St Modoc's is currently seeking a new Rector.

Former Rector:

Canon Alison Peden, MA, D.Phil, M.Th,  was a Curate at St John the Baptist, Perth before becoming Rector of Holy Trinity, Stirling from 2003-2015, when she was appointed Rector of St Modoc’s. Doune.

Alison taught medieval history and political thought at Oxford, Glasgow and Stirling Universities before training for ministry at TISEC and Edinburgh University.   She was Provincial Director of Ordinands in the SEC from 2011-19. 

Alison retired at the end of March 2022.

SERMONS  -  You will find below some reflections and sermons by the Rector, Canon Alison Peden

All Saints  1 November 2021

Sun through gold in the windows

If I tell you that going to church was good for you, you probably are feeling you are back in Sunday School and that an old-fashioned rant was on the way. 
Not so.
I came across a scientific report about that said they discovered that there are tiny particles of gold in the coloured glass of stained glass windows (well, medieval stained glass windows anyway). When sunlight pours through the gold particles, the sunbeams vibrate, and it makes a magnetic field that is 100 times stronger than the magnetism around ordinary glass. This magnetic field breaks apart polluting chemicals that are in the air. In scientific speak:  stained glass windows are photocatalytic air purifiers with nanostructured gold catalysts.

So the air in church is a lot purer than elsewhere – at least on a sunny day when light streams in through the windows.

We are very lucky to have lots of gorgeous stained glass at St Modoc’s. One of the delights is to watch the play of coloured light on the stone walls when the sun shines through. 

Several of them  - especially the great East window show the saints who surround and encourage us. It’s good to think that as the sunlight streams through the saints, they are purifying the air around us, making it a better place to be, getting rid of the bad air. They are a purifying force field – a saint-zone of clear air.

So let’s think about the picture we have drawn: as Jesus said: I am the light of the world

there’s the saint: a person who lets the light of God stream through them;  a colourful character, like no-one else; but someone who is lit up by God, not their own ego – someone who shines with the light and joy of God.

there’s the air: the air may be damp, musty and a bit stale, or there may even be a stench like in Lazarus’ tomb. But sweet air is clear and sharp, like a mountain breeze or the garden after rainfall.

We talk about ‘clearing the air’ of a bad atmosphere; and in a way, this is what the saints do. When a situation just smells bad – when it is a place of despair, or hate, or cruelty – then a saint lets in the sunlight of God to purify it. God can work through human beings to make a situation better, clearer, less toxic.  The saints are those who God uses to clear the air, to help us to breathe again more easily, to live and work to God’s glory. And it is the gold that they contain that lets them do it.

Just as stained glass has little bits of gold that help the sunlight to purify the air around them, so saints have qualities of gold within them, that help God to purify and change the world around them.  So what if gold like?

Gold does not change    One of the reasons it was chosen for coins and jewellery is that is does no tarnish or corrode,  and it's quite hard to dissolve - even in nitric acid. You know that it’s going to be the same over the years, and that it will not rust or flake apart or disintegrate. And a saint has that kind of integrity. They do not give up or wear out, but keep on going. They are not one thing today and another thing tomorrow – you can trust them. They are filled with God’s eternity, and so they just ‘are’. A lot of sainthood is about keeping on going, not going rusty or flaky or tarnished.

Gold is malleable   Integrity - not changing - is not the same as being rigid. Gold keeps its qualities,  but you can shape it into all sorts of things – it will not snap or shatter. Think of intricate jewellery, or the designs on coins, or golden statues. Likewise, saints are not rigid and stiff – God can shape them into what is needed at the time, for saints are creative, and responsive and free, able to breathe the new life that Lazarus breathed when he emerged from the tomb.  To the saints who delight in God’s endless action in the world, a new situation calls for new ways, new attitudes; the gold in them stays as bright as ever, but it is shaped into new and beautiful patterns for good.

 Gold is very dense  Gold is stable and pure, and it can be made into all sorts of things, and it is also very concentrated - a lot denser than lead. If you put together all of the gold that has ever been extracted from the earth, it would make a cube only 66 feet square. That’s not all that much, really, if you think of the gold of empires and treasures and coinage and industry. It means that you can beat it very thin - as in gold leaf – and it still has all the properties of gold, and does not disintegrate.  Saints too have a concentrated quality – you might say, a little of them goes a long way …  but you can beat them thin and even batter them, but the golden spark of God’s love and light survives in them. And even a little gold particle – in a window – clears the air around it.

As we’ve been thinking about what a saint is like we may have been thinking of individuals we know who have great integrity and steadfastness, who are creative and flexible, who have an intensity and focus that can’t be beaten out of them.

As the Cop 26 climate conference begins, it seems right to think about what Scots have done to bring a steadfast, creative, impassioned voice to the purifying of our environment, just as the gold is dispersed from the saints through the stained glass windows.

We can go back a long way to the Celtic saints, who spoke of the ‘Book of nature’
that was as important to them as the Bible as a way to encounter God. 
They reverenced the world around them, for they viewed it as the way God spoke to them; the world was lit up by God as its source of life.

George McLeod, the founder of the Iona community, was profoundly influenced by this Celtic tradition:  that ‘matter matters’;  that how we treat the cosmos reflects how we treat God and that we should reverence God’s creation. He wrote about the immediacy of the divine presence in the world around us:

“The grass is vibrant,
the rocks pulsate,
all is in flux; turn but a stone and an angel moves.”

Another Scottish voice which had a big impact internationally was John Muir, born in Dunbar in 1838.  He escaped is stern Calvinist home by exploring the East Lothian coast and countryside, and continued his fascination with nature when the family emigrated to America. Muir became an accomplished botanist and geologist and more or less founded the National Parks movement - creating Yosemite, for example.  The natural world for him was God’s temple, here he could pray and encounter God. He shared this experience one night with President Theodore Roosevelt: they set off wild camping in Yosemite, slept in the brisk open air of Glacier Point, and were dusted by a fresh snowfall in the morning.

