Emerging glistening from the water – sermon preached on 7 July 2019

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

I emerged from the water, radiant and glistening in the sunlight and made my way up onto the beach.

Not like Daniel Craig emerging from the sea in Casino Royale.

Not even like Ursula Andress coming up out of the waves in Dr No.

No – I emerged from the waves more like Venus, the goddess of Love arriving on the shore in Botticelli’s famous painting.

Not that there were many witnesses. Not for me the crowds of people in the Uffizi Gallery looking upon the goddess of Love.

My only company as I emerged onto the beach a fortnight ago was a friendly grey seal whom I had put on watch when I flung off my clothes and ran into the exhilarating waters of the Atlantic when on holiday in the Western Isles.

And now I emerged joyful and feeling incredible.

If you can swim in the Atlantic off Scotland, even in July you can do anything. Emerging from the freezing water, you suddenly feel warm. You suddenly feel invincible.

But that seems to be quite a long way from Naaman’s experience.

I rather love the story of Naaman the commander of the army of Aram. He is a man with great power who finds himself in great need.

There are so many ways to dive into his story. Let me just pick on three… the way power works in the story, the sevenfold advice that Elisha gives and what happened to the servant girl.

Power first. Naaman is clearly man with great power but someone who finds himself in great need.

But this is the bible. The usual conventions about power are very obviously going to be turned upside down. There’s the obvious way that the ability to unlock his suffering comes not from conventional power, privilege and prestige but from someone who is enslaved and owned by him. The slave girl has no power and no agency. But still the word comes from her that directs Naaman to his place of healing.

But there is also the disruptive fact that Naaman is an enemy. According to the conventions of his day he doesn’t deserve anything from an enslaved woman from the people of Israel. But he doesn’t deserve anything from the God of Israel either.

I love the way this story undermines the idea that God is only with us. If Naaman can be healed, God must also be with them, whoever they are.

So many of the stories in the bible are about the human ability to divide the world into us and them – this story very clearly undermines that.

On this weekend when Glasgow has had its biggest Orange Walk, I warm to a biblical story which undermines the idea of religion being about dividing people.

The religious practise that Elisha advocates is as available for the outsider and the enemy of Israel as it is available for the insider and the regular worshipper.

Religion that undermines sectarian divisions is religion worth taking notice of and diving into.

Secondly, I notice that Naaman isn’t just told to go and bathe in a river but to bathe again and again. A sevenfold bathing.

(The truth is, once was enough in the chilly Atlantic waters for me so I might have some sympathy for Naaman if he objected to having to jump in seven times).

Religion is often about finding that building rhythm into life is healthy and lifegiving.

I’m not sure we talk about that enough.

It happens to be the case that if Christians could reacquire the habit of weekly attendance at worship, most of the decline that has been experienced by Christianity in this country would be wiped out overnight.

But even that isn’t the point. We need to do liturgical acts regularly because that is how they work.

Whether it is the ritual act of bathing seven  times or encouraging one another in regular weekly holy habits of coming to church, it is the repetition that gives the experience greater depth and somehow unlocks things inside us.

When we do things again and again, we become part of the thing we are doing. Instead of us doing something to the thing, the thing starts to do something to us.

We are shaped and changed and made whole by repeatedly doing things that give us life.

Those things change us and make us act and behave differently in future.

And the future is the last thing I notice about the story.

The bit missing for me is when  Naaman goes home and sets the slave girl free in acknowledgement that as he is free, the person who unlocked his freedom needs to be freed from her slavery. He’s been freed from his affliction. Why shouldn’t she be freed from the affliction of being owned?

But that didn’t happen. Or at least we never heard of it. The bible is silent on what happened to her.

It is too late for her. Naaman appears not to have freed her.

But it isn’t too late for many who are still enslaved.

This week a horrendous case came to light of modern slavery.

It isn’t too late to set slaves free. It is still an imperative laid upon us.

If Naaman didn’t get work out that should have come next, we can.

When those in the past practised obvious injustice – obvious to us in our own day then it falls upon us to do the good in the future that didn’t happen in their day.

Slave girls and slave boys,  slave women and slave men can still be set free.

People need to be freed from real modern slavery today. And people need to be set free from all kinds of other things that harm them too.

And as I ran up and down on the stunning empty beach miles from anywhere I started to feel warm and joyful and whole. And I felt invincible. I felt as though I could do anything.

And that it what it is like for people plunged into the goodness that is God’s love.

