September 11, 2022: Fourteenth Week after Pentecost

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Pentecost 16: September 11, 2022

21 years ago, on the Sunday following September 11th, I read the following words from the Prophet Jeremiah to introduce our worship:

“How lonely sits the city that was once so full of people.

How like a widow she has become,

she that was great among nations!

She weeps bitterly at night, with tears on her cheeks…

All you who pass by look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,

I weep, my eyes flow with tears;

A comforter is far from me, there is no one to revive my courage.”

Jeremiah was weeping amid the ruins of Jerusalem, describing the fulfillment of the catastrophe about which he had been warning. The people of Jerusalem believed their city was established and defended by God. Now, however, it was completely destroyed by the army of Babylon. The Temple, which many people believed was the House of God on earth, was a heap of rubble. In shock, many were asking: “Where is God? What kind of God allows such suffering? Even more, is there a God?

21 years ago, we too, had witnessed a great city attacked, and while the results were not as devastating as those in Jerusalem witnessed by Jeremiah. Nevertheless, the destruction of the towers in New York was a severe blow to America’s sense of power and security. Since the attacks of 9/11 we have lived on a diet of fear and distrust. This fear has diminished our faith in ourselves and gradually our trust in one another

So, it may be a good time to ask what kind of God do we believe in? In fact, today’s scriptures present two very different images of God.

In our first reading, from the Book of Exodus. We see a very angry God, ready to destroy all the people with whom he had entered into covenant and begin all over. While Moses was there, on the mountain to receive the Law, the people, down below grew impatient and created a new god. A golden calf made from the gold the people had freely given. A blob of gold, in the form of a baby cow, made by human hands replaced the loving creator of all life, who had called Abraham and chose Moses.

What an insult! Moses was able to manage God’s anger , talk God down, and, we are told, “God changed his mind”. Not an image with which we are comfortable, even though we have heard of an angry, punishing God. But this is not an image in sync with what we find in our Epistle and Gospel reading.

The foundation of Paul’s faith and teaching is belief in a gracious God who freely embraces sinners with a saving love. The gift of God’s saving grace came to Paul while he was a “blasphemer, persecutor and man of violence”. He did not deserve the gift of grace that embraced him. His belief in the God of Jesus opened him to that grace.

In our Gospel, we meet a God who searches out the sinner. We might even say a God who pursues us .

We hear Jesus ask the crowd: “Which of you having lost one sheep, would not leave the 99 and go search for the lost?” I am sure no hands were raised. Leaving 99 sheep alone would have been a disaster. What a risk. Jesus describes a God who is willing to risk in seeking us.

The woman’s search for the lost silver coin is less dangerous, but the energy and time is considerable.

It is hard to believe the conclusion of Jesus’ words: There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. That was a tough message for the Pharisees and scribes.

But Luke is writing these words in his Gospel 40 to 50 years after it took place. It is an important message to his community at that time. They had just come through a serious persecution. In the process many had suffered, some had been murdered. Others avoided suffering by denying they were followers of Jesus. Now, as things had settled down, some were coming back, seeking readmission to the community. Good riddance! Stay away, some would say. But Jesus says, no. Even more, go and search for the lost. Even if it means great risk.

But we read this story today. Not as history but as Gospel. Gospel to Church, this community, to me. To us who have been embraced by the loving, saving grace of God, it should not be difficult to embrace others. Not that those who left are sinners, but because the God who embraces us, embraces them.

While reflecting on these readings, I was reminded of another image of God. Francis Thompson, British poet of the 19th century, wrote a poem titled “The Hound of Heaven”. Now I know the idea of a hound perusing a sheep conjures a different image than a shepherd. However, this hound is the image for a persistent God pursuing us. As Thompson says: “I fled him down the night and down the day; I fled him down the arches of the years.” Perhaps we might pause and reflect that God seeks us in a never-ending pursuit. Ending, hopefully, with our acceptance of God’s saving love for us.

I think Paul would understand this image of God. If we add it to today’s scripture, we are creatures whom God seeks to embrace with saving love, as we seek to be channels of God’s saving love to others. Even those who seem to have wandered off. And in doing so, we might even bring joy in the presence of the angels of God.

Submitted by the Reverend Brendan McCormick

September 4, 2022: Thirteenth Week after Pentecost

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13 Pentecost: September 4, 2022

Over the past weeks we have been listening to, and thinking about, the stories of Jesus’s teaching in the middle chapters of Luke’s Gospel. There, Jesus is travelling through Galilee, Samaria and Judaea on his way towards Jerusalem. We do not know when exactly these particular teachings were really delivered. Jesus’s sayings were preserved in the memory of his followers for many years before they were written down as Gospels. However, if we listen to the way the evangelists construct their story, a message appears.

In previous chapters, Jesus has been teaching in the synagogues, and around the dinner table. Luke reports that many people wanted to hear what Jesus had to say, and even more wanted to see him heal the sick. Jesus was becoming a celebrity, the next great new thing everyone wanted a piece of. And that is why, in today’s reading, we hear the all-important first sentence, which it is very easy to ignore: “large crowds were travelling with him”.

Lots of people were following Jesus, without thinking that there was any commitment involved. Jesus responds to them by saying, in effect, “hold on, this mission is something that will claim more than just your passing temporary attention. It will cost you a great deal, maybe everything.” Being a follower means a great deal more than just being in the audience and applauding.

In the previous chapter, Jesus had told the story of a banquet where the host invited lots of people, many of whom made a whole range of excuses not to turn up. Jesus says to those who wish to follow him, “be prepared not just to accept an invitation, but to accept the inconveniences, the demands that it makes on your time, energies, and resources”.

To emphasize the point, Jesus uses, in the typical style of Hebrew rhetoric, what seem to us two rather exaggerated verbs: he says that his followers must “hate” their relationships in the world, and “give up” all that they have.

If taken literally, these sayings are hard to reconcile with other teachings, where Jesus cites the value of family relationships (a father knows to give his children good things) or appeals to the value of the lost sheep or the lost penny. But if we read them, as Jesus probably intended, as saying that one must place a lower value on social ties or material possessions than on the mission of Jesus and the kingdom of God, then they make abundant sense.

Commentaries on this passage often entitle this Gospel the “cost of discipleship”. Coincidentally, The Cost of Discipleship is also the usual title of the English translation of a book written in the 1930s by the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer resisted the Nazis before and during the Second World War, and was executed, in a futile act of malice, for conspiring against Hitler in the dying weeks of the Nazi regime in 1945.

Bonhoeffer wrote the book after his experiences studying in Union Theological Seminary in New York and worshipping on Sundays in Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He came to believe that the bourgeois Lutheranism in which he had grown up placed far too much emphasis on easy forgiveness, and neglected the serious call to respond, in acts of love and care, to the gift of grace that God offers us in Christ. He famously called for “costly”, not “cheap” grace, for Protestant Christians to take the ethical demands of the Sermon on the Mount seriously.

Bonhoeffer remarked in the book that the Church had historically shunted off the stricter demands of following Jesus on to those who entered monastic religious communities of men and women. Thus, it excluded most Christians from the reality of discipleship, and reserved it for a spiritual elite.

There was and is in our Christian heritage a strand which has placed great stress on the followers of Jesus being absolutely poor. I often fear that this may become its own kind of exaggeration. But there is no doubt that concern for possessions is a far greater risk for most of us, and for most people as a whole.

You may remember that some years back there was a quite celebrated, controversial, and often profane New York stand-up comedian called George Carlin. He grew up on West 121st St, which coincidentally is just opposite the main entrance to Union Seminary. One of his less offensive monologues was about “stuff”. It included this passage:

“A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. … That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!”

Like many comedians and satirists, Carlin seized on something actually quite profound in his comic routine. We have learned, or been taught, to become psychologically comfortable only when we have our “stuff” around us. It is not so much the material things, in themselves, that we need: it is the reassurance of being surrounded by the familiar, of being supported by an environment which we have built for ourselves.

We can become ruled by our “stuff”. But there is an opposite extreme, where people, for self-help reasons, or for what pass for spiritual reasons, seek to purge down their “stuff” to the absolute minimum. I’m not sure that this opposite extreme, stripping “stuff” down to as little as possible is, in the end, better. If one is simplifying one’s physical surroundings, that is just as much about “stuff” as is the hoarding. It’s still the material objects which are the centre of attention.

The worst error of all, of course, is when one treats human beings as just another kind of “stuff”. In our second reading from Paul’s letter to Philemon, we read about a slave who had run away from his master to befriend Paul. Paul did not come straight out and say, as we might wish he had done, that slavery, this pervasive institution of the Roman Empire, was plain wrong.

Instead, he focuses on the slave Onesimus as a human being, with a character that can be redeemed, with relationships – Paul calls himself his father – with friends, with value in himself. Paul sends him back to Philemon with the clear expectation that Philemon will send him straight back again to Paul, to be a source of support to him in his imprisonment.

While slavery is the worst and most outrageous form of objectifying people, we must always remember that people can be, and sadly often are, treated as objects in all kinds of ways. Prejudice, unfettered capitalism, broken relationships in families: all these can lead to the abuse of people’s humanity.

In response, Paul, and Jesus, both expressed some self-evident, but often forgotten, truths.

The things that bring real happiness and joy are intangible: they are relationships, the fulfillment of doing worthwhile things, the support of friends.

The life of faith makes demands which exceed those of our material world: the rewards and the joy of discipleship come because we have answered a call, have taken on a yoke, have picked up a burden and walked with it.

“Stuff” can get in the way, whether we hoard it or obsess about cutting it down. Things are tools for life, there to be shared and used for the building up of those relationships which are the real treasures. Above all, other people must never be treated as though they were another form of possession. Their beauty and their value are to be seen in the building of community through our life of faith together.

We can, and will, grow as a church if we are honest about both the commitments and the rewards of living to Christ in each other. Let’s do that.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

August 28, 2022: Twelth Week after Pentecost

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12 Pentecost: August 28, 2022

If you enter one of the larger Book stores today (They are harder to find in this day of on-line ordering). But if you do, you will see a very large section dedicated to “self-help” books. Some people think there are many things about us that need help. One of the first books written for this section was “How to win friends and influence people”, by Dale Carnegie in 1936.

As the title suggests, Carnegie shared principles for interacting with people in a way that would get them to like you and understand your way of thinking. As a writer and lecturer, he influenced many salespeople, corporate leaders and public speakers on ways they could increase friends and influence others to their way of thinking. Critics saw these principles as manipulation. Nevertheless, the book has sold 30 million copies over the years.

It almost seems Jesus is sharing Carnegie’s principles in the first part of today’s Gospel. He is invited to a meal and meals were important gatherings in Jewish society. Even more, this one was hosted by the chief Rabbi of the town. Where one was seated at such a meal was also very important. Jesus observed people jostling for the best seats, seeking those special places that would indicate their special status in society. Jesus then offers a good strategy for wining friends and influencing people. Look humble, assume a lesser place and if you are invited to a higher place, all will see that you are a special person.

But then Jesus goes further and breaks with Carnegie’s principles. Jesus says instead of having a banquet to pay back the people of great importance, invite the poor, the infirmed, the blind. Invite those that have no place of importance in society.

This certainly will not win friends and influence people. For Jesus, however, this is the way to be blessed by the one who hosts that eternal banquet. The heavenly banquet hosted for all eternity by the eternal God.

Jesus’ advice echoes a scene earlier in Luke’s Gospel where disciples of John the Baptist were sent by John to ask, “are you the one to come, or should we look for another”. The One to come, of course, refers to Messiah, the one who would bring about the kingdom of God. Jesus responds: “tell John what you see, the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, dead raised, and good news proclaimed to the poor.” A sign of Messiah’s presence is a welcome open to the outcasts, the poor, the needy in our midst.

These signs Jesus uses come from the Prophet Isaiah, describing the presence of the Saving God in the midst of our world, amid the tumult of our lives. Luke’s Gospel and his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, focus on the presence of the Holy Spirit already in the community. The Saving God is already present. Not fully. That is yet to come. But in the here and now, through loving actions of the disciple caring for the unimportant, the rejected, the outcasts, the Saving God is seen to be already present.

So, if we did what Jesus suggests, invite the poor, the rejected, the outcasts, it would be a sign that the Saving God is among us.

We read these words as the world deals with the great challenge of a mass migration of peoples. Estimates of 60 million people around the world, migrating because war, famine and climate change. These migrants, foreigners, refugees are the outcasts of our day. Of course, these outcasts are added to the millions of homeless outcasts already present among us.

Scripture has many verses demanding we care for and protect the migrants, refugees and foreigners. Many more than verses condemning homosexuality and abortion.

It is more than ironic for a nation made up of descendants of migrants to be so harsh and unable to develop a policy for dealing with this challenge. In fact, the people who are native to this land are the ones treated as foreigners.

For a period of 4 years this nation had a policy of taking young children away from parents and placing them in confinement. Thousands of children, some only one, two years old were separated from parents as a ploy to scare others from trying to enter this country. Not only that but no system was used to keep track of where these children were sent. Many families are still not reunited. Such an appalling policy was tolerated, even supported by people who claim the Bible as the infallible guide to life.

Many of our ancestor who came to this country were subjected to forms of persecution. At the same time, there were many others who worked to welcome and protect them. Which group are we imitating?

Jesus is clear about where he stands. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, he speaks of God’s final act of judgment, separating the just from the unjust, the saved from the condemned. Among the criteria he says to the saved, “I was a stranger, and you took me in”. To the condemned he says “I was a stranger, and you did not take me in.” Both groups are surprised and ask. “Lord, when did we take you in, or when did we refuse to take you in”? The answer to both groups is the same: “When you did it, or didn’t do it, you acted toward me.”

More than tell us to care for the outcast, the foreigner, the migrant, Jesus identifies with them. When you did it or didn’t do it, you did or didn’t do it to me.

How to solve the migration issue in our nation or around the world is challenging and Jesus offers no plan. It is left to our imagination, intelligence and courage. But how we are to act toward the people seeking refuge is clearly stated.

Finally, if Jesus seems so absent from our world, our lives, he tells us where he can be found. He is as close to us as the hungry, thirsty, the poor and the refuge we see around us.

Submitted by the Reverend Brendan McCormick

August 21, 2022: Eleventh Week after Pentecost

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11 Pentecost: August 21, 2022

Nearly 50 years ago I served as a volunteer in a day facility for people with mental illnesses. (Rules and regulations regarding volunteers were much less strict then than now).

One of the patients habitually walked with his body bent right over from the waist. I was quietly advised by the care staff that there was no physical reason why he needed to walk like that, but he infallibly, always, carried himself in this painful way.

We have no idea whether the woman in the Gospel story suffered from some similar psychological condition with this physical effect, though it seems plausible: Luke says that she had a “spirit of weakness”.

Jesus cures her: she is grateful, and the crowd is impressed. I wonder whether we can look a little more closely at what is happening in this story. I wonder if we might even find it in our hearts to have some sympathy for the leader of the synagogue.

The “leader of the synagogue” does not address Jesus directly, but rather scolds the crowd. We are left to fill in the gaps – but it seems that the leader felt that the synagogue was a place of study and learning. Synagogues were not primarily places of worship, while the Temple was still standing. They were places for earnest inquiry into the law of God, not places for spectacle.

We can easily imagine the reaction to Jesus’s healing. No doubt there were exclamations, excited chatter among the bystanders, maybe even shouts and whoops of joy at what had happened. This healing, in the eyes of the leader of the synagogue, has completely distracted everyone from the proper business of the gathering.

Maybe the leader even feels slightly betrayed. He has invited this travelling unofficial rabbi into his community to teach, and instead he has made a demonstration of his powers.

Jesus, however, sees things another way. The idea that one should preserve the sabbath by doing absolutely nothing, even to help those in need, is absurd to him. He points out that even the most devout believers have to do basic things to look after domestic animals, like giving one’s ox or donkey a drink, on the sabbath. So, by how much more should a human being be cured of a painful condition?

But there is more. Maybe, from Jesus’s point of view, healing was not a distraction from his teaching, but an essential part of it? It raises the tricky but important question, what were Jesus’s healing miracles actually about?

I don’t know if you remember the classic British situation comedy The Vicar of Dibley, which was broadcast from 1994 to 2007. It began just as the first female priests were being ordained to the ministry of the Church of England (yes, the C of E was late to reach this fundamental decision).

At one point the vicar is invited into a local school, where a pupil asks her what was so great about Jesus. She replies that, well, he raised someone from the dead. The child listens but is not satisfied: why didn’t Jesus raise lots of people from the dead? Why couldn’t he stop people from dying altogether?

The Vicar looks distinctly uncomfortable, and the scene becomes just another illustration of the risks of working with children. However, the child actually raised a serious question. There can seem to be something apparently random about Jesus’s acts of healing. Only in John’s Gospel is there a deliberate sequence to the “signs” (as they are called) and that is the evangelist’s way of telling the story, rather than how things actually happened. The other evangelists portray Jesus as healing whoever asks him where he happens to be; and he gives the disciples the power to do the same.

Yet, as Jesus himself remarked, [Luke 4] “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

Many are healed, but not all those who were sick. Many were fed, but hunger, and the inequity which caused hunger, remained. The fundamentals of an unjust society were not miraculously altered.

So what were the healing miracles about? They certainly demonstrated Jesus’s unique authority, his capacity to bring into the everyday world the power of God. More than that, they are acts of God’s power. Not power as human beings understand it, which is often spectacular and usually destructive. God’s use of power is gentle, loving, restorative, and you only see it if you look for it and believe in it.

Something else is going on in the miracles, which is slightly harder for us to grasp at nearly two thousand years’ distance. Our Gospel writers, and quite possibly Jesus himself in his human nature, understood Jesus’s ministry as playing out on earth a struggle between the forces of love and the forces of evil. Jesus says that the woman with the bent back was “in bondage to Satan”. There is a cosmic conflict here, and Jesus’s power to heal shows that, despite the outward appearances, divine love has the ultimate victory – especially when it most seems to be defeated.

What are we to make of miracles today? I am old enough to remember the approach, now obsolete, which tried to explain the “miracles” of Jesus as the supernatural interpretation of natural events. In this view, illnesses that suddenly gave way to charismatic healing were psychosomatic conditions, just waiting for someone with confidence and authority to cure them.

Nowadays biblical scholars are more likely to ask “what does this supernatural story say about the evangelists’ understanding of how their world worked” than to ask the ultimately futile question “how would we interpret what happened if we were there today?” In other words, miracles belong in a particular spiritual and cultural context, and can only be understood in that context.

But there is a challenge. In the tradition which we, as Anglicans, inherited, it was believed that miracles were special gifts in the early life of the Church. Christ and the apostles healed by spiritual power; some of the early Fathers could perform astonishing feats; but at some time in history, real miracles ceased in the Church.

Not everyone agrees. Our colleagues in the Roman Catholic Church still believe that the especially holy ones of God perform miracles after their deaths; proof of such acts is required to declare someone a saint, and great care is taken to establish on scientific grounds that a miracle cannot be explained by natural processes. Special shrines or holy places are supposed to have the power to heal outside the order of nature. Charismatic movements in the Protestant world sometimes proclaim that they, too, can heal by spiritual power and authority.

Let me suggest a response here. Those of us who live with incurable afflictions in ourselves, or in those we are closest to, would love to see the power of God manifested in extraordinary acts of healing. But we acknowledge, I think, that this is not the ordinary way that God works. What we pray for is the strength to show God’s love in all our lives, even in the midst of suffering.

God loves, and God wishes us to heal our world. The signs and acts of power are lessons to us. That was why Jesus healed in the synagogue. What are some of these lessons? Christ heals, and shows that our role is to bring ordinary, everyday healing within the reach of everyone, not a privileged few. Christ feeds the hungry, and teaches us to make a world where resources are not hoarded for a few at the expense of others. Jesus says that our holy times and places are not just places to study, debate and reason. They are places where we can live out the struggle between love and loss. Miracles give us a short, sharp lesson in the kind of world that God wishes to see, and wishes us to make. It is for us to learn the lessons and put them into effect – on holy days and ordinary days alike.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

August 14, 2022: Tenth Week after Pentecost

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10 Pentecost, August 14, 2022

How to interpret the present time? The last words in our Gospel reading. Indeed, how? Jesus asks this of his disciples. But it seems that it was always a challenge, even for Jesus.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asks his apostles, “Who do people say I am?” One response was “Jeremiah”. Some thought Jesus another “Jeremiah.” They had reasons to think so. Jeremiah lived about 700 years before Jesus, during some of Israel’s darkest days. The Promised Land, as Israel called it, could have had a better location. It was one of several little Nations that lay between Egypt, in the south and another powerful kingdom in the north. It was Assyria, then Babylon and finally Persia. They were forever in conflict and these little nations were pawns in the struggle.

In Jeremiah’s day, the dominant power in the north was Babylon. At the time of today’s reading, Babylon had already extended control over Israel, occupied the city, gathered booty and taken prisoner many of the rulers and the ruling class back to Babylon. A new king was appointed by Babylon and Jeremiah was among the people left in the city.

Israel did not learn from this tragedy and chaffed under foreign domination. Egyptian spies fed these feelings and encouraged revolt. The King that Babylon had set up in Israel was weak and many including some who called themselves prophets persuaded the king to stop paying tribute which was the same as revolution. These so-called prophets assured the King that God would defend Jerusalem.

Jeremiah was not buying this. He was adamant against revolt, even saying Israel must surrender to the Babylon Army that soon surrounded Jerusalem. Jeremiah proclaimed that God had abandoned Israel because Israel had abandoned the Covenant made with God. This did not make him popular. He was persecuted, and openly ridiculed by the false prophets who claimed to speak for God.

In one response Jeremiah stood in the Temple and, like Jesus would 700 years later, proclaimed its destruction because of Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Covenant. Such blasphemy would not be tolerated! He was arrested and condemned to death.

The king and some powerful people prevented this and his life was spared. Tragically, Jeremiah’s prophecy was right. Jerusalem fell to Babylon, the Temple was burned, rulers, craftsmen and many others were led to exile in Babylon.

As Israel’s lands and hopes were in ruins, Jeremiah’s words changed to consolation and explanation. God had not abandoned Israel. Rather Israel had abandoned God. This was not the end. A faithful people would find a faithful God. A new Covenant was being created.

How Jeremiah died is not clear. However, his words became part of the foundation of Israel’s survival and renewal of faith. Christians, however, came to see the new Covenant sealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In today’s Gospel, Jesus sounds like Jeremiah. And his words startle us. At Jesus’ birth, the angels sang “peace on earth”. But the peace Jesus brings was more than the absence of strife and conflict. Peace is the fruit of justice and compassion, built on care, respect and a sense of responsibility for one another. Like Jeremiah before him, Jesus found the faith of his day expressed more in ritual and observance of rules than in action.

Today’s Gospel reading comes at a time Jesus is realizing that what he is calling for in the lives of people is meeting strong opposition from religious leaders who sounded much like the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day. He is checking in on the present time.

Perhaps he thought of Jeremiah as he spoke of his coming baptism. A reference to his passion and death. He is like Jeremiah in rejection and arrest. The community that first heard these words of Luke’s Gospel already knew of these events, and already experienced the power of his resurrection and the presence of the Spirit.

Nevertheless, this same Christian community had experienced a severe persecution which caused much division in the community. What was going on? As always, there were false prophets who claimed to know, claimed to speak the message of Jesus. The writing of the Gospel accounts, many believe, was, in part, to address the challenge of false prophets. Following the life, Jesus does not escape the cross. The baptismal gift of the Spirit did not remove one from suffering but promised the presence and power of the risen Christ in the midst of suffering.

So, here we are today. What is going on ? We are aware of divisions in our world, our nation and in the community that claims to follow Christ. Among us are false prophets.

There is a scene in the Book of Jeremiah where a group of people ask him how they are to know whom to believe, him or those other prophets. His answer was “Wait and see how things turn out and then you will know who was right.” Not helpful. Is there another way? Perhaps, like Jesus, we need, at this time, to live out our baptism. Do what we promised when we received the Spirit in our lives.

Seek and serve Christ in all persons. Love neighbor as self.

Proclaim the Gospel in our actions. Strive for peace and justice.

And respect the dignity of every, human being.

If we do this we will, as we prayed in our opening prayer, follow in the blessed steps of Jesus’ most holy life.

Submitted by the Reverend Brendan McCormick

August 7, 2022: Ninth Week after Pentecost

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Pentecost 9, August 7, 2022

About fifteen years or so ago a young Japanese woman exploded into public consciousness by writing a series of books and other media about, basically, tidying up one’s stuff – decluttering. (It’s amazing what people can turn into a profitable venture, isn’t it?) If you have heard of this lady, known as Marie Kondo, you may recall that one of her themes is to keep only “what gives you joy”. This has always puzzled me at several levels. The paintings on the walls of our house undoubtedly give me more joy than the vacuum cleaner or the dishwasher, but I think that I know what is more important to keep handy.

But I have much more serious reservations about the idea that material objects give one “joy” in the first place. Yes, it is good to have books, recordings of good music, or comfortable furniture. None of these things are absolutely essential to life, but they furnish a home, and they provide the means to do life-enhancing things: reading, listening to beautiful harmonies, sharing a restful home with those whom one loves.

In the bundle of sayings of Jesus which form our Gospel reading for today, Jesus offers a far more satisfying idea of how to declutter one’s priorities. “34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” There are various ways to read Jesus’s sayings in this chapter of Luke. One way, followed by many, maybe too many Christians down the centuries, was to read this text as a trade-off: make yourselves miserably poor (or just miserable) in this life, in order to have heaven in the next.

However, that reading really doesn’t fit so well with the context of this chapter of Luke, nor with the Gospel message as a whole. Jesus has just warned a listener about insisting on his share of an inheritance, and has told the story of the rich man who placed all his security in his material wealth. He went on to say that one should “strive for the kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well”.

What Jesus seems to be saying is that if we focus our energies on building the beloved community on earth, from that healthy life of mutual care and support will follow sufficient things for life. Something of that kind of life was seen in the early chapters of the Book of Acts, where the wealthier followers of Jesus gave generous support to those in need, and ensured that everyone had enough. Moreover, if we focus on the life that God wishes us to lead, we shall be spared the anxiety of worrying whether we are “keeping up” with the material gains, the rewards, the celebrity of others whom we see or read about.+

Since we are gathered here together, it seems evident that being with each other, joining in the worship life of this precious, lovely little community, is something that gives us a deep and abiding joy, something that we passionately wish to continue to experience. And that joy is God’s gift to us.

And yet – built in to that joy is a hope, an aspiration, even a certain impatience. For the kingdom of God, on earth, is not something static or fixed. It is not something that we can be complacent about.

That is where our other readings contribute something very important. Abraham, we read, was rich. He had material goods, but he was not satisfied or comfortable. He and Sarah wished to pass on their wealth to their own children, to their own descendants. Satisfying that basic human desire was not something that all Abraham’s wealth could buy for them.

