Recent Sermon

Sermon preached online on Sun 6 Feb 2021 by our Joint Church Secretary, Prof Adrian Moore

I want to begin with some reflections on language. There are many words and phrases in English that are broadly evaluative. To apply one of these expressions to a person or to a thing is not just to describe that person or that thing, but to offer an evaluation of some kind too. And we can divide these expressions into two broad categories: there are the positive ones, the ones that are used to commend; and there are the negative ones, the ones that are used to disparage.


Here are some terms of commendation: ‘kind’, ‘compassionate’, ‘easy on the eye’, ‘delicious’, ‘soothing’. And here are some terms of disparagement: ‘selfish’, ‘callous’, ‘a real eyesore’, ‘disgusting’, ‘annoying’.


But there are puzzling cases too—cases that are not so straightforward to classify. For instance, what about ‘nice’? I don’t mean in its sense of ‘precise’ or ‘subtle’, as when we talk about a nice distinction—although there might be some puzzlement about that case too! I mean in the sense it has when we describe a person as nice. Most of us, I think, regard this as a compliment. But it can also be used in a rather damning way, to suggest a kind of feebleness. Football pundits often use it to criticize a player who is not up for the metaphorical fight—or possibly even not up for the literal fight!


Or what about the word ‘photogenic’? It’s never been entirely clear to me whether or not describing someone as ‘photogenic’ is complimentary. On the one hand, it is nearly always taken as such. On the other hand, it can be heard as a way of saying that photographs of the person flatter them.


Or what about the expression ‘like a child’? The English language nicely—note my use of the word ‘nicely’, by the way!—the English language nicely gets round that equivocation by giving us two separate alternatives: ‘childlike’ to commend; ‘childish’ to condemn.


Or what about the phrase ‘doesn’t suffer fools gladly’? You’ll often hear this said of people, particularly in the past tense in obituaries, with a tone of respect and admiration. But if suffering fools gladly means treating stupid people with patience and kindness, then the Gospels abound with examples of our Lord doing precisely that.


The phrase ‘suffer fools gladly’, as many of you will know, comes from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. And if you’re interested, after this morning’s service, it’s worth going back and having a look at what exactly Paul is doing with the phrase. But, be that as it may, it’s a familiar phrase from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that has prompted these reflections of mine—a phrase that occurred in the epistle reading from this morning’s lectionary. I am talking about ‘being all things to all people’, a description that Paul willingly confers on himself.


I say ‘willingly’. A more hostile way of putting it would be to say ‘smugly’. At any rate Paul obviously feels no shame in applying this phrase to himself. Yet for many of us, particularly when we think of the phrase being used in connection with politicians, it has negative connotations. It calls to mind that wonderful Groucho Marx line: ‘Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them... well, I have others.’


Do these negative connotations apply in Paul’s case? Is Paul compromising his principles in an effort to please? I am sure we would all agree that he isn’t. There is a kind of pragmatism at work here, but only to ensure success in getting a vital message across. Instead of flaunting his freedom from Jewish law, Paul has conformed to it when among Jews, in order to get his message across to the Jews. Conversely, when among Gentiles, he has stressed the irrelevance of Jewish law—though of course he remains only too conscious that a Christian must live under some law, the law of Christ. In short, he has been prepared to accommodate himself to everybody, in an effort to connect with them and to put them in touch with what really matters.


It’s not particularly mysterious. Admittedly, in practice, there may be difficult decisions about how much accommodation of this kind is possible without some compromise of principles, and I dare say that we all occasionally succumb to the temptation to conform to other people’s ways of doing things as a way of trying to win them over when it is not the right thing to do. But the idea that Paul can describe himself as all things to all people and feel no shame is not, as I say, particularly mysterious.


But I think there’s a more interesting and related question in the background. In what ways might God be said to be all things to all people? Here I’m reminded of some things that Helen said in her wonderful sermon last week. And I hope you will forgive me if some of what follows repeats things that she said then—but I think they bear repetition.


