministry of encouragement. We not only let go but we actively encourage others to take our place, stand in our shoes, wax beautifully whilst we wane and fade into the background.
Some people find this very difficult but it is supremely Biblical. Think about Naomi returning to her own land with her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. She tells them both to go back to their own people and find husbands in their widowhood.
Orpah does as she is told but Ruth clings to her mother-in-law with her famous, ‘Where you go, I will go …’ Realising she cannot do any more to persuade her, the story-teller says, ‘Naomi said no more.’
This was the ministry of the midwife. In her innocuous silence, she let go and did not insist on her own will. Instead, she exercised a ministry of encouragement gently and wisely guiding Ruth, the foreigner, into the arms of Boaz and motherhood and the establishment of a line which included David, Israel’s greatest King and, of course, Christ, the King of Kings!
When numbers began to fall, income and prestige went with it. People weren’t so interested in making pilgrimages to the bones of St. Andrew. The staff at the cathedral in this ancient city of St. Andrews were puzzled!
For two centuries, numbers had been phenomenal. Times had changed – but not without a fight. For the next two hundred years, the staff at the cathedral struggled to arrest this decline.
They remodelled the shrine to St. Andrew. They attempted to diversify the attractions by creating chapels dedicated to some novelty saints. They petitioned the Pope for indulgences to help their cause.
‘With their patron saints no longer working miracles,’ wrote Tom Turpie in his illuminating essay, ‘the efforts of the bishops and canons were ultimately nothing more than an exercise in decline management.’
Bones were no longer attractive especially if they weren’t accompanied by miracles and the whole concept had begun to die two centuries before the Reformation finally liberated the people of Scotland from it!
There was one person who was very happy about this – St. Andrew! It was completely contrary to his personality and ministry to encourage people to be interested in him never mind his kneecap and shoulder blade!
For there are two striking things about our patron saint. Firstly, he is largely hidden within the gospel narrative. Although he was protokletos, first called, he played second fiddle to his brother. As such he is hidden by the commonly used attribution, Simon Peter’s brother.
Secondly, he exercised the simplest and most effective ministry. He introduced other people to Jesus. The first was Simon Peter. The second was the boy with the loaves and fishes, prelude to a miracle of grace. The third was a group of foreigners, some Greeks.
This introduction, spoken in anticipation of the Passion, gives birth to the most beautiful parable in the Gospels. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’
And didn’t Andrew die to self and to Christ, taking second place to his brother and dying on a very singular cross which is proudly sported on many public and private buildings in Scotland.
It is in the nature of institutions to die. Just like the life which was centred on the cathedral at St. Andrews died, so the life of the kirk as we know it and love it must die too. For too much energy may be wasted in what Turpie calls ‘an exercise in decline management’.
Where to begin? We of all people should know where to begin. We begin in the autumn and the glory of death on the tree. Like the world, we are afraid of dying and death and yet we of all people have something magnificent and surprising to say about it. For our life is centred upon Christ and the autumnal beauty of his death!
Here he has revealed the secret of life in all its fullness. A new life is born which has the most extraordinary effect. For as Jesus says, ‘I when I am lifted up will draw all people to myself.’ Or as the poet says, ‘Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.’
And what must we do? We must exercise the ministry of a midwife like Moses, Naomi, Andrew. We can exercise a very simple ministry. We may introduce others to Jesus that they may grow closer to God. And then – what must we do then? We must disappear!
When Prayer is a Struggle
This sermon was preached at the invitation of those who organise the Trinity Zoom services. It was the last in a series of sermons on prayer. I was given the title, ‘When Prayer is a Struggle’ and took as my text the struggle which Jesus endured during his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Word of God – St. Matthew 26;36-46
St. Matthew 26;36
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’
Presbyterianism is very cerebral. Our traditional service is based on the first part of the Eucharistic rite, the Liturgy of the Word. The Scottish Reformers wanted the Sacrament celebrated every week but the shortage of ministers made it impossible.