Then God promised that, against all the odds, their wish would be fulfilled. We read in the rest of Genesis about the long, challenging process by which the descendants of Abraham gradually acquired a home to live together as a people.

Our reading from Hebrews takes that point and both stretches it, and transforms it into something spiritual. The writer of Hebrews, whom we think was a follower of Jesus in the second generation after the apostles, stresses that every one of the great patriarchs and leaders of the people was called to believe in something which they did not see in their lives. They had to trust that God would, in God’s own time, fulfil the promises that God had made to all God’s people.

The key theme, in Genesis and in Hebrews, is faith. Faith, in that sense, does not mean accepting certain statements as true: it means having a deep trust in that which one does not see realized in the world. The first verse of Hebrews 11 in our translations reads “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. The word translated “assurance” actually means much more than that. It is the same word, hypostasis, that theologians in early Christianity used to describe the expression of God in the persons of the Trinity. Faith gives substance to what we hope for. If we trust that it is God’s will to give us these things, in that act of trusting they become real to us.

We all, I believe, yearn to see a society, and a world, where resources are more justly shared, and where the world is not plundered to provide unnecessary stuff, at a cost to future generations. We yearn to see a society where all people extend their arms of love to each other across boundaries of race, ethnicity, or ideological politics. I know that I yearn for a world where people do not seek to control or intimidate those whom they fear as different from themselves. Nothing, for me, could better embody that mutual trust than a radical reduction in the insane numbers of deadly weapons in this country and in our world.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus knew how remote his vision of a life of mutual love and support must have seemed. He saw that there were times when the world seems to be going backwards, further away from the kingdom rather than towards it. And Jesus calls us to live into our trusting act of hope. We shall not see God’s promises fulfilled in our lifetimes. Yet we are called, unmistakably, to live into those hopes. Live together in the joy that our anticipation of the kingdom offers us. Life into the Eucharistic hope, which symbolically and spiritually brings us, every time we celebrate it, around the table with Christ and his holy ones in the kingdom.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

July 24, 2022: Seventh Week after Pentecost

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7 Pentecost, July 24, 2022

Many years ago, I studied Theology in Italy. When I met Italian students, they often asked where I came from. “Chicago”, I answered. “Aha”, they often replied, “Al Capone”. Mr. Capone had died before most of those asking were born, and Chicago was the third largest city in the US, having world class museums, theater, industry, beauty and the Cubs. Still, its image of crime and violence endured, even 5000 miles away. But then there is Sodom, often joined with Gomorrah, the best-known cities in history, for corruption. The reputations seem to have been well earned, but often the corruption has been misunderstood or simplified down through the ages.

Our encounter with Sodom in our first reading comes in a somewhat confusing section of the Book of Genesis. Confusing, because the Hebrew scriptures existed as oral histories for centuries. They were stories told again and again down through Jewish history, stories of God’s dealings with the Hebrew people.

These traditions had different ways describing God, even different names for God. In one of the most popular traditions God is presented in very human terms: taking a refreshing walk in the Garden of Eden, appearing in bodily form, talking to humans. On the other hand, another tradition presents God as more remote, too awesome for human beings to be in God’s presence. God used intermediaries, such as angels to communicate with humans. When the scriptures were finally written, several traditions were woven together so different names and attitudes for God exist sometimes from verse to verse. Often, especially in the Book of Genesis, the flow and continuity can be confusing.

Today, a human-like God decides to come down to see if the information about the evil engulfing Sodom is true. A frequent interpretation of the evil has been homosexuality.

I won’t bore you with a discussion of sex, but the people at the time the events took place were also shocked by other actions at Sodom. Not the least being the attempted assault on foreigners, which violated the sacred law requiring hospitality to strangers. We do not appreciate how sacred this was.

But the focus of our reading today is, I would say, what kind of God do we have? We listen to a negotiation between Abraham and God. Abraham who had been called by God to leave his home and family and follow where God would lead him, was promised he would have a large family and abundant land in return. Abraham believed; we are told. But now, many years later, Abraham is in his 90’s and his wife Sarah is a few years younger and he has no children, no land. Can God be trusted?

Another question in the story is does God destroy a whole city because of the crimes of a few? Remember the story of the flood. God is described as destroying every human being but 8. Could all have deserved destruction. In primitive, tribal society it was common to hold the whole tribe responsible for the actions of a member. Is this how God acts?

Our story today answers no. If only ten just people live in Sodom, all will be saved. But not ten were found, and Sodom was destroyed. No doubt by some natural catastrophe and the remains lie beneath the Dead Sea. The story of God’s destruction of the city because of its evil grew to explain the cause of this destruction.

Does God destroy cities and people as punishment? The image of a punishing God endures to our day. In our Gospel we learn this is not the God Jesus reveals.

Luke’s Gospel often presents Jesus at prayer. His apostles notice this and were moved to ask Jesus to teach them to pray. In response, Jesus teaches them and us the Lord’s Prayer, even though Luke does not use “Our”. This is different from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s Gospel and different from what we pray in worship.

But we learn that it is not only important what we say but to whom we think we are praying. Jesus invites us to address God as “abba” which is the very familiar name for father. It is what Jewish children use to address their fathers. “Daddy”, “Mommy” would express the intimacy Jesus describes between God and us. When we pray, says Jesus, we pray to a God who is as intimately concerned about our wellbeing as a loving daddy or mommy is for their child. In the examples Jesus gives he describes a God even more concerned about us than it is possible for human beings to be.

One theologian has described Jesus’ mission as working to restore us to a trusting relationship with God. In his life and teachings Jesus acted out who God is – the One whose love is without limit and without end. That is the great gift proclaimed by Jesus. But the gift comes with a great challenge. This love empowers us to extend the same love, care, respect, responsibility with others – all others.

Lord, teach us to pray. In these times there is much to fear, much to doubt. Embrace us with your tender love and care. Renew our trust in you that we always believe you will give us what we need, what will heal us, what will encourage us, empower us. Even more, you give us your Holy Spirit, your abiding presence so that we will never be alone. Amen

Submitted by the Reverend Brendan McCormick

July 17, 2022: Sixth Week after Pentecost

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Five Pentecost, July 17, 2022

Hospitality is a sacred duty in many traditional cultures. Where travelling was a dangerous

activity, and there was no support mechanism for those on long journeys, caring for the

stranger at one’s gate was a duty and a responsibility. One might need the same generous

support oneself one day.

Besides, one never knew who one’s guest might be. The story of Abraham and Sarah at the

oaks of Mamre is a classic tale of entertaining the representatives of God unawares. In the

narrative in Genesis 18, the three men speak, but “the Lord” joins in the conversation. The

three men make the promise that Sarah, in her age and past childbearing, will bear a son. The

Lord ponders whether to warn Abraham about the fate waiting for Sodom and Gomorrah, while

he walks with the three men.

The three guests are messengers of God. In Christian tradition, this story was taken to mean

that the three guests were the three persons of the Trinity. You may know the famous icon

painted by the fifteenth-century Russian artist Andrei Rublev, where three identical figures,

sitting to eat their meal, are depicted with angels’ wings. That icon is also known as “The

Trinity” and became the acceptable way to represent the trinity in the Russian Orthodox

tradition. Countless reproductions of Rublev’s icon continue to be made and sold as devotional

pieces, greetings cards, or art prints.

Hospitality was just as critical to the world of the New Testament. Jesus’s ministry depended on

hospitality. Jesus accepted invitations to dinner with Levi the tax collector and a Pharisee called

Simon alike (Luke 5, 7, also 11). He used his presence as a guest to make moral and pastoral

points. He gave advice: be a humble guest, and you will encourage your host to raise you to a

higher place at table. Two weeks ago, we heard how Jesus sent out the seventy missionaries:

they were to accept hospitality from whoever welcomed them and stay in their homes.

In the light of all these stories, there is something slightly jarring about the story of Mary and

Martha. And when something jars in the Bible, you can be sure that something important is

being said.

This story of Martha and Mary occurs only in Luke’s Gospel, and it is not assigned to a particular

place, only to “a certain village”. You will of course recall that in John’s Gospel, Martha and

Mary are the sisters of Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raises from the dead. The two stories

do not seem to have much in common – except for the very different personalities of the two

sisters. In both Gospels, Martha is the practical one, the one who speaks her mind and gets

things done – the ordinary, necessary things.

In John 12 Jesus goes to Bethany, some time after the raising of Lazarus: Martha serves the

meal, while Mary pours costly perfume over Jesus’s feet. Again, Mary gets into trouble; again,

Jesus defends her.

You may well feel sympathy for Martha. She knows what hospitality is about. There is work to

be done, and it will be done better and more quickly if everyone takes their share. And there is

Mary (the younger sister, the dreamer, dare we suppose?) sitting at the feet of the teacher.

You may even feel sympathy for both sisters. Each is trying to do the right thing, and each is a

reproach to the other. Many of us have to perform both roles in our lives: the practical things

have to get done, but the spiritual things must also not be forgotten. (Tell me about it.)

So what is going on in this challenging story? At least two messages are calling out for our


First, at this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus puts enormous emphasis on getting the word out

about the appearing kingdom. The word must be heard. There are never enough people to

share the word; there is barely enough time to spread it. At his transfiguration, a voice was

heard saying ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ [Luke 9:35] That was in the chapter

immediately preceding this one.

The urgent priority was for people to listen to what Jesus had to say. Mary was obeying that

call. As the Greek original says, she listened to Jesus’s Word, his logos: the Word that brings the

world into being and the Word that transforms it from its broken state. Jesus taught what

Martin Luther King Jr would later refer to as “the fierce urgency of now”: indeed, Dr King’s

sense of the urgency of racial and economic justice was surely rooted in his knowledge of


Second point: the world of the first century was very gendered. Usually, the men talked and the

women served. Discussion, especially about God and God’s law, was usually a male activity. In

the early Church, it would largely become a male activity once again. But not for Jesus. Lurking

in the New Testament are passages which repeatedly tell how women are not only the friends

and supporters of Jesus and the disciples: they are messengers of the word, examples of faith,

of loyalty and commitment. Women stay with Jesus when his male disciples desert him. The

message of his resurrection is given first to a woman.

A highly esteemed feminist theologian suggested that this passage in Luke described Martha as

representing early [female] leadership role in the early church, being replaced by a more

passive role represented by Mary.[1] Jesus’s praise of Mary would be the voice of the early church

praising women who engaged in silent listening to the word, rather than practical organizing.

Martha is being criticized for the sake of a male church. That seems to me a problematic way to

read the text (and I say that not just because I had a difficult encounter with that feminist

theologian at Harvard over 20 years ago). The text does not say that Mary listened passively;

Jesus taught by asking questions, by engaging in dialogue.

However, we should always listen to the stories of Jesus’s ministry with two other eras in mind:

the era when the Gospels were written down, and our own time as we read and hear them.

Early in its story, the Church had to do lots of Martha-like things. Luke knew that best of all the

evangelists. The Church organized the sharing of goods to benefit the poor; it organized

communal meals; it organized the mutual support of one congregation for another. As I said

two weeks ago, this process of growing structures was absolutely unavoidable, then as now.

The household of faith is a household, and there is household stuff to be done in it. Luke, most

of all, knew that well and took it seriously.

But, as the Gospel says, Martha was “distracted by her many tasks”: in the Greek original, she

was “turned around this way and that” by “much service”, much “diakonia”. This same caring

for the needs of the community prompted the establishing of the order of deacons in the Book

of Acts. This “diakonia” wasn’t a bad thing in itself. In fact, it was essential. Without a meal

there would be no opportunity for conversation.

I sincerely hope that, in the coming months, we shall be able to retrieve more and more of the

sharing of food and company with each other that was such a vital part of our common life

before the pandemic. There is no doubt that more shared food and companionship would

strengthen those of us who are already gathered, and help to bring new friends to join us.

However, it is important not to make the diakonia, the “tasks”, the primary object of our

common life. If one begins with the diakonia, one mistakes what is secondary for what is

primary. We do not serve in order to hear and believe: we serve because we heard and

believed first.

Our primary purpose is to hear the Word of God’s love for the world, a love that calls us in turn

to a life of mutual love and service. The Word nurtures faith, and faith then becomes active in

service. We did not cease to be the Church of God, even when we could not safely gather in

person and had to meet online. We do not cease to be a community of the sacraments, even

when we are not (quite yet) able to share the common cup of Jesus’s blessing at our Eucharist.

The story of Mary tells us something vital about hearing the Word. It is for everyone in the life

of the community that lives by Jesus’s Word. The Church is not divided up into hearers of the

Word and those who just help things along. Hearing, reflecting, sharing and above all living the

Word is for all of us. That is “the better part, which will not be taken away from us”. All of us.

1 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 57-68.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

July 10, 2022: Fifth Week after Pentecost

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5 Pentecost, July 10, 2022

In these past weeks, we have learned how challenging it can be to understand the meaning of old documents. What is present in the Constitution of our nation; what do the words mean? What was the original intent of those who wrote them, how are things not specifically mentioned to be included today? Controversial, we have learned. But even more difficult is understanding something in the New Testament. Written 2000 years ago in a different culture, different language and often interpreted in vastly different ways down through the centuries.

I had a teacher who, as we worked our way through the scriptures, often repeated “context is everything”. The “context” in which Jesus lived and spoke and acted is very different from ours. Work and humility are required of anyone attempting to understand and explain what the words of scripture mean. This is especially necessary when dealing with a very familiar section of the Gospel.

What is more familiar than what we have just read? The parable of the “Good Samaritan” has given the name to many hospitals and even a law protecting medical professionals from prosecution if they stop to provide medical treatment to someone who crosses their path.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Is how it begins. Jesus cleverly put the burden of the answer on the one who asked it. A lawyer. Someone who knew the Law, which he quotes when he responds. The statement about love of God comes from the ancient Hebrew prayer in the Book of Deuteronomy - the Shema. He links it to a saying in the Book of Leviticus. So, Love God, love your neighbor is the Law. Jesus agrees with his answer. “Do it”, says Jesus and you will live. But the lawyer feels the need to ‘justify himself”. “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells a story.

“Good Samaritan”, would have been a title shocking to those listening to Jesus. We are told in John’s Gospel when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at a well, she says to him “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan. How can you ask me for a drink.”? “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (John 4:9) It worked both ways. A few weeks ago, we read that as Jesus began his journey toward Jerusalem a Samaritan town would not allow him to pass through because he was on the way to Jerusalem.

Samaritans were related to Jews, both in blood and religion. Following much of the Torah but with different interpretations. Each considered the other a heretic. The focus was on what divided them. Conflict, violence, mutual hatred and animosity grew throughout their history. No Samaritan would say “Good Jew” and no Jew say “Good Samaritan”. So, Jesus’ story is extremely challenging to his audience.

The road from Jerusalem is under 20 miles and was dangerous. And one did go down this road from high hills to below sea level. What happened to this man going down was not unusual. Beaten, stripped, robed and left for dead. Not uncommon on that road which was a hangout for robbers.

A priest who was leaving Jerusalem, probably returning home after his time of service in the Temple came along. Seeing the man, he passes by. So, a Levite, another member of the priestly class passes by. This would have shocked the listeners. These men would have known the requirements of the Law to aid the victim. Down through history, Christian interpreters have given anti-Jewish interpretations to this, presenting these men as reflecting the insufficiencies of the Jewish faith. But today, most scholars think what Jesus is saying is those highly respected people, who knew the Law, must help, but did not.

The Jewish listeners would have been shocked by their behavior. But they would have been even more shocked by what follows. Someone who none of them would have imagined, a Samaritan, stops, binds up wounds, takes to shelter, tends, pays and promises to cover additional costs on his return. Impossible!

The lawyer is now squirming. But he is about to squirm more. Jesus asks, “who do you think was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The lawyer can’t even say Samaritan. “The one who showed mercy.” “Go and do likewise” Jesus says.

Wait a minute. That wasn’t the question. I asked who is my neighbor? How far do I have to go, in loving and caring. Family, tribe? There must be a limit to the number, type, religion, nationality, color that I must love.

But Jesus has not answered who is my neighbor, but what I must do to be a neighbor. Martin Luther King, Jr. used this parable in a sermon. It’s possible”, he said,” that these men – the priest and Levite- were afraid. And so, the first question they asked themselves was: If I stop to help this man. What will happen to Me? But the Good Samaritan came along and reversed the question: If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to HIM?”

Jesus tells the lawyer that the question is not who is my neighbor, but how must I act as a neighbor. Everyone in need, whose path I happen to cross I must care for. Be like the Samaritan. Show mercy, kindness to everyone I see in need.

Context is everything. And today the context is that this morning Jesus is not talking to the lawyer. He is talking to us. We are asked to think of the person we find least likely to take the risk, do the work, and pay the price the Samaritan did.

Imagine that person acting as the Samaritan, showing mercy, kindness. If you can do this, you would find yourself sharing feelings with those who first heard this story.

But then we are told, “go and do likewise.” Show kindness and mercy toward the person you are least likely to care for.

In this time of pandemic, I have done a lot of shopping on line. Often, I come upon the product and find what I want to be “out of stock”. Kindness is something “out of stock” in our public life. Attitudes of fear and anger toward one another are in abundance.

I do not think Jesus tells this story just so we can “inherit eternal life, as the lawyer asks. When the lawyer answers ‘Love God and Love neighbor, Jesus says “do this and you shall live.”

The human family, the human community can survive only if Kindness is in good supply. Kindness is the metabolism of a healthy society.

Let us be neighbors.

Let us go and do Kindness.

Submitted by the Reverend Brendan McCormick

July 3, 2022: Fourth Week after Pentecost

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Four Pentecost, July 3, 2022

How do you create a movement?

The spontaneous way in which Jesus here calls and sends out the seventy (or the seventy-two,

depending on which source we read) reminds me of conversations that one often hears about churches,

and also about seminaries of theological education, where I have been involved for the last twenty


One sometimes hears planners and administrators say that “the Church needs to be less of an

institution, and more of a movement”. The implication is that we ought to spend less time worrying

about maintaining buildings, growing endowments, or deciding what exact administrative structure we

need – and more time thinking about how to expand the message of the Gospel, to grow the numbers

of people whom the Gospel reaches, and to energize those who are already in the family of faith to be

active in the world.

It's a seductive argument, and one can see why church leaders and administrators appeal to it. It can be

a way of short-circuiting the conversations that parishes feel that they (that is, we) most need to have.

However, any religious historian will tell you several general points about movements. First, they rarely

happen because the leaders of an institution tell them to happen. It is much more common for them to

grow spontaneously, even randomly, when someone on the margins of, or entirely outside the religious

establishment, appears with a new message.

Secondly, they will be disruptive. Any church administrators who call for a new movement need to be

very careful what they wish for – though that of itself is not to say that disruption is always a bad thing.

Thirdly, movements have a kind of half-life. Almost by definition, they don’t last long in that form. They

either grow into a more stable form – more like an institution, in fact – or they die away. The many (far

too many) separate branches of the Christian Church that we see across the world testify to as many

“movements”, which constructed institutions to perpetuate themselves. Even the movement which

inspired the push for independence in this country 250 years ago led, very rapidly, to the creating of a


On the other hand, two and three hundred years ago, here in New England and across the colonized

parts of this country, there were two waves of revivals known as the First and Second Great Awakenings.

These movements, led by a succession of charismatic preachers, swept through the churches of their

day. And the question then was, what do we do after the whirlwind of the revival is past? When you

have been “revived”, what do you do on Monday morning?

What then does this Gospel story of the early “Jesus movement” have to tell us now?

The un-named seventy apostles did not achieve their appointment as missionaries of the kingdom of

God. They filled in no application forms; they underwent no background checks; they passed through no

process of discernment. Jesus called them and sent them out with very simple instructions: “eat what is

set before you; cure the sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”

And we hear that they were astonishingly successful. When they return to Jesus (who, in this part of

Luke, is on his long march through Samaria and Judaea to Jerusalem) he sees their mission as a triumph.

He has a vision of Satan falling from heaven, since even the seventy missionaries have power to cast out

evil spirits. In effect, Jesus says “see how the evil in this world can be conquered by the power of the

Spirit, working through quite ordinary people”.

Jesus seems to have believed, as many of his followers did before and after his death and resurrection,

that there was a fierce urgency about spreading the news, that time was short. Maybe the call to the

seventy can be regarded as an exceptional moment, provoked by the urgency of the moment. And yet

the evangelist we know as Luke wrote this account some fifty to sixty years later, when the sense of

urgency had been, shall we say, stretched a bit.

Have you ever wondered what became of the seventy? They are not mentioned again in the Gospels.

Post-biblical tradition, including a work attributed to Hippolytus of Rome around the early 200s, gave

names for all of them, as did other works written in the Eastern Church in the Middle Ages. In fact,

considerably more than seventy names have been proposed for them in total.

The lists of names are questionable. First, there are not nearly enough women among them (maybe two

or three) whereas we know that women played important roles in Jesus’s mission. Even more strangely,

most of the names are Greek or Roman, rather than Hebrew or Aramaic. Most if not all of the seventy,

the lists tell us, went on to become apostles, martyrs, or indeed bishops, to one of the dispersed

congregations of the early church.

In other words, as it tried to remember the seventy, the early Church was already becoming

institutionalized, and adapted to its host culture: more settled, more Graeco-Roman and more male.

The names of the seventy are not authentic, and it is better to keep them nameless.

Why is that so? What would it feel like to form part of one of the greatest and most important missions

in the history of the world, and to have no-one, absolutely no-one, know your name years afterwards?

We are familiar with the leaders of movements who make a name for themselves. Maybe they even

have, against their will, a church named after them: Lutheran, Wesleyan.

But most of us who participate in the life of Christ’s church will not make a famous name for ourselves in

the world. Most of us will not have charismatic gifts of spiritual power. We shall, instead, bear witness to

the love of God in the way that we live together and support each other. We shall show the world that

there is a better way than one based on endless acquisitiveness, competitively pushing past others, or

worshipping celebrity.

But Jesus said something very important to the nameless seventy apostles. ‘Do not rejoice at this, that

the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

Being numbered among the beloved of God counts for more even than the power to cast down evil

spirits. Because God chose those who had no outstanding abilities, we learn something important about

God’s sovereignty in this world and beyond it.

There is no hierarchy in the love of God. There is no course of promotion or progress in the love of God.

One does not ascend to a higher level of God’s love, either by one’s own efforts or by spiritual gifts. That

includes the rather disturbing, but absolutely crucial thought that we cannot make God love us more by

our religious activities.

None of us loses anything because others, whom we maybe are tempted to think are less deserving, are

also found to be among the beloved children of God. (That was the lesson for the prodigal son’s brother,

and for the labourers who started working in the vineyard at the first hour of the day. We can see just

how important Jesus thought it was to put this particular message across.)

We do not need to build a movement. It is already among us; we just need to recognize and respond to

it. The love of God is already present with us, and there is literally nothing greater than we can hope for.

When we feel called to work for the kingdom of God, to share the love of God among those with whom

we live – whether in a church community, or in our workplaces, in our families, in our neighborhoods –

all we have to do, in a sense, is go with the flow of the Spirit that is pulling us along. But don’t resist it.

Don’t contaminate the Spirit with any sense of achievement, of status, of progress in living more deeply

into the love of God. Because we are already there.

The un-named seventy do not represent the exceptional apostles. They do not represent those uniquely

and especially close to Jesus. They represent all of us.

‘Rejoice that your names are written in heaven’.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

June 26, 2022: Third Week after Pentecost

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3 Pentecost, June 26, 2022

Many years ago, a friend gave me a book that had been many weeks on the New York times Best Seller’s list. The opening sentence was: “Life is difficult!” I learned two things from this book; one, that statement is true, life is difficult. The second was that this sentence was the best part of the book.

We have all lived long enough to learn that life is difficult. And for anybody who is awake, we see it is very difficult for some people. This was certainly true for our ancient ancestors in faith; the community for whom Luke wrote the Gospel accounts we will be reading each Sunday until the end of November, the beginning of Advent.

Each of the Gospels is what could be called “crisis literature”. They were written for a community of believers usually experiencing persecution for their faith in Jesus Christ. Also, as the eye witnesses to the life of Jesus were dying, there arose disagreements about what Jesus said and did. Better write them down.

In spite of the many times Jesus taught that following him would require taking up our cross, and in spite of his own death on that cross, many disciples, then and now, focus on the victory of the resurrection, and forget about the journey that led to it. When suffering and persecution come, many are confused. Living out the teaching of Jesus in daily life is challenging.

Luke’s community had just come through a devastating persecution. Many had suffered loss of property, reputation, status, even life. In these difficult times some denied they were Christian. Now, as things settled down, some of these same people who had denied they were members, were trying to return to the community. Should they be let back in.

Despite these difficulties, the community was growing. People from faith traditions other than Judaism sought to enter. How to accept those who are different became a source of conflict. Life is difficult. Way back then, and also today.

Our Gospel reading presents a decisive moment in Jesus’ journey. “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to Jerusalem”. The three Gospels – Mark, Matthew and Luke – have the theme of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, where the Father’s plan is to be completed. Today, we hear Jesus make the decisive turn in that journey. These chapters serve as a framework for our journey as we, disciples of Christ, are invited to see ourselves on the way with Jesus.

Among the things we disciples are taught, just as those first disciples were taught, is that the salvation Jesus brings is offered to all, completely and equally. That is difficult.

We are also taught that we are to forgive, even those who have denied Christ. In another place we’re told how often we are to forgive. 70 times 7, Jesus tells Peter, which is another way of saying whenever one truly asks. That is difficult.

And, as today’s reading continues teaching the cost of discipleship. It is expensive. The disciple must expect to be treated no better than the Master. We are not to use power to enforce our belief. We are not to put other duties or anything ahead of following Jesus. Even Elijah, allowed Elisha to go back and bid farewell to family before he followed.

Often, when we find very difficult statements of Jesus like “let the dead bury the dead”, we try to find a hidden meaning that softens what sounds impossible, unreasonable. However, some think the fact that they are in the Gospel is an argument that Jesus did say it and the evangelist was reluctant to change it.

The challenge of these words to Luke’s community may have been less than they are to us, considering the suffering they had just been through. They are difficult.

Ray Kroc, one of the founders of McDonald's restaurants once expressed a wish to build a McDonald's in the shadow of the church in every town in America. Kroc saw the church as a foundation for community values. The church would affirm, proclaim and defend the values of society, the nation.

In Jesus’ life and in the life of the early church, the community of disciples were seen as a threat to the values of society. The power to dominate others; the demand that everyone think, believe alike, the focus on wealth and fame are what the disciple is to avoid. “Do not kill” was acted out by some early Christians in that they refused to join the army. Defend the values of society? No way.

To feed the hungry, protect the foreigner, welcome the stranger, care for the outcast, forgive the offender, love the enemy are among the teachings of Jesus. They are the cost of discipleship. They are very difficult. Certainly, they are not popular.

We have not suffered the persecution that Luke’s community did. We have much security and acceptance in our society. Who would seek to lose that? These last years have been difficult.

