Love your enemies

This is the sermon I preached for 24 February 2019

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

Almost exactly two years ago, I walked up the stairs to this pulpit on a Sunday morning and I saw something that I cannot see today.

As I grasped the rail and walked up the steps and the organ played a jolly improvisation to get me into place, I saw a flash of colour outside the door at that back of the church.

Someone in a dark uniform and a yellow jacket standing guard at the door. And two thoughts flashed through my head that I had never thought before whilst getting into the pulpit.

I thought… Well, I’ll come back to that in a moment.

But anyway, I preached the sermon. And life went on.

Two years ago, it did feel a little bit as though we were under siege. In response to a service at which we shared our experience of Christ’s birth with local Muslim friends and asked them to share their tradition of that birth with ourselves, this church received a considerable amount of correspondence.

Some of it was positive and encouraging. Some of it was the most vile messages of hate that I’ve ever read.

It was coming in many forms. Email, online messages and old fashioned letters through the post.

And it was some of those old fashioned letters through the post which contributed particularly to us having a police presence at church. The content was sufficiently unpleasant that there was deemed to be an unknown risk to my safety in particular and to us as a congregation.

I have to say that Police Scotland helped us deal with that situation in an exemplary manner and I will forever be grateful for the way in which they dealt with us.

At one time, the civil authorities in this city would have been less supportive of this congregation but things have changed over a couple of centuries and we’ve been wonderfully supported by people who take risks on our behalf.

Last week, on Thursday, the person who sent the worst of all those messages was convicted in the Sherriff Court of Serious and Threatening Behaviour through sending sexually abusive messages aggravated by homophobia and transphobia.

He will face sentencing next month.

Dealing with the court system has been lengthy and not terribly pleasant. The person accused chose to defend himself and thus, those of us giving evidence had to be cross-examined by the person who had sent the original abuse.

But a conviction came in the end.

The end of a process and it felt very much to me as though that page was finally turned over and life could begin again.

And so I came home from the court and fished out the readings for today to begin thinking about what to preach about.

And Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Scripture has a way of cutting through to how things really are.

And so I’ve had to think about what that means to me, right now, right this week, with all that going on.

The first thing I think as I reflect on that reading is that the person who sent this material doesn’t feel like an enemy at all. I’d never met him before the court case. He isn’t someone in my life. He may regard those of us preaching an inclusive version of Christianity as enemies.

But I have no response to make to hatred but the love of God.

Jesus is right. A blessing on the heads of all who hate. May their hatred be dissolved by love. May they be blessed, completely blessed by love.

Let us have no enemies except poverty, homophobia, sexism, abusive behaviour, ignorance, anti-Semitism, domestic and corporate expressions of violence, transphobia, addiction, racism and all that makes people fear the other.

And let them each melt under the power of love.

A properly working criminal justice system takes revenge out of our hands anyway. Thank God.

So, let love be all we say in response to hate.

For it is all the teaching we have.

Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.

Kindness, I think has the gospel planted deep inside it.

Two years ago, as I climbed the steps up into the pulpit, I thought, “This is the moment when someone might try to shoot me”.

I’ve never thought that before though I do remember vividly sitting next to Gene Robinson in 2008 when he was here and facing active death threats.

I never want to think that again. And that makes me want to speak out against the experience of those who worship in fear every week, including those in this and other Scottish cities for whom fear is a way of life.

And the second thought that I had as I climbed into the pulpit two years ago was that I was grateful that the sermon was already printed and sitting in the pulpit.

I remember thinking – “well if anything happens to me, there’s something up there that tells people they are utterly loved by God”.

You’ve heard me preach for years, most of you. You know that’s pretty much all I have to say.

And it is sufficient.

This year during Lent there will be devotional addresses at Choral Evensong. I’ve asked Matthew, Audrey, Helena and John to join me in reflecting on the topic – “If I had just one more sermon to preach”.

And I have my suspicions that there will be much to link those sermons together.

