“If God shows up in the guise of a tyrant, no-one should wear his uniform” – Sermon 15 October 2023

That was quite the wedding banquet…

So, there’s an Ox roast going on over there and the fatted calfs have been slaughtered and cooked. There doesn’t seem to be a vegetarian option at this wedding, but that’s the least of our worries at the moment. For the host has taken umbrage because not enough guests have turned up. Not only that, but the guests have seized the Big Man’s people and beaten them up and killed them. And so he sends in the heavies, destroys the murderers and burns the town down.

Now that’s quite a wedding.

Even for Glasgow, that’s quite a wedding.

This little story has been around for two thousand years and my guess is that it has never been particularly easy to hear read aloud and has never been particularly easy to preach on.

And in the version of the story that Matthew offers us,  Jesus isn’t prepared to let it rest. He keeps adding bits that make it all the more difficult.

The king, the host of the wedding banquet sends out additional invitations. Go into the streets and invite everyone you see, he says. And the slaves go out and gather in everyone they could find, both the bad and the good.

And lots of preachers have seized on that moment in the story as a moment of grace. Everyone gets an invitation in the end! Hurrah! It must be about how inclusive and expansive the love of God is after all.

But Jesus goes on…

Someone turned up not wearing a wedding robe and the Big Man saw him and wasn’t mightily impressed. How do you get in looking like that? He says.

And he looks to his enforcers and says, “bind him hand and foot and put him oot!” And off he goes to be thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The sound of the gnashing of teeth is a terrible thing and I suspect that Jesus could foresee (or forehear) the sound of thousands of preachers for thousands of years, collectively gnashing their teeth at the prospect of interpreting this story.

That inclusive expansive benevolent host never appears in this story, does he?

So, what are we to make of it?

As I think about what I think about this parable this week, I’m reminded of a reaction I once had to a well known painting.

I was at an interview for something in Keble College, Oxford. And I popped into the chapel there, which is very fine. Now, that chapel contains the painting called the Light of the World by William Holman Hunt. It is a painting that a lot of you will be able to imagine. Jesus stands outside in the darkness knocking on a door that is behind a patch of briers and brambles. He wears a crown of thorns and wears a long silk robe and carries a lamp from which the light shines.

Now, I know that painting is an object of devotion to so many people – there’s queues to see it still. But I remember looking at this spooky depiction of Jesus and instantly thinking, well if Jesus comes knocking on my door in the night looking as weird and as creepy as that, then I know I’m never going to open the door from the inside. Indeed, I’d look for ways to keep him shut out.

The way we picture God matters. Matters enormously.

Going back to the parable, I think my problems start right at the beginning if we presume that the Big Man, the King is the same as the God whom we worship.

For I know I’m not much interested in a God who is involved in slavery. I’m not much interested in a God who engages in vengeance. I’m not much interested in a God who provokes acts of terror and burns down whole towns in his anger. I’m not much interested in a God who compels people to come to feast on the threat of violence if you don’t turn up. I’m not much interested in a God whom you have to dress up for. And I’m not much interested in a God who consigns people to hell.

And I find myself reaching for things to prop up against the door. I’m not letting that image of God anywhere near my spiritual life. I’d rather set up a barricade against him.

So, what do I make of it as I read it today.

Well, I recently spent nearly fifteen years of my life trying to get access to weddings for those who were told that they were not welcome at the feast. And perhaps it is that which sharpens the way I think about this little story today.

As I mull it over, it just doesn’t work for me to see the Big Man as God. The God I know doesn’t behave like this.

(Though the God that some people seem to think they know seems to do far too often).

Instead I find myself thinking of the ways in which religious communities try to get over the message to people that they are welcome at the feast of life.

For the experience of preparing a banquet and then no-one showing up is all too familiar in many parts of the church these days.

And the response of many Christians is grumpy. “We put on everything for you” they shout into the darkness and still no-one turns up.

But people don’t turn up to the feasts that religious people put on for perfectly good reasons. Religion (including our religion) has been responsible for acts of terror and violence. Religious people have lashed out through the centuries at those who are different and lashed out at those who are indifferent too.

God’s mission in the world is a mission of love but God hasn’t always had terribly good representatives on earth.