We are very aware and touched and distressed by illness and tragedy in our nation, in our world.

Today’s Gospel invites us to view our lives as disciples on the journey with Jesus Christ. A number of years ago, I came upon rules for the journey. Rules for those hiking long distances. Never go alone; take only what you need; expect difficulty; pause often to see the beauty.

Today’s Gospel reminds us that the life of a disciple has many challenges. It is difficult. The cross is present. But we are not alone. We are companions, who journey with the risen Christ who has revealed a love for us without limit and without end. So let us not be afraid. Let us journey together. And let us not forget to pause, often, to see the beauty, and give thanks.

Submitted by the Reverend Brendan McCormick

June 19, 2022: Second Week after Pentecost

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2 Pentecost, June 19, 2022, (Proper 7)

Today we have just listened to one of the more bizarre of Jesus’s healing miracles, as reported in Luke’s Gospel, the healing of the man possessed by a “legion” of evil spirits in the country on the Eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. The story is told in very similar terms to this in Mark 5 and Matthew 8, and forms part of a fairly stable sequence of stories, followed by the healing of Jairus’s daughter and of the woman with continuous bleeding.

Both Mark and Luke (but not Matthew) report that after healing the possessed man, Jesus told him to stay in his own country and tell everyone what God had done for him; and the account says that he went everywhere reporting what Jesus had done for him. The story forms part of a larger narrative arc, where Jesus’s acts of power spread his reputation, and move people to come to hear his teaching.

Allow me to say one thing: please, forget about the hogs. They are the most picturesque part of the story, the (ritually) unclean animals which become the receptacles for (morally) unclean spirits. That part of the story belongs to the culture of its time, and for us, it is hard to make sense of.

We have all probably heard “demoniacs”, those “possessed by evil spirits”, described as though they were suffering from what we would understand as some form of mental illness or distress.

That was not how possession by an evil spirit was understood in the pre-modern world. Someone who was “possessed” had their entire consciousness taken over, as it were, by an alien intelligence. Not only did they lose their identity: they supposedly acquired a different personality, and often acquired exceptional powers.

Evil Spirits were supposed to have knowledge far superior to human beings, but to use it for evil purposes. In the New Testament, those supposedly possessed by Spirits were repeatedly capable of recognizing who Jesus was, even when his closest friends and companions could not see that.

Possessed people sometimes possessed strength beyond their normal physique, or understood things – maybe spoke or understood rare languages – which the afflicted person would not know in their normal condition.

And possession by evil spirits was a form of torture for the victim. Jesus wished to help and heal those who were afflicted; but at the same time, he wished to silence and drive out the spirits who caused the trouble. He did not wish even to have his mission and his unique status acknowledged by evil beings.

However we understand personified evil, we do not, most of us, expect or even believe that people can be possessed, in this sense, by intelligent disembodied forces of evil. There are some very conservative churches which take this part of scripture as eternal truth rather than as the cultural wrapping of its age. There are in some parts of the world those who regard anyone who steps outside social norms (especially women) as needing “exorcism” because, presumably, only an evil spirit would make a person step outside their socially assigned role. The risks of emotional abuse and psychological harm are terrifying – quite apart from the theological doubtfulness of such attempts.

This story is one where the world feels more than usually weird and even frightening. Let us not try to resolve details which probably belong to the culture of the first century, and do not need to speak to us.

Jesus is here healing a pagan inhabitant of the Decapolis or “ten cities”, a person also afflicted with the complete loss of his identity. Jesus does not denounce, as Isaiah had done, those “who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels”. Instead, he reacts to these outsiders with compassion. He casts out that power which had taken over the man’s mind and subjected him to the grossest of humiliations, depriving him of all the dignity and humanity that rightly belonged to him. He restores the man to his full humanity and the company of his neighbours, and invites him to spread the good news.

This weekend marks a new national holiday, known colloquially as “Juneteenth”. How does our Gospel speak to this commemoration?

The event commemorated on this day each year is not the proclamation of emancipation (which had been issued more than two years earlier) but General Order No. 3 by Union Army general Gordon Granger. This order proclaimed freedom for enslaved people in Texas, which was the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery. On June 19th, we remember that a whole people, over more than two centuries in this country, were subjected to the grossest of humiliations, and deprived of all the dignity and humanity that rightly belonged to them.

The story of the ending of slavery in the United States is a long and tangled one. From the proclamation of emancipation on 1 January 1863 to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on 6 December 1865 was nearly three years. That is of course quite apart from the gross evils of segregation, legal and otherwise, and the numberless ways in which Americans of African origin have been, and still are, mistreated for no other reason than their race.

But who, in the midst of all this injustice and suffering, desperately needs a spirit of evil to be driven out from their midst? It is not the victims of this catalogue of inhumanity, but its perpetrators. The most shocking evil about racial prejudice is that those who are “possessed” by it, either do not know that they suffer from it (which is many of us) or believe that their attitudes are entirely right and justified. Truly, a spirit of error – in the symbolic sense that the term is often used, even in scripture – is at work here.

Here, again, I speak as an observer from outside, who tries to understand what I have not grown up with – but there seem to be many wrong ways to respond to the needs of this issue, and discerning the right way takes effort and humility. It is insufficient and complacent to claim that the problems of racial injustice are in the past, or that they belong only to people in other parts of the country, or those of another political persuasion. The problem is wider than that, but it manifests itself in different ways.

I am not sure that continuous beating of breasts, or paroxysms of white guilt, actually do much to help those who seek for dignity and justice. It does seem important to stress that raising up all human dignity means raising up more than just the dignity of those with whom we are most comfortable. It means a joyous embracing of diversity, of giving thanks for the many gifts of God expressed through the witness of different peoples.

It is important to recognize that, despite all the injustices which they suffered, the people of African origin in this country have made and continue to make unique and incalculable positive contributions to its life, its art, and (perhaps especially) its expressions of faith

Last weekend Ruth and I attended a very well-supported event to inaugurate an exhibition at the Old Saybrook Historical Society. The tent was full to overflowing, and some people stood throughout. The exhibition is devoted to two of the most distinguished women – who were also African-American – born in Old Saybrook in earlier generations. They were the pioneering pharmacist Anna James, and the equally pioneering writer and novelist Ann Petry. I commend that exhibition to you. As some of you know, Ruth and I feel a special connection to Ann Petry, as we live in the house where she lived with her husband and daughter from the late 1940s. However, Ann belongs to the whole community.

I encourage you to read the novel that made Ann Petry’s reputation, The Street. It was written in Harlem in the 1940s about a young black single mother from New England, trying to make a life for herself and her son in New York. That novel gave me a more intuitive sense of what it was like to be black in the United States in generations past, than anything else that I have read.

What matters, I suggest, is that we should all care about these questions; not regard them as someone else’s problem, or resign ourselves in weariness to an imperfect world. Those who are on the receiving end of constant aggressions and injustices cannot just decide to tune them out. Those of us who have the unearned and unjustified status of white complexions, with the absence of fear which that brings, must intentionally refrain from tuning them out.

There are many spirits of evil, of division, of unjust anger and fear, at work among the communities of this nation. I very much suspect that many of those fears are being stoked and encouraged by politicians, whether through cynicism or fanaticism, for their own gain. Our role must be to embrace each other with the love of Christ, in the faith and confidence that Jesus’s power of love can cast out many demons.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

June 5, 2022: Pentecost

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Pentecost Sunday, June 5, 2022

Welcome to the Feast of Pentecost. As Acts makes clear, this day was already a festival in the

Jewish tradition. It took place fifty days after Passover, and was also known as the “Feast of

Weeks”, since it occurred seven weeks after Passover, if one counts inclusively.

In Christian tradition, Pentecost, like the Easter Vigil, was traditionally celebrated by baptism of

candidates who had been prepared by instruction in the faith. In our Book of Common Prayer, it

is one of four Sundays at which baptism should preferably be performed. Recognizing that this

is one of these baptismal Sundays, we shall read the reaffirmation of baptismal vows in place of

the Nicene Creed this morning.

Only Luke-Acts preserves the story that Jesus left his disciples after 40 days of post-resurrection

ministry, and that the disciples received the gift of the Spirit after another ten days. John’s

Gospel does not assign the gift of the Spirit to a precise time (if anything it is at the Last Supper,

but not only there).

However one tells it, this story from Scripture is about a gift: a gift both of communication, but

also of confidence: having the message of Christ within one, but also having the courage and

confidence of Christ to utter that message.

The Jews of the scattering, or diaspora, were dispersed to the limits of the Middle Eastern and

Mediterranean worlds. They had retained their faith, but had absorbed the languages, and

many of the cultural habits, of the peoples where they settled. The disciples were miraculously

able to be heard in all the languages which these scattered communities spoke.

The story is symbolic: the confusion of tongues, which took place as the Tower of Babel was

being built, is now reversed. The dispersed were being brought together again. (Never mind

that most of these people would have understood Greek, at least as a second language.)

But how does this once-in-a-lifetime event translate into something which becomes the

everyday principle of sharing the faith to all peoples of all languages?

Peter explains it in a long quotation from the prophecy of Joel, where the prophet spoke of God

pouring out God’s spirit on all people, as part of the restoration of the people of Israel, probably

after the exile. (Peter adds only the reference to the “last days”, which is not in the original

prophecy, but speaks to how the early Church understood Jesus.)

Deeply embedded in the Jewish heritage of the first disciples was the belief that God could and

would give inspiration to God’s followers: sometimes to particular chosen prophets and

leaders, but sometimes – as in this case – to all devout believers indiscriminately.

John, who does not preserve the story of the gift at Pentecost, nevertheless says a great deal

about the spirit of God being given to Jesus’s followers.

He gives that Spirit a special name, paraclétos, or “Paraclete” as some Christian poetry and

hymns preserve it, rendered by “advocate” in today’s reading. It’s an unusual word in the Bible,

found only in the writings associated with John in the New Testament.

Paraclétos, literally “one called alongside”, was originally an advocate or spokesperson in court.

It does not mean someone who intercedes for us with God: rather, it is the one who gives the

disciples voice, so that they can proclaim God’s message to the world, faithfully and in

confidence. (The word “comforter”, found in older versions, is a mistranslation.)

In the Middle Ages, a Dominican Friar called John Bromyard told the story of a village shepherd

who was asked about his faith. Did he know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost? He replied

that “he knew the Father and the Son, because he tended their sheep; he knew not that third

fellow: there was no-one of that name in his village”.

Neglecting to think at all about the Spirit is one risk. At the opposite extreme, there is also the

risk of claiming too much acquaintance with the Holy Spirit, even of trying to control it.

When I was an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1970s, evangelical students often asked each

other “when did you become a Christian”? I gradually learned that, in the theology of

evangelical Anglicanism, it was expected that one should have an experience of inner

conversion, with a sudden dramatic sense of the presence of the Spirit.

In some communities, it has even become the custom to pray at specific times and places for

the imposition of the Spirit. In our former parish in England, the vicar led a program of adult

education, which was intended to conclude with prayers in the Church for the gift of the Spirit.

Instinctively I found myself deeply uncomfortable with this practice, and wondered why.

My discomfort may have been based on two things: first, the Spirit does not follow human

rules. It appears on God’s schedule, not on ours. Sometimes it arrives early, as in the house of

Cornelius; sometimes it arrives late. Second, the Spirit is not about an individual’s journey, but

about the life of a community. It speaks where people are gathered together in the name of

Jesus. It binds a loving group of fellow-believers together; it does not create elites.

The spirit, the “advocate”, does just what Luke described in Acts 2. It gives us voice, and

enables us to communicate something which is too extraordinary and wonderful for human

language. The Spirit helps the Church to express the message in the language of the people who

are being addressed. That means, so that different cultures and groups of people can hear it.

The spirit does not nail down the presence of God to particular forms of words; it finds the

words that the circumstances need. The Spirit is always missional, and always ecumenical.

But before we speak, we must listen to what the Spirit is saying to us, and pass on the message:

we are not devising our own message, but listening to the message of the risen and ever-

present Christ. What is the message that we need to hear for these times?

The example of Jesus teaches us, very clearly and repeatedly, that it is important both to speak

out against the wrongs in our world, and also to love those with whom we disagree. That is not

easy; because cultural conflict breeds, and feeds on, fear and distrust between one group of

people and another.

It is fear – the conviction that others do not affirm one’s right to exist – which leads people to

accumulate and then defend their holding of absurd numbers of weapons, whether that is

private ownership of handguns and rifles, or a nation’s accumulation of unimaginable quantities

of munitions.

Fear of an aggressor, often imagined more than real, lies behind the unprovoked invasion of

Ukraine. It also leads to many of the mass killings in this country, made all too easy by the

chronic and either irrational, or politically cynical, fear aroused in some quarters when sensible

regulation and control of weapons are discussed.

The Gospel has a response to this paroxysm of fear, distrust and alienation.

The Spirit offers a particular, very special kind of peace, which Jesus described in the last verses

of our Gospel. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world

gives.” Not the peace that consists simply of the absence of conflict; certainly not the peace

that comes as a result of victory in conflict, as the Roman Empire understood it.

Jesus’s Jewish heritage taught a particular way of understanding peace. Peace, Shalom, was not

the mere absence of conflict, or the aftermath of victory and conquest. Shalom existed when

the community lived together in mutual respect, in harmony with each other, with nature and

with God.

In the Christian adaptation of Shalom, the community could find peace even in the midst of

conflict, or of persecution. By living together in mutual love and support, one could know the

peace of God, even when all around one was fear and hatred.

In the gift of the Spirit, I pray that we may together find the words to express the love of God,

and to share it with those around us who need it so very much, in these most troubled times.

Pentecost blessings to you all.

submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

May 22, 2022: Sixth Sunday of Easter

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Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 22, 2022

In different ways, our readings today, from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John, address the building of community and the reaching out to others in welcome. Introducing new people into the community has been much in our minds in the past months. We have faced the particular challenge that we could not welcome and grow during the years of the pandemic, and people are still understandably cautious about venturing into new spaces. So let us hear what these stories in Scripture have to say to us.

This whole section of Acts tells the stories of Paul’s missionary journeys (specifically here the second journey) in Asia Minor, present-day Turkey. At that time Asia Minor was a complex ethnic mix of peoples, by language and culture close to the Greeks, and in their faith traditions a mixture of believers in the traditional gods of Greece, with a scattering of small Jewish communities among them.

One interesting point about chapter 16 is that suddenly the account turns from a third-person narrative (“they did this”) to a first-person memoir. “We” suddenly become the narrators. The “we” narrative disappears again during the story of Paul at Philippi story, only to reappear later, in chapter 20. Acts, we gather, is an assembly of materials including first-hand accounts from a companion of Paul.

If we thought in terms of modern geography, we might say that today’s Gospel tells of the Gospel crossing over from Asia into Europe. This venture into Macedonia grows the first shoots of the Christian movement within the European continent.

Probably that transition seems more significant for us than it did for them. Both sides of the boundary between Europe and Asia lay within the Roman Empire. Luke describes the Gospel spreading across the shores of the Mediterranean, especially by the conversion of those who are already sympathetic to Judaism. But the appeal to these Jews of the diaspora is a two-edged sword. Because it won more people for what the disciples called “the Way”, it enraged those Jewish leaders who rejected Jesus. Ultimately that rage will lead to a series of trial hearings to which Paul is subjected, and his appeal to the Emperor in Rome.

That is in the future. Today’s story speaks of Paul’s encounter with Lydia, the merchant of luxury goods from Thyatira. The story is about hospitality: Lydia receives the message of Paul and his companions; she then offers hospitality to the disciples, and prevails on them to stay with her.

Was Lydia a Jewish believer? It is not stated explicitly, though that is the traditional interpretation. What matters, though, is not where she comes from, but her readiness to receive the message. How many more conversations did she have with Paul and his companions while they stayed with her?

The name of Lydia was given in recent decades to a church planting, known as St Lydia’s or the “Dinner Church”. It was founded in Brooklyn by a young Lutheran pastor named Emily Scott. The idea behind this church was to return to the earliest disciples’ practice of worshipping in the context of a real meal. Welcome is given extra meaning, when the effort of preparing and serving food becomes a part of the community. The shared meal of substantial nourishment and the coming together for worship overlapped and fused in the life of this community.

In John’s Gospel we heard the story of Jesus healing a paralyzed man at the pools by the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. Unlike the other Gospels, John depicts Jesus making regular visits to the city at several points in his ministry.

The story seems to relate to historical fact. In the 19th century, archaeologists excavated the remains of two pools in the place where John described them, near what became St Anne’s Church, to the north of the Temple Mount and outside the earliest city walls.

The form of the name Beth-zatha (which may sound unfamiliar) is the one found in the earliest surviving complete copy of the New Testament. Other versions have Bethseda, Bethesda, Bethsaida and sometimes other forms.

You may remember this story from the slightly different version of it in the KJV. A whole verse is missing from our modern editions. That missing passage tells the story of an angel coming down to stir the waters, and the first person who entered the pool when the waters were stirred up was healed. The story has a rather primitive quality about it, as though divine healing depended on a magical process of rewarding the most agile sick person.

It was discovered about 150 years ago that this story about the angel stirring the waters did not, in fact, form part of the earliest copies of the Gospel. So, wisely, our modern bibles omit it.

Incidentally, please don’t be distressed by the fact that the Scriptures exist in different forms and have different readings. Nothing more proves their authenticity than this ragged variety. These are not literary stories: they are the living remembrances of a living community, re-told and re-fashioned through their shared life and worship.

The pools were essentially a mineral spa with healing properties, of a kind valued in the ancient world and since. A few generations after the time of Jesus, the Romans would build a shrine to the healing god Asclepius on this site.

The paralyzed man has no-one to help him benefit from the healing waters. Jesus asks him one simple question: ‘Do you want to be made well?’ Then he tells the man to gather up his mattress and leave, which he does.

This story forms part of a rising crescendo of healing miracles in John’s Gospel, which will culminate in the raising of Lazarus of Bethany from the dead. John being John, even healing is not without the possibility of conflict and argument. The healed man is reproached for carrying his bed on the sabbath; he then drops Jesus into trouble by saying “this man told me to take up my bed” even though it was a sabbath, when such labour was forbidden.

Jesus does not ask about the man’s faith. He imposes no spiritual test. He assumes in a later passage in the story that the man was not, in fact, morally upright. Nothing is said about the man becoming a disciple or spreading the good news about Jesus to others.

Jesus approaches a person in need and offers help. All the focus is on Jesus’s act of compassion. The Gospel also reminds of its subsidiary message, that the call to do good for others should always take precedence over religious obligations as human beings understand them.

The growth of communities of faith is a mysterious thing. It is not always the most welcoming churches that grow fastest. Human beings sometimes respond strongly to a strict code of rules or a charismatic, dominating leader. That does not mean that either of those approaches are God’s way to grow a church.

What these two stories tell us is that the giving and receiving of welcome, and the offering of help without conditions and without expectation of reward, are the way taught by the Spirit of God. It is that same spirit which will bring us nurture, life, and yes, growth. We are called to go forward in faith, and in faith to welcome those who come our way.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

May 8, 2022: Fourth Sunday of Easter

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Easter 4: May 8, 2022

In the Easter season we traditionally listen to readings from Acts, in place of our regular readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament as we know it.

In our Gospels, we listen to some of Jesus’s teachings as reported by John’s Gospel, sayings which are located in Jesus’s final weeks of ministry in Jerusalem.

The linking theme today, expressed in our collect, is the role of Christ as shepherd to his people, which we heard most memorably in the twenty-third psalm as we just read it together.

Many years ago, long before entering on the process that led ultimately to ministry, I was a spectacularly unsuccessful Sunday school teacher. I recall, however, trying to persuade some of those young people to think realistically and unsentimentally about what it is really like to care for sheep. At that time, I owned a set of erasers in the form of rubber sheep. Most of them were slightly pencil-stained white, and one of them was – literally – the black sheep. All were part of my little synthetic rubber flock. It was a useful way to introduce the idea that real sheep can be troublesome creatures; they are often stubborn, and rarely biddable. Sheepdogs control sheep, essentially by playing on the animals’ primal fear of the predator, even when the shepherd has the care and safety of the animals as a prime concern.

(If you need any further reasons to appreciate the utter eccentricity of British television, let me just add that from the 1970s to around 2010, one of the prime-time BBC programmes on Sunday evenings was a long-running series of televised competitive sheepdog trials. Teams of shepherds and their dogs competed to steer small flocks of sheep around obstacle courses and into sheepfolds, while keeping them together.)

Sheep may hear the voice of their shepherd, but as Jesus knew very well, they don’t always listen, let alone do as they are told. Yet the shepherd’s care never ceases. The worse they behave, the more determined the shepherd is, the harder the shepherd works, to ensure their safety.

Ultimately, all our readings today are about the people of God: those for whom Jesus died and rose again. It is appropriate in this season of resurrection and rebirth, to hear how the followers of Jesus were reborn into a courageous and dedicated following of Jesus’s path, after he was no longer bodily present with them.

Let us listen to the story of Peter at Joppa (nowadays known as Jaffa). Before this passage, Peter is at Lydda, now called Lod, which is west of Jerusalem and some distance inland from the coast: there he healed a paralytic named Aeneas. (According to one later legend, the community at Lydda was founded by Joseph of Arimathea.) Joppa is a port town about twelve miles away, a day’s walk for a healthy and energetic person. We do not know how Tabitha or Dorcas came to be a disciple, but Luke says that she was a “mathétria”, which essentially means “female student” – not just a helper but a learner. Her name means “gazelle”, and we should not necessarily assume that she was of any great age. Indeed, her death was clearly unexpected and grievous to her friends. She was young, energetic, productive, and profoundly mourned. In compassion for those who mourned her, Peter reclaims her from death and restores her to her friends.

The point of the story is clear: Peter has inherited not only the mission of Jesus, but much of his power to heal, and even to raise from death. But the other point of the story is to show Peter’s compassion and care for an emerging congregation on the margins of the Jesus movement.

And in this section of Acts, Peter is about to cross those margins altogether. The story at Joppa is a prelude to Peter’s summons to come from Joppa to nearby Caesarea, to the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius. The community of followers of Jesus is not just expanding: it is becoming more diverse and more inclusive. It even includes some of the Roman oppressors, the very people who had put Jesus to death; just as it includes Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee and former persecutor.

And that same theme appears again in our reading from Revelation. The followers gathered before Jesus are “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb”.

It was not always easy for the early movement of Jesus’s followers to understand, or even to cope with, the sudden call to expand its boundaries beyond the people of the promise. It did not just mean extending God’s call beyond God’s traditional people: it meant being open to the idea that God called, and loved with the same love, those who had actively fought against the message that Jesus brought to the world.

And we have been struggling with that message ever since. I am, as I know many of us are, horrified to see the Christian faith turned into a rationale for exclusion, for limiting the autonomy and the life choices of women, of people of color, of the poor of all kinds. It seems perfectly clear that just as a self-righteous Christian is a contradiction in terms, so an exclusionary Christian is one who resists the plain message of the Gospel.

But we are called, by that same logic of Scripture, to affirm that God’s love extends to those who discriminate, those who persecute, those who in a perversion of the message of God’s love seek to make the lives of other people harder and more challenging. If God could reach out to Cornelius and achieve the conversion of Paul, we are similarly called to pray for and work for salvation and for healing, even for those who arrogantly seek to spread messages, and to implement policies, at which our souls and our consciences shudder.

What we all risk forgetting – ourselves as much as those with whom we disagree – is that we are the sheep and not the shepherds. Every time that we try to shrink the Gospel down to the level of our own private political or cultural agenda, we find ourselves “like sheep [who] have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way” as Isaiah 53’s famous passage on the Suffering Servant reminds us. There are far too many Christians who turn to their own way, all the time.

In the seminary where I teach, many – maybe most – students are engaged in some form of religious activism. They believe with a passion that their life’s call is to call out and resist the injustices done to the poor, the powerless, and the excluded. I admire their passion and their burning desire to see a better world. And at the same time, I worry that, just sometimes, these shrill voices will resound in the echo chambers of their political movements, acting as the mirror image, the opposite extreme, to those on the extreme of the so-called religious right.

Listening to the shepherd’s voice takes great patience. It seems, and feels, as though God is taking forever to respond to the pleas of the afflicted and the distressed. There is a good reason why the expression “How long, O Lord” occurs several dozen times in Scripture, especially in the Psalms. How tempting to use the weapons of the unrighteous oppressor against them.

But that is not Jesus’s way. Jesus denounces the wrong, and does so without fear or favour. But he also teaches, and embodies, the all-encompassing love of God that extends even – no, especially – to those who are wrong. Jesus’s disciples included the converted tax-collector and the converted zealot rebelling against the Empire.

Do you remember – I’m sure you do – the words of the hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”? It contains the verse:

“But we make God’s love too narrow / by false limits of our own, / and we magnify its strictness / with a zeal God will not own.”

The message of the Gospel of love is bigger than any of our private agendas. It calls us again and again to re-think the limits that we set to our compassion. It brings us into dangerous and scary places, where we have to recognize those whom we disdain to be, with us, fellow-sinners who depend, as we do, on the love of God. But we are the sheep, not the shepherd. Our shepherd keeps our needs always deep within his heart of love.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

May 1, 2022: Third Sunday of Easter

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EASTER 3: May 1, 2022

The poet, T.S. Elliott wrote: “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.” On one level this describes the situation in which we find Peter today. In our Gospel story, he is at the Sea of Tiberius fishing with some of the same men at the same spot 3 years earlier when his brother Andrew came and told him “We have found the Messiah”. Simon, as Peter was then called, went to meet the man named Jesus, who immediately called him Peter, the rock. He invited Peter and a few others to “come and see”, promising they would see incredible things.

Over the next few years, they certainly had. Signs of healing occurred, words of comfort and challenge proclaimed, conflict with religious authorities, crowds gather to hear Jesus. Even more, Peter saw the glory of this Jesus on a mountain, and his betrayal in a garden. Peter, himself had denied he knew this Jesus when he was arrested, condemned and killed.

Now, Peter is back fishing. Had he given up all hope and returned to his former life? Our Gospel reading is a little confusing. It says this was the third time Jesus had appeared to the apostles. If he had already met the Risen Lord, why would he have left Jerusalem and, apparently returned to his former life. Also, if this is the third time, why would he not have recognized the Lord.

However, our story was written down 70 years after Jesus’ resurrection. By this time, the eyewitnesses had died. Memories sometimes contradict one another. Perhaps this is the first appearance that got out of place.

However, the real focus of the story is the role of Peter.

After the meal, Jesus asked Peter: ‘do you love me more than these others. Peter answered “yes, you know that I love you”. He is then told: “Feed my sheep.” Two more times Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me?” Two more times Peter answered yes, but he gets hurt. “Lord, you know everything, you now that I love you.”

The man who three times denied knowing Jesus, now proclaims his love three times. Reconciliation? Perhaps, but by the time this story was written, Peter had proved this love for Jesus, for he has followed his Lord by dying on his own cross.

