Sermon – Epiphanies in the Midst of the Storm

Here is this morning’s sermon. I am overwhelmed by the support that we’ve received today both locally and from around the world. My particular thanks to Police Scotland for their support which has been superb.
Comments will be heavily moderated on this post. I will not be allowing through any comments that appear to go over ground that has been covered either previously or elsewhere.

 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I’m not sure whether this will surprise anyone, but I’m not going to preach today on John the Baptist.

Today is the day we move on.

Today we hear the call of the first disciples who followed Jesus. People who had been looking for God in John the Baptist’s teaching who were to find the God whom they were seeking in the person of Jesus.

Did they know what it would cost to turn their lives around and follow him instead of following the way that they had been pursuing?

And what was it that made them turn to him?

What did he say? What was he like? How did they know that he was the Messiah? How did they know that they had found God amongst them in the person of Jesus.

The season that we are in is all about those sudden manifestations of divinity. Those sudden showings where suddenly God is present and recognised and known.

When I was first at college there was a U2 song which was a massive hit.

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you.

I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you.

But I still haven’t found

What I’m looking for.

And I remember hearing a Christian friend say – how can they sing that?

For U2 were thought to be a band which leaned towards Christianity. They were respectable for those of us in the Christian Union to listen to.

How could they profess faith and still sing, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.

And how did Andrew know? And how did Peter know? And how did all the other disciples know that they had. They had found what they were looking for in the person of Jesus Christ. God amongst them.

And did any of them know the cost?

I didn’t. I know that. I never knew the cost of following Christ. Maybe no-one who ever knew the cost would really sign up to travel his way.

Andrew and Peter and James and John and all the rest who would follow on.

How did they know that they had found what they were looking for?

How do any of us know.

Let me tell you how I know.

I would not have wished the week that I have had on anyone. The international hue and cry about our Epiphany service was not something anyone here was seeking. Our aim and the aim of all involved was to bring God’s people together and learn from one another – something that did, beneath the waves of the storm happen, and continues to happen.

Nobody at that service that night could be in any doubt that we proclaimed the divinity of Christ and preached the Gospel of God’s love.

All of this raises questions about how we live in a globally connected world but I cannot believe that moderate churches in the West should follow a policy of appeasement towards those who are Islamophobic and particularly not towards the recently invigorated far-right media.

This week I have not known God in the hue and cry. I have not known God in the storm of abuse that I have heard from 10 thousand “Christian” voices claiming to know what happened here that night.

But I have known God in unexpected places.

I have known God in unexpected places but chiefly in kindness.

At one time of my life I knew God’s love primarily through an assurance of sins forgiven and an acceptance of God as Saviour and Lord. And I still know God’s love that way.

At other times in my life I have known God’s love shine forth through study and conversation and theology and intellectual endeavour. And I still know God’s love that way.

But this week I have known the love of God primarily in more kindness than I knew possible.

More kindness than I or anyone else who is fully human has any right to feel they deserve.

The kindness of an Orthodox Jew writing to tell me that though he disagrees with just about everything I believe to be true, he was thinking of me at night and I was being held in his prayers.

The kindness of a stranger, a complete stranger on a bus who overhearing me speaking on the a mobile turned and pointed to me and pointed to her copy of the Glasgow Herald and said, “Is this you – if it is, you’ve done a good thing, this Presbyterian knows what good you’ve done”

The kindness of someone whom I thought to be an enemy who reached out beyond my expectations and gave me help, advice and love.

The kindness of a young women displaying grace and strength and who wishes no Christian any harm.

The kindness and professionalism of the police in this city. I have glimpsed God in them too.

The kindness of friends from long ago and from the present who have known what to say and when to say it.

This week it was St Aelred’s day – Aelred the great prince of monastic kindness who said that members of otherwise austere religious communities should cultivate friendship and thereby know the God who loved them.

It was also St Kentigern’s Day, patron of our city, the dear old saint who stopped being known by his Sunday name and became known simply as Mungo which means the loved one and who died of old age in his bath. A holy life that didn’t end in violence or martyrdom or crusade or oppression but simply was known for the love which illuminated his life.

What did the first disciples see in Jesus that made them turn and follow him to the end?

What else but love itself? Pure, holy, divine and true.

One of the joys of the Christmas season that I’ve been catching up with online has been Jeremy Irons reading the complete works of T S Eliot and this week one much beloved quote shone through and illuminated the experience of my life this week.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Which do we chose to live by. The fire of love or the fire of hell. The fire of love incarnate or the fire of hatred. I have seen both. Which do we chose? That’s not primarily a question for eternity. It is a question for your next breath. And the next. And the next.