There are still plenty of people who instead of receiving the news that God’s love is expansive and generous and wonderful, have received the news either that they were never invited or that they wouldn’t fit in even if they did turn up.

Going back to the parable and taking another look, I find myself reading the story of the man who turned up not wearing the right robe as the story of an act of defiance.

When either God or the church gets dressed up in stories in tyrannical garb, we should not wear the uniform but resist.

We need to read the story of the man being thrown out into the darkness then in the context of Jesus’s other tales which seem to paint a picture of a God who is on the side of the victim, the God who weeps when the terrorist reaches for the gun, the God whose heart breaks when war seems inevitable, the God who is on the side of the oppressed. The God whose only response is to keep on loving much those who need love most.

There is nowhere we can go where God is not present.

There are different ways of understanding the place of darkness and exclusion. Some would imagine God consigning people to that place for all eternity. But there are other ways of imagining eternity open to us from scripture. Maybe hell is of this earth and is our own making. Certainly, some will be living it today.

The God I believe in wipes every tear from every eye, reconciles the seemingly unreconcilable and proclaims a kingdom of justice and joy. The invitation to the feast from such a God is an invitation of love not compulsion or violence.

Such a God is a God of peace and joy and love.

For such a God, I’ll open the door.

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



The Friends of St Eucalyptus

Some years ago now, I introduced readers of this blog to the twin churches of St Eucalyptus on the Rocks and St Anaglypta by the Skerry. They were dreamt up by me in order to illustrate a point. I was trying to get people to think about whether bread and wine could be consecrated by a priest who couldn’t be in two places at once but who could connect them virtually in some way. This was a long time before the pandemic made those questions pertinent to far more people than had bothered to think about them previously.

From time to time I’ve revisited these two churches to turn over ideas relating to the ways in which doing things digitally can disrupt (or enhance, depending our perspective) the things that Christians do.

So, it was natural that when I was testing out an AI image generator recently I decided to give it the task of showing me what St Eucalyptus by the Rocks actually looks like. I gave it a very simple instruction and it came up with quite an impressive image.

I published this image on Facebook along with a comment suggesting that this is one of my favourite Scottish Episcopal Churches.

The reaction was swift and interesting. Some people immediately knew that this was an artificially generated image and made comments which suggested that they knew what was going on. Others didn’t recognise it as being artificial though and I was quickly inundated with people asking me where the church is in order that they could visit it.

I told people that the church was close to St Angalypta’s, which you can just see in the distance in the picture and that one of them lay in the Diocese of Argyll and The Isles and the other lay in the Diocese of Moray, Ross and Caithness but that the dioceses could not agree on which was in which. This piece of nonsense might have given the game away to some people but others received this as being typical of the way that the church functions. A little detail seemed to confirm the reality of the picture that they saw before their eyes.

The picture contains a very odd looking window that is set into the rocks almost at sea level and so I gave an explanation for this too, saying that it was there to give light into the cave where St Eúchlyphátius herself used to pray the Celtic rosary every day.

Now, there is no such thing as the Celtic rosary. Nor is there any such saint as St Eúchlyphátius but somehow the faux Gaelic accents on her name made her seem to some to be even more the genuine article.

Again I got responses from people – some in public online, some in private online and some offline. And it remained the case that some people saw this for what it was immediately and others wanted to head off north and west and find the exact spot from which the “photograph” had been taken. It would look great on Instagram after all. At least one American friend with an interest in all things Celtic wanted full details so they could visit on their next trip across the pond.

On something of a roll, I decided to let ChatGPT write a history of the church and it responded with some glorious prose that could well have come out of a local history of a country church.