The story presents a repentant Pete, but also the apostle especially loved and commissioned by Jesus. The Church was changing, conflicts occurred. Jesus was the Good Shepherd, but new flesh and blood leaders were needed to shepherd the community.

Peter did not follow a straight path in his discipleship. He stumbled along the way, weaknesses became evident. But he got back up and went on. Jesus chooses him to be shepherd of the flock, leader of the community.

But not only Peter. In our first reading we meet Paul. He followed a very different path. We meet him hunting Christians as heretics to be bound and brought to trial in Jerusalem. On the road he is struck down, blinded and hears a voice – “why do you persecute me?”. He asks: “Who are you?” He is told: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” He is sent to the town, and was soon visited by a disciple who baptized him.

Paul has his sight restored and is filled with the Holy Spirit. Several days later he is out proclaiming Jesus as Son of God. A sudden and complete conversion, to say the least.

Paul learned much from this experience. At the foundation of his preaching is the teaching that salvation is a free gift of God’s love. Not earned by good works. After all, God’s grace embraced him while he was persecuting Christians.

Also, the voice asked “ Saul, why do you persecute ME?” Christ was present in the believer. Paul will say: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” But also, Christ lives in you and me. Paul will face confusion and conflict in the communities he visits and establishes. But his faith is rooted in that moment of encounter with the Risen Christ. Grace is everywhere. Christ lives in me.

The journeys of Peter and Paul teach us many things. One is the fact of change that the Church must deal with. Paul’s letters describe a Jewish community that followed Jesus, becoming more and more a community of gentiles. The expectation that Christ would soon return is not fulfilled. The need to change, to grow will create tensions, conflicts that have to be addressed.

But the community is not to be afraid. SO, some interpret that strange fact that the number of fish in Peter’s miraculous catch is listed as 153, and yet the net did not break. Many see in this a message to a Church community that in growing and changing; it need not tear apart.

We live in a time of change and a time when divisions seem so broad and deep in the Body of Christ. The Good News is that Grace, the transforming love of God is everywhere, as Paul learned. We learned that leaders, despite human weakness, can learn to take up their cross and follow Christ. Like Peter we can be healed by the power of love.

Today, we are reminded that the community experienced the presence of the risen Christ at a meal. In our opening prayer we proclaimed that The Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread. As we break bread this morning may we know the presence of Christ, here and now. May we hear again Jesus’s last words in today’s Gospel: “Follow me.” Reminding us that God is with us always, until the end.

Submitted by the Reverend Brendan McCormick

April 24, 2022: Second Sunday of Easter

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Easter 2: April 24, 2022

We began our worship this morning with the traditional response to the joyful news of the

resurrection: “the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia”.

We receive this greeting from the liturgy of the churches of the East, especially the Greek

Church, where the formula is expressed with simple clarity: Christos anesté; aléthos anesté.

The third word aléthos means “truly”. “Truly he is risen”: yes, it has really happened. It is

important that we say to each other, yes, this astonishing and unique event has happened, and

its meaning resonates down the ages for us, to be recalled and reclaimed every Easter.

Let’s think about how that “truly” played out in the lives of Jesus’s first friends and followers.

The story of the resurrection is one of joy, but also of bewilderment. The second Sunday of

Easter is a good time to reflect upon that bewilderment. You will recall that Mark’s Gospel ends

abruptly with a young man telling three women that Jesus was raised. “They said nothing to

anyone, for they were afraid”.

What on earth had just happened? In different ways all our Gospels testify that it took the

disciples some time and much adjustment to even begin to understand what this meant.

Do you remember a similar state of shock when the assumptions of your world have been

turned upside down and you don’t know what is next?

Those of us who are a little older will probably remember the events at the end of the year

1989, when the despotic, unaccountable regimes of Eastern Europe, propped up by Moscow,

suddenly collapsed one after another. We returned to work after that Christmas break, to a

new world. The great binary in Europe between the messy, democratic West and an Eastern

Bloc ruled by a bogus ideology brutally enforced, had suddenly vanished, and we had no idea

what would take its place.

The disciples’ world was overturned also – more intimately, but in a way that would have far

more lasting and eternal consequences.

Even John’s Gospel, the last to be written after decades of reflection in the Christian

communities about all that Jesus’s ministry, death and resurrection meant, does us the great

service of sharing something of the apostles’ bewilderment in the midst of their joy.

More than that, through the story of Thomas “called the twin”, John tells us that the

bewilderment could also mean doubt. Thomas sensed that if Jesus was truly raised, that meant

something of earth-shattering significance. It was not something to accept on hearsay. One

could not even believe the evidence of one’s own eyes. Body-to-body contact was needed.

For Thomas, the sheer magnitude of the meaning of the resurrection must be confirmed by the

most powerful of evidence. And Jesus makes room for Thomas’s need before he even asks.

Thomas responds, with a statement of faith that goes far beyond anything that the other

disciples have said so far: “my Lord and my God”. Thomas embraces that cosmic understanding

of Jesus, on which John’s whole Gospel is built.

John’s Gospel does us a great kindness, when it gives us permission to be as bewildered and

(maybe yes, as unbelieving) as Thomas was.

John sees resurrection as both the ultimate demonstration of God’s loving power, and as a

potential problem, just because it is such a powerful proof.

The raising of Lazarus occupies a structural point in John’s narrative. Raising a dead person to

life, after several days in the tomb, is such a sensational act. It wins so many converts, that

Jesus’s enemies among the religious authorities decide that he must be got rid of, if they are to

keep their authority. In John 11:45-53, the story of the raising of Lazarus leads directly to the

plot against Jesus: “from that day on they planned to put him to death”.

The raising of Jesus was, of course, quite different from the raising of Lazarus. All the Gospels

make clear that it was far more than a resuscitation, miraculous as that would have been. Jesus

rose to a new kind of existence, where he still had a physical nature, but that nature surpassed

physical limits.

Remember that before this point, the disciples had seen Jesus perform wonders; they had seen

him receive signs of divine favour and honour; they had not yet confronted the lesson that he

both shared their essential humanity, and yet also belonged to something that was quite other.

The risen Jesus shared in God’s very nature. That is a huge idea to get one’s mind around.

So thank goodness for Thomas, for saying what someone needed to say.

And we should not take Jesus’s response as a reproach, when he says “Blessed are those who

have not seen and yet have come to believe”. To believe something so world-changing, on

second-hand reports takes a gift of faith. The “blessedness” of believing is not something that

we can generate alone. It comes as a gift of God, as a blessing in the truest sense. We pray for

that gift, and believe that we may, in God’s own time, be brought to the fullness of such a faith.

So what is it that we are called to believe in, in this resurrection which we proclaim every

Sunday in our creeds, and indeed in all our worship?

Our other readings for today give us a range of answers. Jesus’s resurrection transformed

(maybe not immediately, but in a few years) his followers’ understanding of who this man was,

who had been their teacher and their friend. God’s raising up of Jesus was a definitive

demonstration of how special he was.

As Peter (whom just over a week ago we heard denying that he ever knew Jesus) proclaims in

Acts: “ 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give

repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things.”

Sorting out what that “specialness” meant took the early Christians a very long time. Some

insisted that Jesus was so truly God that he was not really human at all; others said that he

came into being at a moment in time and was not co-eternal with God. Ultimately, the

understanding of John’s Gospel, which we heard expressed in Thomas’s reaction, has prevailed.

Then, as the author of the Revelation wrote in his opening greeting:

“Jesus Christ [is] the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the

earth. [He] loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom,

priests serving his God and Father.”

Jesus was not special for himself, but for all. Jesus revealed the ultimate, essential nature of

God in Jesus’s own conduct: sacrificial love and caring, for all people, but especially for those

who look least important and least worthy of notice and care in the eyes of the world.

We may be tempted to take this revelation for granted, since it has been taught and preached

so many times. In Jesus’s time, however, pagan Rome assumed that the fundamental principle

of the universe was like their own rulers: egotistical, grandiose and cruel, indifferent to the little

people. Only the great in the world’s eyes could claim meaningful relationship with the gods.

And before you think to yourself “that was then”, consider how many of the “great”, how many

celebrities, how many leaders of industry, how many dictatorial rulers or would-be-dictators,

behave as though the world revolved around them, their needs, their dignities and pretensions.

This is the human race’s sin, to raise up the unworthy above the rest, and expect the rest to

look up at them in amazement, and sometimes even to sacrifice their lives to those egotistical


And then there is Jesus: living humbly amongst the humble, but fearlessly confronting the

bogus claims of the spiritually arrogant. Teaching, healing, loving, without limit and regardless

of the cost.

God shows just what God thinks of that kind of ministry. As the first apostles said, God not only

vindicated him by raising him from the dead; God raised Jesus up far beyond anything that any

earthly ruler could aspire to.

And because he is risen, we are risen. We have communion with the risen Jesus and with each

other. We live in the love of a God who values everyone uniquely and perfectly. All we have to

do now (all!) is to reflect that all-embracing love in our speech, in our work, in our witness, in

our lives. May the gift of the resurrection faith empower us and encourage us to do that.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

April 10, 2022: Palm Sunday

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Reflection for Palm Sunday: April 10, 2022

The liturgy for Palm Sunday seeks, in a short service, to remind us of the jarring contrast between Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his Passion a short time after. We processed with palms and songs of celebration; in a few minutes we shall read the account of Jesus’s arrest, trial and execution from Luke’s Gospel.

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem was a gesture. Jesus proclaimed, through actions, that the kingdom of God, which Jesus had been preaching ever since he began his ministry in Galilee, was entering the life of the city. Pilate and his empire of violence entered Jerusalem from Caesarea by one gate; Jesus with his kingdom of humility, grace and love entered by the opposite gate. The city would have to choose between those kingdoms.

But his entry into the city exposed Jesus to the brittle, fickle thing that is human celebrity. Celebrity – the instant, instinctive and thoughtless adoration of the latest bright new thing – is no secure basis for the ministry of the Gospel. Once in Jerusalem, Jesus confronted much that was wrong, and addressed many of the needs, in that uniquely fragile, explosive community. Soon, the city decided that it could not cope with the challenge.

There is a story, probably written around a century after Luke’s Gospel, about the acts of Peter in Rome. Supposedly Peter was leaving Rome by the Appian Way out of the city at the time of Nero’s persecution of Christians. He had a vision of Jesus walking in the opposite direction. Peter asked Jesus where he was going. “I am going to Rome to be crucified again”, said Jesus. Shocked, Peter turned back and faced his destiny as a martyr.

Jesus has been crucified again many times, and not just in Rome. He is crucified whenever his name is used to give cover to the wrongs done by one human being against another. He is crucified again when Christian authorities in Russia cover the atrocities in Ukraine with a religious fig-leaf. He is crucified again when those in this country who call themselves Christians seek to roll back the protections given to women, people of colour and the LGBT community in the name of supposed religious freedom. You can think of many other examples.

And yet, though what we celebrate today is something dark, hidden in the darkness is something wonderful, which can only really be expressed as poetry. Christ took on himself, on the cross, all the wicked intentions, all the fears and hatreds of the world. He took them with him into the heart of God. And in the heart of God no hatred, no anger, no evil can endure for an instant. That blazing, consuming fire of pure sacrificial love turns the world’s evil to ashes in a breath. All that is left is love.

We do not see that around us yet. Evil still rages. But as we enter into Holy Week once again, remember that in a most precious yet mysterious way we are seeing the cosmic triumph of love. When all that divides us from God has been nailed with Jesus to the cross, the power of evil is gone.

Submitted by the Reverend Euan Cameron

April 3, 2022: Fifth Sunday of Lent

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Lent 5: April 3, 2022

In today’s Gospel reading we heard a memorable and moving story of the love shown to Jesus. It was so moving, in fact, that it appears, in different forms, in all four Gospels. The story is told in three different sets of circumstances, but it seems likely that the same episode is being described. It was remembered so much among Jesus’s followers that it passed from the word-of-mouth tradition into the written Gospels in only slightly modified form.

In Mark 14 and Matthew 26 Jesus is a guest in the house of Simon the Leper at Bethany. An unnamed woman pours out ointment on his feet. The disciples object to the waste, but Jesus says that the woman’s act of love will be remembered.

In Luke 7, Jesus is a dinner guest at the house of a Pharisee (also called Simon) when “a woman who was a sinner” anoints Jesus’s feet with ointment from an alabaster jar. The Pharisee thinks that Jesus ought to know what kind of woman this is (and presumably ought to have been horrified by such intimate touching by an outcast person). Jesus uses the occasion to teach the Pharisee that those who have been forgiven many sins are more grateful than those forgiven only a few.

Here in John’s Gospel, we have another version of the motif. We are in Bethany again, where Jesus, a few pages earlier, has raised the beloved brother of Martha and Mary, Lazarus, to life. In John’s Gospel the miracle of the raising of Lazarus is such an astonishing miracle, and so impresses those who become Jesus’s followers, that Jesus’s opponents in the religious authorities decide that for the good of the community, Jesus must be killed.

The story of the anointing is now placed into the hands of Lazarus’s sister Mary of Bethany. Mary takes a jar enclosing an enormous amount of rich, expensive perfume made from nard, also known as spikenard, and pours it over Jesus’s dusty feet. This time only Judas, the untrustworthy treasurer of the group of disciples, objects out of insincere concern for the poor.

In John’s hands, the story becomes a part of the preparation for the Passion of Jesus. Mary’s anointing anticipates the rich anointing of Jesus’s body offered by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus after his death.

One unintended result of the re-telling of the ointment story in these three different ways, was that a single woman follower of Jesus was made out of three or possibly four individuals. In a tradition which established itself some 500 years or more after Jesus, Mary of Bethany became amalgamated with Mary of Magdala, the first witness to the resurrection, and also with the unnamed woman with the alabaster jar of ointment in Mark and Matthew, and the “woman who was a sinner” in Luke. This Mary Magdalene became the icon of the fallen woman rescued and redeemed by her profound love of Jesus, the antithesis of the Virgin Mary. If you have seen representations of Mary of Magdala in the art of the Middle Ages or Renaissance, you have probably seen her depicted with her alabaster jar.

Today, our reading comes from John’s account of the story. As always in the Gospels, we are called to seek for the essential message, more than the details. What shines through the narrative is an act of pure devotion. Mary of Bethany probably did not understand what Jesus meant by saying that she was anointing him for burial. Yet she had been given her dear brother back from the dead, and no gesture of thanks, admiration, or gratitude was too much for Jesus who had restored her brother to her.

In the sour confrontation between Judas and Jesus over Mary’s action, however, something is being raised up which will echo down the Church to the present day.

Take Mary’s anointing of Jesus as a symbol of the beautifying of the body of Christ, which is the Church. The stories told in the Gospels often have a symbolic meaning alongside the literal meaning which they have at first reading.

Does that seem fanciful? Bear with me while I explain what I mean. There are two ways in which we can live our support of the church community. There is outreach to the wider world, which we discussed last week at the beginning of our conversation with Bishop Laura Ahrens. Outreach is how we take the love of Jesus and bring it to those who are in need, who may not necessarily have any working relationship with Christ or Christ’s church. And that is very important: it also requires discernment and planning, so that we give our energies and our resources where they can do the most good.

Then there is what is sometimes called “inreach”, which is a way to describe everything that we do, as a church, to support the life of our own community. That can include bringing care and support to our own members who need our care. It can also include the spiritual enrichment of our life as a worshipping community.

As a part of our tradition, we enrich our worship with physically beautiful objects: the silver vessels that we use for the Eucharist, the altar hangings, the vestments, and of course the music which we sing and which accompanies our worship. The same thing can be said of our liturgy itself: the Book of Common Prayer was, from its very first drafting, conceived as a poetic and spiritual evocation of the worship that we hope to feel.

There is a good and powerful reason for that custom. Physical beauty expresses, in a certain way, the spiritual beauty of that which is holy. We are material, physical creatures: it is natural for us to respond to that which appeals to our senses.

Even in the Middle Ages, thinking Christians knew perfectly well that the saints in the panel-paintings and the statues which adorned the churches of the time had not, in their real lives, gone around in exquisite brocade vestments covered in jewels and precious stones. Writers explained that these manifestations of beauty were symbols of the outstanding lives and the devotion to God which manifested itself in these people.

There is another side, however, to this beautiful anointing of the body of Christ, one which the Church as a whole, and the Episcopal Church perhaps especially, needs to beware of. We must not turn the choices that we make about the beautifying of worship into grounds for disagreement or even ill-feeling.

Many of the expressions of beauty that we now take for granted in our churches came into the life of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition in the 19th century, and they caused strife and disagreement when they first appeared. People argued, and became bitter over, how many candles there should be on an altar, whether holy water should be used or not, whether elaborate chasubles or copes should be worn by the priests. One can err on either side of the argument. It can become just as much of a distraction to obsess about being austere, simple and spare in worship, as it can be to go in the opposite direction and desire ever more beautiful ornaments.

The beauty of worship is there for a reason which must never slip from view. It is there to impress on us that Christ is among us, and his presence makes this place holy. The reason why we come to this holy place is to be strengthened, encouraged, invigorated so that we take the love of Jesus into the world.

There is a risk in hearing the last verse of the Gospel reading: “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”. The risk is that we become complacent about poverty, assume that it is part of some natural order. It was well beyond the imagination of the society of Jesus’s time to eliminate the crushing poverty which afflicted too many people on the bottom of the heap that was the Roman Empire.

It is not beyond our imagination. Because we are inspired by the spiritual beauty which surrounds us, we are called to imagine a better world. In this country above all, there is no moral justification – there is no moral excuse – for the extreme inequities between incomes, and the sheer struggle which so many people in our society experience to live with the simple decencies of life. A world anointed with the perfume of Jesus’s gifts is no place for the remorseless exploitation of those with the least. As we give thanks for the beauty which surrounds our Eucharist, let us be strengthened to work for a more loving and more just world.

Submitted by Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

March 20, 2022: Third Sunday of Lent

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Lent 3: March 20, 2022

Two weeks ago, we reflected on the familiar question that arises every time that unnecessary and apparently random suffering afflicts ordinary, innocent people indiscriminately. We recalled the possibly naïve, but unavoidable question that gets asked in such circumstances. “Where is God to be seen, in the midst of so much inexplicable suffering …?”

We are surely asking where God is to be seen in the experiences of (for instance) people in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, caught in the pincer movement of an attack from Crimea to the West and Luhansk to the East. We have followed the story of the people trapped under a bombed theatre in Mariupol (130 were rescued, but a further 1,300 people were believed to be trapped, according to reports on Friday). These events confront us with the appalling randomness of indiscriminate bombing of civilian sites in war, something that we hoped had been left behind in the last century.

And today’s Gospel addresses, square-on, some of the same kinds of questions.

It forms part of an extended series of sayings and teachings in Luke’s Gospel. In the Gospel narrative where these sayings occur, Jesus has left Galilee and is on his way to Jerusalem. (This section of Luke extends from chapter 9:51 where Jesus “sets his face” to go to Jerusalem, to his entry into the city in chapter 19:28-44). Not all these teachings actually took place while Jesus was on the road. Some stories (like the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10) do not exactly fit the itinerary, but are located within the journey anyway.

Here Jesus is asked to address the question: is misfortune a response to individual, or even to inherited sin? It was asked in the light of two disasters, one political and man-made (Pilate’s murder of some Galileans) and the other a spectacular accident (the collapse of a building in Jerusalem).

Biblical scholars have attempted to make sense of the story about Pilate allegedly killing some Galileans while they were in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice. The often unreliable but unique historian Josephus does not repeat this story exactly. But he does describe how Pilate could, on one hand, cave in to the people’s demands, when he agreed to remove military standards which contained (in Jewish eyes) idolatrous image of the emperor; and then, when provoked, he could carry out acts of barbarous vindictiveness. Josephus’s Pilate is not so different from the Gospels’.

There are other examples of this same question about suffering as punishment for sin in the New Testament: notably in the story of the man born blind in chapter 10 of John’s Gospel.

There are two human responses to unexplained and unjust suffering. One, which used to be common among religious people in earlier generations, is to say that “God must be doing this to me for some reason”.

On the other side, there are those who call any misfortune “unfair”, or even believe that someone or something must be or should be blamed or held to account for it. This response can arise as a part of the process of grieving, and coming to terms with illness or mortality. Most people, by the grace of God and the support of their friends and loved ones, manage ultimately to pass through it: a few, sadly, do not.

Let me be clear. God does not desire suffering. God is not behind suffering. But God is with us in the suffering. As our reading from Exodus made clear, God was not responsible for the sufferings of the Israelites in Egypt, but was aware of and attentive to them, and brought eventual relief.

Both the inexorable processes of incurable illness, and the unnecessary and avoidable scourge of wars and persecutions unleashed by paranoid and insecure politicians are part, alas, of the basic fabric of which our material bodies are made.

That is not to say that we can do nothing about them. We can reasonably hope that more and more diseases may yield to the skill and ingenuity of medical science, as so many have done in our lifetimes. We may even hope that better government may spread more widely across the world, even if it feels that we take a step back for every step or two forward, and it requires constant vigilance at home and abroad. We hoped that the collapse of state communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 would end that kind of abusive empire for good. It feels less certain now.

However, God will be with us in the random accidents and caprices of misfortune.

So far, so good. But what about Jesus’s warning note in his response to these two stories? “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

This saying seems to be taking back with one hand what Jesus has just given with another. But allow me to try to suggest a reading which does justice to Jesus’s message of a loving God.

As a supreme teacher, Jesus knew that there was always a risk that a good message would be heard in the wrong way. Here the danger was that, if Jesus were to reassure his hearers that they had done nothing to deserve their sufferings, they would believe that they had done nothing wrong at all, and approach God in a spirit of entitlement and complacency.

They might believe, as some of Jesus’s critics are alleged to have believed, that they were so pure and holy, so favoured by God, that they absolutely did not deserve to have anything bad happen to them. That, I suggest, is the other wrong response to suffering from which Jesus wishes to dissuade his hearers (which includes us).

Jesus called for “repentance”, which in effect meant a humble acknowledgement that we all play our part in making the world fall short of the perfection of God’s kingdom.

None of us, individually, causes illness. But there are many ways to make an illness worse, from denying its existence outright, to spreading it recklessly, or to finding specious reasons to resist the vaccinations and treatments that can help to cure it.

None of us, individually, makes buildings collapse. Yet we are all complicit in a culture where profit is all too often set ahead of safety, or safe conditions for those at work. When no personal profit is to be had from repairing vital infrastructure, bridges can be left to rust until they collapse. That has happened recently in this vastly wealthy country.

None of us, individually, causes war. Yet we share in a world where nations arm themselves against each other. It is not an answer, as some try to do, to wash our hands and say “not in my name”. We are sheltered by the political and military machines that our generations have created, whether we like it or not.

So, I do not believe that Jesus intended to be understood as threatening vengeance of some kind against those who did not show sufficient penitence for their individual wrongdoings, whatever they were.

Rather, Jesus was saying that whole communities can fall short of the standard of divine love, and bring misfortune upon themselves, or make the natural sufferings to which our bodily nature is exposed worse than they otherwise need be. It is not that God seeks to punish us (something Jesus does not say) but that we punish ourselves, and harm each other.

One final thought. The word that is translated “repent” in our Bibles is the Greek word metanoete. The primary sense of this word in our Bibles suggests a “change of mind” of a fundamental kind: “repent” can also mean “be converted”, “reorient yourself”.

This is an important Lenten reflection. Jesus’s words should stir us to careful, thoughtful inquiry about what can be said and done to make a better, healthier, more just and more peaceful world. This is not a time to beat ourselves up, let alone to criticize others across the political divide.

It is a season for imagining how the world can better be lived in, and loved, to reflect the purposes of God. It is a season for creative imagining of how good and beautiful the world could be, if we listened to the voice of the Spirit within us and in our communities.

That “re-thinking” is what the world needs. Every time we hear newsreaders announce world events, or politicians argue their cases, we can and should ask ourselves “how does that statement stand before God’s sovereignty? How can we think about this in the light, not of the world, but of the Gospel? Try it. See how it transforms the way that we all think about these troubled and dangerous times.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

March 13, 2022: Second Sunday of Lent

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Lent 2; March 13, 2022

A wise woman I talked about years ago has come to mind this week. Many years of age, she sat in a chair of a nursing home. “You know”, she said, “I have always believed, and I have lived a good life. But now my time is short and sometimes, when I sit here, I get to wondering”. Wondering, doubt, was woven into her life of faith.

Most of us think of faith as belief in certain things, important truths, teachings. “We believe in God, the Father Almighty”, as we pray each week. But faith in the Gospel is much more than that.

And, as Euan reminded us last week, Lent was, among other things, preparation for baptism at the Vigil of Easter. The liturgy of Lent provided images of the faith lived out by individuals.

Today, we meet Abram, one of those individuals. His name will soon be changed to Abraham. He is also a person of many years, who lived 4000 years ago, about 1700 years before the birth of Jesus. Abram, Abraham is a very important figure in the history of religion. Abraham means “exalted father” and Judaism, Christianity and Islam all consider Abraham a founding father of the faith they profess.

We first meet Abraham in the 12th Chapter of the Book of Genesis. God calls him to leave his home and family and journey on a path God will show him. Leave the home and family he knows and trust in God who will be with him every step of the way and give him a new home, a new land, and many descendants. Then God tells him “He is to be a blessing to many people.” Unfortunately, we Christians, Jews and Muslims, have not let the faith we all trace to Abraham make us a blessing to one another.

But today we find Abraham, like the woman in the nursing home, is late in life. And like the woman, he is wondering. Now, an old man, Abraham is still childless and homeless. Where was the promise?

In today’s reading, in the midst of his wondering, God engages Abraham and gives a sign. But the sign is really a repetition of the promise: “Your descendants shall be as numerous as the stars in the sky”. The sign is really another invitation to grow in his trust in God who promises to be with him every step of the way. And, we are told, Abraham believed!

The word “believed” has an active sense, the making of a commitment, renewing a commitment that required taking a risk. Abraham still wonders, but he continues the journey of faith, believing God is with him every step of the way. Believing God is trustworthy.

Most of us have not traveled as did Abraham, but our lives are still a journey of faith. And on that journey, we have moments of confusion and doubt, failure and periods of darkness. On this journey we, too, get to wondering.

The theologian Paul Tillich has said: Doubt, or wondering are not the opposite of faith, but the result of faith. To wonder, to doubt is very human. To wonder and continue on the journey, is the result of the gift of faith.

A teacher once said, the ministry of Jesus was to restore human beings to a trusting relationship with God. In all he said and did, Jesus proclaimed, God is trustworthy and present every step of the way.

But even for Jesus, the journey of faith was not easy. In today’s Gospel we find him literally on his journey to Jerusalem. The issues that were raised last week in the story of the temptations are now becoming concrete in his life. Powerful political leaders and religious teachers are threatening his life, challenging his trust in God.

