Sermon Sunday 25.10.2015

By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labour, together.

I wonder what the picture is in your head when you hear the name ‘Salzburg’.  In the 1920’s they formed a committee there to promote the place, and they had a three-part strategy.  The first heading was ‘theatres’, and they concentrated on building performance spaces for theatre and concerts and opera, spaces that would be the envy of the world, spaces the world would want to come and fill – both audiences and performers.  The second heading was ‘Mozart’.  They realised that Mozart was their greatest selling point, and they set out to exploit him to the full.  The third heading was, and I quote: ‘stars, stars, stars’.  They wanted the glitterati of the world to come to Salzburg, and to be seen coming to Salzburg – so that those of us who were not counted among the glitterati would nevertheless want to be there too, hoping that a little bit of the glamour, a little sprinkling of the glitter, would find its way to us (if only in our own minds).

 

And you would have to say that they have done very well with their strategies; their strategies have worked – and, for six weeks in the summer during the Salzburg Festival, the Festspielhaus is sold out every night, even though a seat in the front half of the hall will cost nearly 500 euros per performance.  (You can of course try to get a seat in the back row of the gallery for more like 100.)

 

So, if we think of Salzburg, is that what we think of?  It may well be.  There has of course been an added attraction since the 1960’s: a little musical film that they called ‘The Sound of Music’.  So Mozart now has the competition (or perhaps the cooperation) of Maria von Trapp, or Julie Andrews is she is often known.  And today the hills are alive with the sound of cash tills, as those who come to see the locations for the film, or hear the concerts, are very pleasantly and politely and in perfect English (no matter what their nationality) parted from their money.

 

There may be other names you associate with Salzburg: there could be Joseph Mohr, born in Salzburg in 1792, who wrote the Christmas carol ‘Stille Nacht’; there might be Christian Doppler, the discoverer of the Doppler effect – without which astronomy and radar and medical imaging (among other things) would be unrecognisable or, in some cases, inconceivable.  There might be various of Salzburg’s prince-archbishops, with their idiosyncrasies and extravagances: the one who used to amuse himself at the expense of his guests as they were soaked from below and above by the hidden water spouts around his table (from which they dare not rise until he did); or the one who ordered everyone except Catholics to be banished from the city.

 

You might be reminded by the name ‘Salzburg’ of the source of its wealth – Salzburg translates quite simply as ‘salt town’, and the white gold brought huge wealth to the place, wealth on which all subsequent prosperity has been based, wealth that has been spent on the buildings and the art and the music (and indeed the many varieties of local beer) on which the tourism strategies of the last century have been built.

 

Perhaps we would not as readily associate Salzburg with the temporary but quite substantial set-up outside its main railway station, where the army, the police, Caritas and the Red Cross have set up a centre for dealing with those who come across Europe looking for shelter from the storms of war, searching for a place to live without fear, without hunger, without persecution.  Perhaps we would not immediately think of Salzburg in the terms set out in the picture in your order of service.  There is a headline in English, but let me translate the rest for you (with Rebecca’s assistance!):

 

For an open Salzburg, refugees are welcome here: a joint statement from Salzburg’s artistic community.  We call for a tolerant community of cultures and religions, for a society where freedom of opinion enjoys the highest rank.  We want to live in a society founded on freedom, tolerance and solidarity, one which does not close its eyes to the hardship of asylum seekers.  We struggle for a strong democracy and an open Salzburg, that does not only welcome tourists from around the world, but also welcomes those who need our help.

 

*****

 

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labour, together.

 

Jeremiah’s list is one that ought to grab our attention and make us think.  He is expressing a vision of the restoration of Zion, a vision of who is called to make a holy city holy once again.  He is asking his listeners to imagine a mass of people trudging across the landscape, called to be renewed and renewing.  We, as the people of the United Kingdom, have a vision too of who might come and live among us – there is official government thinking and policy about who they might be.  They are the people with skills of which we are short; they are the people with enough money to pay their way, to provide inward investment.  And they are, like the traditional view of Salzburg, the tourists who will smilingly and politely (we hope) be parted from their cash.

 

So Jeremiah’s list ought to grab our attention and make us think.  His list includes the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labour.  His list does not only welcome those who will bring us the help we think we need, but also welcomes those who need our help – because no city can be holy or wholly restored without them.  Jeremiah’s list ought to grab our attention and make us think.

 

In the November issue of Life and Work there is a short article written by Aaron Stevens, the minister at the Church of Scotland congregation in Budapest.  He tells of his congregation’s efforts to help when Budapest became the centre of the refugee crisis, and when the Hungarian government could only think of refugees as terrorists in the making or burdens in the waiting.  He speaks of being a volunteer providing water; of his Kirk Session’s decision to open their building for people to sleep; of the reception of mattresses, bedding, hygiene products, dry clothes – provided by a population eager to help when its government was eager to obstruct.  He finishes with these words about the people who passed through looking for hope: ‘I hope they can rest, and pray that they find peace.’

 

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labour, together.

 

So, as with the name Salzburg, I wonder what the picture is in your head when you hear the name ‘Christianity’.  While I was away, Roger and Lizy went to a conference on the creative and artistic use of space – of which we will hear more.  But within that conference was this question of what the most basic picture is of Christianity.  For many the most obvious, the one that comes most easily to mind, is that of the cross – an empty cross in our tradition, one with Jesus still on it for many others.  It is a picture that speaks of undeserved suffering, of evil met by and overcome by goodness, of redemption, of forgiveness.  For others it is the tomb – also empty.  This is a picture of new life, of death overcome, of Christ victorious – but also a picture of mystery, of transcendence, a recognition that there is so much we do not and cannot understand, or even conceive.

 

But the argument was that neither of these pictures is the one with which we begin.  The argument was that where we begin, the place where we gather in order to move toward the cross and the empty tomb, the place where we lay ourselves open to God and to one another, the place from which we travel, is the Lord’s Supper.  This table around which we gather is the picture of our faith – and it is so because here everyone is welcome, everyone is fed, everyone is equal.  Here, around this table, we take into ourselves the life of the host at the feast.  Here is our food for the way, our vision of the truth, our celebration of the life.  And that is why we place no conditions on who can be here, who can eat and drink with us, because to do so would be to suggest that there are qualifications to gain, qualifications to the love of God.

 

Jesus was leaving Jericho when a man called for help.  There were those who argued that he should not do so, that he was not suitably qualified, not totally acceptable.  But, as when his disciples tried to keep the children away, Jesus was having none of this exclusivity.  He had one question: ‘what do you want me to do for you?’  The theme for this year’s one world week is ‘hope in action’.  As those from another place come looking for hope among us, we will need to consider what action will provide it, what are the strategies we might engage to welcome the world.  Our strategies will probably not involve the stars or the glitterati, but they will involve people and their place at the table.

 

So perhaps we can pause and consider what we do here today – and consider the vision of hope in which we engage.  There is enough, this table tells us.  There is enough mercy and compassion, there is enough food and drink, there is enough among us and within us to provide the help that is required.  Here is the place where our faith can best be seen – here is the place with the vision and the provision for the needs and the hope of the world, the gifts of God for the people of God.

 

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labour, together.

 

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