We enact that in baptism.

Once we are out of that water, we are invincible, for we emerge encouraged by the very God of Love who walks this world and loves us very much.

Together with God, we are invincible.

We can do anything.

There is no wrong that can’t be righted.

For God’s love is real, and strong, wonderful.

And that love is with you.

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

Whose Spiritual Mantle Will You Inherit?

Sermon preached on 30 June 2019

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

Just the other week I was chatting with someone who asked me where I had studied.

I told them that I had read Divinity at the University of St Andrews.

Straightaway, the question came back – “Oh, whilst you were there, did you have a Chariots of Fire moment on the beach?”

For those who don’t know, Chariots of Fire was a huge film in the 1980s. A story based around the 1924 Olympic Games, which famously opens with a group of runners running along the West Sands in St Andrews.

An iconic moment.

These are the fastest, fittest men in the world.

Easy to see how I could be mistaken for them running along a beach.

The film title, I think was inspired by that bit of Blake’s poem Jerusalem:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

But originally, of course, it comes from the second book of Kings and the reading that we heard this morning.

Elijah and Elisha are preparing to part at the end of Elijah’s life. And as they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.

It is one of those biblical images that is so vivid but which probably works better on the radio rather than on the television. Better in the oral tradition than something that we might try to capture in a picture.

As the two prophets walk and talk they have their own chariot of fire moment.

The elder Elijah asks what he can do for Elisha and Elisha says he wants to inherit a double share of Elijah’s spirit.

Not a bad thing to hanker after I think.

As we reflect this morning, I’d like you to just hold Elijah and Elisha in your minds.

One of them will soon take over. Pick up the mantle and carry on.

And thinking about them I want to say something about leadership – spiritual leadership to be sure, but it is worth thinking about how leaders operate in general sometimes too.

It is no secret that this diocese has been struggling to find a new bishop. The second round of the election process has not resulted in an election and we are now moving to round three, where the other bishops become the electorate.

There is considerable angst about what kind of person we will get and whether or not they match up to what we want.

I think that leadership is particularly difficult in the modern age.

Someone said to me recently that they really want the bishops of the church to take a firm lead and say what they mean and implement procedures clearly and decisively.

The same person then went on to say that whenever the bishops have done this, they have made precisely the wrong decision and should have done nothing at all.

This is the paradox of leadership in our current age. People want firm leadership. However, everyone expects to have an opinion and expects that opinion to be adhered to and if it isn’t, oh how easy it is to vent one’s spleen online and oh how quickly rage ensues.

Who would be a leader in such circumstances?

And what qualities does a leader need?

 

It may be my particular involvement in the discernment process to try to find a new bishop for Glasgow and Galloway that makes me a little weary of the search. But I do know I’m getting tired of being asked what kind of bishop I want.

Indeed, I find it rather more inspiring to think about whose mantle we should be picking up. Whose spiritual inheritance should we be claiming, with the audacious demand that we inherit a double portion?

Those from the bibilical tradition? – Elijah who could call down fire from heaven, Peter (whose feast day falls this weekend) who managed to be forgiven for more than most people, Mary whose Magnificat still inspires us daily.

Those who have campaigned for justice for people of all races? – Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela

The Stonewall rioters and those who came after them demanding equality for LGBT people?

Or the new generation who have worked and are working to stem climate change like Greta Thunberg?

As we think about Elijah and Elisha walking and talking before Elijah is wheeked away to heaven, can we have a wee chariots of fire moment and think about what spiritual leadership looks like.

The biblical tradition seems to have a lot to say about those who can see what is coming over the horizon. Visionaries, prophets, bringers of change.

The uncomfortable saints who are easier to deal with in stained glass than in the flesh.

Leadership needs to look different in the modern age to the way it looked in the past. More collaborative. Less dictatorial. More about encouraging people to work together than forging out as a one person band. With a greater ability to listen and be seen to listen and consult than has ever been the case before.

We seem to have a bit of trouble moving to a new paradigm for leadership in all areas of life including the very troubled political sphere.

So it is worth thinking about where we each get our motivation and encouragement from. Who inspires us? Who motivates us? Who encourages us?

Answering those questions will probably take us some way in working out what kind of leadership will be effective either in the church or in the rest of life.

So as Elijah and Elisha walk and talk before the chariot of fire arrives, I simply ask you to think about that question today.

Whose mantle do you wish to pick up?

From whose spiritual tradition do you wish to inherit double?

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

Amen.