Christianity has something simple at its core.

For all we do inspired by Jesus is to keep on preaching and living and telling the same good news….

You are loved.

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

How would you teach me to pray?

Popping into a church today I was reminded of a question someone asked me a few weeks ago.

The church was somewhere that I happened to be passing. Somewhere a little off the beaten track in the middle of the bustle of a city. Not a particularly well known church but a known place to me. A place I’ve dropped into in passing quite a few times in the past.

It is a busy church – there always seems to be people popping in and bowing their heads. As they do so they find themselves sharing the space with a number of folk who obviously have nowhere else to go. Some seem to have carried in all they own with them. Some fall asleep. It is a place where devotion and need seem all jumbled up and you can’t always tell who is actively trying to pray and who just needs shelter. And you can’t always tell the difference anyway I’ve found.

It is a place where prayer has often just seemed to happen in an easy, matter of fact way.

I don’t particularly subscribe to the idea that there are “thin” places where God is easy to meet. People often describe Iona like that and speak of thin places as though that’s an old Celtic idea. In fact, the old Celts themselves seem to have been rather more robust than modern pilgrims – praying the psalms whilst up to their oxters in chilly Atlantic waters of a morning. And in any case, the whole ethos of the Iona Community seems to me to suggest that God is to be just as knowable in Govan as on a rocky crag on the edge of the world.

But still, the sense of place this afternoon stilled me somehow. I was in a place that had been well prayed in, there were some beautiful things in an otherwise ordinary space and it was possible to just rest in the presence of God and to love being loved.

And it made me think of that question that someone asked me recently – “if I were to ask you to help me learn how to pray, what would you say?”

My response at the time was that I’d probably ask a few questions and listen a lot before saying very much. The truth is, there isn’t just one forumula for praying that works. God lurks in the world, as Bishop Gregor has often said to me. And that lurking God longs to be known in ways that won’t be tied down to a method or a protocol.

If I was trying to help you to pray, I’d be asking some of the following questions…

What rhythms do you already have in life?

Do words or pictures move you most?

Does stillness come easily or do you need a routine in order to relax?

What ways of prayer have you already tried?

Have you any experience of meditation?

What gives you joy?

What gives you peace?

What are you thankful for and do you have ways of expressing that thankfulness?

I’d be trying to find out whether you found it easy to think about stories, or characters or concepts.

All these questions would be helpful in trying to find a few ways of praying that would be worth building into habits. Things that we can just do without thinking too much about them.

I don’t always find prayer that easy. And when I’m not finding it easy I’ve learned that it isn’t worth beating yourself up about it.

The world is no less enflamed with the presence of God just because I feel fidgety.

At times like that, doing something I’ve done a thousand times might be all I can do. Breathing and being concious of my breath. Using well worn words and wearing them a bit more. Reminding myself that wanting to pray is the first honest prayer many of us manage.

And then the times come, like this afternoon in a church I rarely see when different things come together and love is all there is.

I don’t know how long I was there. Twenty minutes or so. Maybe half an hour. In that time, there’s things I remember.

  • Being thankful for the gifts and skills and maturity and loveliness of someone I’ve seen this week for the first time in years.
  • Seeing an image of a biblical character and being taken straight in my head to a passage of scripture that came up at morning prayer recently. As I thought about the passage, it seemed to link with my own current experience.
  • Hearing the snores and murmurs of those scattered around the place and knowing that the prayers and actions of those who act and pray are still needed as we work to help the whole world live the magnificat.
  • And the light. And the stillness. And the peace.

I think that the question – “How would you teach me to pray?” is a wonderful one. Like all good questions, it begs more questions and there’s no one answer anyway.

It is a question that most priests I know would like to be asked more often. It is a question that many lay people would give a better answer to than many clergy.

I’d be a bit wary of anyone who said that prayer was either always easy. Or always impossible.

I’d love to hear it asked and would love to hear it answered more often than I do.