Sermon Sunday 12.7.2015

By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will,

according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,

as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him,

things in heaven and things on earth.


When I worked in the Church Offices in Edinburgh I used to receive phone calls, or letters, or even visits, every now and then from people who thought that the national church might be able to intercede on their behalf with government agencies of various kinds.  Some of them I remember.


More than one congregation wrote to me, complaining about the new regulations coming in which would force them to spend money on making their church buildings (and the toilets in them) more accessible.  I had to say that we thought the new legislation was actually quite a good idea – which was not what they wanted to hear.


A gentleman phoned regularly for a while.  He phoned because he thought I was in agreement with him – because we had produced a series of reports on Israel-Palestine which spoke of the plight of the occupied territories, the evils wrought by the wall in the West Bank, the indignities visited on the Palestinian population.  After a while, however, it became clear that this man was not just talking about the sufferings of an occupied people; he wanted to broaden the conversation into one that blamed the Jews for all the ills in the world – and all the traditional anti-Semitic presumptions began to become clearer in his conversation.  I stopped taking his calls.


I had two or three calls from a man running a B&B somewhere north of Inverness, who was sure that I would be completely on his side in arguing that he had every right to refuse admittance to his facility to same-sex couples, and that the legislation coming in should not apply to someone letting out a room in their own home.  Surely he had the right, he thought, to decide who to admit to his house.


And, when you think about how our church has hesitated and prevaricated and procrastinated over the issue of same-sex relationships – over civil partnerships, over ordination, over marriage – it is perhaps unsurprising that this man with his B&B might presume I would be on his side.  But he too was a disappointed customer.


And then there was the man who came to reception at 121 George Street, asking to speak to someone – and I seemed, apparently, to be the obvious person.  The man was a supporter of Rangers Football club – not as character-building a thing to be then as it is now.  He was a decent, church-going, quietly spoken, well dressed, respectable man – who was troubled; and he thought I would understand.  Unlike most of the others I have described, I don’t think he thought I could do anything about his problem.  He just needed someone to talk to.


Rangers, you see, was not the institution it had once been.  There had been a time when you knew where you stood with Rangers, but now all that had changed.  And he was one among many who were disappointed, confused, saddened.  Rangers Football Club was now, and he hesitated even to use the words, employing Catholics.


‘I’ve got nothing against Catholics!’ he was quick to add; ‘I’ve got some friends who are Catholics – well, acquaintances really, people I know.’  And he took a deep breath, and said: ‘it’s just that they seem to be getting everywhere – and a lot of us think it’s just not right.’


What was I supposed to say?  Answers on a postcard to the church office.


As the man continued to talk, you could tell that within him there was a turmoil.  He was not stupid; he knew that in theory it was wrong to discriminate on the grounds of religion or faith or denomination.  But nevertheless, deep within him was the feeling that Catholics should know their place – and, among other places they should not be, was Rangers Football Club.


But also deep within him was the belief that the Church of Scotland, the national, reformed, protestant church, would be on his side, would know what he meant, would understand, would sympathise.  And I didn’t.  I told him, kindly (I hope), that he and others would just need to realise that the world had moved on; and we would all had to move on with it.  Another disappointed customer.  You will notice that I was developing something of a speciality in disappointed customers.


But you may also notice in all these tales that people thought they would be in congenial company, in the Church of Scotland, when they wanted to avoid making it easier for people with disabilities to come to church, or wanted to blame the Jews for the world’s problems, or wanted to shut people out on the grounds of their sexual orientation, or thought that Catholics ought to be kept separate from everyone else.  Why, do we think, that might be?  Why did people presume that their discriminatory practices or prejudiced attitudes would get a supportive hearing – in the church of Jesus Christ?


Today, the 12th of July, is the traditional day for anti-Catholic sentiment to be voiced and paraded, both in Northern Ireland and in Scotland (especially in Glasgow and the west of Scotland).  It is the day when the decisive defeat of the former James II of England and VII of Scotland is remembered, when he finally lost his attempt to regain the throne, and when the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland was confirmed.  Because of this, there are those who still use the day to celebrate the defeat of Catholics.


So would it be churlish to point out that Pope Alexander VII was at the time – 325 years ago – part of the same grand alliance as William of Orange, seeking to blunt the ambitions of the king of France, who was a supporter of James?  It might not be churlish, but it would be to miss the point.  History – or at least this particular bit of it – is only an excuse, or at best a symbol.


The history that counts is a history of social division and dominance and oppression, and a church history of suspicion and violence and venom.  The economic history, of who had access to what jobs, what housing, what position, what power, is the real history behind the 12th of July – and parades existed and, in some places, still exist simply to say to ‘the others’: ‘we know you hate this, but there’s nothing you can do about it because we have the power – and you don’t.’


So today above all other days, perhaps, we need to hear the words of Paul with which I started:

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will,

according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,

as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him,

things in heaven and things on earth.


The church in all its parts has been exceedingly good over the centuries at ignoring the little phrase in there: ‘all things’.  Τα παντα, literally ‘the everything’, comes up in several places in the New Testament, and it’s a phrase that admits of no exceptions; there’s nothing omitted from everything.  The will of God, says Paul, the will that was seen in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is to gather up ‘everything’, τα παντα, into God.


So the church ought, in following Jesus Christ, to be spreading that word – speaking it and doing it.  The church ought in all its parts to be, in the words of the last line of the hymn we sang not long ago, ‘owning the mystery’.  The trouble is that we, all of us in our various denominations, have misinterpreted the word ‘own’.  It ought to mean for us ‘acknowledge’; it ought to produce in us a humility of thought and expression; it ought to remind us that what we worship is indeed a mystery, a mystery that inspires us and summons us, but which we cannot explain – that God is in everything, and everything is in God; that God excludes none of us, but will (not might, will) gather us all.


But instead the churches have imagined that they ‘owned’ the mystery, in the sense of a possession.  If you want God to love you, we have said – all of us, repeatedly – then you must join us.  We have the mystery of God, we have said; if you want access to God, then we are the way in.  We have divinised the church; we have turned the church into an object of worship, into a graven image that takes our eyes away from Christ and onto a human, fallible institution.


And out of that history, sectarianism grows; out of that self-serving, power-hungry attempt at theology, division is promulgated.  People are defined not by the love of God, but by the association they have with those who have presumed to speak on God’s behalf.  Out of the social exclusion that churches of all stripes have promoted, by their insistence on excluding from their number those who, in their eyes, did not measure up, has developed the idea that of course the church will be sympathetic to discrimination and prejudice – because discrimination and prejudice have been for so long, it seems, their stock in trade.


I am no prophet, says Amos, but he is sent to prophesy anyway.  He is sent to speak about a plumb line that is held up to the society.  What the plumb line shows is how and where the wall is not straight; it shows the way and the extent of society’s inequality; it shows how some are treated differently to others; it shows how some are held at a distance; it shows how some are ground down, oppressed, excluded.  Go and prophesy, Amos is told; go and tell the king and all the people of their division and their inequality.  Go and tell them that they cannot treat one another in this way.  Go and tell them that there is one God, who loves with a single love; go and tell them that there is no person or class of person who is to be turned away by the arrogance of others.  And we are told as well to go and prophesy.


The church is not here to announce its ownership of God, nor are we here to announce to others that everyone has to be like us, nor to parade our historical divisions, and certainly not to revel in an imagined victory or myth-driven superiority.  The church is here to acknowledge the mystery that God’s love is for all – and to do its best to express that mystery in what it says, what it does, and how it behaves; because that love is the only song that the church has to sing.


With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will,

according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,

as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him,

things in heaven and things on earth.

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