Sermon – Reading the Signs of the Times


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

One of the nicest things that I’ve been at this week was the annual dinner that the Shia Muslim community put on to celebrate Eid-al-adha. The festival of the sacrifice.

Islam has the same story that Christians and Jews share, remembering Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, only for God to provide a sheep to be sacrificed at the last minute. The only difference being that our Muslim friends speak of the son saved from being sacrificed as Ishmael – the son the Arab people believe themselves to be descended from. Christians and Jews tell the story about Isaac – the one they believe themselves to be descended from. Same story. Different son.

The feast of the sacrifice is the biggest festival in the Islamic year and coincides with the days when the largest crowds are completing the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.

Christians don’t keep any festival over that story. It crops up in the lectionary but by and large we don’t particularly celebrate it.

In Islam it is a day for celebration. For sharing food with those who have less than you do and for partying.

And in Scotland, the Shia community has developed its own tradition of having a banquet for Eid and this week I was invited.

Now, I always say yes when the Shias invite me to a party as I know that there will be all kinds of interesting people there.

One of the interesting paradoxes of life is that though the ecumenical movement is in the doldrums, one of the places where I get to meet Christians from other Christian traditions is when Muslims invite us all together for food.

And thus I found myself enjoying a very good curry and sitting next to someone who runs a Roman Catholic agency dedicated to eliminating poverty across the world and someone else working on ecological concerns and theology.

It was fascinating to hear them talk to one another. And frightening too.

The first people to suffer from Climate Change are the first people to suffer every time something happens to the world – the poor, the needy, the hungry.

At the dinner table, these two people had much in common to talk about.

I found myself asking one of them what theological ideas he was working on at the moment when thinking about ecological theology.

He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Well all we have to do these days is reach for the apocalyptic – that’s what describes the world we live in now”

And that sense of reaching for the apocalyptic has stayed with me all week and stays with me as I read this morning’s gospel.

There’s more than a hint of the apocalyptic about it.

Firstly the claim from Jesus himself that he will pit father against son and daughter against mother and all the rest.

I see Christ as a peacemaker but he didn’t see himself like that.

Reading this text after two divisive referendums and paying even a passing glance at social media, we can see all kinds of people who once got on, at odds with one another. How common it has become to see people as being set against one another.

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Our world is full of people who do not know how to interpret the present time.

None of us I suspect quite know how we have ended up in the world of 2019. I am amongst those who didn’t expect to see racism and antisemitism rising, acceptance of same-sex couples stalling and xenophobia becoming a major political narrative.

I just don’t know whether there were signs of the times. I do just know that I didn’t read them correctly.

And I do just know that the signs of the times when it comes to the climate are there for all to see.

“When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’

We don’t need to be told that clouds mean rain here in the West of Scotland. But somehow we do need to comprehend that it isn’t climate change we are talking about but climate disaster.

Some faith communities have been talking about this for far longer than we have. There are thinkers in the orthodox churches who are way ahead theologically than we are.

It is looking increasingly likely that next year there will be a big climate conference in Glasgow. World leaders will (ironically) fly in from across the globe. Experts and policy makers will gather to try to find next steps in tackling the climate emergency.

If that takes place here, the churches and all people who care must be ready to speak out in the name of God for those whose voices so often go unheard – the poor of the world who need good news.

The signs of the times are all around us.

I spent Tuesday evening celebrating the feast of the sacrifice with Muslim friends.

A sense of sacrifice is inherent to protecting our world – being prepared to do without in order to save the very world in which we live.

If we are prepared to find a new ethic and a new economics of sustainability and care then God will bless us.

If we are prepared to sacrifice the very bounty and goodness of the earth for our own gain, then we face peril. And the apocalyptic won’t simply be something we reach for in order to predict what will happen next.

I believes that God loves this world and that God loves you. I believe that God loves the world and God loves me. And I believe that God’s love for the world will be expressed through both action and compassion.

The duty that Christians have in a world as perilous as this one has become is to frame our questions not by how we will benefit from the answers that we find but how our answers will benefit the poor.

God’s love is especially for the poor. And we are called to express that very same love in action.

That reading from Hebrews that we heard this morning was a great song of praise to those who have kept the faith through generations. Faith in a God of love who calls us to love.

A great cloud of witnesses – that no matter what, Christians have gone on expressing the love of God through whatever terrors faced each day.

Antisemitism. Xenophobia. Selfishness. The Climate Emergency.

We are one with the Great Cloud of Witnesses who proclaimed the love of God in their generation and acted on it.

And we will keep the faith.

God’s love is real.

And requires us to act in our day.


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.