It was a night Roosevelt never forgot.  He later told a crowd, "Lying out at night under those giant Sequoia trees  was like lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build."

God’s light shone through these pioneers and their work made our air better to breathe: not just physically – though that is important, and to be fought for – but also spiritually. They are people who enlarge our vision and  help us to see why we should care about Creation; they give us the push to persist as they did – with all the integrity and creativity and dedication that pure gold has, the gold that God sheds on us, shining divine light through the saints.

Remembrance Sunday  1 November 2018    
Members of the congregation contributed family memories of the First World War which the Rector reflected on in this sermon.  (More details and documents can be found on the First World War page on this website.)

It seems a long time since we started tracking the centenary of the Fist World War, back in 2014. And the war itself must have dragged on and on for those who lived through it – and who had thought at its beginning  that ‘it will be over by Christmas’. A long war meant changes – of technology (from horses to tanks), of personnel – as so many died and were buried overseas, and of mood.  The initial optimism and even romantic heroism of war gave way to dogged determination to see right prevail, and also a sense of pathos, disillusionment and questioning. The stories that members of the congregation have offered from their family members can only be mentioned briefly, but they reflect the whole gamut of these aspects of war. (You can find much more detail on the World War I page on the website.)

Firstly, the initial optimism and thrill of war:   Juliet wrote about her late husband John’s father, Kenneth McCracken, who had been gassed at Passchendaele, but who wrote after the war almost nostalgically about the thrill of a team of horses pulling an eighteen-pounder gun:

I felt my pulses bounding and my blood ran fast and free,
As down the breeze the hot horse scent came in a wave to me.
And oh my heart was longing for the gunner life again,
The poplar-shaded horse lines in the poppy-sprinkled plain.

Throughout the war there was enormous gallantry shown, which relied a lot on the comradeship and idealism that servicemen know. Military Crosses were awarded to David Nickson’s uncle and Eira’s father (latter at Passchendaele);  Malcolm’s grandfather Wilfrid Betty was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallantry the highest award that could be given to an NCO, second to the VC.  His company was badly hit from March to April 1918 , to the point that all the Officers were killed.  He was a Sergeant in charge of his soldiers and immediately went to check each man to see if there were any other survivors. By chance he spotted that one soldier with a badly injured leg showed signs of life . Malcolm’s grandfather dragged this soldier through the battlefield to the Medical Camp for treatment. After the War, Wilfred set up the family home in Park Street in Taunton. One day some years later, a family moved into the same street a few doors down from his home. The father of this family had a wooden leg and one day Wilfrid answered a knock on his door.  The man announced that he was the soldier whose life he had saved and thanked him.

Another story of reconnecting is from Philip Gaskell, whose grandfather, Peter, fought in France and benefited from the socks kindly sent him from Scotland. The knitter’s name, Elizabeth McHowitt, came with them, and they corresponded; after the war, she tracked Peter down and they married. 

An example of particular bravery came from Iain’s great uncle James Morrison.  He had emigrated to Australia, and so fought in World War 1 with the ANZACs.  IN 1916 they were in Armentieres, engaged in a night raid in which they cut through 40 yards of barbed wire and attacked a German trench.  These ‘black ANZACs’ so called because of their camouflage, were given a heroes’ welcome back in Westminster and served strawberries and cream.

There were, of course, many casualties, and a number of the family members we are calling to mind survived the war because they were injured and invalided out – like Vee’s grandfather Charles Collyer who fought in Cameroon. Janet’s grandmother Mela – like Vee’s great aunt Margaret Collyer in France - was a nurse in the 1st Southern General Hospital in Birmingham.  She wrote in 1916 to her fiancé Cyril, in hospital in Basra recovering from a bullet in his arm:

"Convoys come in thick and fast.  Two or three a day, 140 at a time.  Men have to be transferred to other hospitals at a moment’s notice to make room for the fresh arrivals – it is pitiful and heart-rending. We have two German prisoners brought here off the train in a dying condition, one just a lad.  I’m glad to say that our orderlies and the patients have been most considerate to the prisoners.
It seems so odd and unnatural when I think of you thousands of miles away asleep on your little camp bed and here I am awake and looking after men who are in similar circumstances to yourself.  It is the irony of fate that I should be compelled by circumstances to look after every man but the right one! "

The war posed huge moral problems.  Nursing enemy wounded was one.  The honourable conduct of war was another. Noni Graham’s grandfather Norman Melville was in the Royal Scots serving in Belgium, and he published a way diary  in which he tells the story of a night reconnaissance in No Man’s Land in 1915. The mud was lit up by a flare and he saw that he was almost in touching distance of a German sniper, who was unaware of his presence.  Melville wrote:

“I could have been on his back in one leap, but fingering the 6-inch blade of my dagger, repressed the temptation of breaking the Sixth Commandment as being in direct opposition to orders.”

He crawled back via flooded shell-holes to the front line.

It was sometimes difficult to know who was on your side, and who was an ‘enemy’.  Archie's great uncle Jack Caldwell flew as a 23-year old pilot in the Royal Flying Corps in Mesopotamia.  The circumstances of his accident flying behind the Turkish lines are unclear, but he died of exposure not far from safe ground.    The Arabs might have helped him, but were thought to have been frightened off by the shots they heard from his gun as he tried to blow up the plane so the Turks wouldn’t get it.

This pathos and waste began to be heard in the War poetry which has become so familiar to us. Philip’s other grandfather, Frederick Fawcett, was a bricklayer from Durham, who had gone to live in Glasgow.  He was a conscientious objector – ‘not an easy path to choose’, writes Philip. The lives of those who resisted the call to fight were made unpleasant and shameful, and it must have been hard for them to hold to their convictions. 

