Sermon – 19 August 2018 – The Hostile Environment and who is missing


There were some bits missed out.

Not by the reader but by the compiler of the lectionary. Whole verses. Whole themes. Whole characters. Whole murders.

Missed out in the twinkling of an eye.

The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that the first reading was two verses from the second chapter of 1 Kings and then we hurtled forwards a chapter to pick things up when Solomon was praying for wisdom and God was up for giving him it.

Praying rather piously for wisdom, I rather think.

And with all the blood and guts of the readings of the last few weeks, it can seem at first to be a bit of a relief.

Here is a good king, praying for wisdom and being rewarded for his prayers.

What’s not to like.

Well, if you were listening to that reading wondering whether this was perhaps a little too good to be true then I’d like to suggest that perhaps it was.

The thing is, the stories about David that we’ve been focussing on for weeks are stories of a king who was, to be honest, a bit of a lad.

We’ve heard what he got up to and with whom.

When read in sequence with the story of his death and replacement by good king Solomon that we got today, it can feel a little contrived. It feels to me as though the writers are past masters at all the tricks of the fake news and spin departments that we know today.

To put it bluntly, we read in church texts as though they are neutral history when in fact when you look at them together they seem to have been written with the main purpose of making Solomon look good.

Makes you wonder who commissioned them, huh?

But let’s get back to those bits that were missing.

The lectionary compilers do miss out some of the most salacious bits of the Old Testament – perhaps a little wary of congregations being scandalised by reading them. But I think we need a little scandal in the mix sometimes.

And the verses we missed out this morning have one of the most gloriously named characters in the bible.

Douglas Adams, when writing the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy famously conjured up the name of one character because he wanted to invent the most obscene sounding name he could come up with that could be broadcast on Radio 4 – and thus Slarty Bartfast was born. You can’t quite pin down why it sounds naughty but sound naughty it does.

So it was when I was teenage boy reading the bible through for a year and came upon this chapter and discovered the gloriously named Abishag the Shunamite.

I thought she was marvellous because she seemed to allow you to use syllables that would not normally be acceptable to be uttered from your lips.

Now, in short, Abishag the Shunamite is brought in by a bunch of men to keep King David’s warm at night in his last days. She was the King’s Concubine in the days when it was important for the King to be known to be perky and with all his faculties.

In the verses we missed out today, Abishag the Shunamite becomes important because Solomon’s brother turns up and asks Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, for Abishag the Shunamite for himself. Yes, that’s Bathsheba who was last seen doing a strip-tease on the roof at bathtime that enticed King David Solomon’s father.

(Are you keeping up?)

Now, first of all, Abishag the Shunamite turns out not to be a joke character at all, she’s what we’d call a trafficked woman these days.

And like other trafficked women she has been under our noses for a long time unrecognised for her origins and without our noticing the powerful men who control her.

And Solomon’s brother gets his comeuppance for asking for Abishag. Solomon the wise sends out the army and slaughters him and all his men for his cheek.

I was talking about this with Father Matthew yesterday and he said, “This is just like Celebrity Big Brother”.

And I’ve been thinking about that. First of all, it was a surprise to me that Father Matthew is a devotee of Celebrity Big Brother. But secondly he is right. And some.

It is like a combination of Celebrity Big Brother and Love Island.

(Not that I know what that is).

No, more than that, it is like a combination of Celebrity Big Brother and Love Island set right in the middle of the war in Syria.

That’s the kind of things we are reading about in the Old Testament. And yes, my suspicions about Solomon are I think valid. The shine comes off the piety and the wisdom if you read the bits that get left out.

All kinds of people get left out.

Some time ago, one of you from this congregation told me that they were spending a year only reading chapters from the bible which have women in them. That seemed like a profoundly interesting way to look at scripture.

But it isn’t writers, it is the editors and even the lectionary editors we need to keep an eye on.

We need to read the bible with suspicious eyes. Who wrote this? Who edited it? Who put it before us? What is the underlying message they are trying to convey?

All the same skills we need now when dealing with social media.

And asking who has been left out is surely part of our vocation.

The truth is, when I came here and we started calling ourselves an open, inclusive and welcoming congregation, lots of people presumed it was just a euphemism for being nicer to gay people than most churches.

It was always more than that and I’m glad it is.

Part of our journey is to be people who look out for who is missing. We need to do it with the bible, we need to do it with history, we need to do it with society and we need to do it all the.

I’m proud of the fact that some time after we started pushing the refugees welcome badges here, we’re a congregation with growing numbers of people seeking refuge in this country.

Refugees are welcome here.

And I was proud this week that our own Primus joined other church leaders in condemning the so-called Hostile Environment that the government has created for  those seeking refuge.

And I add my own condemnation to theirs. The hostile environment policy of our government is sinful.

Sometimes sin has to be named and people in power be held  to account.

It was the same in the days of the Old Testament and it is the same now.

The bible teaches us of the love of God. It also teaches us to be suspicious of those wielding power and to be the first to call for it to be used to help the weakest and the most vulnerable.