Jesus’ response to their challenge is “I must go on”. Literally, “ it is necessary for me to move along”. But he then expresses profound sadness for the people who are abandoning the journey. “How often would I have gathered you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Jesus draws a picture of a God who can be trusted to protect us along the way.

We also meet Paul, this morning. After his encounter with the Risen Christ, his whole life has been a journey of faith. Although, he was not moving around too much as he wrote to the community at Philippi. Many scholars think he was in prison, possibly facing death for his belief.

Paul had many moments in which he had to figure out what God was doing; when Christ would return, what was resurrection? Paul had many occasions to wonder. He found that faith does not provide absolute certainty but provides courage to live with uncertainty. Faith does not make everything clear but empowers us to walk in the dark.

Perhaps the importance of our faith is not so much in the things we know, but rather in how we believe when so much is unknown.

Can we believe in the God who called Abraham and said, “fear not”! In the God we prayed to in our Collect whose glory is “always to have mercy”.

Our faith, in moments of light and darkness, when we felt secure and when we wonder, is in a God who has joined us on our journey. A God who has promised to be with us always, till the end.

Submitted by Reverend Brendan McCormick

March 6, 2022: First Sunday of Lent

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First Sunday in Lent: March 6, 2022

When we were last gathered here together for a number of consecutive Sundays, we were in the reflective, preparatory time that is Advent. Now we are gathered again, in the reflective, preparatory time that is Lent. Our Christmastide, Epiphany and “ordinary time” were spent in extraordinary circumstances, worshipping together online.

These times of reflection and thoughtful expectation are very precious in the Church’s life. In the ancient world, the Lenten season was dedicated to preparing those new to the faith for their baptism at the Easter vigil. In the Middle Ages, preoccupied with sin, Lent was a time to make one’s detailed confession of the sins of the year past and, through prayer and abstinence, to make ready for the Easter communion.

In our own time, we tend to focus on making Lent a positive thing: to enhance our lives through reading and study, or more regular habits of prayer: to give spiritual meaning to Lent by adding something of value, rather than taking something away.

These ways of marking Lent, especially the last, have much to commend them. They are rooted in today’s Gospel. We hear how Jesus was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness” and underwent a prolonged period of testing and temptation. In the Gospel narratives, this testing and preparation came between Jesus’s baptism and his ministry, teaching and healing in Galilee.

Mark’s Gospel tells the story of the temptation in a single verse of four short phrases. Matthew and Luke give more detail, though they relate the temptations in a different order. Matthew tells of the temptations as: stones into bread; the pinnacle of the temple; and finally, the mountain-top view of the kingdoms of the world. Luke reverses the order of the second and third temptations, so that the most visually spectacular temptation – the call to challenge God to save Jesus if he threw himself off the top of the largest building in the country – comes last.

Indulge me if, for a while at least, I ask some awkward questions of this Gospel passage. For it is easy to focus on this as a story of Jesus’s formation into the Messiah, the Christ, and to overlook possibly important lessons for us to draw from it.

Why did the Gospel-writers feel that it was so important to describe Jesus being tested, being “tempted by the devil” at a time when he was already “full of the Holy Spirit”? Was this time of abstinence and testing a part of Jesus’s formation, a spiritual boot camp?

Certainly, the men and women who founded the monastic life in the deserts of Palestine and Egypt believed that by living in the wilderness, not for a month or so, but for a lifetime, resisting constant temptations from demonic forces, they would become followers of Jesus.

Yet there is another way to read this story of Jesus’s temptations: one that speaks as much to the experience of the first Christians at the time the Gospels were being written, and which certainly speaks to us now.

We are all familiar with the question “if God exists, why is there so much suffering …?” Naïve as we may think that question is, it is heard more often at times of crisis – of famine, disease, or warfare. When Matthew and Luke’s Gospels were written, the question “where is God in all of this?” must have been heard many times. Judaea had exploded in a revolt, which the Romans under Vespasian and Titus had crushed, sacking Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. Afterwards, the Jewish followers of Jesus were marginalized and driven out of the new community of faith built on the ruins of the Temple worship. The disciples of Jesus will surely have wondered where God was in all this.

Our Gospel gives a stark, even shocking answer to this question.

Why is there hunger? Why is it necessary, when God’s chosen is present on earth, for anyone to go without the basic necessities of life? Jesus replies in the words of Deuteronomy. Unpacking the text a little, it says that one lives, not by being given those necessities without effort, but by listening to the word of God who tells us to love our fellow human beings, and to share what is necessary with them. There is enough to feed the hungry, if we only listen to the words of the God of love, and act upon them.

Look at the kingdoms of the world. Why is there bad government, corruption, oppression, and war? Would it not be possible, if God were really present in human form, for a reign of peace and justice to come among us?

Yet the devil betrays the answer to this dilemma by the very wording of the question. The power that calls for and generates universal monarchy is, literally, demonic. In Jesus’s time Rome imposed universal authority, what it called “peace” by beating down resistance to its rule. The Roman historian Tacitus, in his biography of the general Agricola, put into the mouth of a British chieftain called Calgacus the most devastating indictment of this system. “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire, and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

The kind of empire that enforces peace by violence is the empire of the devil. We see that in the battle over Ukraine at this very moment. The best and noblest efforts to establish a more peaceful order rest on the fragile hope of persuading governments not to oppress their neighbouring peoples, or indeed their own citizens. If even well-intentioned states try to impose peace by force, they will end up creating a demonic regime.

The worship of God has no business to establish a world-empire. Christians in the past, and even some Christians still do not see that. Yet there it is in the Gospel.

Finally, the devil despairs of being constantly rejected by Jesus on the basis of scripture, and quotes a scriptural text of his own. Make a spectacular show, he says. Rely on the protection promised to God’s chosen one in the Psalms – indeed, the very psalm which we heard a few minutes ago. By doing so, end all possible doubts about how special you are. Show that you are the special one of God, not among a few friends, but in the busiest centre of the religious world. Wouldn’t it be great if we could silence, once and for all, the scoffing of those who claim that Jesus was nothing special, was just a political revolutionary, or maybe never existed at all?

Jesus answers in words from Psalm 95, as we read it in morning prayer during Lent. To test the power and goodness of God is an act of unbelief, not of faith. The people of the Exodus had seen all the signs of God’s power that they needed, but they still wanted more. To prove that God is with us by spectacular displays of miraculous power simply doesn’t work. People who are impressed by that kind of thing will always ask for more, because their need rests on the absence, not the presence, of faith.

Unfortunately, people still put God to the test in many ways. Some Christians believed, against scripture, tradition and common sense, that their faith made it unnecessary to use the vaccines which the providence of God provided for us through human science during the pandemic.

Luke, through this story of the preparation for Jesus’s ministry, tells us how to live as the Church, now that Jesus is no longer physically present, though spiritually present in the Eucharist.

The world is to be put right, not by miraculously addressing physical needs, but by God’s word acting upon people’s conduct. We can end hunger, if we have the right attitude. War and oppression are not overcome by more war and oppression, but by humbly waiting on the peace of God. Evangelism does not need spectacular displays of charisma: it needs the message of the Gospel to settle profoundly into human hearts and minds.

This is good news. What is needed for the coming of the kingdom is very close at hand indeed. As Paul said in our reading, ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’. We must keep sharing it, trusting and believing that its power, in God’s good time, is greater than human want, human lust for power, or even the relentless human wish to be impressed.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

February 27, 2022: Last Sunday after Epiphany

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Last Epiphany: February 27, 2022

O.K. Listen up! Hear me out! You’re not listening to me! Listen to my story.

Expressions we may have heard and even used. Listening is important.

Several years ago, I attended a celebration for a married couple’s 70th anniversary. As is often the case at such times, someone asked, “what is the secrete of your success?” The couple tried to avoid the question, but it was repeated , so the wife replied: “we eventually learned to listen to one another.” Listening to one another empowers a relationship.

When I was preparing for ministry, an older priest told me: “The primary responsibility of a pastor is to listen.” I should have listened more closely.

“Listen” is a key word in our Gospel story today. But it is a word we hear hundreds of times in our Scriptures. The Shema, a prayer said many times a day by devout Jews would have been known to Jesus. It begins: “Listen, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.” Faith and trust require listening.

But the setting for today’s Gospel is unique. Jesus took Peter, James and John up a mountain. That should grab our attention. Important things happen on mountains. This is where earth comes closest to heaven. This is where people encounter God. Moses, in our first reading, comes down from the mountain with the Law. And his encounter with God gave his face a glow that was too strong for people to behold. Elijah, in the midst of defeat and despair encountered God on a mountain top. The presence was expressed as a “still small voice. But the strength and courage empowered Elijah to go on.

Elijah and Moses will meet with Jesus on the mountain.

Jesus, we are told, was going up the mountain to pray. This is a common practice for Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. At his baptism, Jesus is praying. Also, before he calls his disciples, here, today, the disciples see his glory while Jesus is at prayer, and soon in the Garden before his arrest, Jesus is praying.

Praying includes paying attention, becoming aware of where one is, what is going on. Jesus often pauses to becoming open to what is present. And what is present is the glory of God, the fullness of Divinity.

Jesus, we are told, glows with this glory. He is changed in appearance, as he will be in resurrection. The two key figures of the Old Testament we mentioned, appear: Moses, the Lawgiver, and Elijah, the Prophet. A sign Jesus will fulfill the expectations of Law and Prophets. They speak with Jesus about his own exodus, his death, resurrection, and, in Luke’s case, his ascension which Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem.

In the midst of all this glory and grandeur, the apostles are not at prayer. They seem unaware, and fall asleep. Not the last time they will do so at a key moment. Peter, nevertheless, is startled and begins to babel about building earthly tents for the heavenly visitors. The climax arrives as a voice from the cloud declares who Jesus is – God’s Son, the Chosen One, and the command, “Listen to him!”

The apostles have not been listening. Before this magnificent scene and proclamation, Jesus announced to these same apostles that he would suffer and be humiliated, and killed. For us, this magnificent scene comes before we enter the Lenten journey that leads to this foretold suffering and humiliation and death.

We are often like these apostles, distracted, confused, afraid, asleep. This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, the Book of Common Prayer instructs the pastor of a parish to invite parishioners to a Holy Lent.

A Holy Lent requires us to be awake, to be aware, to Listen. To pay attention to where we are, aware of one another, aware of the glory of God’s presence in our lives, in ourselves, in our community.

That isn’t easy. We are bombarded with sadness and fear. People are ill and dying, the terrors of war are present, the rhythms of life have been radically changed. These things can’t be avoided but there is much more to behold.

In the Newsletter I mentioned a line from the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was inspired on a walk, in the Fall of the year, through the countryside, in which the beauty of an abundant harvest was overpowering. Hopkins wrote: “These things, these things were here and but the beholder – Wanting.”

So often the beauty and comfort around us lacks, only someone to behold it. We are the beholder. Lent calls us to be beholders of God’s presence, God’s grandeur. Prayer Is a posture of beholding. Not that we deny the pain and suffering, but that we also behold the grandeur of life, the earth and the God who is present.

Our gathering together for Eucharist and prayer are moments to behold who we are and who we are called to be. To be open to the presence of one another and the presence of God.

Lent is a time to behold, to pray, to Listen. Let us do it together. Let us have a Holy Lent.

Submitted by Reverend Brendan McCormick

February 20, 2022: 7 Epiphany

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Seventh Sunday after Epiphany: February 20, 2022

Today, we reflect again on Luke’s account of a key moment in Jesus’s teaching to his followers in Galilee. He has gone to a mountain to pray, and called the twelve “whom he called apostles”. Then Jesus goes down to a level place to teach, which sometimes causes this version of the sermon to be called “the sermon on the plain”.

The two classic sermons in Matthew and Luke are very likely the results of gathering together remembered sayings and teachings of Jesus from multiple different occasions. The Gospels existed for several decades as the community memory of Jesus’s followers. Memorable sayings were key to that process.

Thus, we should not always expect Jesus’s recorded sermons to follow an obvious plan of development. Different sayings may have been offered at different times to different audiences, and then gathered together as our Gospels were written. A longstanding theory proposes that Matthew and Luke drew on a common source, no longer surviving by itself, which consisted entirely of disconnected sayings of Jesus. One of the “apocryphal” New Testament Gospels, known as the Gospel of Thomas, has exactly this form: it consists simply of a sequence of sayings, with no narrative to hold it together.

But everything that was remembered of what Jesus had taught was very precious to the community, and it remains precious to us.

We have heard much over the past few years of people who take what is called a “transactional” approach to their relations with their fellow human beings. A transactional attitude asks, “if I do something good for you, what is in it for me?” The bleaker side to that attitude is, “if I suffer some harm, someone is at fault and must suffer loss because of it”. Sadly, we see that all around. Look at those who go to law to sue their adversaries at every turn.

A satirical take on those who take a transactional attitude to everything was made in a sketch in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the notoriously hit-and-miss comedy sketch show aired on the BBC from 1969 to 1974.

Someone collecting for an orphanage enters the office of a merchant banker. He asks the banker for a donation of a pound to help the orphans. The banker looks genuinely perplexed. “No, no, no, I don't follow this at all, I mean, I don't want to seem stupid, but it looks to me as though I'm a pound down on the whole deal.” The charity collector says “Well, yes you are”. The banker responds “Well, what is my incentive to give you the pound?”

Yet, as Jesus points out, it is all too easy to slide into building community in a way that may not explicitly be about benefiting ourselves, but where the possibility of mutual support, mutual benefit, mutual gain is always present. That is why Jesus begins our Gospel reading with a call to his followers – which means us – to do good things, not only to those who cannot reciprocate by helping us, but to those who really don’t wish to do so.

So, Jesus exhorts the people to do good to those who oppress them: those who hate, curse, abuse, strike, exploit or steal from them. This is deservedly one of the most startling passages in the Gospels. Down the ages Christian communities have wondered whether this passage requires us to endure all kinds of misfortune and wrong without seeking lawful redress.

Jesus here, like other religious teachers of his age, was seeking to surprise, to provoke, to make people think about what it means to do good. Sages who gave provocative teaching were highly valued in ancient Israel. In the decades just before Jesus was born, one of the most famous teachers was Hillel the Elder. He was legendary as the wise man whom no-one could provoke to anger, no matter how hard they tried.

According to the Talmud, once a non-Jew offered to convert if Hillel could explain the entire law, the Torah, while the non-Jew stood on one leg. Hillel told him: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go and study.”

This saying is, of course, merely an inverted form of what Jesus says in our Gospel: “do to others as you would have them do to you”. Here – rather rarely in Luke – Jesus inscribes himself into the tradition of Jewish wisdom teaching.

One striking theory about the first paragraph (also found in Mark 5) is that Jesus was offering the people of Galilee a way to respond to the oppression of their Roman overlords. Roman soldiers could demand a certain amount of service from subject peoples, but no more. By offering more clothing than could lawfully be demanded, or (as in Matthew) offering to carry a soldier’s pack a second mile, the oppressed person would put the oppressor in the position of begging them to stop, to give back what had been thrust on them.

This was a kind of passive resistance, which preserved the dignity of the oppressed. This same passive, dignified response to systemic injustice Martin Luther King learned from Mohandas Gandhi, for one. It is very powerful.

But Jesus’s wisdom reaches further. He proposes that there is more power, more blessing, in doing good for those who cannot repay the good. Give to those who cannot reciprocate: otherwise, we are no better than those who give simply in the expectation of receiving benefits themselves.

Jesus makes his point in an interesting way. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? This is one of a few really important places where I believe the NRSV contains a critical mistranslation. The word translated “credit”, in Luke’s original Greek is the word charis, used three times here.

It’s an unusual word. In the Gospels, only Luke uses it, though Paul does also. Charis carries a huge amount of theological weight. It is the word translated “grace” in the most famous passage where “grace” is spoken of, Paul’s closing blessing in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. “The charis of our Lord Jesus Christ … be with you”. It is also the root of our word “Eucharist”.

Translating Jesus’s use of the word as “credit” rather suggests that we show love of the unlovable and unlovely in order to earn something from God. Tragically, down the ages that was how the Church often misunderstood the word “grace”: as though it was a credit balance in one’s celestial account.

Allow me to suggest another way to hear Jesus’s teaching. “If you just love those who love you back, where is the beauty, where is the sense of the presence of God, in that?” How can such a commonplace act of loving convey the special, unique kind of love that God bears to an unlovely and unloving world?

Jesus was looking forward to the time when his followers would spread his message by their words and their lives. The charis that they would display would be evangelism in action. The special kind of love shown by Jesus’s followers would draw others into the kingdom by the power of its example. The people of God’s kingdom should literally glow with God’s reflected love for all creation.

The beauty of understanding the Gospel this way is that the charis of reflecting God’s love does not add any material benefit to us. It could not: we cannot be more loved than God loves us already. But glowing with God’s reflected love helps to build up the kingdom. It adds one more spark of light to the glow that is attracting people towards God’s purpose of a better world. Our special call is to help those sparks of light to flicker and dance wherever we go. Believe me, the world needs us to do that. God’s love will empower us to do that.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

February 13, 2022: 6 Epiphany

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Sixth week after Epiphany: February 13, 2022

In 1949 Rogers and Hammerstein, two of the most famous musical producers, produced South Pacific. Nine years later it was made into a movie. Among the songs was “Some enchanted evening “, which many of you may remember. Another song from that musical, that you may not remember, caused quite a stir at the time. I’ll read the words:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year.

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid, of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got the be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late. Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught!

At the time, some places banned this song from performances. 64 years later, in this Black History Month, I think it could still be banned in some places. Banning books has become a popular movement. Especially books that affirm the rights and the humanity of people who have been oppressed or marginalized because their eyes are oddly made or their skin is a different shade, or they believe or love in a different way.

Then we come to today’s Gospel: Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who weep, who are hated and excluded and reviled”; and then woe to you rich. This certainly is controversial. Is this something we want our children taught?

And yet, these words are given great importance in Scripture. Today, we read Luke’s version of what in Matthew is called the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew, Jesus goes up a mountain, sits down, and the apostles gather round, and he teaches beatitudes similar to, but not the same as we find in Luke.

The setting is also different. Matthew wrote for a community that was largely Jewish. They would have understood the sermon taking place on a mountain as presenting Jesus as the new Moses, proclaiming the New Law. Matthew’s Gospel proclaims that the Beatitudes are to Jesus’ mission what the 10 Commandments were to Moses’ mission.

Periodically, in our Country, groups try to place the 10 Commandments in public parks, classrooms and court buildings. Never have I heard of anyone trying to have the Beatitudes placed in public places. The beatitudes turn society’s values upside down. Even more, they challenge How many religious institutions live. And, they are a profound challenge for you and me.

It is true that the Gospel was written at a different time, in different economic circumstances and structures of society. Many in Luke’s community had suffered persecution, loss of livelihood, social standing and even life. Luke is not saying it is good simply to be poor or hungry or persecuted, but to suffer such things because one has remained faithful to their Lord is a blessing. Discipleship can be costly, and Jesus is praising those who have paid the price.

The “Cost of Discipleship” is the title of a book which is largely based on the Beatitudes. It was written by the Lutheran Minister and theologian Dietrick Bonhoeffer. Educated in Germany and the United States, he returned to Germany to oppose Hitler and the Nazi Government. Being a disciple of Christ was costly at that time. In fact, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis near the end of the war.

We live in different times. But we must not overlook the challenge of the Gospel.

“Woe to you rich and full, and laughing; woe to you when all speak well of you.” As we continue reading this Gospel, we will see Jesus’ attitude toward wealth is critical. The wealthy he is looking at do not use their wealth to help those in need. They hoard their wealth and do not think it is gift, nor do they see any need to trust or thank, or depend upon God. In Luke, wealth is seen more a burden than a blessing.

Jesus repeats what we heard in Jeremiah, that those most popular, most highly thought of are not those who tell the truth. The Catholic Bishop of Brazil, Helder Camara, who died over 20 years ago, once said: “I fed the poor and they called me a saint. I asked why are there so many poor and they called me a communist.”

We follow a Lord who was betrayed, denied, beaten, mocked and then killed. Discipleship comes at a cost. Sometimes a great cost. But it also comes with a great promise: “I will be with you always…until the end.”

Submitted by Reverend Brendan McCormick

February 6, 2022: 5 Epiphany

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Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: February 6, 2022

‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’

It can be terrifying to be confronted by a power far beyond our imagining, even when that power is good. All kinds of emotions suddenly well up, but often amongst them is a sense of discomfort. How is one expected to be comfortable in the presence of someone or some thing whose goodness, whose greatness, so far exceeds one’s own?

In 2006 Union Seminary, where I teach, awarded its highest honour, known as the Union Medal, to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As the academic dean at the time, I was invited to a number of events happening before the ceremony, including a dinner at St James’s Church Madison Avenue. That Upper East Side church, over many years, had consistently supported Desmond Tutu long before he became a global celebrity. By 2006 Archbishop Tutu had received dozens of awards. He knew instinctively, and by long practice, how to put strangers at their ease. It would have been so easy to be overawed by his courage in confronting and facing down unimaginable, systemic evil. The special grace of the archbishop was to take his causes, and the welfare of his people, very seriously; and to take himself not at all seriously. You may have read that even in old age and frailty he was an instinctive dancer. He literally danced his way out of the Union Chapel after the medal ceremony.

Our readings for today each explore in different ways the trauma – that is not too strong a word – of being suddenly confronted with a vision of God-like power and goodness.

Isaiah gave his name to a long and complex collection of religious poetry, probably written over several centuries, and assembled in antiquity. Our passage today comes from the very beginning of the prophet’s mission. The memoir begins with the death of King Uzziah or Azariah, around 740 BCE. It’s a rather pointed way to mark time: as though you or I were to say “in the year that Barack Obama laid down the presidency according to the Constitution” while not so much as mentioning his successor. Prophets can be political.

Isaiah has a vision of God. In Exodus, God does not even allow Moses to see him directly. Yet Isaiah receives this direct vision of God enthroned. No wonder that he exclaims that he is done for; he is a foul-mouthed person living among foul-mouthed people, and not fit for the vision.

Isaiah was not the only prophet to feel unqualified. Amos, at the beginning of his prophecies, insists that “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore trees”. Jeremiah, when called by God to speak uncomfortable words, exclaims “Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy”.

In our reading from Corinthians, Paul describes how the risen Jesus appeared to him, as the final, decisive, intimate proof of Christ’s rising from the dead. He also uses some deliberately shocking language to express how traumatic that experience was. He describes his vision of Christ as being like an ektroma. This word is used nowhere else in the New Testament, but a handful of times in the Hebrew Bible, where it refers to a misbirth or miscarriage. It is something painful and grievously unnatural. Paul felt himself utterly undeserving, a persecutor alienated from Christ, and here Christ broke through to him.

The story from Luke’s Gospel of the call of Peter may be the most psychologically interesting of all these accounts. Jesus borrows Peter’s boat as a floating pulpit. Then he asks Peter to have another go at catching fish. Maybe it is my imagination, but Peter’s reply sounds just like that of an experienced craftsman to a client who has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. “All right, boss, if you say so”. The sarcasm drips from his lips. The Greek word Peter uses to address Jesus, “epistata”, could mean any kind of overseer. Of course, Jesus is not (yet) Peter’s boss.

Against all expectation, Peter takes in a huge catch. Peter knows his business, and he knows his waters. What has happened is just impossible. This is the miraculous power of God, in the form that a fisherman can recognize. From sarcasm he suddenly turns to awe and embarrassment. “Get out of here, for I am a sinner, LORD”. He addresses Jesus in the form appropriate to real rulers – and to God.

In each of these stories, God confronts a sceptical and reluctant person with God’s awesome and even terrifying power to break into their lives. Then God does something more. The human being, the insufficient sinner oppressed with a sense of inadequacy and sin, is taken and made fit for service. God terrifies, but then God enables.

Isaiah is worried about his foul-mouthed speech, and his tongue is purged with fire. (As a preacher once reminded a group of potential ordinands, that experience must have hurt horribly.) Amos and Jeremiah, and later Jesus’s disciples, are reassured that they will find the words that they need when they need them, because God will speak through them. Paul is blinded, but his sight is restored when he is received into the community of believers. Peter, James and John are terrified with the power of God, then told “do not be afraid”. You have a greater mission ahead of you, to gather people into the kingdom that is coming to be.

One needs to be very careful with the rhetoric of “unworthiness” that we find expressed by these three heroic figures from the Bible. The priest offered a promotion, to a dignity that they have aspired to for years, may say “I am not worthy”, when that is the last thing in their thoughts. The truly humble, faithful person may have their sense of unworthiness manipulated and exploited by someone who holds authority over them, but ranks far below them in moral and spiritual gifts.

The stories of Isaiah, Peter and Paul are not just about special recipients of God’s grace. They are for us all. God takes us with all our limitations, and does amazing things with us as we are. The sense of unworthiness is only the beginning of an experience of transformation. The service of God is not something based on exceptional effort and hard work, like the achievements of an athlete or a scientist. It is not a matter of mere good fortune, and accidentally being in the right place with the right personality at the time, as with many “celebrities”. The service of God is a gift of grace. It is God’s love extended towards all who are open to receive it.

No-one earns the love of God. No-one can be more profoundly loved than they already are, in the sacrificial love expressed in Jesus’s ministry, death and resurrection.

God can enable us in all kinds of ways, that are probably less dramatic than a direct vision of God’s majesty in a smoky hall. Usually, we are enabled by the willingness and openness of our community to make us feel welcomed, at home, as though we belong here and have a place. Once we feel that security of being loved in a healthy, open, inclusive community, we are freed from anxiety about ourselves, and freed to be of use to others.

As Paul remarked several times to his churches, there are no celebrities in God’s community. There are only different gifts, all of which add value to the common life. One thing that we can do – that I believe we all wish to do – is to welcome those who are called into our community or discover our church and consider whether to become regular members.

That, as Brendan observed, happens more easily and naturally when we meet in person in our little church on the hill. We all hope and trust to be able to return to gathering in person and in one place before too long. If the present trend of Covid infections and their relative severity continues as at present, and no further surprises emerge, it may be time to consider worshipping in physical community, with appropriate care, once again.

That is something to pray for. But another thing to pray for, is the grace to become ever more truly a community of welcome, acceptance, and openness. That will allow all of us, the long-standing faithful members and those who arrive occasionally (as one friend of mine put it, the pillars of the church, and the flying buttresses) to feel at home, and able to be of service to all.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

January 30, 2022: 4 Epiphany

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4 Epiphany: January 30, 2022

There has been much in the news these days about polls that indicate the popularity of the president has declined in the short year of his presidency. If so, he might find comfort in today’s Gospel reading. It begins with the last words of last Sunday’s Gospel: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. We are then told, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”. The gracious words of scripture Jesus proclaimed to have been fulfilled, were from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”.

On that day, in that synagogue the consolation spoken by the prophet is being granted in a new sense and a new way. How wonderful! How gracious. But just at this point, a jarring note is heard: “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

I won’t repeat Euan’s reflection on Isaiah’s words from last week, but the fact is that after a few more words of Jesus, the people who had just spoken well of him were “filled with rage”, and they got up and drove him to the top of a hill so that they might throw him off the cliff. A considerable drop in popularity occurring in a few moments.