The conflicted thoughts of those who survived and their families when at last the Armistice came to an exhausted Europe were well expressed by Janet’s grandmother Mela, as she wrote to her fiancé on 12 November 1918, a day after Armistice:

“Mrs Bryant and I were out for a walk, when suddenly the church bells for miles around started to ring, and when  we got back to the house the flags were flying.  We hardly knew how to take the news.
One felt as though a load of anxiety had been removed, and yet at the same time the memory of tortured hearts, whose dear ones would not be coming back, was ever present with one.”

For, amid the joy and relief – and sense of triumph - there was also heartbreak and a more insidious long-term agony, of minds and bodies that had been wounded, and might not recover. Heather’s grandfather was a Piper in the Seaforth Highlanders, and survived the war, but died 4 years later.  She discovered that he had shrapnel lodged in his heart.  His wife did not receive the compensation that went to widow whose husbands had died in the war, and she was left with 2 young boys and very little means to support them.

War can bring great heroism, ideals and compassion in the human race, but at a terrible cost, all too often hidden. May we remember all who have died in the service of their country, and may we learn afresh God’s paths of peace and reconciliation which we pray will one day make the pain, loss and waste of war a thing of the past, remembered only that we might mourn it.

A sermon on Melchizedek preached on Sunday 21st October 2018  on Hebrews 5:1-10 and Mark 10:35-45

Wanting the best seat
The consecration of our new bishop was a major strategic operation. When you think of all the different categories of people there, you can imagine that getting them in the right place was a bit of a nightmare for the Diocesan Office and Cathedral. Clergy of course  - bishops, priests, deacons, ministers of other denominations and faiths; Lay Readers, Lay Representatives, family, choirs, children; Civic dignitaries, and political and social representatives; former congregations.

We were given a coloured slip of paper with the invitation that indicated where we should robe and sit. In the SEC, we take Jesus’ pronouncement that “The first shall be last and the last first” rather literally, so that the bishop or the Primus is always the last in the procession – and they just take the last seat left empty.

So all this was swirling round in my head as I thought about Jesus and the terrible two – James and John the sons of Zebedee, the ‘Sons of Thunder’. They were desperate to get the best seats at the celebrations of Jesus’ glory. ‘Grant us to sit one on your right hand and one on the left’. Not  - behind a pillar where we can’t see anything; not -  at the back where the sound system doesn’t work; not – in the side room where it’s just being relayed by audio. No:  “we reckon we merit a seat at the top table, either side of the throne, where we can see and be seen, a ringside seat, the best.” 

But who is great?
We love to get the best seats at a big event, and Jesus triumphant in glory would be the biggest event of all. So why did Jesus react so strongly against James and John? His disciples knew that he was indeed someone special, someone great. They understood him as coming in the role of Messiah, the Son of God and Saviour, and, according to Hebrews, the High Priest reconciling God with his people. His disciples might say, ‘Yes, we know what those titles mean, we know what a Messiah is, and the Son of God, and a High Priest.  “These are positions of power and glory, and we want to be up there beside the top man.”

We think we know what important roles are, what to expect from the people who inhabit them (whether kings or bishops)/ But things can change. Thinking about kings and princes,  Henry VIII was very different from Prince Harry.

Jesus revolutionised the roles he took even more: he was a Messiah who came in peace, riding a donkey; the Son of God born in the squalor of a stable; and a High Priest …  well, what is all this about Jesus being High Priest  that we have heard read about today in Hebrews: "You are a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek’?

Jesus is a different sort of High Priest
If you look at the altar piece in St  Modoc’s, you can see an image of Melchizedek just to the right of the painted crucifixion.

It depicts all we know about Melchizedek - King of Salem and priest of the Most High,
who gave bread and wine to Abraham after a battle, and blessed him.

So where did Melchizedek come from?  He was not from the priestly tribe, the Levites. His parentage was unknown, or uncertain. He was a mysterious outsider, without lineage or conventional recommendation, who didn’t fit the usual mould of those in authority. His authority came from his inner qualities: his name Melchizedek means:  King of righteousness, and Salem means peace, so he was also King of Peace. Salem was stuck between Sodom and Gomorrah, who were by no means righteous, and Canaan, whose kings were attacking Abraham.  He kept his distance both from wickedness and war.

So Melchizedek was a strange outsider, who kept righteous while others were sinful and who held to peace while others were violent. He fed the battle-weary Abraham with bread and wine, and then blessed him, praying to God for him.

This is the sort of priest that Jesus was - ‘A priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’: Like Melchizedek, Jesus was an outsider – not a Levite, not one of the establishment, the religious authorities. Like Melchizedek, Jesus came to show what peace and righteousness looked like - by refusing to lash out against his opponents, even when they crucified him, and by upholding justice and mercy and fairness and healing.

Jesus fed his people bread and wine, prayed for them and blessed them. And like a priest, he offered sacrifice - but this time, it was the sacrifice of his own life, offered in love and service. As Jesus said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first among you must be slave of all."

So Jesus showed a different sort of greatness as High Priest - not relying on inherited power and rank from his tribe but coming from outside to be a way for us to return to God, in righteousness, peace, loving communion and blessing.

So where are the best seats?
Which seats should we be looking for? How do we get closest to Christ in glory? Look for an outsider, someone you don’t expect. Look for someone who is all of a piece, not swayed by the world. Look for someone who will go the extra mile, or hundred miles, to help and save another. Many of us may have known what it is to be helped by a stranger, or ministered to by the person we would least have expected.

When we begin to recognise Christ touching us through people whom God has filled with grace and servant love, we are beginning to know Christ’s true greatness, his priesthood, his sacrifice and his love.

The best seats of all may be beside a disabled person, a prisoner, a primary school child, a Buddhist, any of whom might minister to us, serve us, inspire us. May we be counted worthy through our openness to them to sit amongst those who serve and bless and love as Jesus did, the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek.