God knows what it is like to be vulnerable and to be on the run seeking refuge.

May people of goodwill seek the Christ as yet unrecognised in the stranger. And may we be blessed by the love of God implanted deep within those whom we do not yet know.

For God is kind. And God is good. And God commands us to welcome the stranger.

And our task is to build a world that reflects those values. It what the bible teaches us to do.

In the name of the creator and redeemer and liberator of us all.


Praying for Dr Pritchard

Every morning at Morning Prayer in St Mary’s we pray for those whose “year’s mind falls at this time”. That means remembering in our prayers those who have died, on the anniversary of their death. Many of our churches in Scotland do this and we have a list of remembrances that leads to a couple of names being remembered most days. I’m not sure when our list started – sometime in the last 40 years or so, but it has been added to and whenever we know the day of the death of someone associated with the congregation we add them to the list.

Thus, this morning there were two commemorations.

And on this day, we remember Archbishop Robert Blackadder and Edward Pritchard.
May they rest in peace
And rise in glory!

Lord in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Neither of these souls are within the living memory of anyone at St Mary’s. Archbishop Robert was the first ever archbishop of Glasgow and is a relatively easy person to remember in our prayers. His time as Archbishop here seemed to be remembered more for diocesan re-organisation than anything else and because he managed to convince the Pope, no less, that Glasgow should not be administered from anywhere in the East. He died on pilgrimage, whilst trying to get to Jerusalem, just one of his many epic journeys.

But the other name whom we remember today was very much a member of the congregation and some would find him a bit more difficult to remember in prayer. Edward William Pritchard was a member of St Mary’s Episcopal Church – the precursor to what is now St Mary’s Cathedral. He would not have known the building we now worship in but he would surely have heard talk of it being built, as he died in 1865, just 6 years before it opened. He would have worshipped in what we now think of as Old St Mary’s – a church in town which no longer exists except in a street-name and a graveyard which is covered with a car park.

Edward Pritchard has the distinction of being the last person to be hanged in public in Glasgow. He was absolutely notorious in his day. A cleric from St Mary’s accompanied him to the gallows and he came to his end with some 10 000 people of the city (no doubt including some other members of the congregation) watching him die. He had murdered his wife and mother-in-law and probably at least one servant girl. He became famous for the tears that he cried over the coffin of the wife whom he had killed with arsenic and this led to him being known as the human crocodile.

The truth is, a more ghoulish tale you will not find. Nor a more gruesome public death.

It is worth thinking about what is going on when we pray for Dr Pritchard.

Firstly, should we remember him or should we banish him from our minds? It always seems to me important to remember him and to remember that the church is a bunch of sinners. Part of the scandal of Christianity is that some are merely more obvious sinners than others.

It strikes me today that I always notice and remember when we pray for Dr P but I’m not even sure whether his wife and mother-in-law and the poor servant girl are remembered in our calendar of remembrances. Praying for him today has reminded me to check and reminds me that we often focus on men rather than women and often focus our prayers more on perpetrators than victims.

This has been quite a week for trying to remember the victims of crime what with the investigations into the inadequate way the crimes of a Church of England bishop, Peter Ball were dealt with a couple of decades ago. I’ve watched with increasing incredulity the evidence which has been heard by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. The first (and so far only) response from anyone in the Church of England seems to be a reassurance in a statement from the Bishop of Oxford that George Carey will keep his status as a priest in good standing in that church – a statement which makes no mention of the victims of these events.

So, praying for Dr Pritchard reminds me to pray for his victims and the victims of other crimes and makes me think about how we can reorient our priorities to think about them more adequately.

Praying for him too this week brings to mind the recent statement from the government that they were not going to seek assurances from the USA that two prisoners will not face the death penalty if they are convicted of abominable crimes in the Middle East.

I was appalled by these crimes and believe that those who committed them need to face the law and need to be punished if convicted.

However, for me the death penalty will do nothing other than make them martyrs and ensure that their name will be revered longer than it ever should be remembered. There’s nothing like a state sponsored execution for making sure someone is remembered after all.

It is my view that the death penalty is wrong in all circumstances and that the government is utterly wrong to play fast and loose with principles which have been held by our governments (of different political hues) for decades.

Sending people abroad to be tried and possibly killed if found guilty is the outsourcing of our demons who go by the names Retribution and Revenge. As is the case with rendition flights that enabled torture which may have been made from the airport that I often use to go on holiday to the sun, outsourcing things that would be illegal here still leaves our hands dripping with blood and is the solution to nothing in the long term whilst making the barbarous seem more acceptable by its distance.

So you see, Dr Pritchard’s death reminds me to pray for the victims of crime and to pray against the death penalty, a penalty which has ensured that I remember Dr Pritchard’s name. And it reminds me that I am responsible for those who make decisions in my name and that I desperately want to assert that those who make such decisions do not do so in my name.

It also reminds me that the holy are not always the good and that the good are not always holy.

We pray for living members of the congregation every week too – and they are not uniformly good nor uniformly evil.

It is within  such paradoxes and inconsistencies that we live.

And pray.