Our heritage was therefore skewed in favour of words. For we do not worship the Bible and its holy words but that Word made flesh who is the true communication between God and human beings.
Christ not only embraces the cerebral in his teaching but also the emotional in his merciful humanity. The two are brought together in the Eucharist with the Word as well as the bread and wine.
When we pray, we tend to use a lot of words. And yet, our relationship with God is not one-sided. God speaks too. Our prayer is as much about listening as speaking. But when words fail, we have an opportunity to wait and listen.
In the Orthodox Church, there is much more scope for nurturing this dimension of our prayer. When we were in St. Petersburg, we visited ordinary churches and observed people of all ages, male and female entering the open building to pray.
Their prayer was focused on the icons adorning the interior of the church. People had a lot of choice. Perhaps they selected their favourite. Standing in front of the icon, there were an assortment of prayerful things which they could do.
They could kiss the icon and express their adoration. They could light a candle and marvel at its illumination. They could stand in front of it and gaze at the icon as a window onto heaven. They could genuflect and make the sign of the cross, clasp their hands and pray.
The beauty of the icon is not only in the way it has been painted but in its eloquent silence. The icon doesn’t speak. It may be a window onto heaven but having set our gaze on this heavenly splendour, what does God say?
This morning, I have been asked to reflect on the theme, ‘When Prayer is a Struggle’. I have divided my struggling with prayer into two parts. The first is a regular occurrence, the other is a personal crisis.
The one is what I would call prayer in the desert and the other is prayer in the garden. Let us consider first of all prayer in the desert. There is a longing for God but an emptiness within, the landscape of our inner life is barren.
We are busy. We are tired. We lack motivation. We are depressed or low in spirits. We cannot rise above ourselves for one reason or another to close our eyes, clasp our hands and pray.
There are no words on our lips or they do not come easily from our hearts or our words have lost their freshness, directness, meaningfulness. We long for the desert to blossom like the crocus but we cannot find the time nor the motivation.
It is in these times that we rely on other people and, in particular, the Body of Christ. For in the discipline of attending worship week by week, we are able to participate in the prayer of the Church.
Adoration, confession, intercession, thanksgiving, dedication – are regularly covered and provide a vehicle for our own prayers. Our struggle with personal prayer is momentarily resolved.
The same is true for our daily prayers. The establishment of a pattern of prayer whether in the morning or at night, when we wake from sleep or go to bed, established in childhood or in later years can carry us through when prayer is a struggle.
But even here, we may be inhibited by the circumstances of our life from holding on to such well-established patterns that we come to rely on two other means of recovering our life of prayer.
The one is simply to recite a prayer which has been stored in our hearts like the Lord’s Prayer or a favourite text from the Psalms with which we can draw closer to God, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.’ And repeat it quietly, inwardly.
But if our mind is burdened with more pressing things which we somehow cannot let go, we can direct our thoughts towards God in the simplest prayers of all, ‘I love you! Thank you! Forgive me. Help me. Grant me peace.’
What is prayer but a turning towards God. And as we begin to lose our ability to articulate our own words and petitions, something paradoxical happens. We lose our words and begin to embrace the silence.
The loss of words brings us into the place of our Orthodox brothers and sisters standing before the icon. And in the repetition of the simplest prayers we acknowledge the presence of God if only momentarily.
As well as the prayer of the desert, there is also the prayer of the garden. The struggle here is much deeper, more profound and of more lasting consequence. It is essentially the struggle with unanswered prayer.
Our chief consolation in the prayer of the garden is that Jesus has been there long before us. His garden was called Gethsemane and his prayer reveals his extraordinary humanity, ‘Let this cup pass from me.’
The writer to the Hebrews gives us this commentary, ‘In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death …’ But he didn’t!
When my father was diagnosed with dementia, he suffered several crises. After each one, he came to stay with us and after four months in each case, he returned home with an increased provision of care.