This sermon was preached on Sunday 12th August 2018, on 1 Kings 19:4-8 and John 6:35, 41-51:  Woodbine Willie

I tend to get overwhelmed by the Edinburgh Festival – there’s just too much going on, and too many people on the streets. So I usually end up seeing nothing and avoiding the city centre. But someone mentioned a play about Woodbine Willie, the First World War army chaplain, someone I’m rather interested in. The play was being performed later on that day, so off I went, found Venue 209, and got my ticket.

There were just two in the cast, Woodbine Willie, the nickname of Rev Studdert Kennedy,  and a private soldier. The two of them established a rapport, and the play gently unfolded Studdert Kennedy’s approach and his thinking. He was dead against chaplains (and officers) who stayed behind the lines, safely directing operations and giving commands from the back. The set showed a wall of sandbags, and a roughly painted sign saying ‘The Vicarage’. Studdert Kennedy lived in the trenches at the front line in the war, sharing the soldier’s experiences, comforting them and dispensing endless packets of Woodbine cigarettes.

And of course, he talked with them about God, if he could, and dying, and suffering and what on earth might be the meaning of life in the dreadful hell that they were living through. He had started by believing that the war was a necessary and important defence of freedom and justice against an evil foe, and that men should dutifully enlist. But as the war and its folly went on, he became more sceptical that the war could achieve anything very much, and considered that it was an appalling waste of life. In such a hell on earth as the trenches, bombardment and almost inevitable death, what could he say about God?

The God who was sitting safe and remote on a throne far away was as little use to him as the generals directing operations well behind the lines, and the chaplains preaching morality from the safe chaplaincies in the towns and villages used for respite. (Here, I am drawing on an article by Michael Brierley in Life after Tragedy. Essays on Faith and the First World War,Cascade Books 2017. )   Studdert Kennedy’s God was there in the midst of battle, in the trenches, suffering alongside the men. The suffering God, the crucified Christ, was the only one who made any sense to him, and indeed to the average soldier. Studdert Kennedy’s Christ was one who was not static, but who was an Advent Christ, one who was always coming to us, coming to the darkest places and the darkest times, to bring light and hope and healing.  In fact, he questioned the verse, ‘Come to me you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’, because, he said, we are so heavy-laden that we are unable to come to Jesus by our own efforts;  we need help and someone to come and find us. 

Elisha was in this condition as we read in the first reading today. Elisha was running away from Jezebel, the evil queen, who was out to get him.  He had been on the run for days and eventually collapsed under a tree and asked to die. God came to him, rescued him, got an angel to give him food and water and rest.   The God who comes to us. Jesus is God coming to us in the flesh, sharing our humanity and our experience of this world with all its joys and sorrows. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” - Jesus says in our gospel that the Father draws people to Jesus, and that Jesus gives them himself, bread of life, eternal life.

Over these months since Easter and Ascension, we’ve been encountering in the gospels all those who Jesus came to: to disciples – fishermen on the shore and tax gatherers at their booths;  to those who were sick or troubled in their minds; to those who were puzzled and doubtful;  to those who were literally hungry. He came to them – sought them out, found out their troubles and dreams, and brought them closer to God. They couldn’t do it by themselves – they were awaiting his coming.

Studdert Kennedy was a poet as well as a padre, and he wrote about Christ’s coming thus:

Come Thou to us, O Lord
Come Thou and find us.
Shepherd of the sheep
We cannot come to Thee.

Studdert Kennedy was a holy man, even if he smoked and swore and enjoyed lots of company with pretty rough types. He was holy because he tried to live as Christ would have done, and to be where Christ would have been. When he read, ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry’ he would not only give the soldiers nourishing words of good life, he would give them cigarettes and a mug of tea. And when there was a battle and a mountain of dead and wounded he did not just say prayers over the dead and dying, promising them with infinite tenderness that God would raise them up in Christ at the last day, as Jesus, the bread of eternal life, promised.  When he was at a dressing station in the Ypres salient after the attack on Messines Ridge in 1917, he went under heavy shellfire to get morphine for a wounded boy, and then volunteered  to fetch in 3 more wounded soldiers from No Man’s Land, as the barrage continued.

It’s not a bad image of Christ coming to us on earth, seeking and saving that which was lost, the Good Shepherd going after the sheep in trouble, the angel coming to the exhausted and spent with water and food. Studdert Kennedy was also a social reformer, and longed to build a better world after the war - not that he lived long enough to realise many of his dreams.

He was a restless soul, and wrote about rest:

It is not thus I deem
life should be lived;
It is not that I crave,
not Rest, but strength to save
the wounded, and console their pain.
To strive with evil and then strive again
until the far-off victory is won …
To seek, to help, to save
the wandering and restore the lost,
Bring back to shore the tempest-tossed
and set their hungry bodies down to feast.

These are the reflections which the Rector offered on Good Friday 2018:

The Passion and the Lord’s Prayer
The Scottish poet, Edwin Muir, was in a state of depression on the eve of the Second World War.  He was living in St Andrews, and his wife had fallen ill and had to go into a nursing home.  Feelings of despair and darkness dogged him, and he gave up going to church.
In his autobiography, he wrote:
I was returning from the nursing home one day … and later on, going to bed alone, I suddenly found myself – I was taking off my waistcoat – reciting the Lord’s Prayer in a loud, emphatic voice – a thing I had not done for many years – with deep urgency and profound disturbed emotion.  While I went on I grew more composed; as if it had been empty and craving to be replenished, my soul grew still; every word had a strange fullness of meaning which astonished and delighted me.  It was late;  I had sat up reading;  I was sleepy;  but as I stood in the midst of the floor half-undressed, saying the prayer over and over, meaning after meaning sprang from it, overcoming me again with joyful surprise; and I realised that this simple prayer was always universal and always inexhaustible and day by day sanctified human life.’