And I chose love.

I would not wish the week that we have had over the last seven days upon anyone. No one.

But I would wish the God I have known whilst the storm has raged, the God of kindness, compassion and love, upon everyone. Every single one.

Upon me and upon you.

And whilst God gives me strength I want to dare to proclaim with every breath, to a world that needs to know… God is love. God is love. God is love.

Amen.

Comments

  1. Mark Pyper says:

    Thank you for doing as Jesus would have done. Thank you for being brave afterwards. Thank you for not submitting to bullies. Please do it all over again.

  2. Meg Rosenfeld says:

    Whew–glad for your sake that this week is over. If this lowly church-choir alto may venture a comment on the nature of God: if we believe that God loves all of creation including all people, then God is best pleased when we show love to one another (as you did in reaching out to your Muslim neighbors)–including those with whom we may disagree–rather than blasting them with accusations of not doing things in the absolutely “right” manner.

  3. Alex Perry says:

    If we are looking for quotes for denying all sorts of things about Jesus, we can find them in the gospels. Jesus faced opposition, criticism, rejection, sarcasm and betrayal. And to make matters worse some of his fiercest critics were deeply religious people. Thus it is regrettable but not surprising that those of us seeking to be disciples will encounter the occasional backlash. Our interfaith work seeks to confront prejudice in society and reduce the likelihood of wars. Sometimes I wonder how much of a difference our relatively small initiatives can make. However the vehemence of the opposition we face resssures me that what we are doing does matter and that we should keep doing it.

  4. Sue Matthews says:

    Tell it how it is my dear, GOD IS LOVE, and our only task is to show it in whatever circumstances. Jesus Himself stood in the midst of religious condemnation, and loved. and loved and loved that’s His legacy and commandment. Love one another as I have loved you. May the light if His presence fill your heart and mind today, and everyone else who stands in the crucible with you Sue M

  5. Malcolm Kemp says:

    You are a good priest; you are a brave priest. God richly blesses you and loves you. Please continue to do what you know to be right.

  6. margaret of the sea of galilee says:

    Just this moment read about this in The Guardian…good on you (all of you)
    Someone in a Galilee far, far away is on your side – a week late but I am sure the hue and cry has not died down yet

  7. God is love. His Son preached a message of love. The Spirit gives us strength to love.
    The church, sadly, is all too often filled with hate, disguised in all sorts of ways. That is why I no longer go there regularly.
    You did nothing wrong & everything right. Do not let the haters & the loud voices stop you.
    You are in my prayers, as are the haters.

  8. Lawrence Rosenfeld says:

    Dear, dear Father Kelvin –

    As I read this post I was reminded of the First Book of The Kings chapter 19.

    Since the new Covenant was revealed, it appears we Christians are called to be the still small voices of God in the Winds, Earthquakes and Fires that trouble humanity all around us, and you have held firm and NOT shouted back or blown anything up in response to the hysteria that has rained down upon you.

    Well done, sir.

  9. When I read this post, I had not yet read the previous one (I am a little behind on reading my emails) so I was curious what had happened. I went back and read it and now know what happened. St. Mary’s is my kind of church. I would have loved to be at the Epiphany service you just had. I wish more Christian churches would reach out to their Muslim neighbors and do things together and worship together.

    I live in the US and am a member of an Episcopal church where many of our parishioners would have been upset if a Muslim even entered our doors, much less had a part in our service. This makes me very sad, because I believe God loves us all unconditionally, regardless of our sexual or gender orientation or whether we are Muslim, Christian or whatever. I stay because when they come out against LGBTQIA folks or Muslims, I in as Christ-like way as I can, try to get my sisters and brothers in Christ to accept all and treat them in a loving and respectful manner.

    My ancestors on my mother’s side were Scots-Irish Presbyterians and I grew up in the denomination. Even though my mom said we were Scots-Irish, when I saw our family tree I noticed that my ancestors came from Scotland so I have had an affinity for your country ever since. In the 1980’s I became an Episcopalian because I loved the liturgy and it did more for singles and had more opportunities to serve without having to be elected than the Presbyterian church. I continue to treasure my childhood and teenage years in the Presbyterian church. Actually I am quite ecumenical having attended a Baptist church in college and worked for the Lutherans and United Methodists in my past.

  10. G Wright says:

    So, when is the reciprocal service, when passages from the Bible will be read in a local mosque?

    Surely this will occur, if all we have heard about tolerance, friendship and respect is accurate?