In what ways, then, is God all things to all people?


In what ways was Jesus all things to all people? Let us reconsider the passage from Mark that was read earlier. Here, very early in Mark’s gospel, we see Jesus engaged in many acts of healing. We are told that everyone in Capernaum was gathered around his door, and that all those who were physically or mentally ill were brought to him to be cured. It seems relentless and exhausting. It is perhaps not surprising that Jesus wanted some time to himself early the following morning, when he could be alone to pray.


But the passage begins with some contrasting intimacy. In verses 29 – 31, one of Jesus’s many acts of healing is described in more detail. This time the invalid is identified: it is Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. And we are told how Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up, to the point that she was well enough to act as their hostess.


The juxtaposition of this story with the subsequent account of Jesus curing so many others puts us in mind of that familiar point—a point that has become all too familiar in recent times—that whereas one death is a tragedy, a hundred thousand deaths are a statistic. But there is of course a happier variant too: whereas the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was a cause for special joy and celebration, the curing of the many others was a blended backdrop to the Gospel narrative in which Jesus went about doing good.


The third lectionary reading gives us something similar. In Isaiah Chapter 40, verse 26, we find a reference to Him who brings out their host and numbers them juxtaposed with His calling them all by name; not one, we are told, is missing.


God is all things to all people. God can meet each one of us, in our own particular circumstances, with absolute undivided attention. Absolute. Undivided. God focuses all of God’s attentive love on each and every one of us; all of it. There is no need for any sharing of resources here. Moreover, God is infinitely adaptable to the unique contours of each and every one of us; God is all things to each and every one of us.


I am reminded of a sermon that our former minister Susan once preached at St Columba’s, in which she memorably and beautifully described God as both utterly faithful and utterly promiscuous. For, at the same time as God is meeting you, in your own particular circumstances, with absolute undivided attention, God is meeting me, in my own particular circumstances, with absolute undivided attention, and is meeting hundreds of thousands of others, in their own particular circumstances, with absolute undivided attention. That gives hope to each of us as individuals. But it also gives hope to all of us as a community. We can know that God cares as much for each of our brothers and sisters as God cares for us; and we must also know that God is calling us into solidarity with our brothers and sisters for that very reason, so that, with God’s help, we can respond together to the challenges that we confront. This not only gives hope, it gives the kind of hope that is of course so crucial in the particular circumstances in which we have found ourselves over the past year. Thanks be to God.

Amen

Sermon preached online on Sun 31 Jan 2021 by our Minister, Rev Helen Garton

Don’t know how you are all feeling, but I found last week particularly difficult. Of all the weeks since the start of this pandemic, if I’m honest, I would say that I felt quite depressed and I think that was down to two things. It was because we had reached the milestone of 100,000 deaths and also because, on Thursday, it was Holocaust Memorial Day. Both of them reminders of things beyond our ability to comprehend without feeling overwhelmed and saddened. One a warning of just how serious the pandemic is, the other a stark warning of just how inhumane human beings can be.

But just as it was getting to me, I did what we were being invited to do on Thursday evening for Holocaust Memorial Day, and that was to light a candle and place it in the window so that it could be seen from the street. And as I did so, I turned off the light in the kitchen and felt the calmness that you get when you light a candle. And I saw that some of our other neighbours had also lit candles and placed them in their windows. A candle can be such a powerful presence: both a sign of remembrance, but also for hope. As Anne Frank said, “Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” Or in the words of St Francis of Assisi: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

We have to remind ourselves that we are still in the season of Epiphany, the season of light and enlightenment, when Jesus is revealed as the Christ, the messiah promised long ago, the saviour of the world. That single candle in the window reminded me of one of the memorials at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which remembers all the children who perished in the concentration camps in the second world war. At its heart is a single lit candle, surrounded by hundreds of mirrors which reflect its light as a voice reads out all the names of the children, one by one.

