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.

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.