Sermon preached on 26 September 2011

Somehow I managed to mess up the video camera settings on Sunday, and for that reason, I’ve no video or audio copy of the sermon that I preached. However, I do have the written text I was using. You’ll just have to imagine the delivery, if you were not there….

In the name of God, creator, redeemer and sustainer.

There is something of a Back to School feel about the West End of Glasgow this week. I noticed it when I was trying to use one of the banks this week and found that there were nine students (all from China) trying to open new bank accounts in the queue in front of me.

If you’ve blown into St Mary’s on the breath of the new academic year that has just begun in our great colleges and universities, you are very welcome. The new student group for folk connected with St Mary’s begins after Evensong this evening.

I want to begin what I have to say this morning with a strong “Back to School” moment that I had a couple of weeks ago. I realised that my old Primary School – Bearsden Primary School was having an open day and inviting everyone in.

Now, I’ve not been there since I was 11 and so decided to head off up the road and have a look.

It was completely fascinating.

I had a good time at that school. It suited me fine. But it was, how shall I say, a little old fashioned, even then. It was a regimented regime. We walked in silence in straight lines. We wore smart blazers. We were there to learn and we sat in rows, from the cleverest at the back of the classroom to the thickest at the front.

How times have changed. Going into the school now, the classrooms were completely different. The sense of colour was overwhelming. Each classroom was vibrant – exciting spaces for learning. I stopped in passing to note that in the church our education methods probably haven’t changed much in the last 30 years – to our detriment. In good primary schools, they’ve changed beyond recognition.

As I stood in my school feeling 11 all over again, memories began to surface. In particular I remembered two teachers. My primary five teacher who was vivacious, kind and full of endless energy, and my primary seven teacher who made us recite the bible every day and whom I remember most clearly as the only teacher who ever belted me – corporal punishment being the norm in those days.

One teacher who didn’t really have much to say about faith, but who conveyed a sense of excitement and joy and wonder about the world. Another who came from the Plymouth Brethren, who had a lot to say about Jesus but who ruled with, not with a rod of iron but with a belt of leather.

As I think of those two characters in my childhood, I get glimpses into what Jesus was talking about in his tricky parable about the two sons. One said he would work in the vineyard and didn’t. The other didn’t agree to do so but did. Which son did the will of his father?

Which of my two teachers managed to convey anything godly to me in the classroom?

I stood for a moment outside the room that the second teacher taught in – the one who belted me, and thought about her. She took the belt to me twice. The first time for humming, the second for being cheeky.

If she thought she could belt the music out of me, then she had another thing coming.

If she thought she could belt the cheek out of me… well you can make your minds up.

If I learnt nothing else from her it was never to stand silent in the face of tyranny. Tyranny exists to be made fun of.

I moved swiftly along the corridor to more happy memories. I stood in front of a large display panel and remembered the displays we had constructed on it.

The one I remembered most strongly was a “Glasgow” display. We looked at the city in all kinds of different classes. If it was geography we were doing it was the geography of Glasgow. If history then it was the history of this city. And I remembered this great display of maps and diagrams, of pictures of the city chambers, industry and the mansions of the tobacco Lords.

But as I remembered it, I saw that there was a word missing from the display and it is the word which struck me most in the epistle this morning – slavery. Glasgow’s prosperity was predicated on slavery. It is how the tobacco industry worked. The wealth of this city depended on slaves. Western goods were loaded up in this city, where some of us come from. They were taken to West Africa, where some of us come from, and traded for slaves. They were taken to the Americas, where some of us come from and used on sugar and tobacco plantations and crops were loaded onto the ships which brought them back to Glasgow and the whole obscene cycle began again.

In the epistle this morning, Paul the apostle speaks of Jesus coming as a slave. He wrote those words whilst imprisoned. Probably aware that his life was on the line. He writes from the perspective of the death row prisoner.

He says Christ became a slave.

Now there is a lot of theology based on that notion. Most of it about the topsy-turveydom of the strange reign of God, who puts down the mighty from their seat and exalts the humble and meek.

This morning though, I want to ask you to just focus on the oddness of that curious phrase – that God took the form of a slave.

If God has taken the form of a slave, isn’t it time we set God free?

What enslaves God now? What binds the body of Christ today?

Out bickering battles over sexuality, for sure. Our inability to fully accept men and women as equals for certain. But sometimes I feel that Jesus Christ is bound by how dull the church has become. God longs to lead us in a great dance out of our churches, skipping through the institutions and gathering places of modern life setting free all who are oppressed and yet in an awful lot of places you’d get no idea that is the project at all. I get glimpses here sometimes. Precious glimpses.

People are enslaved by all kinds of things. Those forces which would silence me for being gay will dismiss you for being female. Or you for being black. Or you for being English. Or you for being poor. Or you for your ideas. Or you for being odd. Or you for just being you.

Don’t forget that whilst the slave trade held sway from this city, back at home another group of people were not free to worship and subjected to cruel and sometimes violent oppression. We Episcopalians need to remember that we were once persecuted in this city. And the only good consequence that can truly come from oppression is that the oppressed find their own freedom and start to work for the freedom of all.

Paul said from his prison cell that God emptied himself and became a slave.

Isn’t it time we started to work out how to undo the shackles that bind, remove the fetters that imprison, isn’t it time to liberate God’s people, who are themselves, the body of Christ?

God emptied himself and took the form of a slave.

Now, isn’t it time to let that slave go free?

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