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.

50 Years of Protest and Change

As day turns to evening on the 28 June 2019, it is difficult not to think of a couple of relatively small-scale riots that took place 50 years ago and murmur a quiet prayer of thanksgiving for the rioters. I have little doubt that there was no way they could foresee the movement which was to spring from the events that took place in and around the Stonewall Inn in New York.

Earlier this week I spent a lovely evening in the sun sitting outside the Royal Gourock Yacht Club eating a meal with friends. The sun was shining, the water was calm, boats were bobbing about and we were served good food. It could not have been further away from the rather downbeat drinking establishment that the Stonewall Inn had become all those years ago. However, as I sat eating my haddock and chips, one of the friends I was with said to me: “Do you know what I saw this week? I saw two young men walking down the street hand in hand. In Gourock! Imagine! How did that happen?”

I looked at another friend who, like me, has been on a march or two in his time and said, “Well, it didn’t just happen. We made it happen”.

But such is the luxury of being able to look back. No-one ever punched me in the nose, and I’d better remember that whilst thinking about what was started 50 years ago tonight.

When the denizens of the Stonewall Inn were attacked by the police they seemed initially to simply have been fighting back rather than kick-starting a movement that would reach even down the Clyde on a balmy night in June 50 years later. They were not the A-Gays or the Power Lesbians of New York either. More the young, often homeless young people who had washed up in the big city for reasons with which gay people will instinctively be familiar. They were not welcome at home and they were not welcome most other places either. Lost LGBT youth still exist in major cities. The LGBT movement started by the Stonewall event hasn’t, sadly, stopped that completely.  But so very much has changed in those 50 years.

There is so much to be thankful for. For those who, when set upon by a violent police force did high kicks and mocked the authorities mercilessly. For those who organised in the middle of chaos. For those who came up with slogans. For those who tended the wounded. For those who encouraged. For those who didn’t give in.

Reading first hand accounts of the riots themselves, it is difficult for me not to hear echoes of the Magnificat, the riot itself a vesper prayer of those who knew that the world in which they were oppressed, needed to be toppled over. Reading of the corrupt world in which those who were attacked, I find myself cheering them on with a belated prayer that the mighty might be brought down from their seat with all the consequent glitter of the exaltation of the humble and meek.

I celebrate and rejoice in all the activists then and since who have made this world a place where I can live in much more security than anything imaginable by the original rioters. And I am impatient for more.

Thinking about the Stonewall Riots this particular week, it is impossible not to remember explicitly trans people and the current campaigns to change the law with regard to gender recognition. This process is going to take longer in Scotland than some had hoped for and there are many people directly affected who are feeling sad, cross and bereft right now. I’m someone who is sometimes puzzled by what trans rights to fight for – I’m very conscious that I don’t speak from that experience and the place of the church in those debates is very different from the discourse a few years ago over the marriage of same-sex couples. However I do see the most ghastly attacks (physical and in digital space) on trans people and recognise them as a kind of bullying and intimidation with which I am familiar.

The conversation about how to reform the Gender Recognition Act will go on and it was clear from a gathering I was at within the Scottish Parliament building earlier this week that the genderqueer people who took leading roles in fighting back against oppression 50 years ago are still inspiring people today.

The rights that have been won by the modern LGBT movement have been considerable. However, when those of us who have been active gather and talk at the moment, we often talk of the fragility we feel about those rights.

And so much of what we have is partial anyway.

I recently married a couple from Northern Ireland who were in a Civil Partnership. That meant that when they set off to come to get married they were in a Civil Partnership in Northern Ireland but at the moment I married them they became married in Scotland. Moreover, Scots Law says that at that moment, they became married from the date of their Civil Partnership. (As they travelled to come to Glasgow they were thus in one sense both married and not married simultaneously). And once they took the Easyjet flight home, as soon as they touched down they were in a part of the UK closer to here than Inverness, and all of a sudden they were no longer regarded as married in the jurisdiction in which they live.

And I became aware this week of someone in the city too frightened to come to a Pride march as they could lose their job as a teacher in a state-funded Roman Catholic school in this city if they were seen to have done so and been reported to their bishop. (It happens to be the case that none of my friends in the Roman Catholic Church would think for a moment that such behaviour helps spread the good news of Jesus Christ – they seem as scandalised by it as I am). We won’t have inclusive education until such discrimination has been stopped in our local schools and it is a disgrace to the inclusive credentials of our local and Scottish governments that it hasn’t been tackled already.

Such absurdities would never be tolerated by straight people. Nor should they be by us.

The fight is far from over and there are plenty of us who are eager not only to secure the rights we have won but to fight for more.

And notwithstanding the current fad for national populism, the borders of our countries will not ultimately inhibit or hold back the simple demand for equality that comes from those who don’t have it yet.

The fight isn’t won yet.

It won’t be over until the children of Kampala and Corstorphine grow up in institutions and households where prejudice against LGBT folk is unthinkable, never mind unrepeatable.

It won’t be over until lesbians can take any bus in the world without being subject to the taunts and blows of putative patriarchs.

It won’t be over until absurd aspersions cast against trans people are laughed at.

It won’t be over until LGBT people are no longer running from home, from school or from life itself.

It won’t be over until the boys holding hands in Gourock are unremarkable.

But one day… one day it will be over.

And until then, we march and work and dance and fight and laugh and pray.

And I have no doubt, the whole company of heaven joins us.