What did Jesus say to cause such a reaction? First, he acknowledged he was aware that a prophet is not accepted in the prophet’s hometown. A teacher put the same idea in other words: “To live with the saints in heaven; O what glory. To live with the saints on earth; that’s quite another story.”

But then Jesus goes on. He compares himself to two great prophets of ancient Israel – Elijah and Elisha, noting that they served non-Israelites because their own people were not open to their ministries.

The implication is that he, too, a prophet is not being accepted by his own people, and will take his message to others, to outsiders. That was the cause of the rage. But we must be careful here.

Luke’s Gospel was written, primarily, for Christian converts from outside the religion of Israel. Even more, Luke’s Gospel is Volume one of Luke’s works. Volume two is the Acts of the Apostles, in which we find the ministry of St. Paul spreading the Gospel into the gentile world, after having little success among the Jewish community. In Luke’s works it becomes clear that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to the whole world, the ends of the earth, not reserved to Israel.

However, in our day, when antisemitism is again on the rise, Luke’s vision can distract us from the importance of today’s Gospel reading. A temptation for us is to read the Gospel as history of our faith. We can hear words of consolation, just as the people in that synagogue in Nazareth. But we can fail to hear the words of challenge addressed to us, today. Words that enraged those who first heard them might also enrage us.

There is a story called “The Grand Inquisitor”, which is a chapter in the Russian author, Dostoyevsky ‘s book, “The Brothers Karamazov “, written in 1879. In this chapter one brother, an atheist tells a story to the other, a young monk.

It takes place in Spain, around the time Christopher Columbus bumped into an Island that today is called the Dominican Republic, and thought he had reached India. In Spain, the King and Queen who sponsored Columbus also sponsored an Inquisition, an investigation of people claiming to be Christian, to see if their belief was what was then considered authentic Roman Catholicism. For centuries, Spain had been under the rule of the Moors, who were Muslim. It had also been home to many Jews. When Christians returned to power the Muslims and Jews had to covert or leave, or worse. Many converted but Christian leaders were suspicious. An Inquisition was set up to make sure that these and others professed the true faith. Estimates are that up to 5000 people were burned at the stake for heretical belief.

Into this atmosphere Christ returned. He began to teach and do miracles, even raising a child to life. The head Inquisitor, the Grand Inquisitor had Jesus arrested. He came to Jesus in his cell and tells him the Church will burn him at the stake the following day. His teaching was dangerous to the what the church now believed. The Church of the day had corrected Christ’s mistakes and his stay would undermine the work of the Church. In these few words I can’t do justice to Dostoyevsky. Briefly, Jesus is let go, but the Church is not changed.

A rather provocative story, but if Jesus returned today, repeating the words and demanding the deeds he taught and lived in his day, is it possible many would be filled with rage? Christianity has served as an incubator for antisemitism, defended slavery, racism, justified war, diminished women. And what Jesus has said about the poor and foreigner would challenge if not enrage many. Prophets in our day don’t fare much better than in days of old.

Although Jesus quoted Isaiah, I think his life was more like that of Jeremiah. God’s promise to be with him and deliver him as he spoke what the Lord told him did not shield Jeremiah from persecution and derision and perhaps even death at the hands of many who thought themselves God’s people.

And today we hear Paul proclaim the greatest of gifts is love. I think many people think the hymn we read in Paul, today, a nice idea, but unrealistic for life in the “real world”. The Church has often failed and continues to fail to do the work of Christ. How would he be welcomed today in many churches?

Our Gospel reading concludes with the people preparing to throw him off the cliff. “He passed through the midst of them and went on his way. Luke presents the Church for whom he is writing as ‘people of the way”. Not a community of the perfect or the saved, but a humble, pilgrim people, following Christ, living in hope, supporting one another, building and planting, listening to the word of God and struggling to do it.

Let us, together, follow Christ, on the way.

Submitted by Reverend Brendan McCormick

January 23, 2022: 3 Epiphany

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Third Sunday after Epiphany; January 23, 2022

Sometimes it takes a degree of self-belief, even courage, to stand up before a group of people and attempt to teach them, or even to tell them a story. Let me say how much I stand in awe of those who teach young children in school: young children can be the most remorselessly honest of critics. By the time that one is teaching adults, any doubts are usually covered with a veneer of politeness.

It is harder still to earn credibility as one with something to say, among people who have seen one growing up. I come from Scotland, a small country where, in small communities, people tend to know one’s background, and to have a healthy (or unhealthy) disrespect for ambition. The tale is told of a Scottish writer called Leslie Mitchell, who a hundred years ago wrote novels of working-class life in north-east Scotland under the pen-name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Although the works are now recognized as classics in their kind, at the time they were published, those who knew the Mitchell family were cruelly sceptical of Leslie’s setting himself up as an “author”. One person remarked with scorn “him, write a book? I knew his father”.

That story reminded me of another, nearer home. An African-American young woman named Ann Lane grew up in the family of the James Pharmacy here in Old Saybrook. She followed the family trade and trained as a pharmacist, but nothing was going to stop Ann from writing fiction. Her background and her race told against her, but with great determination she wrote short stories, then submitted a partially completed novel, written in and about Harlem, for a literary fellowship. She won. The novel, The Street, was published in 1946 under her married name, Ann Petry, and sold over a million copies. She returned from Harlem to Old Saybrook, and lived the rest of her life here as a somewhat reclusive celebrity.

I recall these stories because our Gospel tells of Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth and teaching in the synagogue. Before the loss of the Temple in 70 CE, synagogues were places where the community gathered for scriptural study and debate. The Jewish tradition of studying scripture entailed comparing the interpretations proposed by rabbis down the ages.

Jesus did not play the game by the old rules. Let’s think about the passage from Isaiah which he read. Isaiah is a long book, almost certainly the work of several authors. This passage comes from the second, or possibly the third, phase in this complex text. It speaks of the restoration of the people of Israel after the exile in Babylon, but also says that the prophet has a special commission to proclaim a time of jubilee, where those burdened with debt or oppressive expectations from powerful landlords or creditors were released from their obligations.

The quotation attributed to Jesus comes from the 2nd-century-BCE translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Most of it comes from Isaiah 61:1-2, but one phrase, translated “to let the oppressed go free”, comes from slightly earlier, Isaiah 58:6. (That matters, as we shall see.)

Jesus does not address the rabbinic scholarship. He says simply and with dramatic flair, “this passage is about what is happening now”. Jesus is the prophetic voice. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think of some of the audience saying to themselves “him, speaking as a prophet? I knew his father.” Other Gospels say that, almost in those words.

The story of Jesus’s visit to Nazareth is on the face of it a story of failure. Jesus does not overcome the credibility deficit experienced by someone who has grown up in a small town. Luke turns up the drama even more than Mark and Matthew, suggesting in the verses following this Gospel that some of the crowd wanted to take Jesus’s life.

Yet the story says something vital about Jesus’s message, whether the people in the story are ready for it or not. It says something about God’s intent to put right the injustices, especially the economic and social injustices, that divide God’s beloved people one from another by wealth, class, gender or race. In Luke we hear this theme in texts as different as Mary’s song of praise and in Jesus’s sermon on the plain. This same theme lies behind the discreet reorganization of the verses from Isaiah. The help for the oppressed is put into the foreground.

One does not have to be a Christian to wish for in a more just society. Many utopian ideals for reforming society come from explicit atheists. And many Christians seem ready to leave out the bit about “bring[ing] good news to the poor” from their understanding of the faith. It seems that one can care about social justice without being a follower of Jesus, and one can at least pretend to be a follower of Jesus without embracing social justice.

But the two things can and do combine. In my workplace of Union Theological Seminary, social justice theme is very high up the agenda indeed. Some of our visiting faculty work entirely on how to address economic and racial injustice (two inequities which are all too often combined).

However, if it is God who proclaims good news to the poor, that good news needs to take on a special character. The world is full of worldly plans to restructure society, and many of these involve remedying the oppression suffered by one group at the hands of another. However, if merely human wisdom is involved, all too often the result is either to replace one kind of oppression by its mirror image, or to set up an all-powerful state which oppresses all equally.

We are all desperately limited people, in our capacity to understand, or think ourselves into, the needs of others. All too often our idea of greater justice will mean greater justice for those like ourselves, or those whom we identify with. God’s love, God’s desire for the fullness of human life does not suffer from those limitations. If it is the spirit of God that sets the oppressed free, then we can imagine, and hope for, something very different.

In God’s eyes, the reform of society begins with the re-fashioning of humanity through the work of the Spirit. If the same sinful, broken, angry people try to set up a more just community, they will only re-make another version of the ills that they try to remedy. But if God works in us and through us by the Spirit, something different will, and must happen.

We need, in our inmost being, to come to see all creation, all life, as beloved of God, as worthy of our love, and our service to enable its fullest flourishing, its growth into its best self. Social transformation begins with self-transformation. That means not just transformation of the individual, but of our communities, our congregations, our churches. We cannot be a clique of the like-minded furthering our own interests, even if we understand those interests as the common good. Look around you, to see what that way of thinking does to our common life.

Jesus proclaimed God’s kind of transformation – but it wasn’t easy. It is not coincidental that Luke placed the story of Jesus’s preaching from Isaiah about the renewal of society in the context of Jesus’s most problematic teaching encounter in Galilee. (Luke is the only Gospel writer who does this.) It is really hard to proclaim a whole new order of life to people who are not ready for it.

Even we, who surely hope to be open to Jesus’s message, have to take full stock of just how ambitious God’s plan is. We are to grow, in the Spirit, into a place where we really believe that everyone, including those whose attitudes and arguments we profoundly disagree with, are the beloved of God. And in that place, we shall at the same time be fearless in speaking about what is wrong in the world, and limitless in our love for those who stand in need of healing and renewal. And we shall keep reminding ourselves that we need that healing and renewal as much as anyone.

That is a big task. But, praised be God, we are not attempting it alone. We have each other, and in our fellowship the Spirit of God can be present, leading us into something far better than we could do alone.

Submitted by the Reverencd Doctor Euan Cameron

January 16, 2022: 2 Epiphany

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2 Epiphany: January 16, 2022

I changed the order of Morning Prayer today, reading the Collect at the beginning. I thought it clearly set a theme for today when we asked God that “your people, illuminated by your word and sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory…” The prayer assumes that we are gathered to be illuminated by the words of scripture and fed with the bread and wine of the sacrament so that we can then go forth and be a light in the darkness that envelops so much of our world and our lives.

That is quite a task we are assigned, especially since we are not physically together and while the Word is proclaimed, the Eucharist is without the sign of sharing bread and wine and most of us are not venturing forth. How are we to “shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory”?

A Christmas Card I received a few years ago gives a direction. “Ultimately”, it read, “what really matters is a courageous spirit and a generous heart.” Courageous spirit and generous heart; if we could act that way we would shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory. We would cast out some of the darkness that surrounds us.

That seems to me a fair description of what a disciple is called to do, to be. That expresses, in a way, what we signed on to be at our baptism. We renewed the promises last week when we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus. Today, we follow Jesus and his small group of disciples to Cana, a small town in Galilee, to attend a wedding.

We did this by jumping from Luke’s Gospel to John’s. Our reading today begins what students of the Gospel call the Book of Signs in John. It is made up of seven signs, actions that reveal who Jesus is, reveal the “radiance of Christ’s glory”.

Who Jesus is, is proclaimed at the beginning of John’s Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The Word became flesh as Jesus, the Son, of God. In John’s Gospel we see people struggle to come to belief in Jesus and thereby enter eternal life and become empowered to “shine in the radiance of Christ’s glory”

The sign at Cana takes place at a Wedding feast, which scripture often uses as an image of the kingdom of God. And Messiah’s arrival is often described as this banquet filled with abundant, wonderful wine. But they run out of wine. And Mary comes to Jesus with the problem. He is reluctant. His hour has not yet come. The time for fully revealing who he is has not yet come.

But signs of his identity are revealed. The water whose purpose is purification of one is changed to the wine, a sign of Christ’s purifying presence. All these are signs that put the disciples on the path to belief. And, as Mary admonishes, they will “do whatever Jesus tells them”.

Tomorrow, our Nation honors the life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a human being, a disciple through whom the radiance of Christ’s glory shined. We will hear much about “his dream”. But I think more important are his words demanding justice through merciful acts of non-violence to overturn the laws that deny both justice and mercy.

Every year on the Holiday, I read the Letter from Birmingham Jail, which Dr. King wrote to eight religious leaders of Birmingham who had criticized his participation in protest marches against segregation laws and discriminating policies in the city. Dr. King had been arrested for participating in a peaceful march and the letter from the clergy was published during his imprisonment. His Letter is a response to them.

It is amazing how many issues he addresses are still being addressed.

Much has changed but much has remained the same. Among Dr, King’s statements that are well worth remembering today are:

All life is interrelated. We are caught up in an inescapable network, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize the basic fact of the interrelatedness of us all.

Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith in humanity, and certainly not in God. We must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed, and that a person, by the grace of God, can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love.

God is present among us, empowering us to see that all human beings are interconnected, that we are all related in one human family.

We listen to these words after we have heard Isaiah present marriage as an image to express God’s love, God’s joy for those who are faithful to being God’s people. We hear the Psalmist sing of God’s love for those who are true of heart. And we hear Paul remind us of the gifts of the Spirit we have received, gifts to be used for the common good.

But our nation is having difficulty acknowledging our interrelatedness. Hope seems to be in short supply. How strong is belief that we are all related in one human family? Without a courageous Spirit and a generous heart can we shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory?

Let us listen to Mary who tells us disciples today to “Do whatever Christ tells us”.

[I suggest you read the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Just type it into a search engine on your computer.]

Submitted by Reverend Brendan McCormick

January 9, 2022: 1 Epiphany/Baptism of Jesus

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1 Epiphany/Baptism of Jesus: January 9, 2022

At this time, many of us are taking down Christmas decorations. Some have already done so. The lights that have confronted the darkness in Nature are making their way to closets or attics. However, our ancient Christian ancestors, who first celebrated these mysteries, we're just getting started.

As a Church celebration, Jesus’ coming in human flesh, began in the 1st century and it began in what we call the East – Egypt, Syria. And the feast day was January 6th and was called Epiphany, Theophany. Greek words that mean “Making known of something hidden, a manifestation of God’s presence on earth. The date, January 6th was chosen for the same reason December 25th will be chosen for Christmas 200 years later: it was the time pagan feasts celebrated the “return of sunlight”. What better time to celebrate the coming of the Light of Christ in human flesh, in human history. The focus was an adult Jesus.

It wasn’t until around 335 CE that Christmas on December 25th was established in Rome. Again, the reason this date was chosen was because Romans celebrated the “birth of light” on this day. At its Roots Christmas proclaims “the incarnation of the Word”. Indeed, the ongoing incarnation of the Word in human life and human history, now, as the carol sings, Christ is “born in us today”.

As time passed, the story of the Annunciation, the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the manger, angels singing, shepherds watching, Magi following a star are so beautiful, are sung in carols, celebrated in paintings and played out in pageants that today Christmas, for many people, is a return to a silent night and peace on earth when we become spectators to the wonderful birth of the child and celebrate a huge birthday party. If we arrive at that point, we have missed the meaning of Christmas.

Epiphany challenges such a focus. The Gospel read is of a journey of strange people, Magicians from the East. People who thought the movements of the planets and stars revealed events on Earth. They saw something and they interpret it to be of such importance that they undertake a dangerous journey seeking the one born king of the Jews.

This story is found only in Matthew’s Gospel and is used to teach his community that Jesus is a gift to “all the nations”. Not confined to one religion or race or people. Matthew’s community, originally, all Jewish, as was Jesus, the apostles and disciples, now finds pagan peoples of his day seeking the one born king of the Jews. Matthew’s story points out that the divine-human child is being made manifest to these pagans just as it was to those magicians who come in search to worship the child, while Herod who, had all the information he needed to know who this child was, nevertheless is seeking to destroy him. It is a message the Church must listen to again and again.

On this Sunday following Epiphany, we see the Church has quickly moved to an adult Jesus, in whom and through whom the presence of God is revealed. Today, at the baptism of Jesus a voice from heaven declares “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. “

Who Jesus is, revealed by a star at birth is now proclaimed by God. In the monastic office of Epiphany, reference is made to this baptismal scene, but also to the wedding at Cana and the scene of Transfiguration on the mountain. Strange to include these events when Christmas is still in our imaginations.

But Cana, in John’s Gospel presents changing water in to wine as the first sign that manifests who he is that Jesus presents to his disciples. Because of this, we are told, they believed in him. And on that mountain that comes much later the voice again proclaims, “this is my beloved Son”.

Baptism is the focus today. When we were baptized the sign of the cross was formed on our forehead and proclaimed: “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own, forever.” We acknowledged that we are Christ’s dwelling place on earth today. In a moment we will renew the vows we made at baptism. We commit ourselves again to do the works that manifest Christ’s presence on earth here and now.

Howard Thurman, Minister of the Gospel, Civil rights leader, mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helps set the scene for us.

His words:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flocks,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner.

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among sisters and brothers,

To make music with the heart.

Let us. Amen

Submitted by the Reverend Brendan McCormick

January 2, 2022: Christmas 2

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Christmas 2: January 2, 2022

Our lectionary gives us a choice of Gospel readings for today. We could have heard the stories from Matthew of the Wise Men, or of the flight into Egypt; but I chose to read the Gospel passage from Luke about Jesus in the temple, partly because Luke is the focus of our attention this year, and partly because it is not a story that we hear discussed all that often.

This story, presumably based on a tradition about the young Jesus, gives a rare glimmer of light into what are sometimes called the “missing years” of Jesus’s life. Between his birth and the beginning of his ministry, with his baptism by John and his period of testing in the wilderness, we are told virtually nothing. We must assume – from neighbours’ reactions when he expounded Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth – that Jesus led an ordinary life up to that point. His life was normal enough that those who knew him were entirely unprepared for his emergence preaching God’s righteousness and God’s kingdom.

We shall explore how the story is told in a moment. Yet indulge me just a little when I say that the temptation to “fill in” the void space in Jesus’s biography was almost irresistible in the early centuries of Christianity.

You may know that besides the Gospels in our Bibles, there is an array of what are sometimes called “apocryphal” Gospels, Acts and Epistles, attributed to and named after a range of apostles. These texts have aroused a lot of academic and also popular attention, especially through the attention of professors with the gift of seizing popular attention, such as Elaine Pagels and Karen King. They are later than the biblical Gospels; some express wayward ideas.

One of these apocryphal gospels is a text known as The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It filled the childhood years of Jesus with a series of miraculous feats whose moral or theological significance was at best unclear. Aged five, Jesus created 12 sparrows out of mud – on the Sabbath – and made them fly away. He withered up a child who disturbed a pool he had made. A child who bumped into his shoulder promptly fell down dead.

After a series of these miraculous and scary happenings, a deputation from the village went to Jesus’s parents and said he was a public menace: the complainers were struck blind.

When aged six Jesus broke a water-pot, he was able instead to carry water in his clothing. Everything Jesus thought or said was immediately translated into fact. You recall what I said in a previous week about how some in the early centuries focused too much on the divine, miraculous aspect of Jesus’s nature? Here it is happening again.

By comparison, Luke shows nothing in terms of miraculous feats of physical transformation. Instead, he focuses on what mattered to the youthful Jesus.

Jesus cared passionately about the teaching of his Jewish faith, to which he was and would always be fiercely loyal.

So strong was his passion for the faith, that he forgot – or did not think it important – that he had left his family parents unaware of where he was. This is one of several occasions where Jesus’s passion for the things of God outstrips his sensitivity to personal and family loyalties. His “family” are those who do God’s will, rather than those bound to him by ties of blood.

How many teenagers or pre-teenagers have we known, who could be so captivated by their passion for a newly-discovered idea, or a new group of friends, or a new movement, that they lose track of their more everyday commitments and obligations? Nothing seems more normal than Jesus’s passion in this respect.

Then there is the report that Jesus showed astonishing insight in the questions that he asked and the answers that he gave. There was nothing out of the ordinary – then or since – in a young Jewish boy showing passion for the Scriptures and asking pertinent questions of the rabbi. Some commentators note that this story evokes the account of Samuel growing up in the Temple. But the display of outstanding talent would not go unnoticed. Is Luke suggesting that here was a foreshadowing of his divinity, or is it just a hint that the young Jesus would have undertaken some kind of study in his early life, that he “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” as Luke says in the verses just before this Gospel?

The only real hint at Jesus’s divinity comes in his rather brutal response to his parents, which translates exactly as, “did you not know that it is fitting for me to be about the things of my Father?” Even this has an air of normality – who has not heard an equivalently abrasive response from a teenager?

Allow me to recall to us some verses of the Christmas hymn Once in Royal David’s City, which has traditionally, though not always, opened the Nine Lessons and Carols Service. The middle two verses (often omitted in worship nowadays) express, rather assertively, the normality of Jesus’s childhood, and use them as an opportunity to urge a rather Victorian attitude to family and motherhood. But listen to the fourth verse:

4. For he is our childhood's pattern;

Day by day, like us He grew;

He was little, weak and helpless,

Tears and smiles like us He knew;

And He feeleth for our sadness,

And He shareth in our gladness.

Those last two couplets stress that it is Jesus’s humanity which makes him both able to empathize with our emotions, and to offer a model or pattern for everyday behaviour.

How does this help us?

The Gospels all tread a fine line in their representation of Jesus. Jesus’s humanity was not a mask or a mirage. He was really human, which means that he learned things the way that you and I learn. He did not manifest in his earthly life the all-knowing, all-powerful nature which we associate with God. If Jesus could speak Greek as well as Aramaic – and I do not believe that anyone is quite sure of this – we can be sure that he learned it the way that you and I pick up another language, with time and effort. Yet his relationship with God was wholly unique.

So Jesus must be, all the time, understood as on one hand a pattern who is accessible for us to follow, and a redeemer who can make possible that which is impossible for us. Holding both these things in balance was a challenge to the evangelists, and it is (or should be) a challenge to us, something that we constantly reflect upon.

We can certainly follow Jesus in his passion for understanding the ways of God, as revealed to us through the life and witness of the people of God down the centuries. That will not always be an easy lesson to parse out, because not everything that past ages have bequeathed to us is of God. Much of it comes from a thoroughly flawed humanity and a limited human understanding.

However, we, like the young Jesus, can aspire to understand more, by addressing the uniquely sympathetic Jesus in and through our prayers, and by presenting our questions to each other, in the company of God’s people. Our faith is a life lived in community. That is why in our present state of cautious isolation, we should all pray, as I believe we do, for the return of the time when we can gather together, listen to and reflect on Scripture, share the Lord’s Supper, and through natural and normal communication with each other hear what God is saying to us. It will come, though for the moment we must be patient.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

December 26, 2021: Christmas 1

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December 26, 2021: Christmas 1

The final part of W. H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio begins thus:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –

Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.

The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,

And the children got ready for school. There are enough

Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week –

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,

Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –

To love all of our relatives, and in general

Grossly overestimated our powers.

Auden wrote this long – and theologically sophisticated – poemduring the Second World War, when he was in the United States. It brilliantly expresses the collision, which all of us feel from time to time, between the world of faith which we hope to inhabit at least some of the time, and the world of everyday practicalities, to which we are continually dragged back.

And that collision is nowhere more evident than in the Christmas season after the festivities of the secular Christmas have passed us by. For Christmas is a season, not just a day. While the world moves on into retail, sports, and New Year celebrations, we keep observing our season of joy at the remembrance of Jesus’s presence as ‘God with us’. So, I am truly glad that you are here with me in spirit and online.

This text from John’s Gospel is deeply familiar as the culmination of the Lessons and Carols service: “St John unfolds the great mystery of the incarnation”. But this same text was regarded as a special, even a powerful scripture long before the lessons and carols service order was devised just over a hundred years ago in 1919.

This text was used in the Middle Ages as an amulet to offer protection against misfortune: people would read it out when they thought they were in danger, or write it down and wear it round the neck, or even stitch it into their clothing. Some, including quite well-educated people, though it held such power that evil spirits could not bear to hear it: so, bizarrely to our ears, it would be read out against storms.

It has been regarded as uniquely powerful Bible. It can be appreciated as poetry, of course; but now that we have been through the ceremony of the great festival, let us consider what it actually might mean.

In the beginning was the Word. En arché én ho logos. Those words deliberately echo of the opening of the book of Genesis. In the beginning, creation? Not just that: in the beginning, God’s self-expression through the Word.

“Word” does not really convey the sense of the Greek logos, of course. We call it “word”, but it can also be translated as “speech” or “reason” or “discourse”.

If that seems too modern and slangy, you may be interested that a famous biblical scholar of 500 years ago, Erasmus of Roterdam, translated logos as sermo, which in Latin essentially means “discourse”, in his Latin Bible translation in 1519.

God is conversation: an act of speech, of communication, is at the very heart of God, and it is God. That is a great mystery and paradox, and it is meant to be. I do not know whether John the Evangelist envisaged God as Trinity in quite the way that we do: but he certainly envisaged God as conversation, which presupposes relationships.

That does not exhaust the meaning of “the Word”, the logos: it means not just conversation, but also the divine speech by which things were created, the divine discourse that brings into being that which does not yet exist.

John inherited the idea of logos from pagan Stoic and late Jewish philosophy. But he did not leave the concept of logos as he found it. In fact, this chapter is one of the most radical, confrontational texts in late antique philosophy. It says something so outrageous as to be almost crude and vulgar in the ears of contemporaries.

It says that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”.

Late antique philosophy despised flesh. Our physical nature was an unfortunate embarrassment preventing us from living as we should, in the realm of the mind. Wise people in that age wanted to get away from flesh, to rise up into the realm of the spiritual.

Now John, this Greek-educated Jewish writer, proposes to stand all that on its head. John says that the most abstract, most refined, most elevated idea in the whole universe came down to earth and lived among us – not as an abstract principle, but as a living human being: a human being who ate, drank, slept, felt emotions, suffered, and died, only to rise again with his physical scars and wounds still visible.

The hierarchy of human ideas is reversed: instead of ascending to the abstract and the ethereal, we are told to look for God in the people around us, and in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Just as Mary, in her song in Luke’s Gospel, sang of God raising up the humble, so John says much the same, in relation to the hierarchies of the mind. The very essence of creative, spiritual discourse, the very heart of God, took the physical, fleshly form of a human being.Take that, smart people.

Where does this take us? In a way it mocks our sophistication, our claims to refinement in faith. We are not to climb up into some realm of highly abstract thought to find God. We are to encounter God in a human being living among us.

The story of the baby Jesus in the manger is not a sentimental tale. It is a sermon in the life of a human being. It says that when God wishes to get really close to us, God does not choose to enlighten a few special souls with rarified divine insights: God comes and lives in our very bodies.