Jesus gave us a pattern prayer, which we call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.  He drew on all that he so deeply believed and lived out, and gave us a framework for living his life, for entering into his world and maybe even glimpsing his heart. For Jesus was someone whose life and whose prayer was one: he ‘lived as he prayed’. So we’ll use the Lord’s Prayer today as our framework, seeking to know the mind of Christ and the love of Jesus as we remember the steps he took to offering his whole self for the life of the world.  The petitions are not quite in order, because we will be following the sequence of events in the Passion.
(1)   Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,  your kingdom come.    Mark 8:31 – 9:1

Our Father in Heaven – Jesus graciously invites us into his family. His Father is our Father, and he opens up to us the intimacy he has as he prays. Jesus seems to have used the Aramaic term ‘Abba’ when addressing his Father in heaven - in Gesthemane, as we will hear, he prays ‘Abba, Father, let this cup pass from me’. Abba is a name for God his Father that reveals to us the love and trust that Jesus had throughout his life. His Father spoke to him from heaven at Jesus baptism, and Jesus communed with him in the solitary places, long before day broke. Jesus’ love of the Father, and his being loved by the Father, Abba, was the foundation of all he did and taught. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father, says Jesus. They are one.

And his Father’s name must be hallowed - the holiness of God must be known and must prevail. God’s holiness is a pure, determined force that cannot be swayed by evil or fear. It is a heavenly quality, that is beyond our human capacity to understand. And the disciples did not understand. When Jesus announced that he must undergo great suffering, and fulfil his destiny to save the world for the God of holiness, his disciples could not believe it;  they were shocked. But Jesus was the anointed one, the Messiah, who was to bring in the kingdom in glory, hallowing the Father who had sent him.

And what was this kingdom that was to come? All that God longed for since he created the world. Harmony, and justice, and righteousness, and love. Your kingdom come: may this be a world that knows it belongs to God, where God’s values reign, and we know ourselves to be children of God. Jesus came to bring in the kingdom, to point to where God’s justice was beginning to work, andwhere God’s mercy was beginning to heal people, and where God’s love was transforming lives. These are our deepest longings too, when we open ourselves to the Spirit and pray.

Paul said,  (Romans 8:15-17, 26-27) 
When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.  ...The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

So as we enter the Passion story, we stand alongside Jesus as children of one Father, seeking the holiness of God and all the uncompromising will to love us that is God’s holiness, knowing that only through sacrifice of our egos can the kingdom truly come; only through taking up our cross in the pattern of the Master.

(2)    Give us today our daily bread    Mark 14:17-25

There is quite a lot of bread and fish and meal sharing in the gospels. Jesus is often going to share a meal with someone, or finding food for people, or telling them not to worry about food: ‘Take no thought for tomorrow, what you shall eat’. We have so much food that our concern is about eating too much. This would have been pretty incomprehensible to Jesus and his followers. They would talk about daily bread because they probably didn’t know where tomorrow’s bread would come from.

I was struck when we read the Passion story on Palm Sunday how Jesus made detailed provision for where they were to eat the Passover. There he was, at the most crucial stage of his ministry, confronted with massive official opposition and real threats to his life, and he takes time and trouble to organise a room and all that is needed for the special, last shared meal with the disciples.

Similarly in the feeding of the 5000, he was in the middle of ministering, probably tired out, needing some peace and quiet. He could have accepted the disciples’ verdict: there is not enough food for them all; send them off to sort themselves out.

But no. Jesus is revealing what his Father is like. And God provides for his creation, his people. The people of Israel travelled through the wilderness with only bread for the day – manna sent by God from heaven each day, daily bread.  God was trustworthy. His people belonged to him and he would feed them. He created the world and all that is in it to sustain his people. There is daily bread for all if we recognise the world as belonging to God and not us (rather than them).

So Jesus, the Son of Man journeying towards his death, provides food for the journey, and for his friends. But it is more than just a shared meal, bread and fish on a hillside. It is bread and wine, body and blood. Broken and poured out as a sacrifice of love. Jesus was not saying: we need to be better at sharing;  let’s all be a bit more generous. He would not be crucified for that. Any pious Jew or Roman would agree that we should share God’s good gifts.

This was different. Jesus was not just providing food but giving his life. His life was the price of the kingdom coming on earth. Jesus’ body broken and blood outpoured is the daily offering of his life which meets the self-giving love of God his Father in the new covenant. The power of God’s love brings us back to God, restores the reign of God in our hearts, and every day sustains our own life as God’s children. And we look for the time when we too will drink of the fruit of the vine new and bubbling and fresh when the kingdom comes in all its fullness.

(3)   Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.   Mark 14:32-42

One of the most precious aspects of God for us is that he came to us as a human, emptied of dignity and power, content to share our human nature and to experience our human emotions. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”  (Hebrews 4:15)

And so the terrible dread that seizes Jesus in Gesthemane is absolutely understandable. The words Mark uses of Jesus’ emotional state are “ horrified, shuddering with anguish”. The disciples are at a distance, and they are asleep anyway. Jesus is alone with his prayer and his distress. It is not sin or weakness to feel troubled or distressed; it is part of our full humanity, our natural emotions. But what do we do?  Do we follow our instincts? Run away?  Seek safety?  Hide?

Jesus’ struggle in his prayer was to align himself with the will of the Father. In a way, this is what all prayer is about. We seek to draw close to God, to open ourselves so that we may be one with God. Jesus taught us to pray for the coming of the kingdom, for God to rule in our hearts so that justice and mercy and love would overcome the evil of the world. This is God’s will;  as Paul put it, righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

But to bring about the kingdom, Jesus needed to take up his cross, and his heart and will shuddered at the thought of it. “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not my will but your will be done, done on this earth, now, in my Passion just as it is in the heaven of righteousness and peace and joy.” We have just seen how Jesus knew that bringing in the kingdom of God meant giving his life for others. Now he has to accept this consequence of his self-giving love and accept that somehow it belongs to the purposes of God, that utter holiness of God that will not sway until his creation is recalled and redeemed and reconciled.