In the picturesque highlands of Scotland, nestled amidst rolling hills and serene landscapes, stands the enchanting Church of St. Eucalyptus of the Rocks. This small Scottish Episcopal church holds a captivating history, deeply rooted in the spiritual traditions of the region.
Legend has it that centuries ago, a hermit named St. Eucalyptus, a woman of great devotion and wisdom, sought solace and divine communion within the rugged beauty of the highland landscape. Drawn to the mystical energy emanating from a hidden cave, St. Eucalyptus made it her sacred sanctuary, devoting her life to prayer and contemplation.
It was within this cave that St. Eucalyptus began a daily ritual of reciting the Celtic Rosary—a unique form of prayer that combined ancient Celtic spirituality with Christian devotion. The rhythmic repetition of prayers, accompanied by the natural sounds of the surrounding wilderness, created a spiritual harmony that resonated deeply with the saint’s soul.
As word of St. Eucalyptus’ profound spirituality spread, pilgrims and seekers from far and wide journeyed to the highlands to witness the transformative power of her prayers. Inspired by her unwavering faith and the miracles attributed to her, a humble community of believers gradually formed around the cave.
Recognizing the need for a more permanent place of worship, the community embarked on an ambitious project to build a church in honour of their beloved saint. They chose a spot near the cave, where the ancient rocks seemed to embrace the faithful with a sense of awe and wonder.
Construction of the church commenced, using locally sourced stone and guided by the skilled hands of the villagers. With each stone meticulously laid, the church gradually took shape—a testament to the enduring faith and dedication of the community.
The Church of St. Eucalyptus of the Rocks, with its simple yet elegant architecture, stands as a tribute to the saint’s legacy and the spiritual traditions she inspired. The interior exudes a sense of tranquillity, adorned with Celtic symbols and artwork that pay homage to the rich heritage of the highlands.
Over the centuries, the church has become a spiritual haven for those seeking solace, guidance, and a connection to the divine. Pilgrims, locals, and visitors alike are drawn to the church’s serene ambiance and the spiritual presence that seems to linger in the air.
Today, the Church of St. Eucalyptus of the Rocks continues to thrive as a place of worship and spiritual refuge. The Celtic Rosary, once recited by the saint in her secluded cave, is now embraced by the congregation as a cherished tradition, passed down through generations.
The church’s small community holds dear the legacy of St. Eucalyptus and remains dedicated to preserving the traditions and spiritual practices that she embodied. The annual Feast of St. Eucalyptus is celebrated with great joy and reverence, drawing pilgrims from near and far to honour the saint and partake in the rich tapestry of highland spirituality.
As the sun sets over the highland landscape, casting a golden glow on the Church of St. Eucalyptus of the Rocks, the prayers of the faithful mingle with the whispers of the wind—a testament to the enduring power of faith and the timeless presence of St. Eucalyptus, forever entwined with the sacred beauty of the Scottish highlands.

Again, the more detailed fragments seemed to convince people all the more that they were looking at an actual church on the West coast of Scotland.

Again I was asked for the exact location. I was asked for more details about St Eucalyptus, I was asked whether this was the closest church to the sea in Scotland and I’m convinced that if I’d been selling St Eucalyptus Celtic Rosaries online I’d be a richer man now than I was then.

Now, all of this might make us think a bit. Is the Church of St Eucaluptus real or isn’t it? Since I conjured it up in my imagination over a decade ago, many have thought about its congregation. The details of the saint’s life are at least as much connected to reality as some of the stories about Scottish saints who actually are in the calendar of the church. Is the story of St Eucalyptus telling her beads and saying her prayers in the cave more or less true than the stories of St Gilbert of Caithness slaying a dragon or St Mungo raising a dead robin to life?

In a religion based on someone who claimed that he was the way the truth and the life, it is worth pausing from time to time and asking what we mean by truth. Is it simply the dull reality of that for which we have proof? Do angels still surround the blessèd. Do demons still stalk the unwary? Does the devil still goeth about prowling like a lion seeking whom he may devour?

Religion has an interesting relationship with the truth, at times insisting that it is the very arbiter of objective reality and at other times using reality not merely as a plaything but as a revealer of holy mysteries.

I’ve been to many communion services in which I have been present with the Lord and the flakey disciples in an upper room yet I’ve never myself set foot in Jerusalem.

The stories that religious people tell are all the more interesting because sometimes it is important to know whether they are stories that stand up as objective chronicles of events and because sometimes it isn’t important to know that for sure.

Dragons still need to be vanquished either way.

People still need to be healed.

The world is a better place when you know that angels dance and sing.

I suspect that this won’t be the last that we hear of St Eucalyptus on the Rocks. That little congregation clings onto the ebbing and flowing of truth in our minds just as it has clung onto the rocks by the shore for so many centuries.

And you gentle readers are all Friends of St Eucalyptus now.