We can so easily be overwhelmed by the scale of suffering in the world. And yet, as every politician reminded us as they announced what they called the grim milestone of reaching 100,000 deaths, each one of those deaths represents a person. And beyond them are the countless friends and families who will grieve their loss. Each one is a person, of infinite value and worth, whose loss is not just a loss to those who knew them, but a loss to us all.

So where is the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, in the midst of all of this? What does the Bible say to us today? We start with the message of Christmas in the midst of a world in torment, a world as full of beauty and wonder as it is suffering and struggle. That’s where we begin as Christians, because it is this which gives us hope and a purpose. The God who created the world, the universe, and everything in it, will not let suffering and evil have the last word. The word of God is love and that stands out in the darkness of life, like a solitary lit candle in the window at night. The God who made us, is the God who will save and redeem us. And the God who made everything in the universe, every living thing, cares for each and every one.

Each and every one is of infinite value and worth to God. Over 100,000 people now rest in God for eternity, each and every one of them. God does not work to the world’s values: a person winning £100,000 in the lottery would not expect to receive their winnings in £1 coins. A person making a deposit in the bank to the tune of £100,000 would not be popular if they turned up with £100,000’s worth of coins. Yet to God, each and every one is as precious as the next. Multiplying that up by 100,000 or 100 million would not increase the love that God has for us.

This is not how we operate as members of the human race. We are forever judging ourselves against each other, not always to strive for excellence, but to establish our superiority over and against each other. Be it wealth and possessions, intellect or strength, moral superiority or unchallengeability. But, says Jesus, this is not how it should be with us, whoever is greatest must be servant of all.

So, when a man with an unclean spirit makes himself known in the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus is teaching, Jesus stops what he is doing and takes the time to deal with him and heal him. You can imagine the scene, the congregation has gathered to worship, they have settled down to listen to Jesus’ teaching and a man interrupts the moment. Worse than that, he is unclean, for it says he had an unclean spirit. His behaviour is unacceptable and gets in the way and he is unclean, he shouldn’t be there, he should keep his distance and keep out of the way: hands, face, space! But who were they to call the man ‘unclean’? Jesus sees what is wrong with him and liberates him from the spirit that has taken hold of him. This man matters to Jesus as much as he matters to God. Who are we to call anyone ‘unclean?’ And the people remark that the teaching of Jesus carries with it an authority that they had never known before, because his actions match his words, there is a consistency there. Jesus began his ministry with the words of Isaiah, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has called me to bring good news to the poor, to set the oppressed free.’ This story in Mark’s gospel is the first public act of Jesus. It takes place in the synagogue, a place of worship, on a sabbath and it is a demonstration that Jesus is filled with spirit of God, who cares for each and every person, each and every living thing.

In the West we are obsessed with cleanliness. Look at the shelves in the supermarket and count the number of cleaning products, for doing the laundry and the washing up, for cleaning our cars and for cleaning ourselves. And now, in the middle of the pandemic, we are even more obsessed with keeping clean, with washing our hands and keeping our distance… and rightly so, for everyone’s protection. But here Jesus is offering us another kind of cleanliness… another kind of holiness… one which brings liberation to each and everyone. And Jesus, the Holy One of God, is offering us a different kind of holiness. Not kept apart for occasional show, but a holiness which meets people in their need, which touches lepers, cuts through cultural prejudices, a holiness which is not about being set apart, but about being set apart for a purpose.

So this morning, I want to offer you a candle in the dark: hold on to the hope we have in God through Jesus Christ. Hold on to the knowledge that good will prevail over all that is evil in the world, all the prejudice and injustice, for love always has the last word. And love teaches us that we too are holy, for we have been set aside for a purpose, to bring hope and healing to the world. We are not being asked to take on the world’s problems single-handedly. Instead, we are to remember that God loves each and every one and that is where we start, to care for each other, for those around us, to do what we can to make the world a better place by following the teachings of Jesus and the example of Jesus. The Jesus who spoke with authority, for his actions matched his words, even to the point of interrupting his teaching to reach down to a man in need. To be kinder and gentler, to be more compassionate and more loving.

Amen