But Christ is not only fully human, but fully God. He was horrified and shuddering with anguish not just at the thought of his own death, but with the reality of suffering and evil that grips the world. As God, his loving heart was broken by the sin of the world. We cannot imagine what it is like to bear the horror of human history, its accumulated pain and darkness. Jesus prayed in anguish and brought his heart to God’s heart, and his lonely prayer in Gesthemane was already joining his fear and suffering with the fear and suffering of the world so that they might be taken up into the fire of God’s love. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

(4)   Do not bring us to the time of trial   Mark 14:53-65

We debate over what words to use for this petition.   “Do not bring us to the time of trial?  “Do not bring us into temptation?  “Do not bring us to the testing?

It’s especially poignant when we remember Christ before the chief priests or Pilate. He was tried – in the legal sense. But he was also tried and tested and tempted too. Jesus knew testing and temptation as part of his human nature. We heard earlier Jesus named as: “one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”  In the desert after his baptism, Jesus was brought to the time of trial. Satan tempted him to see if he would stand firm, to test his resolve to honour and hallow God’s name, to eat only the daily bread of trust and faith in God. to do God’s will alone. Jesus refused to use the Father’s power for his own glory or his own protection. He refused to seek anything other than the kingdom of God, the rule and honour and love of God. He would not go the way of force or violence; he had prayed to stand only in God’s power.

Jesus must have known what was coming to him when he told his disciples in Gesthemane “keep awake and pray that you do not come to the time of trial”. Pray that you may keep your integrity and singleness of purpose; pray that you are not tempted to human violence. The disciples, of course, slept rather than prayed against temptation, and when Jesus was arrested, one of them gave way to temptation and cut off the right ear of the chief priest’s slave.

The temptation for Jesus at his trial must have been massive: there was a kangaroo court of lying witnesses that meant he would inevitably be condemned. It was impossible to answer trumped up charges and all was stacked against Jesus, so he remained silent.  He could have summoned 12 legions of angels, and he knew that the Son of Man would come again at the right hand of power. But now the testing was whether he would fulfil the Scriptures and the Father’s will for humanity, and tread the path of self-giving love to the end.

We can pray that we avoid the time of testing, of trial, but all of us will face it sometime or other. All that can strengthen us is to know that Jesus knows exactly what it is like, and has won a way through for us.

(5)   Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us   Luke 23:32-43

The Lord’s Prayer as we know it is found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. But Mark probably knew a version of it, and he comes very close to this petition when he has Jesus say (11:25) “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” Jesus was clear that if you yourself are forgiven, you should forgive others.

He told several parables about forgiveness, and the perils of being unforgiving. Perhaps the best known and loved is that of the Forgiving and Loving Father, which we often call the Prodigal Son. Before the Prodigal Son has even reached him, his father is running out towards him full of love and acceptance. For Jesus, the forgiveness of his Father for the sins of the world is a given – the forgiveness is there waiting to be claimed. But the problem is that we sinners hang onto our resentment of others, our sense of grievance, of injury. We feel entitled to recompense, repayment of what is due.

What Jesus preached was a letting go of all that - the word he uses for ‘forgiveness’ has the sense of leaving behind, letting something fall away;  loosening one’s grip on something. Let it be:  it’s a debt we can cancel;  it’s a hurt we can forget; it’s a situation that we can walk away from and not fight about.

But again, Christ is tested to the limit on the Cross. There are soldiers inflicting unimaginable pain on the Son of God; there are onlookers mocking in a humiliating way; even the criminal crucified beside him taunted Jesus. He could have cursed them – there were plenty of Psalms of cursing waiting for him to shout against them, and we recited some of them at Tenebrae last night. He could have shouted out his outrage and anger. He could have called on God to destroy them.

But instead, he prayed, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. Father – let it be and don’t hold it against them. They have not seen the signs of the kingdom, and they have not known that you accept and forgive them. So they lash out and mock in their fear and ignorance.

There is a beautiful rite of mutual reconciliation used sometimes in congregations, where the minister says to the congregation:
Before God and you, my sisters and brothers, I confess to my sinfulness: to the ways I wound my life, the lives of others, and the life of the world. I release anything I hold against you; I repent of anything I have done to harm you.
The congregation responds, May God forgive you, Christ renew you, and the Spirit enable you to grow in love.
Then the congregation confesses and the minister releases and forgives them in turn.

On the cross, Jesus released any anger that he may have tempted to use;  he let it go and renounced vengeance. As God, he embodied forgiveness and enabled us to be forgiven. The thief who reached out in penitence to him was given the promise:  Today you will be with me in paradise.

(6)    Deliver us from evil    Mark 15:33-41

We have journeyed through the Passion of Christ from the Last Supper, to Gesthemane, to the trial of Jesus, then to the Crucifixion. At every stage, Jesus has had a little less freedom of action. He was in charge of events at the Last Supper. In the garden, he struggled with what was going to happen to him. At his trial, he found that there was almost nothing he could say - he could not change the outcome. And on the cross, he had no freedom of movement; only the power of prayer was left to him. Jesus had been handed over into the hands of evil men.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray that we should be delivered from evil, or from the evil one. He was sharply aware that the world was full of evil, people with evil intent;  power used wrongly; injustice, undeserved suffering, poverty. Until his Father’s kingdom – God’s reign – fully came on earth, there would be evil and his disciples would have to live among it.

In John’s gospel (17:15)  Jesus says in his prayer for them  'Father, I do not ask you ask you to take them out of this world,but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.'  There is only so much we can do for ourselves: there comes a point when we have to cry out for help and for protection.