    Respect is not a one-way street and I wonder if the significance of this event at St Marys is perceived similarly in the mind of Kelvin Holdsworth and in the mind of Muslims. I suspect it is not.

    • I’ve posted this version of the same question that I keep being asked by many people because I think it deserves an answer a biblical answer. I am being asked the question over and over again.

      The faith that I’ve been formed in, Christianity, has something more to say than only being able to act if there is a reciprocal act. Indeed, Jesus taught us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. He did not teach us to unto others only if they were going to respond in kind. Indeed, he taught the very opposite.

      Interestingly in Scotland, the Scottish education system has identified the golden rule (as it is found in many different faiths) provides an interesting way to reflect on the way that religious ethics are formed in different communities.

      Jesus said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

      And that’s good enough for me.

      • G Wright says:

        Fair enough Kelvin, that is a good point “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. I believe in that concept and you are right to champion it.

        But, there will be no reciprocal service.

        Elsewhere, you gave several examples of Muslims being invited to pray in various Scottish Churches over the years. Yet, for the life of me, I cannot think of a single reciprocal event in a Mosque. Not one. This is what put my original question into my head.

        And so how to explain this seemingly very one-sided approach to friendship?

        And, how to view the actions of Muslims – who continually accept these invites yet never make one in return – through the lens of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?

        Of course I commend any effort to promote friendship and social harmony, yet cannot shake the feeling that the Muslim perception of these events is very different to that of the Christians who host them.

        • One of my colleagues here has just reminded me that the last time he was invited to one of the mosques in Glasgow he was invited to speak about the trinity and did so by talking about what the bible says about the trinity and his own personal experience of faith. In turn, he listened to Muslims explaining their understanding of God.

          I’ve also been invited to debate the trinity with Muslim scholars in a mosque, something which I’ve not done yet but which I would be interested in doing.

          None of this is uncommon in the religious landscape round here and indeed further afield and I’m puzzled at the continued assertion that Muslims won’t engage with Christians or show hospitality.

          Our experience is that Christians have much to learn from Muslim hospitality.

  11. David Shepherd says:

    Kelvin,

    I won’t particularly chime in with the kind of ‘evidence for early beatification’ comments posted which appear to predominate here.

    We’ve discussed this before in relation to Giles Fraser and you’ve yet to present convincing rationale for not adhering to Christ’s inter-faith candour in explaining to the Woman at the Well that Samaritans worshipped in ignorance of the God who is revealed through his prophetically promised and fulfilled covenant faithfulness to the Jews: ‘You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews’. (John 4:22)

    Nevertheless, one has only to read the SEC’s publication, The Inter-Faith Encounter (Grosvenor Essay No. 3) to understand how this Koran reading was permitted and, in fact, encouraged as a symbolic act of inclusion.

    For example, the section entitled ‘issues and challenges in the encounter of Christianity and Buddhism’ describes the scandal aroused by the cross of Christ in this way:
    ‘Many Buddhists are alarmed by the sight of the crucified Jesus. How can such a violent image be a symbol of salvation, they ask, especially when they compare it to the serene figure of the Buddha seated in perfect tranquility under the Bodhi tree?’

    Yet, in the name of hospitality and despite acknowledging this clear lack of discernment regarding the spiritual significance of Jesus’ sacrifice and the Communion of believers with it, we read:

    ‘(c) The Dialogue of Religious Experience

    In the past, monastic orders have led the dialogue of religious
    experience between Buddhists and Christians. I recall being part of a small group of Buddhist monks receiving hospitality in a Catholic monastery. The senior monk of the group had a great desire, built up over years of dialogue, to take part in the Christian liturgy. He asked if we could receive communion. The abbot agreed and very early the following morning we joined our Christian counterparts in the chapel for Mass. We lined up to receive communion, with the senior monk at the front. He ate the bread he was given and then, when handed the chalice, he drank the entire contents in one! In a very solemn fashion he returned the cup to the astonished Christian monk. I look back now and chuckle, but I also remember his face as he returned the chalice – there was an intensity of commitment and deep respect for the liturgy which was humbling.’

    The piece goes on to explain:
    ‘In the West also there are people, without the Asian cultural background, who have chosen a dual identity. At a recent conference I attended there were participants who felt comfortable and sincere in describing themselves as Buddhist-Christian. As increasing numbers of Christians have experienced an ecumenical shaping to their Christian identity, taking them beyond the confines of a particular denomination, I suspect that more and more people will begin to define their religious identity in inter-religious terms. This may have positive benefits and lead us to reformulate what it means to be ecumenical.’