God gave the incarnate, the enfleshed, the embodied Word a name, a family, a home, a group of friends, a personality, even (as I believe) a sense of humour. God allowed us to see the divine in a way that was both clearer, and also more of a challenge, than any abstraction that we might argue over. God is active: God enters our lives. God is not some idea that we can possess, debate over, treat as an object to be controlled. God has taken personhood.

There is more. By entering into our lives, many of us believe that God consecrated the material world and all humanity. That challenges us to see the face of God in all those whom we meet, perhaps especially those who do not seem to be very spiritual or very ethical.

It means something radical and rather terrifying. In this season of the Incarnation, we must try to see God in each other – not just in our relatives, but in all other people in all their frightening diversity. Every human being shares the nature that God chose to assume. That remains true, no matter how different or even offensive we find some of the things that our fellow-dwellers on this earth do, think or believe. It holds good for the refugees of another faith fleeing from persecution, and also for the persecutors whom they are trying to escape. It holds good for those we agree with in our own country and also for those whose opinions on our common life we may find unloving or even repellent. All these people share in the same flesh, the same bodily nature, that God assumed when God came to earth to live among us.

That does not abolish disagreements, and it does not make everyone right. Jesus certainly set us an example of condemning evil thoughts and wrong actions. But even in anger, he wished to draw all people to himself. There was no soul so lost that it was not worth saving. And there is no soul, no body, that does not deserve our care and our respect.

God has taken flesh and lived among us. We can never look at living bodies in the same way again.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

December 24, 2021: Christmas Eve

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December 24, 2021: Christmas Eve

It is a beautiful, moving story that we celebrate this evening. We know that story very well indeed. Maybe we even know it so well, that it takes an effort to imagine it being heard or read for the first time. But let us try to hear it afresh, as far as that is possible.

Only Matthew and Luke have nativity stories. However, all the Gospels emphasize that Jesus was born, lived, and died in the same physical life as we ourselves live. He passed through infancy and childhood to adulthood.

Here we need to adjust our perspective. For us, the big challenge may appear to be to accept the divinity of Jesus, his extraordinary birth, his miracles, and above all, perhaps, his resurrectionand ascension.

Strange as it may seem, accepting Jesus’s divinity was not the biggest problem for the early Church. Instead, almost from the beginning there were those who could not imagine a divine being lowering itself to such an extent as to take on real human existence. Some people preferred to say that Jesus was a divine being who merely seemed to have become human, and that all his appearances of physical grief or suffering were illusions.

To refute such ideas, the Gospels stress, in emphatic detail, that the Word of God became flesh. And just to make sure that we accept that Christ really came in a physical body, they add lots of circumstances – details which became the Christmas stories which we have known since childhood.

Here allow me to say something which I believe is very important about the Gospel stories. The Gospels record something that happened, but in a special way. I just heard a Roman Catholic bishop on the internet insist, rather aggressively, that the Gospels were history, and described real events. I agree with him that Jesus really lived a human life. I disagree with representing the Gospels as historical accounts.

When we read a story, we typically begin with the narrative details, whether factual or from the writer’s imagination. From the details of the story, we deduce what, if anything, is the message: what it means for us readers and hearers.

The Gospel writers approached things the opposite way around. They began with what the story meant – after all, they had been hearing and re-telling the essential message about who Jesus was for the past 30 to 50 years. From the message, they worked out what details to choose to tell,about how Jesus came to be. But the details were always secondary to who Jesus was and what he meant.

Both Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was born at a particular time, marked (as time was recorded in those days) by the names of the rulers of that era. They tell us that Jesus was born in a town, Bethlehem in Judaea – a place we can still visit – and that he grew up far to the north, in a rather obscure Galilaean town or village called Nazareth.

Beyond that point our Gospels struggle a little to fit together. All the ingenuity of faithful saints and scholars down the ages has never satisfactorily resolved the problems. Were Mary and Joseph inhabitants of Bethlehem, as Matthew suggests, who only moved to Nazareth to escape the power of Herod’s successors? Or were they people from Nazareth, who only visited Bethlehem because of a census (which would not have been introduced when Herod was king, as full Roman administration was not introduced in Judaea until after Herod’s death?)

Was Jesus born in the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE by our computation? Or was he born in the time of Quirinius the governor of Syria, whose term of office began, as far as we know, ten years after Herod’s death? The Gospel nativity stories are full of loose ends.

The lovely, wonderful thing about these ragged loose ends in the Gospel nativities, is that they show the spontaneity and the committed faith of those first writers. If a scholar in a library had written down the account of Jesus’s life, all the loose ends would have been tied up, all the details of chronology made to match the surviving evidence, whether truthfully or not.

But our Gospels were not written by scholars. They were written by enthusiastic, committedmissionaries, to spread the good news of Jesus as quickly and as widely as possible. They were writing Gospels, not chronicles. They were invested in what the story meant, and in the details only insofar as those details helped to illustrate their essential lesson.

What messages do the Gospel nativities tell us about Jesus?

First, here was a real human being, born in time and space, who also had a unique and extraordinary relationship with God. Two of the Gospels express that by explaining that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary by the direct action of the Spirit, when God invited Mary to play her very special role in the story of salvation, and Mary said yes to God’s request.

Next, Jesus did not come from the religious elite (as John the Baptist, to some extent, did). His parents were faithful and devout, but not in any sense privileged. Their humility is further emphasized by Jesus being laid in an animals’ feeding trough as his first cradle.

Then God made Jesus’s birth known, not to the kings or priests of Judaea, but to outsiders: political and religious outsiders in Matthew, social outsiders in Luke. Shepherds ranked low on the social ladder. Although heroic figures in Hebrew Scripture had been shepherds, they were often the young of the family, or hired hands. (Jesus, building on the prophets, would liken himself to a shepherd in his own preaching.)

In both Gospels, a message about Jesus’s birth comes from the heavens, whether it is a star or a chorus of angels. It confirms that this is a unique birth. Celestial signs were often recorded as marking the birth of conventional rulers, but our Gospels re-write the script. In Luke the sign is given only to the most modest and undervalued of working people. No wonder that Mary “pondered in her heart” why God gave a special sign to such ordinary witnesses.

Lastly, Jesus is given a genealogy, a line of descent from the great in Israel, even though the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are not identical.

In other words, Luke and Matthew surround the birth of Jesus with all the traditional attributes of a great and mighty birth – supernatural origins, celestial signs, a noble lineage – and they then dramatically, almost satirically subvert all of those things. Here is someone who comes with the fullness of God’s love and favour, but absolutely not in the ordinary way. Yes, this Jesus was born to be great and mighty, but in a way that we did not understand or expect.

Here a new kind of king, a new kind of Messiah, is given to us. We are therefore to look for a whole new order of society in his kingdom. He came at one specific point in time, but also comes to us again, every time we live into his story and share it with each other.

In this new order that breaks in, authority and worth are not reserved for an elite of birth, of power, of wealth, or of racial privilege. Jesus comes to lead us in the Spirit, in a community of sharing, of mutual love and support, a hierarchy not of dignity but of service.

That is astonishingly good news. Almost since the beginning of human society, the really good news was reserved for a tiny, super-privileged elite. Now it is given to the humble first of all – and everyone else is welcome to join in.

And the beauty of the Christmas story is that these narratives in our Gospels, though different from one another, are all outstandingly memorable. They serve to remind us that the greatest and most influential life-force in our history came through the birth of a child, in very humble circumstances, to an ordinarily devout and caring couple.

Let us celebrate and enjoy the familiar and beloved accounts of the nativity, with the glorious music and carols that accompany them. And also, let us hear the Gospel of Jesus’s birth as I believe the first authors intended it – as an amazing, unexpected promise of a new kind of godly order for life on earth.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

December 19, 2021: Fourth Sunday of Advent

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ADVENT 4: December 19, 2021

There are at least 5 women named Mary mentioned in the Gospel. Mary Magdalene may have been the most important in Gospel times, as she is the first to proclaim the resurrection. However, Mary the mother of Jesus has been most popular in the piety of Christians down the ages. At the same time, she is a controversial figure in the history of Christianity. Different traditions have held different opinions of her. Some esteeming her highly, others virtually ignoring her.

At times, Mary seems to have taken on the role of Jesus in Christian piety. In the history of the Church, Jesus, the loving Savior, sometimes was presented more as a threatening figure, a severe judge of human beings. At these times, devotion to various saints as intercessors who might shield us from the wrath of God became popular. Mary was seen as a most powerful intercessor.

If we look at the Gospel accounts, we see that relatively little is said of Mary. However, what is said is very important. This is especially true in the Gospel according to Luke, from which we read today. For Luke, Mary is important not, primarily because she is the mother of Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary is the model of a true disciple.

There is a story in Luke where Jesus is preaching to a crowd and a woman is so moved that she shouts "blessed is the womb that bore you and the breast that nursed you - obviously acknowledging Mary. Jesus pauses and responds, "rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it."

These words do not diminish Mary. Jesus infers that Mary's greatness is not from being mother, but from being a faithful disciple - hearing the word of God and doing it.

We see this from the beginning. Our first glimpse of Mary in Luke’s Gospel, is the scene of the Annunciation where we find Mary at prayer. Listening. Hence, she can hear the words of God's invitation through the angel. Mary’s response, her YES opens human history to the Incarnation – Jesus coming in human flesh. And Mary's YES will be repeated in different ways throughout her life. Mary hears the Word and does it.

In her YES, Mary is a model of trust in God. As she says in today’s Gospel reading “the One who is mighty has done great things for me.” Now we’ve just met her so we don’t know whatever that means. Mary is aware of who God is, and she is Grateful. Grateful for the great things God has done and is doing. Essential gifts for a disciple: Awareness and Gratitude. Gratitude for the gift of life, the awareness of being loved by the source of life.

This YES is an act of trust in the One who is holy, the God whose mercy is for those who fear him. Fear is better translated as "Awe", a profound sense of wonder at the incomprehensible mystery who gives us life. Awe - expressed in the words of Gerhard Manley Hopkins. Words that Mary could have said:

Godhead, here in hiding, Whom I do adore

Masked by these bare shadows, shapes and nothing more

See Lord at thy service, low lies here a heart

Lost, all lost in wonder, at the God thou art. (GMH)

I love aquariums. It is like being in another world. A few years ago, on a visit to the New York Aquarium I came upon a toddler standing before an immense tank almost the size of this room, filled with multicolored creatures, all shapes and sizes, floating as if by magic. For many minutes the child stood motionless, eyes wide open “lost, all lost in wonder”, filled with awe.

Wonder seems to be common among children. Us, maybe not so much. We can take the beauty for granted; we can lose the sense of mystery. Even as we learn more of the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, planets in their courses. Even as we see this Island home in all its beauty.

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior... for the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. What has the Almighty done for you? For what are you grateful? When have you last experienced awe?

What wonderful gifts offered to us at Christmas: Gratitude and Awe.

The Word is made flesh dwells among us.

God who is mighty does great things; Holy is his Name.

Let us be grateful; let us be lost, all lost in wonder, at the God who dwells with us. YES, dwells in us.

Submitted by the Reverend Brendan McCormick

December 12, 2021: Third Sunday of Advent

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Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent 2021

This is a special Sunday in the Advent season. This Sunday is traditionally known as “Gaudete Sunday” or “rejoice Sunday”. It takes that name partly from the usual readings: our texts from the prophet Zephaniah and from Paul’s letter to Philippi contain the theme of rejoicing and exultation.

The Church in ages past used this occasion to relax the rules about fasting which were part of the “little Lent” that was Advent. Those with very high liturgical preferences celebrate this day in rose-coloured vestments; we, more modestly, light the rose-coloured candle on the Advent wreath.

“Rejoice” needs a bit of unpacking. It does not necessarily mean that everything is going well. Nor does it mean that one is obliged to generate a semblance of happiness, when things are challenging and hard. Through an accidental reference on the radio, I came across a song which combined the two genres of Bluegrass and Canadian folk music (about which I know nothing). The song was called “Get me through December”, and offered a soulful reflection on living through pain.

Those who have lost loved ones, or who are living through sickness and loss, in themselves or those close to them, may find the run-up to Christmas particularly challenging. I want us, first of all, to give ourselves, and each other, permission not to pretend to any shallow gaiety.

‘Rejoice’ means something different. It means having the gift to recognize that God is among us, even when things are not going well. The prophets rejoiced in the promises of God, even when their people were suffering in oppression or even in exile. Paul rejoiced in suffering, persecution, and imprisonment. There was nothing shallow about this kind of trust. It is a gift of grace.

Rejoicing means trusting the purposes of God, accepting that the meaning of our present struggles may not be clear to us until much later. The eternal God has loving purposes for us which we cannot yet see.

That thought brings me to the other focus of this Sunday. This day is dedicated to reflecting particularly on John the Baptist. We heard a little about him last week, but this is his special Sunday.

I believe that the story of John the Baptist has radically improved in the telling. In some circles, that might be taken as suggesting that our Bibles are somehow not entirely reliable. So let me say that the evolving telling of the stories of the life and ministry of Jesus, across our four Gospels, is for me the greatest possible proof of their authenticity. The New Testament testifies, with dazzling clarity, to Jesus’s followers struggling to work out “what just happened to us?”

In Mark 1 John appears, unexplained, in the wilderness, and after a few lines about his teaching, he baptizes Jesus, and Jesus then takes over in the narrative. In John 1, John the Baptist appears as the “witness to the light” in what is otherwise a theological exposition. Matthew 3 slightly expands the account in Mark 1, with added threats against the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Luke, however, our primary Evangelist for this year C in the lectionary, weaves together the story of John the Baptist and Jesus most elaborately. In the first chapter he describes a double annunciation, one to Zechariah and Elizabeth (apparently modelled on the story of the birth of Isaac and Samuel) and the other to Mary. Then we have the consecutive nativities of John and Jesus.

Here (and only here) John’s mother and Jesus’s mother are kin to each other, and meet for mother-to-be bonding before the birth. Later Leonardo da Vinci, in his exquisite Virgin of the Rocks, portrayed the two rather chubby infants meeting on the way to Egypt, escorted by the Virgin Mary and an angel.

So why did the story of this kinship between these two spiritual prophets and leaders become both so elaborate and so entangled? Maybe the Gospels were polishing over what could have been real discomfort and uneasiness about the relationship between the two. John’s Gospel makes John and Jesus part of the same theology; Luke’s makes them part of the same biology.

Yet our Gospels make no attempt to conceal the radical differences between John and Jesus. John was an ascetic: someone who believed that by abstaining from the physical comforts of life, he could be free to focus on the things of the spirit. He wore rough clothes and ate coarse food, and by leading such an unusual lifestyle, he drew attention to his message.

Josephus, our only non-Biblical source for this era in Jewish history, describes John as “a good man [who] commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God”. And, of course, John was a foreteller and a forerunner. Like many devout Jewish believers, he was expecting the Messiah. John was not clear about who the Messiah was to be.

In Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, he sends followers to Jesus to ask “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another”. In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist testifies that he is not the Messiah, and yet continues to baptize and follow his own ministry even while Jesus has begun teaching.

So, the relationship which developed between John and his disciples, and Jesus and his disciples, was not inevitably going to be a cordial one. They could have become rivals, with very different ideas about how to lead a religious life. Jesus even made a joke about it, reported in both Matthew and Luke:

“John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’”

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus says that John was the greatest prophet of the old order, but he does not fully belong to the new kingdom of God that is breaking in. “Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

When you beyond the fearsome, attention-grabbing rhetoric of today’s Gospel, John is telling people to do what they already know to be right: to follow the rules as they have received them. If you do that, then the tax-gatherer raising his fair level of taxes, and the soldier not oppressing the subject peoples, will be as redeemable, or more so, than the ostentatiously religious person.

Jesus has news of something more radical: a way of living where, especially according to Luke (as we shall hear in this year’s Gospels) the old order is overturned, where poor and the oppressed are the especially beloved people of God.

The place of John’s mission, in terms of Jesus’s very different mission, only made sense after the event. It took some decades of reflecting on the relationship between the two of them to sort it out.

Only years after could the first evangelists see that the missions of John and Jesus, despite their differences, supported each other. As they retold the story, they found different ways, some a bit fanciful, to show that integration at work. That was how the story improved in the telling.

The same is true of our own stories. We cannot write the histories of our own lives. We do not know where we are headed. However much we plan for where we want to be, unexpected and unplanned things will happen: illness, accident, or an unexpected meeting may change all that we anticipated. To the eyes of God, and maybe in retrospect for us, they will make sense.

We believe that God, who stands outside the flow of time and to whom all created time is simultaneously present, knows not only what will happen to us but also what we are for. And thus, we are called to trust, and to follow where we are called and led to serve.

And that is truly grounds for rejoicing, because the power of God is not only all-knowing, it is also all-loving in ways that we could not possibly imagine for ourselves. As we live through this time of anticipation which is the Advent season, let us live into the blessing that is the loving hand of God directing our lives, even (especially) when those lives seem most difficult.

I still prefer not to wear pink vestments.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

December 5, 2021: Second Sunday of Advent

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ADVENT 2 December 5, 2021

“Prepare the Way of the Lord!”

I don’t think John the Baptist broke into song when he called the people to repent. But to us he would have appeared a very strange fellow. Dressed in a camel hair cloak, girded with a leather belt, living in the desert on a diet of locust and wild honey. Gluten free, I am sure. But to those who came out to see, John was dressed like the great prophet Elijah, and his call to repent was far from silly. The word “repent” has the sense of changing the direction of one’s life, turning around and heading in the opposite way, initiating a new beginning.

Repent was a call to action, to do something, take specific steps to change. An example would be someone joining a recovery program to fight addiction described as taking steps toward healing. John was calling for change!

But there is more. These words have a sense of bringing something to life, a new way of acting, a new way of being. Embracing a new reality. All this will be expanded and clarified in the life and teaching of Jesus.

Preparing for new life is not a surprising message for Advent. But the call of Advent is not to prepare for the birth of the infant Jesus. That had already occurred in John’s day and certainly ours. The Advent message and Christmas Story do not invite us to go back and become spectators of ancient events. The message and story are about now.

Christmas celebrates the fact that Jesus came in human flesh to live in human history. He came at a time when all was not calm and bright. Society was filled with injustice and oppression. Jesus suffered and died. But, in Jesus, God revealed there is more.

The life and teaching of Jesus form a lens through which we read the Advent and Christmas story. We are to see ourselves in the ongoing mystery of Christ’s presence and still coming Jesus. The lens through which we are able to see ourselves, each other and our world in a whole new way with new attitudes and values.

The call to this vision is often repeated in the community that has gotten involved with that Being we call God.

The message we read in Baruch must have sounded strange to those who first heard it. Baruch was the name of the friend and secretary of Jeremiah. He, himself could not have written these words as they were written 400 years after his life. They are written to a people under foreign rule, but refer back to a time long past when Israel was in exile.

Confidence and hope in the saving power of God are offered to people in exile or domination. Confidence and joy seem out of place. Joy that all will be restored, and peace will abound seem only a dream. It is a call to faith and trust in a God, when God seemed so absent.

Paul, too, in our reading from his Letter to the Philippians writes serene words filled with hope. But Paul is writing from a prison cell where he faces imminent death. Words of faith and trust in a faithful God, when God could seem so absent.

We hear the call of John as Winter is about to begin. Not the time for new life. Days are getting shorter, colder. Nature looks more dead than living. And many of us adopt a “wintry personality: feeling less alive, spending more time indoors with less freedom of movement. Uncertainty about health and life abound. New life, hope, trust?

Ah, but then there is the Celtic view. The ancient Irish thought these days of winter were the beginning of the growth cycle. The cold and dark forced the seed to germinate in the soil just waiting for the warmth of Spring.

But John the Baptists calls us to repent, to an active waiting. But this does not mean more activity. Maybe the best way to prepare is as Euan said last week: to find time to be calm with God.

Can we look at having more time to be a blessing, not a burden?

This Advent, let us prepare the way of the Lord with confidence in the saving power of God, in a serenity built on hope, with a joy found in the calmness of God.

Submitted by the Reverend Brendan McCormick

November 28, 2021: First Sunday of Advent

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Advent I: November 28, 2021

Happy New (Church’s) Year! The liturgical year begins each year on Advent Sunday, and on this day each year we begin a new cycle of readings. We are just beginning year C, when the main focus will be on the Gospel readings from Luke, with John putting in appearances at important points.

Advent is in some ways a problematic season. Traditionally, it was a period of abstinence and penitential self-examination, before the great celebration of Christ’s incarnation at Christmas (a “little Lent”). That aspiration to reflective, spiritual preparation has been trashed by that other calendar, the secular calendar of consumption. No sooner have we passed through the commercial overload of Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving, than we are besieged by the exhortations to purchase (specially early this year because of shortages and transport problems) and consume. It was even worse in Britain. With less emphasis on Hallowe’en and none on Thanksgiving, the commercial run-up to Christmas lasted something like a quarter of the year.

We can, and should take the Church’s year, and the Church’s life, as our refuge and sustenance. Live into Advent as a time of calm. Resist, with a good conscience, the pressures of the world to be frantically busy. Make prayer lists rather than shopping lists. Set aside time to be calm with God revealed in Scripture, in sacrament, and in fellowship.

There is another side to our Advent hope. Advent was historically a time of preparation, not just for the commemoration of Jesus’s birth, but also of real anticipation of Jesus’s coming again in “power and great glory” as our Gospel reading for today says. The most famous of Advent hymns, Charles Wesley’s “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” speaks to that very expectation.

What are we, as thoughtful Christians, and fellow-Episcopalians, to make of this powerful historic tradition in the faith and culture of our Church?

First, the expectation of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is undoubtedly present in our Scriptures, and therefore in the thoughts of the first few generations of Christians. We heard a reading just now from the first Letter to the Thessalonians, which is believed to have been the earliest surviving text of our New Testament Scriptures to have been written. The preparation for Christ’s return forms a key part of both letters to the church of Thessalonika (only one is certainly by Paul). All three of the first Gospels contain “apocalypses”, where Jesus foretells his returning in glory (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). When we say in our Eucharistic prayers that “Christ will come again”, we join with that ancient tradition.

For a long time, it was mainstream belief in the Christian Churches that the world would end in the reasonably near future. Martin Luther wrote that the world would last only 6,000 years, and something like 5,500 of those years (since the presumed biblical date of creation) were already over. Responsible people said that one could never know exactly when Jesus would come again – because Jesus himself said that. Yet a serious medical writer called Thomas Browne could write, in the 1640s, “’Tis too late to be ambitious … time may be too short for our designs”. The mathematician who discovered a form of natural logarithms around 1600, John Napier of Merchiston, believed that he had worked out the time of the last days from the Book of Revelation.

There are still plenty of people, in this country and other parts of the world influenced by evangelical fundamentalism, who insist that the Second Coming is imminent. We may be tempted to think of such people as on the eccentric fringes of Christian thought. They perhaps think the same about us. So, we have a cultural problem with the Second Coming. What are we to do with it, taking scripture with the utmost seriousness, as we should?

First, the New Testament shows the writers of the Gospels and the Epistles struggling with this same question. When Jesus had left them for some thirty years, it was realistic to expect his return within a human lifetime. When the catastrophe of the Jewish Revolt, brutally crushed by the Roman armies, took place in 66-70, many of Jesus’s followers saw it as fulfilling the predictions of the final crisis. In fact, descriptions of the end-times and of the Jewish Revolt show clear parallels.

Then, of course, Christ did not reappear, at least not in the way expected. Already in the later writings of the New Testament, in the later works of Paul and the fourth Gospel, we see the beginnings of a new understanding. Christ has come again, but in the transformed lives of those he loved, and those who love him. The restored kingdom is with us, but it lives in the fellowship of the faithful people, in the midst of the messy, flawed world that we all know and struggle with.

Something very important risks being forgotten in the midst of these “apocalyptic expectations”. If this is the message, what should we do about it?

There are plenty of bad ideas about the Second Coming. In the 1840s, a farmer from upstate New York called William Miller calculated from Scripture that the world would end in 1843. When it didn’t do so, he re-calculated the date as 1844, leading to the “Great Disappointment” of his followers. Then apocalyptic thought fell under the influence of a British writer called John Nelson Darby. Darby believed that the Second Coming would be preceded by the “Rapture”, a belief still strong in some American circles. Much time has been wasted arguing about this topic; much money has been made, not least by two authors who have written a successful series of novels (the “Left Behind” series) based on these ideas.

There are other bad ways to anticipate the Apocalypse. Randall Balmer, a fine scholarly historian at Dartmouth College who grew up in evangelicalism, remarked recently that one of the consequences of expecting the Second Coming was a lot of really poor church architecture. If Christ is coming soon, we don’t need beautiful buildings of carved stone: cinder blocks will do.

Worse still, some of those who expect the Second Coming of Christ in their lifetimes, and who expect the physical world to be destroyed in the Apocalypse, resist caring for the environment as God’s creation. It’s not worth caring for a physical nature, they reason, which is destined to be incinerated soon anyway. In fairness, other Christian apocalyptists take the duty of being good stewards of God’s creation much more seriously.

What do the writers of our Scripture say? Their wisdom is that we should live our very best selves, in our own lives and in our communities, as though we expect Jesus to come and find us, asking how we have treated the world which he came to redeem, and the people whom he came to teach and to love; and asking whether we have the faith which he hoped to find [Luke 18:8].

That message never gets outdated. It does not matter whether the end of days is in a hundred years, a thousand, or ten billion. We can strive to live as though we have to account for ourselves to our risen Lord tomorrow. That means, above all, caring for all those whom God cares for. No-one who lives in the expectation of Jesus’s return has any business to tolerate gross injustice, exploitation on one hand and suffering on the other, between peoples, sexes, races and countries.

No-one who thinks that God’s eye of love looks on the whole universe (which it does) should accept the ruthless and unsustainable plundering of this most beautiful jewel in the cosmos which is our world. The more that we think about Jesus’s coming in glory, the more impatient we should be with all the things about our human world that need to be fixed. We know what those things are, and it is urgent that we address them.

How can we? Well, it is amazing how much change can be wrought by simply building responsible, caring attitudes towards people and the world, among our communities and all those whom we meet. It means, quietly, thoughtfully, re-orienting ourselves to the things that matter, and hushing the noise and chatter of the world around us. Don’t obsess about the everyday strident shouts about “crises” in the media, and in our often-depressing politics. Live into the calm, prayerful, loving time that is our Advent hope.

A blessed Advent to you all. Amen

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

November 21, 2021: Pentecost 26

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PENTECOST 26: November 21, 2021

This Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church’s year, is known as Christ the King Sunday. By the Church’s standards it is recent commemoration, less than a hundred years old. Today we reflect on what it means to give the title of “King of Kings” to the risen and glorified Christ.

In a country with such a strong democratic tradition, this celebration sometimes seems a little problematical. Even for me – and remember that Ruth and I are still subjects of a constitutional monarchy, with the word “kingdom” on the front of our passports – there is something jarring about applying the title to Jesus Christ. We think that the things of faith stand, or at least ought to stand, above politics and power.