So on the cross, faced with total isolation and the evil of the world that he was absorbing and redeeming and bearing in himself, Jesus cried out for deliverance from evil, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”  He could not deliver himself.  In death, he could not raise himself.

And so we come back to the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer,  Abba, Father:  a trust in the Father, a trust that God’s holy purposes would be fulfilled in him; a trust that the kingdom would come through his self-giving; a trust that God would deliver him and raise him up so that righteousness and mercy and forgiveness and love might triumph over evil.

The Lord’s prayer is not just a pattern for prayer, but a pattern for our life,for it was the pattern of Jesus’ own life as God’s Son. It has not only meaning but power, because if we live it out in our lives, God can work his redeeming love in those around us. So, in the words of the hymn:
“And teach us this and every day/to live more nearly as we pray”

 [In the sermon, I have drawn on John Crossan's 'The greatest prayer' (2011).  The quotation from Edwin Muir's autobiography is from Richard Holloway, 'A new heaven'  (1978), p. 76.]

This sermon was preached by the Rector on Passion Sunday 18/3/18, on the New Testament reading  - Hebrews 5:5-10, and the gospel reading - John 12:20-33.

Lent 5B 18   Greeks and Christians
‘Some Greeks came to Philip … and said to him‘ Sir, we want to see Jesus’.  (John 12:20)

What were those Greeks looking for, or expecting to see? So many rumours about Jesus would have been in the air, so many speculations, that Greek visitors (Gentiles) at the Passover would have been curious. Here was someone who healed, cast out demons, even raised the dead Lazarus to life. This Jesus spoke with authority and entered Jerusalem as a king. Was he a god?

Greeks had a pretty clear idea of what a god would look like. Try now to imagine one of those marble statues of the gods, human forms of classical beauty and perfection, revealing the divine through their sculptured limbs and muscles, their ideally proportioned faces and features, their powerful physique and power over animals, sea monsters, and lesser men. A Greek god had power and beauty. A Greek god would establish order and justice in the world, punishing enemies and giving favours to the good. Greeks would look for beauty and power and order in the world, the divine revealing itself to human eyes. Gazing upon that beauty, contemplating its form and proportion, would raise the worshipper to the ideal of the Good, the spiritual, bright beauty of perfection, lifting them into the realms of the divine, above all ugliness and pain.

Keep before you that image of a white, cold, smooth marble statue of Greek divine perfection, and place beside it a late-medieval wooden carving of the Crucifixion. In the late Middle Ages, amidst the horror of the Great European Famine of the C14th, and the Black Death, and wars between kings who were beginning to develop fearsome standing armies, crucifixes became ever more graphic. The reality of suffering had to have visible expression in religious devotion/

Perhaps you have seen Grunewald’s tortured Christ figure in the Isenheim altarpiece  (from the early C16th). it shows Jesus having died in agony, defeated, horrendously twisted, thin, bony, head hanging down, spent, dead. It’s really hard to look at it for any length of time. No wonder his mother is shown fainting at the sight.

Crucifixion (detail), Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510-15

What an ancient Greek would have made of it, goodness knows. For Romans, Jews and Greeks, crucifixion indicated a curse. It was the worst thing. To yell, ‘Crux!’ at someone – ‘’Cross’ - was the equivalent of ‘Go to hell!’  One of the reasons why the New Testament talks so much about the Cross is that it called for a massive turnaround in what people thought a god looked like, and  how a god  would behave.  St Paul called the Cross ‘a scandal to Jews & foolishness to Greeks’.  (I Corinthians 1:23)  How can a god die?  Surely they are invincible and immortal?  And how can a god allow himself to be killed? How can a such god be worshipped, in the extremity of pain and suffering?

This Sunday is Passion Sunday, when we turn our faces towards the Cross and Christ’s journey through the last days of his life. But it’s a mistake to isolate the Cross and suffering from the rest of his life. The wonder of God’s love for us is not only that he died for us but that he reached out in Jesus to reveal who God is present in all the realities of a human life.

A Greek god might look like an invulnerable and impassive ideal human being but Jesus came among us as a defenceless baby, and grew as one who knew hunger and grief and temptation, a man who allowed himself to be the object of hate and betrayal, and who was troubled to the very core by the prospect of a shameful death. Jesus did not come into the world and sweep all obstacles away: he was misunderstood and argued with and plotted against.

We don’t know what Jesus looked like, which may be significant in itself - since the heroes of the Old Testament, for example, were praised for their strength and hair and dignity, so perhaps Jesus wasn’t all that amazing to look at. And he associated with sick, diseased, mentally ill, despised people who often hadn’t washed properly, or were unclean prostitutes or slimy tax collectors.

Jesus showed God seeking the unattractive and forgotten, indeed he said that God was found in the unattractive and forgotten: since those who visit and care for the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless and destitute were caring for him; God was among the poor and little ones of the earth.

The gospel writers describe Jesus as the Suffering Servant, whom Isaiah describes thus:  (53:2-3)
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him
nothing in his appearance that we would desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others
a man of suffering and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

That’s not what you’d find today in the management handbooks for spotting an upcoming, entrepreneurial leader; that’s not who you’d find held up as an icon of handsome beauty and attractiveness; that’s not someone who would top the celebrity tables in the magazines.  We are too easily seduced into human ideas of perfection; we too easily dismiss those who don’t measure up in this competitive and achieving world, ‘despising them and holding them of no account.’

What Jesus did was to change the way we see things in the world. If we look with God’s eyes, the Cross becomes a glorious triumph of love – a love that forgives and endures and redeems all hatred. If we look with God’s eyes, we can see signs of glory and resurrection in our imperfect world, when people are healed of hurts and inner pain, hen those in misery are lifted into comfort and a flicker of joy; when we find pure gold in those who are despised and forgotten.

