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.

Keeping the faith

It has been a rather extraodinary week here at St Mary’s.

Last Friday evening we had our Epiphany Eucharist, which was very much what we do – a full on Choral Mass:  Haydn’s little organ mass, a sermon on theophany from my colleague the Vice Provost and all the usual works. The thurible was flying, the Nicene Creed was recited and the hymns were belted out. So far so normal. If there was any controversy on the evening it was over the tune that I’d picked for Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning, which may have taken some people by surprise.

One of the features of local life in Glasgow in recent years is growing friendship amongst people of different faiths. The Vice Provost and I have been invited to a number of religious celebrations of other faith communities. We’ve been getting to know different Muslim groups locally and learning about their differences and been invited to splendid Eid banquets. We’ve eaten fabulously at the new Sikh gurwara along with Nicola Sturgeon the First Minister and enjoyed visiting the local Hindu temple. One of the increasing things in the interfaith arena is that festivals give great opportunities for people to learn new things about those who differ from them. They are usually fun and often have food and people are genuinely interested in sharing their faith at such events.

So it was that a number of years ago we invited one of our Muslim friends to read from the Qur’an at our Nine Lessons and Carols service at Christmas – it was a passage about the Virgin birth and people were fascinated at a time when we celebrate the coming of Christ to hear from the tradition of our neighours who also honour Christ but who do not accept the Christian doctrines and who follow the Muslim faith.

So succesful was this was it was done again a couple of years ago – in a packed church at a service with the bishop – this time the passage being chanted by a Shia leader. The consequences were the same – dialogue and great interest and an enormous amount of good will.

And so last week as we were reflecting on the arrival of the mysterious Magi at Bethlehem we again asked local Muslim friends if they would like to be present. Again there was a recitation and again there was a huge amount of interest amongst those present. The gospel was proclaimed, the preacher preached and the Eucharist was celebrated. Our Muslim friends were interested in what we do and had a number of questions afterwards. There was particular interest amongst the musicians as to the way arabic recitation works and one or two technical conversations about similarities between psalm pointing and Qur’anic recitation.

It was regarded locally as a good event – the kind of thing that St Mary’s does well. We’re pretty strong on midweek festivals and I always feel a joy at being able to get over a hundred people out for a midweek choral mass.

Having a recitation from the Qur’an in a Christian cathedral in worship is not a new thing. I’m aware of a time in the early 1990s when St Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh (ie Church of Scotland) hosted an event at which there was Islamic prayer within the cathedral. In 1991 at St Mungo’s Cathedral there was a service at which there was a recitation from the Qur’an which involved local church leaders including Archbishop Tom Winning and the then Moderator of the Church of Scotland.

Recitations from the Qur’an in Christians worship are unusual but not unknown. I’m aware of one in Liverpool Cathedral and at other events within the Church of England at civic services and within the context of number of university chaplaincies. No-one pretends that Muslims and Christians believe the same things. We know that Muslims don’t believe in the divinity of Christ – that’s a known and accepted fact. It isn’t surprising.

But how many Christians know that Muslims believe in the Virgin birth and how many have heard that from the Qur’anic tradition?

And that kind of thing is worth knowing.

So it has indeed come as something of a surprise to find accounts of last week’s service appearing online and stirring up the most most incredible pot of hatred I’ve ever encountered. (And I’m a veteran of the sex wars amongst Anglicans).

We’ve received Islamophobic and other hate filled messages so graphic and some of them so obscene that we eventually called the police, whom I have to say have been excellent at supporting us.

There are theological puzzles to wrestle with of course.

This same Qur’anic reading has been given before in services and no outcry has happened. Is it because this is in a cathedral run by a gay man? Is it because the recitation was given by a young woman?

Clearly those things are factors as they feature in some of the abuse.

There have been humorous moments amidst this storm too.

One of the complaints was “It is all very well them allowing Muslims into church but why won’t they marry gay couples?” which clearly came from someone who doesn’t know much about us. Another complained about the event at which Muslims were in church by saying, “It is all very well doing this but Muslims would never come to church you know” rather ignoring that the whole point was that a handful of Muslims had done so.

Those who came heard a confident Christian community proclaim their faith in Christ in no uncertain terms. We say the Nicene Creed at St Mary’s and we believe it. Indeed, I sometimes have to tell people that I say it without my fingers crossed. Our proclamation of the divinity of Christ is at the centre of every Eucharist that takes place every Sunday. And so is the greeting of peace which we offer to one another. Peace be with you. Shalom. Salaam.

One of our Muslim friends who was present last week wrote online:

It was an educational experience to have been present at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow, in a service for the Epiphany… The service expounded on Christian tenets and the story of the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem; proving to be a rewarding and insightful exploration of Christian belief.

Elsewhere the same Muslim friends said recently:

Our warm wishes extend to all who are celebrating Christmas. At this time where the birth of Jesus the Son of Mary is remembered, revered and loved by both Christians and Muslims, [we] came together with Christian congregations in Edinburgh and Glasgow in respect and to strengthen relations and understanding between our faiths. We pray to Allah the Almighty for peace across the world, the lights of wisdom and guidance, global compassion, and hope for those bereft of hope. Our thanks extend to the Most Reverend Leo Cushley, Archbishop and Metropolitan of St Andrews & Edinburgh, the Rt Rev. Dr John Armes, Bishop of Edinburgh, (St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh) the Rev. Calum MacLeod, Minster of St Giles’ Cathedral, the Rev. Neil Galbraith, Minister of Cathcart Old Parish Church, and the Rev. Tembu Rongong, Rector of St James’ and St Philip’s Churches.

And there are happy pics of Muslim folk in church at Christmas alongside their Christian neighbours.

This is becoming normal for us and it matters.

Frankly, we think it is a good thing that Muslims are coming to church and hearing us proclaim the Gospel of Christ.

Here in Glasgow we have our history of religious conflict. When Muslims new to the city are asked, “Aye, but are you a protestant Muslim or a catholic Muslim?” it is both funny and not so funny.

But I rejoice in the fact that at least sometimes our interfaith encounters are real and life changing.

The truth is, people confident in their faith can often learn most from one another. We are confident in our Christian faith and enjoy sharing it.

The most perceptive comment this week came from someone who knows me well. “This is just absurd – St Mary’s doesn’t do syncretism it does hospitality”.

That’s it in a nutshell. We don’t do syncretism, we do hospitality.

Syncretism means the amalgamation of different religions or cultures. We simply are not in that business when we do our interfaith work. We hold fast to Christian orthodoxy and we welcome those who come in peace.

For the record, no-one amongst the several Church of England folk and the single Scottish Episopal priest who originally wrote about this online and triggered the deluge of abuse that we have received bothered to contact us to check the context of what happened.

Also, for the record, a significant amount that you can read about this issue online is inaccurate or simply untrue.

And finally also for the record, Police Scotland have responded to this in a way that I can only describe as superb. They assure me that intolerance and prejudice will not be tolerated in Scotland. To put it simply, I thank God for them and their work.

And to have the last word about the service itself, the tune we used for Brightest and Best was the correct one. No arguments.

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