I longed for a more permanent solution and prayed accordingly. I sought a charge nearby. ‘You’re wasting your gifts there!’ said dad. And another near where his relatives lived. ‘I know no-one there!’ said dad.
As time passed and my efforts to find an answer to my prayer remained unfulfilled, I began to see myself not as faithful Abraham but faithless Abraham who waited a quarter of a century for God to fulfil his promise of a son.
Aging Abraham and Sarah couldn’t wait. They resolved to force God’s hand and generate an answer to their prayer. Sarah gave her slave-girl, Hagar to her husband and a son was born, Ishmael.
But when Isaac followed, the family became increasingly dysfunctional. There was no peace but the realisation that there is greater wisdom in waiting for God than in forcing God’s hand in the midst of our struggle to answer our own prayers!
It is in the garden that we see the full extent of Jesus’ humanity. He has been abandoned by the silent God and abandoned by his sleepy friends who cannot face the reality of their powerless King. This is not what they expected to happen!
‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here and stay awake with me.’ says Jesus. But they don’t. It is a small request but remains unfulfilled. His friends align themselves with God. They do not respond to his agonising prayer.
Jesus is enfolded in silence – the silence of sleep and the silence of an absent God. Where has he gone? Why doesn’t he answer the prayer of one who so eloquently ministered in his name – healing the sick, raising the dead, embracing outcast and sinner?
Here Jesus experiences the silence of God for the first time. The second was on the cross and his excruciating prayer of terrifying isolation and loneliness, ‘My God, my God why hast thou abandoned me.’
Curiously, the silence of God has a profound effect upon Jesus. It changes his prayer. For Jesus prays for a second time in the garden. But this time he no longer asks, ‘Let this cup pass from me.’ But, ‘Your will be done.’
It is the silence of God which leads Jesus to change his prayer and to hand himself over to the very One who has abandoned him in the silence of his prayerful struggle to continue living and loving as he was called to do. He is only thirty-three.
Here Jesus places his trust not in the presence of God but in the absence of God, not in the affirmation of his enduring love but in the loneliness of one who has been clearly abandoned.
When we struggle with our unanswered prayer this is where we are led. We follow in the footsteps of Christ into the garden and the silence of God not to force God’s hand but to hand ourselves over to the One who does not speak!
This is the fruit of our struggle with unanswered prayer – a faith not in the God who answers us but who abandons us – handing over our prayers, words, desires to the God who is silent, abandoning us to struggle with his fearful silence.
It was the silence of God in the midst of my struggle to resolve a profound personal problem that eventually led me to that place where I resolved to let my prayer go. Holding on to it was too much of a struggle.
The more I tried to force God to answer my prayer and the more I attempted to shape a solution to provide an answer, the greater the struggle became. Paradoxically letting it go, led me into the mystery of the silent, absent God.
In the prayer of the garden, Jesus illuminates our struggle with prayer in a profound way. He does not deny the crisis caused by the absent God. But he provides us with the key to our struggle – God’s silence.
We are back to the honesty of the icon. Its artwork illuminates and leads the worshipper beyond its physical frame. Its art is to draw the worshipper beyond itself to the living God.
Its existence is eloquent witness to the absence of God. There is no sound, no speech, no voice, no answer. The worshipper silently stands and waits before the icon which is imbued in a silence which spans eternity.
The silence of God dissipated my prayerful struggle. Because my dad refused to become a burden to my brother and me, he ended up in a nursing home of his own choice. It’s not what my brother and I wanted. ‘We’re off on holiday, dad.’ I said to him. ‘But we’ll be back for your birthday!’
‘How old will I be then?’ he asked. ‘You’ll be 81!’ I said. ‘I think we’ll call it a day at that.’ was his reply. My dad died three weeks later and I was inducted to my last charge three weeks after that. In the most extraordinary way, dad had liberated me from further concern and in the silence of God we both moved on.