    So, this clearly advances so-called potential benefits to syncretism which it euphemises as inter-religious identity.

    whatever you aimed to achieve, there is no doubt that some commenters here have no problem with this amalgamation of the teachings of Christ with other religions as an expression of hospitality. This may well appear to them as just the kind of ‘risky love’ which characterized Jesus’ ministry, regardless of the scripture’s witness to His inter-faith approach.

    • Be assured that the Grosvernor essay number 3 has nothing particularly to do with anything at St Mary’s as I’ve never read it.

      I don’t count myself amongst those who might chose a dual identity either.

      There may well be people who would advocate syncretism in the main-stream churches. I happen not to be one of them.

      One of the problems with the Grosvenor essays is that every paragraph is anonymous. The authorship changes through the publication. One never knows who said what. I tend to prefer to deal with people who are prepared to put their own names on arguments and for that reason, I struggle to feel terribly interested in what any of the Grosvenor essays say.

  12. Ejaz salim says:

    Dear Father Kelvin.

    I am a Muslim from Bristol, I was born in this city and have lived here for 30 years. This story has really touched me and I respect you as a person who has done something that others wouldn’t dare due to the backlash they may face.

    In such complicated and horrific times it is the duty of the learned and the people of God to reach out to the whole of humanity and preach the true message that Jesus has taught us. (Are we forgetting that Jesus came for the whole of humanity)

    By giving a sermon on the beliefs of Muslims regarding Jesus or by reading any verse from the the whole chapter titled ‘Mary’ in the Quran – I think will only further unite our communities – I can only thank you for taking this bold step and bridging the gap between our communities which to me only seems to exist due to a lack of communication and understanding.

    It is not uncommon for christians to hold talks about thier faith amongst Muslim gatherings and it is certainly not uncommon for imams in the mosque to give talks to gatherings regarding the biblical view on Jesus etc.

    When I go home now I will return this act of friendship and read a passage from the bible to my family regarding Jesus and what he means to the Christians.

    It is peace and love that is required in the world at a time when there is so much hatred and confusion.

    Thank you.

  13. Very many congratulations.

    I count myself a Christian who does not believe in God as the person who created the universe from outside the universe. What we know as the personality of God arises from the intelligence of creation.

    In bringing together people in love and from different places of the mind you exercise the intelligence of creation and act in the image of God.

    A problem in the philosophies that cause so many to disagree is the personification of God and the worship of that personification as an idol.

    What is the Birth of Christ?

    There is a solution to the conundrum that has divided so many and to which the interpretation of Islam might point and yet find harmony.

    As a physicist I look at the creation of matter. The stuff of which we are made is undeniably the stuff that exists. It’s come together through various levels of sophistication from fundamental particles to atoms to molecules to proteins to DNA to genes. The stuff that works together does so. The stuff that doesn’t work together doesn’t create, and as a result has not lasted or isn’t here.

    We’re made of the stuff that works together but have forgotten what we are made of.

    Those who criticise those who bring people together to work together have forgotten what they are made of, made of by the Creator. What is the Creator if not a person? It’s a process, the stuff invisible, all powerful and everywhere – the process of working together – love.

    Congratulations for bringing love.

    The Christ is the embodiment of that love. The Christ is an idea, an idea of that love, the idea of the Creator (Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who . . . etc – all mothers and sons and daughters of the Father) and this idea of the Creator can be separate from the material world. So separating (Jesus) Christ, son of the Creator (a process) and Jesus the man, Son of Man into their separate realms may well be a way in which compatibility might be found and harmony regained so that all may again work together in the idea (spirit) of the Creator (the process by which all is created, Love). It’d of God, the Creator. It’s Divine. And the birth of the Christ at Christmas might well not be a birth of bioligical physicality, being the birth of the idea of the Creator imbued. There is room for our friends to bring forward a view, even if there wasn’t room at the Inn.

    Best wishes and all power to what you do.

  14. Di Tennent says:

    These last two comments make me happy. Kelvin, your openness to our Muslim neighbours makes me happy. Please go on sticking your neck out for what is right and just and good.

  15. David Shepherd says:

    Kelvin,

    My comment of 16/01/2017 at 18:02 is still awaiting moderation. Nothing on this post appears to get past the moderator’s filter, except unmixed praise.

    I wonder why?

    • The reason why David is that I let through whatever comments I feel like letting through, whenever I want to, and for whatever reasons I chose.

      I hope you find this helpful.

      • G Wright says:

        Yes indeed. As this is Kelvin’s blog, we guests who post here abide by his rules and accept his moderation. (Even if we may disagree with his opinion or judgement). This is a fundamental respect which every blogger is entitled to.

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