Preached on Sunday, 01.10.2017
By the Reverend Dr. Norman Shanks
10 days ago I was in Stirling for a meeting of the Drummond Trust, which was set up in the nineteenth century to promote the Christian Gospel principally, in its early years, through the distribution of evangelical tracts. Over the years the Trust has developed and changed significantly and its principal function now, in addition to supporting occasional events such as lectures and conferences, is to give grants to assist the production and printing of books. At the recent meeting, for instance, we agreed to help the Iona Community’s Wild Goose Publications produce a book of Leith Fisher’s hymns, with a commentary by a fellow-Iona Community member. A former chairman and long-standing member of the Drummond Trust was Ian Sinclair, Grace’s late husband, David’s father, my old Latin teacher. The meeting the other day was a very pleasant experience: we got through the business, the financial and administrative stuff, the applications for grant, very harmoniously and in good time – careful discussion, some serious issues, but a good bit of laughter and a strong sense of common purpose, rooted in shared faith and Christian values.
The contrast struck me between my positive experience at The Drummond Trust meeting and the scenario in our two readings this morning. First, the Gospel account of Jesus’ confrontation with the chief priests and elders of the people whose standing was threatened by Jesus’ popularity: so they challenged his authority; and Jesus responds with the telling story of the two sons – one who failed to do what he said he would, and the other who refused at first but then changed his mind and did as his father asked. And the Old Testament passage about the people of Israel, desperately thirsty on their continuing journey through the wilderness on the way to the promised land, complaining again about their plight and Moses’ leadership, and Moses’ challenging question to them, after water had been discovered and their thirst slaked, Is the Lord among us or not?
That question leapt out at me from the reading: Is the Lord among us or not? It has a directness and a perpetual relevance; it challenged those to whom it was addressed at the time, and it challenges us still – not least at this point within the life of our congregation. I was tempted to stop the sermon at this point and ask you to turn to your neighbour for a minute or two and talk about it – Is the Lord among us or not? Maybe we’ll do that another time: you have been given advance warning! What do we think and believe about the nature of God – God up there/down here, with us/beyond us; what of our experience and feelings about the presence and power of God? Over the years I know that my views on this have changed quite a bit: unlike the powers that be in the Gospel reading, like the first son, I’ve changed my mind; and I think my faith has deepened – as someone has said, I’ve come to believe more and more about less and less – but my core belief – about the existence of God, and God’s loving purpose for the world – has got stronger and stronger.
When Ruth and I were at Iona Abbey last month, one evening, in front of the common-room fire, a number of us, as often happens on Iona, got into discussion about issues of faith and life; and the conversation turned, scarcely surprisingly perhaps, to God. And with a degree of diffidence, because I had not met the other people until that week and will probably never see them again, I found myself sharing not my doubts, but my difficulty (which I’ve spoken about too from time to time with the members of our regular Thursday evening Questions of Faith group) about understanding or relating to God as a person. Just to be clear – I have no doubt whatsoever about the existence of God; my difficulty is about understanding, or indeed addressing God as a person – whether as Father, Mother or whatever. If it makes sense and is helpful for you, that is fine; but for my part God is beyond description, indeed beyond understanding, and I find the anthropomorphic language unduly limiting. I have come to prefer to think of God in terms of life-force or love-force, energy, light-energy perhaps – which we can ignore or resist, or on the other hand, open our lives to, plug into, as it were, connect with; and it is in this kind of connection, not only with God but also with other people, in developing and deepening relationships that we grow towards fulfilling our human identity. For my part I find it a good deal easier to conceive of the presence of God among us in these terms than as a person – or an agent with the power to intervene in human affairs. . If God is an agent, why does this supposedly loving God not act to prevent the kind of suffering and disaster that bedevils our world? God simply ‘is’ rather than God ‘does’.
To return to that challenging question – Is the Lord among us or not? – trying to make sense of the transcendent, spiritual dimension of our existence will always be testing for us intellectually. Going back to our fireside discussion that evening on Iona, I was surprised, perhaps a degree reassured to find how positively people responded – shared their own doubts and difficulties, even said they felt liberated by what I had said. But of course it is not what we say we believe that matters, it is how our beliefs and values play out in action, what we make of them day by day in our lives. And there is a sense in which we test our beliefs through our lives: we live ourselves into thinking and believing rather than the other way round. It is a dynamic, organic, continuing process; and it is true for us not only at the individual level but also communally, in our life together, perhaps especially at this time, with David having gone and we look to a future that is still uncertain, so that to ask ourselves Is the Lord among us or not? and to keep asking ourselves may be a very salutary process.
The consistent message of scripture, reinforced by the history of the churches down the centuries, is that not only do actions count louder than words, but ultimately it is only actions that count. Professions of faith, all expressions of religious convictions, even regular attendance at worship are empty and unconvincing, hypocritical and a travesty of the good news of God’s loving purpose for all, unless they are backed up by and expressed in the lives and actions of individuals and congregations committed to living out God’s message of hospitality, compassion, generosity, and justice. The significance of each of our ‘little nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love’ is not to be underestimated – nor of the bigger gestures and projects, creative, sometimes risky that we may undertake together. I can clearly recollect, from almost 30 years ago, one of my theology teachers and gurus, Professor Duncan Forrester, emphasising the verse in St John’s Gospel Whoever does what is true comes to the light and the first two chapters of the letter of James that back this up culminating in the verse that says that Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. For Jesus and the prophets the severest condemnation was for hardheartedness and hypocrisy, people whose lives did not bear witness to their faith, who lacked compassion for others, especially for people who were in need and marginalised.
The call to loving action, trying to make sense of what we believe, to get our priorities right and be true to our convictions and values is a very demanding task. I remember, as some of you will too, a couple of religious television series from 50 years or so ago. One was called Coping with Life: broadcast talks on BBC, later published in book form, by Ruth’s father, the Very Rev Dr Hugh Douglas; the other one was a series of dialogues and discussions, on STV, led by our minister in Edinburgh before I trained for ministry, Dr Bill Cattanach: it was called No easy answer. As we continue our journey of faith, our personal pilgrimages, our life together as a congregation, as a means of coping with life – the inevitable ups and downs we shall experience, it is right and good that we should explore and reflect on the big issues of faith – the miracle and mystery of God’s grace, questions like Is the Lord among us or not? It is right and good that we should look to the life and teaching of Jesus, and the traditions of the church refined, interpreted and updated down the years, to guide our footsteps. And it is important to recognise that there are no easy answers – that the way of faith is ultimately a leap in the dark, intrinsically risky, but full of promise and potential, momentary glimpses of light and experiences of peace and joy, an exercise in trust.
Outside the two buildings of the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, on either side of the road, are a couple of pieces of what I think is called ‘public art’ – large neon installations. One says There will be no miracles here and the other, by a different artist, Everything is going to be alright. When I first saw these works a few years ago, I was struck by the apparent inconsistency between the two messages. But as I have reflected further, I see that the two taken together don’t necessarily contradict one another. When we accept that life has meaning and purpose, and that nothing at all can separate us from God and God’s love – the reality that God is indeed among us – the need disappears for so-called miracles, the exceptional, the apparently incredible, the extraordinary merges into the ordinary, the supernatural and the material are interpenetrably one: in the end all shall be well; and we can trust that in and through all the vicissitudes of life we are ‘safe in the shadow of the Lord’, and everything indeed is ultimately going to be all right. Thanks be to God. Amen