And yet in the language of (especially) our first three Gospels, the imagery of kingship is everywhere. Jesus is hailed as a king by his followers, and accused of aspiring to kingship by his rivals before the Roman governors. Kingship is his honour and his curse.

This morning I wish to suggest why, in first-century Judaea, the idea of the supreme priest and the idea of the national saviour-king were entangled in one another. It was part of recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, God’s chosen anointed, that attributes of kingship should be wished upon him. Once we grasp this thought-world of the Gospels, we can see how “Christ as King” might be understood as an image and a message for us today.

Israel had a complicated and troubled relationship with its kings. After centuries of “judges”, the people insisted that they needed a king like other nations. At best, the king was there to lead the people in battle against their enemies, to give a sense of security as well as cohesiveness. Unfortunately, as we know in our own time, people can look for security and protection from the most unworthy, unsuitable, untrustworthy figures, just because they project their ego so successfully. Most of the kings of Israel and Judah went bad. By the time of the conquest of the northern kingdom and, a while afterward, the Babylonian captivity of Judah, the kings had failed even to protect the people against the power of foreign aggressors.

Once the people returned to Judaea after the exile, their leadership became increasingly vested in the hereditary high priesthood. The political leadership of the people was, in a sense, also its religious leadership. Even the Jewish Encyclopedia admits that “the high priest grew to be more and more also the political chief of the congregation”. The High Priests represented the people before the neighbouring empires of Syria (ruled by descendants of the Greek Alexander the Great) and Egypt (also ruled by Greek heirs of Alexander).

Our first reading from the Book of Daniel comes from that time in the 2nd century BCE, when the people of Judaea were struggling against the Syrian despots, who represented everything bad about kingship: greedy, corrupt, acquisitive, cruel, and generally immoral. In the language of apocalyptic visions, Daniel imagines irresistible power and dominion being given by God to one “like a human being”. The Hebrew original translates directly as “Son of Man”, which is one reason why this text has become precious for Christians. In a later chapter of Daniel, the prophecy looks forward to the emergence of an “anointed king” after the rebuilding of Jerusalem. “Anointed” in Hebrew is “Messiah”, and in the Greek the same word is “Christos”.

In the 160s BCE Judaea saw a priest emerge, who was also a leader against the tyranny and sacrilege of Antiochus IV of Syria. He was called Judas Maccabeus, and he fused priesthood and rebel leadership in the Judaean imagination. Judas Maccabeus’s purifying and rededicating of the temple in 164 BCE, is celebrated to this day in the Feast of Chanukah.

You will see what I am getting at: in Jesus’s time, the natural way for people to think of a liberating Messiah, was as a warrior like Judas Maccabeus, who would restore the autonomy of God’s people, purify worship, and reunite the kingdom. To expect a heroic priest-king was not a crass misunderstanding on the part of the disciples or their contemporaries: it was the national myth which they lived and breathed. The acclamation of Jesus as king (at his entrance on Palm Sunday) and the accusation that he wished to become a king (made before Pilate in Mark and John) are two sides of the same coin.

But surely, by the time that the Gospel-writers were writing thirty to sixty years after Jesus’s ministry, they had realized that Jesus was not a king in that sense? So why cling on to the image? Why do the wise men seek for the one born “king of the Jews”? Why does Gabriel say to Mary at the Annunciation that “the Lord God will give to [Jesus] the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever”? Why, in the first chapter of Acts, do the disciples still ask “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel”?

The evangelists knew that Jesus did not in fact come to restore the worldly kingdom. The rebels who rose up against Rome in 66 CE wished for that kind of restoration, and the result was total catastrophe. The rebels were defeated, thousands of lives were lost, and the Temple was destroyed and pillaged. To this day one can see a carved relief on the inside of the Arch of Titus in Rome, where soldiers carry off the menorah, the sacred lampstand, from the Temple. Yet the first three Gospels, written under the shadow of that disaster, could not abandon the image of the priest-king completely.

What the Gospels are saying, I suggest, is this: “look, the kingdom was in fact restored to Israel, but in a special, spiritual sense – and most of you did not even realize it when it happened”. All the signs were there (lots of them) but most of you didn’t get it. The kingdom has already arrived, but we did not recognize it.

Let’s suppose that we understand the “kingdom” as representing the best imagined state of community, the freedom and the grace to live according to our very best selves, and in harmony with our neighbours, under the leadership of one who teaches the way of love. Our entire political experience, even at best, is a restless struggle with our deep dissatisfaction at how our actual lives fall short of that kind of liberating harmony.

Yet the coming of Christ has made a special kind of liberation possible. In the community which the risen Christ creates, we are freed from all kinds of anxiety for unimportant or actually harmful things, especially the desire for power over others. No followers of the crucified and risen Christ have any business thinking themselves superior to other beloved children of God. If Christ is our king, in his humility he is our model and our teacher.

In his slightly prosaic way, John shows Jesus trying to make Pilate understand this point in today’s Gospel. John comes closer than any of the other Gospel writers to getting away from the “kingship” image, but even he cannot quite do it. But Jesus says he is a special kind of king – one who comes to testify to the truth, in effect, to teach.

The kingship that Jesus inaugurates is based on making responsible life in society possible for all. As Jeremiah says in next week’s reading, it sets the covenant with God in people’s hearts, so that they will willingly and spontaneously live together in mutual love and mutual service. Jesus’s kingship is based, not on rule or punishment, but on forming his people to live together by their own inmost nature, redeemed by his example and his teaching.

That ideal will never be completely fulfilled in this life, but it is important, first, that the Church try to live as much in the spirit of the kingdom as possible; and then, that we go out from Church into the rest of society, and enrich the wider community through the examples that we can offer. The kingdom of God is not meant to be a huddle of godly gathering together for protection and support, but a lamp on a lampstand.

In living like that, we show a whole new idea of society, of “kingship” to the world. And the world truly needs that.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

November 14, 2021: Pentecost 25

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25 PENTECOST: November 14, 2021

If you go on the Internet and type in “Predictions for the end of the World”, you can find a very long list from the time of Christ until today. In fact, in the 78 years I have been on this earth there are 84 predictions of the end of the world. What struck me was that some people predicted The End more than once. Pat Robertson 4 times and Jehovah's Witnesses 9 times. You would think credibility would suffer when the foretold day came and went. It also seems strange to me that people claiming belief in a God who sent his only Son into our world and spent so much time and energy teaching and empowering us how to live in this world are in such a hurry to leave it.

However, our first reading reminds us there have been “times of such anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence”, that the end was something that could be hoped for. This reading comes from a time about 175 years before the birth of Jesus. The empire Alexander the Great built, had been divided into three sections at his death. One section, centered in what is Syria today, was ruled by a violent king who had mercilessly crushed a revolt in Israel in which many were killed and so much destruction that it certainly seemed a “time of anguish that never had been before”. Even worse, this ruler, ordered a statue of himself be placed in the Holy of Holies. The most sacred part of the Temple. No greater affront to the faith could be imagined. Surely, God would have to enter the battle and destroy the evil empire. However, God did not enter the battle. 100 years later this evil empire was defeated by another empire – Rome. Rome, however, became the evil empire at the time the Gospel of Mark was written. In 70 AD the Roman Army put down a rebellion in Israel which resulted in the destruction of the Temple and much of the city of Jerusalem. Most of the priests and many people were killed. At the same time, Christians were enduring severe persecution, especially those in Rome, where Mark’s Gospel was probably written. To many, it looked as if both the Jewish faith and this small Jewish offshoot group that followed Jesus Christ were being destroyed. The end must be near.The first Christians were mostly Jews who proclaimed Jesus to be Messiah. The Jewish scriptures were their scriptures. Jewish practices, on the whole, were their practices; added to and modified. But the destruction of the Temple and City changed Christianity as well as Judaism.

Temple sacrifice and having a nation were no more and so local rabbis and the Jewish communities scattered around thworld were now the anchors of the faith. Torah and Talmud, the Law became the foundations of the Jewish faith as it struggled to survive. Christianity, on the other hand, gradually became a religion of gentiles, separated from Jewish life. From the same roots, two separate religious traditions developed. At times, with disastrous results and unbelievable crimes by Christians against Jews. But when will the end of the world come? We hear Jesus, today, warning us about those proclaiming intimate knowledge of its arrival. “Beware that no one leads you astray.” But then what? These past weeks, scientists have been warning us of the catastrophe resulting from climate change to come. What are we to do? The author of the second reading captures Jesus’ admonishment to us to not be alarmed, but to be aware. “Patient endurance” is not the word Jesus uses, but it is used 49 times to express a gift the Spirit gives for us who are aware. New Testament. Christian communities, living in a hostile world, were called to a life of patient endurance. This is not something passive but a call to action; act with the power to withstand hardship, to not be afraid, to persevere, carry on in the struggle. We are not to be led astray, but we are not to become immobile or unconcerned.The Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel has said: “True religion begins with the awareness that something is asked of us.” In our Collect we accepted quite a task: “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life…”

Everlasting life is planted within us here and now. Let us receive the gift of “patient endurance” and as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says: Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering. Let us provoke one another to love and do good deeds. Deeds that preserve our Earth, save the lives of many, care for creation. And finally, through the power of the Spirit, let us encourage one another to endure.

Submitted by Reverend Brendan McCormick

November 7, 2021

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We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise… It is imperative that we, the peoples of the Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community, and to the future.

So states the “Earth Charter”, composed by members of a global movement working for ecological integrity, social and economic justice, democracy, non-violence, peace, respect and care for the community of life. It was signed over 20 years ago. The meeting in Glasgow last week showed how difficult it is for the greater community to respond to a danger so obvious.

These words can also describe the situation of religious life in our Nation. For the first time, fewer than 50% of citizens claim membership in a religious community. This is especially among the young. A church a few feet down the road closed a few years ago.

All Saints is a small, aging community well aware of the challenges and changes. But we are here, carrying out a life of prayer and ministry that began on this little hill in Ivoryton 126 years ago. And some of you know that All Saints has gone through a number of changes over these years.

For a while, All Saints was a member of the Middlesex Regional Ministry. We shared clergy with 4 other small churches in the region. Seeking more independence, members worked hard and grew enough to be allowed to establish a “partnership“ for 7 years with St. John’s, Essex.

Finally, with even more work, All Saints returned to a self-directed parish with its own clergy. So, change is not new to this parish and the strength of the parish membership has been demonstrated again and again, over the years

However, it is important that we reflect and plan what we, All Saints Parish, can and must do. What comes to mind is a statement by Edward Hale, American writer and clergyman:

I am only one, but still, I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

As individuals and as a parish we realize we cannot do everything, but we can do something. One thing we are doing is working to assure we can celebrate Eucharist every Sunday. We are blessed to have Rev. Euan Cameron as a member. Euan and I have agreed to share the Sunday celebration of Holy Eucharist. I will still meet with staff each Thursday and serve the other pastoral needs of All Saints. However, the Sunday celebration of Holy Eucharist will alternate and endure.

There are other things the Diocese requires of a parish our size. It is a case of formally identifying Lay leadership capable of managing parish business as well as leading worship if needed. This will be a focus as we move forward. We will keep you informed as we do.

We gather, today, as we are navigating through a pandemic. We have no roadmap, just directions from various health experts and church leadership. For many weeks we celebrated Morning Prayer over Zoom. We now meet in person but not like the old days. But with God’s blessing and your commitment, we will get there.

Sadly, we have lost several faithful members in the past year and a half. We will remember them in our Prayers of the People. In the words of the poet, John Donne, “Each death diminishes us”. However, the lives of these people have also enriched us. They have served this community and inspire us to continue in our service. Most people here do much to keep this parish functioning. Still, we need others to join them. You will be asked, if you are not already working to consider helping out.

Times of change and uncertainty are moments where fear abounds. That peaceful image painted in our first reading of a splendid banquet is not one that describes the life of the Church these days. Nor are we enjoying that victorious image from the Book of Revelations. However, these visions were written and proclaimed when Israel at the time of Isaiah, and then the Christian community at the end of the first century were in great peril. Israel faced destruction and Christians were undergoing persecution. They, too, were bound up with fear. Like Lazarus was bound up in all those wrappings.

We are also like Lazarus in that Gospel scene. It seems that Jesus was aware that following him will place us in situations where fear abounds. That is why an oft repeated call in the Gospel is “Be not afraid!”

Today we hear Jesus call out “Unbind him and let him go!” Can we hear Jesus call to each one of us, today, “Be unbound from the fear and all else that limits you!”. Can we hear today Jesus’s promise: “You who gather on that little hill in Ivoryton, CT, Know that I am with you always”.

Today, let us, the people of All Saints, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community, and to the future. Amen

Submitted by the Reverend Brendan McCormick

October 31, 2021: Pentecost 23

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Pentecost 23: October 31st , 2021

In the Celtic order of things tomorrow, November 1st begins the New Year. On the eve of this New Year, the ancient Irish believed the gates of the underworld were opened; the barriers between the living and dead removed, allowing the ancestors to return to speak to their living descendants to teach wisdom and remind them of the ancient customs and stories. How wonderful it would be to share a cup of tea with loved ones who have entered that life beyond what we know.

When Christianity came, November 1st was changed to celebrate the Saints who had gone before us. However, the Eve of All Hallows, which means Eve of All Saints, became our Halloween, and kept and changed some of these Celtic customs. I don’t think the goblins and witches that come trick or treating tonight know their roots

I was thinking that our Sunday worship can be described as a time we gather in the presence of our ancestors. We listen to the same stories they did, say the same prayers that nurtured and challenged their faith which they handed down to us.

In fact, in our first reading, Moses has gathered the band of desert travelers to do just that, remind them of the faith, the commandments, the Law, the promise given their ancestors. The Book of Deuteronomy, is the last Book of Torah, the first five Books of the Bible. Deuteronomy is presented as two lengthy sermons Moses gave just as Israel was to enter Canaan, what Israel understood as the land promised to Abraham 500 years before.

At the center of our reading, Moses recites the prayer handed down through the centuries: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” It is a prayer said several times a day by observant Jews.

While the prayer does not include “love of neighbor” the prophets will continually remind Israel that God’s love embraces the community, and their love must do the same: love one another.

Jesus quotes these ancestors in response to the question: “which is the greatest of the commandments.” We might immediately think of the 10 Commandments, but, there are 613 commandments in the LAW. Even so, Jesus and the Scribe have no trouble agreeing on what is at the heart of the LAW: love of God and love of neighbor.

In Luke’s Gospel this scene ends with the scribe then asking, “who is my neighbor”. Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which proclaims “anyone in need is my neighbor”. The commandment at the heart of Jewish LAW, and at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and way of life contains a demand for an active concern for the well being of others. To have care, respect a sense of responsibility for one another.

We have seen movements to have the Commandments placed in classrooms, law courts and other public places. In this nation that many say is founded on Judeo-Christian values, the commandment both Jesus, and Moses say is the greatest is not among them.

I have told the story of the Apostle John who is said to have passed his last days in a mountain retreat on the Island of Patmos. One year the people of the town below realizing the treasure they had, the last one to have heard the words of Jesus, invited John down for a celebration. At one point someone shouted, John, tell us what the Lord said. John replied, “Little Children, love one another!” People wept and cheered. John returned to his mountain retreat. The next year they brought John down again, and again he was asked: “John, tell us what the Lord said. Again, replied John, “Little children, love one another.”

This occurred for several years and always the same reply; “Little children Love one another. Finally, some said; “John, what else did the Lord say?” John replied, “there is nothing more, little children, love one another.”

Of course, there is something more. Love must be lived out in our daily lives. If we could have a cup of tea, or a glass of wine with those precious ancestors on this Eve of All Hallows, what wisdom might they share? I don’t think it would be about what stock to buy or encourage us to acquire more things. Among the wisdom the great Jewish Theologian, Abraham Heschel learned from our ancestors in our Scriptures are:

The prophets remind us there is no limit to the concern one must have for the suffering of human beings.

Indifference to evil is worse than the evil itself.

In a free society some are guilty, but all are responsible.

We are all in this together, and only acting on this reality will we survive

Let us learn from the wisdom of our ancestors. Care, respect, a sense of responsibility- an active concern for the well being of one another are what endure. They are also actions we need to do if we are to endure.

October 24, 2021: Pentecost 22

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Pentecost 22: October 24, 2021

‘My teacher, let me see again.’

Today’s Gospel tells us a familiar miracle story about Jesus’s healing powers, and the power of faith. That is extraordinary enough in itself, but there is more depth to the story. Mark compresses much meaning into few words.

In the Gospels as a whole, there are two basic stories of Jesus healing individual blind people: each of those is told three times in different Gospels, with slightly different details.

In a Gospel passage from Mark which we read a month or two back, there is the story of how Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida by applying his saliva to the man’s eyes [Mark 8:18-28]. Matthew locates the story somewhere in Galilee, and has Jesus just touch the men’s eyes, as there are now two of them [Matthew 9:27-31]. John relocates the story to Jerusalem, and has Jesus heal the man by applying a mixture of saliva and mud, after which the man washed in the Pool of Siloam [John 9].

Then there is what I call the “Jericho” story. Jesus and the disciples have been visiting Jericho, and as they are leaving (or in Luke, arriving) a blind man (or in Matthew, two men) cry out for him to notice them. In this story, the faith of the disabled person heals them. Mark [10:46-52] Matthew [20:29-34] and Luke [18:35-43] tell essentially the same story.

Why am I taking up your time with these bible-study details? Mark was, by general agreement, the first author to write the Gospel. Mark’s account of the healing near Jericho contains a number of really interesting details, which the other evangelists left out.

First, there is the name of the blind man. It is surprisingly rare in the Gospels for the people healed by Jesus to have ordinary, regular names. We do not know what Jairus’s daughter was called; we do not know who the woman with the flow of blood was, nor the names of the ten lepers.

And it is a very strange name. “Bar-” means “son of” in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and his friends. But “Timaeus” is a Greek name. Mark did not expect his readers to know Aramaic, so explains the name: “Bar-timaeus, son of Timaeus”.

“Timaeus” is not just any Greek name. It was the name of one of the companions of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Plato wrote a philosophical treatise in the form of a dialogue, named Timaeus. Timaeus is a work about cosmology, about the origin of the world and of everything.

When a Greek-speaker heard the name “Timaeus” the idea of the origin of the universe, would pop into their head. It was about as inevitable a connection of ideas as “Einstein” is to our generation – even for those of us who have no concept of higher mathematics.

There is another very interesting detail. Mark adds that “throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus”. Luke, who tells the story in almost the same words, leaves that sentence out. So why would the cloak matter?

In the ancient world, philosophers traditionally went around wrapped in a huge, heavy, enfolding cloak (and in some cases, nothing else). It was impossible to do manual labour dressed like that. The cloak showed that one lived by the mind – by conversation and teaching. It was a symbol of status.

Maybe “Bartimaeus” is a symbol rather than just a person. Maybe he represents the one who has been trying to understand the world by the light of his own reason, and has come, after much struggle, to realize that he cannot understand – cannot “see” – anything useful at all.

We need to pause and think how the word “blind” is used in the Gospels. Almost as often as referring to people who have lost their sight, “blind” is used as a term of disparagement of those who refuse to accept the message of Jesus, above all the Pharisees, the “blind guides”, to quote just one example.

In two ways we need to be careful with our scriptures, so that we do not fall short of the love which those scriptures teach.

First, for anyone to be unable to see well, is not their fault.

To refuse to recognize the evident truth: that is a fault, and sadly, it is one that is all around us today, in our public life. To call the willfully or invincibly ignorant “blind” is unjust to those who have, by no fault on their part, lost some or all of their sense of sight.

The second point is this: some of the partially sighted or unsighted find the tales of healing miracles a challenge. They do not necessarily see themselves, or wish to be seen by others, as waiting to be “cured”. They feel whole in themselves, and do not see themselves as lacking.

In Jesus’s day, the unsighted had no system of support, and were reduced to begging to survive. By healing them, Jesus was showing that the love of God extended to those who seemed least capable of achievement: and the message was as important as the gift of healing.

But to return to Bartimaeus: it is best if we take this story as Mark intended, as a symbolic or metaphorical tale about how following Jesus can give one a deeper, more satisfying insight into the workings of the universe than all philosophies.

Bartimaeus knows who Jesus is, and calls out for help: so, he already has some awareness that merely human knowledge and wisdom is deficient. He knows that he needs something more, and that something cannot be won by his effort. It can only be asked for, and it is received as a gift of grace, rather than mere human effort. ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Let me understand better. Let me reach beyond what I have learned so far.

There is another deeply symbolic part in this story. Bartimaeus casts aside his philosopher’s cloak, which was the symbol of human learning, of human status, and of the reputation for wisdom. He will no longer rely on the reputation that he has cultivated in this world.

What are our cloaks? What are the things that give us status, identity, a sense of belonging to a group, or even of being different from others?

Some years back, in UK universities, there was a regular encouragement (or requirement) of professors to list their “esteem indicators”. These were things like invitations to serve on committees, to speak at public events, things like that. In the business of the everyday world, distinction, difference, matters. Every walk of life has the same kinds of things.

It is not so in the Church of God. We are called to cast aside all those marks of esteem and signs of identity. We are called, explicitly, to recognize the call of God and the love of God in those who are not only different from ourselves, but those who lack any of the marks of identity that matter to us. God loves all of us for the sake of Jesus Christ, not because of our marks of esteem.

That knowledge is immensely liberating. We no longer believe that our worth depends on how we conceive of ourselves against the world’s standards. As Paul wrote in II Corinthians, “from now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away”.

For Bartimaeus, everything old was cast away. And he was freed to follow Christ, with a clearer and brighter vision of what life was about. So it can be for us.

Submitted by the Reverend Doctor Euan Cameron

October 17, 2021: Pentecost 21

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21 Pentecost October 17, 2021

We are approaching the end of the Church Liturgical year. Advent begins on the last Sunday of November and, with Advent, the Church begins its new year. A major change will be the Gospel reading assigned most Sundays will be from Luke. Whose feast the Church celebrates tomorrow.

Mark’s Gospel account has been the focus this year. Mark is the earliest and shortest Gospel. As we have traveled through this Gospel, we have heard Jesus Proclaim a new reality: “the Kingdom of God has arrived”! We are called to change, to live out the values of the Kingdom, here and now. We learn these values by listening to what Jesus says and watching what Jesus does. He embraces the poor and outcasts, confronts evil, heals the sick, tells us, shows us how to love and care, respect and assume responsibility for one another, especially those rejected and oppressed by society. Entrance into the kingdom is not based on status, blood, or wealth. There are not gatekeepers determining who gets in and who is kept out of the kingdom. It is a choice to follow Jesus. Be aware, however, living the values of the kingdom leads to an enduring but not an easy life. There will be suffering. However, God will always be present with us. We are not to be afraid. We will endure.

Today we are reminded of the huge problem Jesus faced. People, even his closest followers didn’t understand. James and John were acting according to respected values. Get noticed, get connected, get to the top. But obviously, they have not been paying attention to what Jesus has been saying: A disciple must take up one’s cross and follow. Expect suffering, even death. Become humble and trusting like a child, to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Lads, Jesus responds, there is no top. This is no ladder to climb, no power to seek. Remember, last week Jesus called us to unburden ourselves of worldly goods. Today Jesus tells us we are to be servants. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant; whoever would be first…must be a slave; I came not to be served but to serve and give my life as a ransom for many. What is all this?

We have more in common with James and John than we think. We, too, pass over those hard things Jesus says. His words often clash with what we are taught to live successfully in the real world. The words of Jesus are as much a challenge for us today as they were for those who followed him on that journey Mark relates in his Gospel. And there are people, some who may not believe Jesus is Lord, but who come close to agreeing with some of his difficult ideas.

Eric Fromm was one of the most popular psychologists of the last century. A focus of his research was what it is that makes human beings fully human. Fromm states that perhaps the highest power we have as human beings is the power to give generously of ourselves to others. In the act of giving to another support and respect, care and love, one experiences one’s own value, one’s richness and power as a person. The richness of who we are is not experienced in what we have but in the power of giving from what we have to others.

On the other hand, one who devotes all one’s time and energy acquiring much tends to seek more. It is not one who has much who is rich, but the one who is able to give generously from who one is. Fromm says that one does not become generous because one is wealthy. One sees oneself as wealthy because one can give generously to another. In other words: Be a servant.

G.K. Chesterton has said: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Not completely true. Even Jesus’ admonition to sell all, which we heard last week and be servant of all have been tried in various monastic and religious communities. What is true is that this is difficult. Monasteries have become rich and religious leaders have assumed a lot of authority.

But even in the corporate world the theory of Servant Leadership was developed. Servant Leadership states that a management style that shares power, puts the needs of employees first, helps people develop and perform at high levels. However, this is not the normal style taught and implemented in the corporate world.

The challenge of the Gospel is as real today as it was for James and John, and every disciple. When we read Luke’s Gospel, next year, we will come to a chapter frequently referred to as “The cost of Discipleship”. It is not cheap. So, we read the Gospel every week not to know history but to be reminded what is asked of us. Also, to remind us that Jesus did not give up on James and John; nor has he given up on us.

Today, we are invited again to listen to the challenge. To remember the promise of the presence of the Spirit, here and now, present in each of us. Rev. David Brown’s favorite description of the Spirit is “the encourager”. Encouraging us to hear the word of God, encouraging us to do it. Encouraging us to be servants.

Submitted by the Reverend Brendan McCormick

October 10, 2021: Pentecost 20

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20 Pentecost: October 10, 2021

“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

The former Dean of Yale Divinity School told me once how he used to teach a course in New Testament studies on “difficult verses in the New Testament”. Students were invited to choose a really challenging verse in the Gospels and the letters, and to spend part of the semester exploring how to deal with it, alongside their colleagues and their difficult verses. The example which Dean Attridge gave of a difficult verse, was the very one which I have just quoted.

Make no mistake about it, every human community tends to be organized, partly or wholly, around the distribution of resources, what we call wealth. Our twenty-first-century society suffers from this condition to a particularly extreme degree.

When one reaches my age, one is besieged by messages from the media about whether one has saved enough, or invested enough, to make one secure in retirement. The message is that completing one’s life in comfort and security will depend upon having put enough money aside in the earlier years of life.

Other parts of the media seem fascinated with ranking the wealth of captains of industry and other celebrities, or of glimpsing the often indecent and sometimes outright vulgar luxury in which they live. Lotteries nurture the idea that a chance win could transform one’s life.

Behind that are much more serious issues. The political culture of the US, whether of the right or the left, expects individuals to be responsible for their welfare, and to wish to reap and keep the rewards of their labour, to a degree that is very unusual in the wider world. It is even strange compared to the way society was organized in this country two generations ago. Society has become more individualistic, more resistant to the idea of redistribution of wealth than when I was a child. Quite simply, as nations, we tax less than we used to. The top marginal income tax rate in the US in 1960 was 91%, even though very few earned enough to pay it.