God came to us in weakness and obscurity, and in Christ he died in apparent weakness and obscurity, but we hear in today's gospel the voice of God thundering: "I have glorified my name – my divinity  - in you, my beloved Son, and I will glorify it again."

So there we have it: the Greeks come to Jesus looking for a god like a tall marble statue, a god of power and invincibility, lifted up as an ideal, and they find a man talking of dying and losing his life, one who will be lifted up not as a massive statue but as a Saviour broken on the Cross.

You can’t be drawn up to a tall marble statue; you can only be drawn up through the arms flung wide of a loving God who has entered our experience, who knows our weakness, and who loves us to the end.

Jesus said, ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth – on the Cross - will draw all people to myself’. Jews and Greeks, saints and sinners, strong and weak, near and far - we are all gathered into the loving embrace of the one who died for us and in dying revealed the glory, the redeeming power and the truth of God.

This sermon was preached by the Rector on the Sunday of the Baptism of Christ 7/1/17 on the gospel reading - Mark 1:4-11.

Baptism of Christ 17B   Through the Jordan and back  Mark 1:4-11
Before Christmas, Colin, Judy and Archie had the wonderful experience of going to the Holy Land, and I’m hoping that they can share something of that experience with us all. Actually going to the place where important events happened can imprint them on our hearts, and open up all sorts of new dimensions to our understanding. So today, I want us to go on an imaginary journey to Palestine, and see what happens and whom we meet. But I want us to go as people of the Judean countryside, or of Jerusalem, preferably in the first century AD.  We’ve just heard Mark’s gospel account of Jesus’ baptism - brisk, vivid and stark. Let’s see if we can enter that story and see what we learn.

First of all, we have to get there. John was baptising on the East Bank of the Jordan, probably in a loop of the river near Jericho. John’s gospel says there was plenty of water there and there was probably a wadi or spring just off the main river. So we have to trek out, leaving our homes and familiar surroundings behind for a bit. We may not have been to the east bank of the Jordan before, and so we don’t know what to expect. Word has got round that there’s something important going on, but we’re setting off into the unknown, with an open mind, or maybe with some misgivings. That’s how some of us may feel at this time of year anyway: we leave behind the known year, 2017, and set out for a year when anything may happen. We can’t write our Christmas letters looking back over the year until next December, and so the future lies open.

The journey to the east bank of the Jordan was a descent. Jerusalem is set high in the hills, but the Jordan is 800 feet or more below sea level. It would take a day or two – because it’s a journey of 20 miles, over quite rough ground, going up and down. You’d have to be pretty determined to travel, because – as we know from the story of the Good Samaritan on this very road – you might be attacked by thieves on the way. But then we arrive at the river, and find John the Baptist. He’s very much like an Old Testament prophet, calling the people of Israel back to who they really are, challenging them to rediscover their calling to be people who know God and take him to the world.

It’s so easy to get stuck in our ways – our old ways. But the old superficial ways stop working for us as guidelines for living our lives. And the world, too, gets weary of living in the old ways, where power gets misused, and people are forgotten in lonely flats and on hospital trolleys. We feel we have lost our way, and we long for a new way to live. John the Baptist said:  prepare the way of the Lord! not our own way, or the ways of the world, but the way of the Lord. But what is the ‘way of the Lord’? What is God calling us back to?  How can we start again?

In Luke’s gospel, John the Baptist is very practical. (Luke 3:10-14) He says: ‘If you have two tunics, share them with someone who has none, and share your food too.  Don’t extort money from people in taxes or bribes’. God called the people of Israel to be just, and fair and merciful, to show compassion, and care for the helpless, to choose rulers who would rule for the sake of their people, and to pray with thanksgiving to the God who had delivered them out of slavery into the Promised Land.

This is the way of the Lord;  it’s practical and holy and pleasing to God. And yes, we can repent and promise to do all those things, but we know that we will probably not do them, not all of the time, and some of the ways of the Lord are beyond us anyway.We have to find the way of the Lord in a world where the temptations are great, and poverty and disease seem unending, and we have little influence in politics and it’s really hard to keep thanking a God who lets our loved ones die.

But, we need to take the plunge.  We need to get into the water. After all, we came seeking  something, and this is the something that we have found. We’re not sure what it’s all about, but we step down, bit by bit, into the Jordan, to be baptised. And there we are, standing in the water, with all sorts of good intentions and promises, wondering how long they will last, and whether it all really matters in the end.

Then we notice someone standing alongside us. He didn’t travel with us - looks like someone from upcountry, Galilee perhaps. He goes down into the water and then up again, just like we did, and as he’s standing there, dripping alongside us, his eyes open really wide as if he’s seeing something up in the sky and we hear a massive rumbling - a thunderstorm now?  And the voice:  ‘You are my beloved son, with you I am well-pleased’.  Everyone is looking around to see where his father is, and then John the Baptist looks up as well, and we realise that it was not some thing that we travelled here for but someone. We learn that he is Jesus of Nazareth, but we know that he is here alongside us, standing in water up to his neck like us, choosing to live out Israel’s’ call to be God’s people, God’s Son.

And as we tread through the water to the other side, the other bank of the Jordan, the going seems easier. We remember that when Israel stood on the eastern bank of the Jordan, looking across to the Promised Land. Joshua was leading them, and the waters of the Jordan parted before them and they followed him into the Promised Land. And now, it’s almost as if this Jesus, this Son of God, has made it easier for us, has parted the waters.  We need someone to live out the life we are longing for;  we need someone who is going to hold our hopes and dreams; we need someone who will go on calling us back to the way of the Lord, the ways of justice, peace and mercy.

And so we scramble up the other bank & begin our journey home. It will be the same and not the same. We will be in the same community, the same group of people who love us and live around us. But we will not just have promised to do better, to mend our ways: we have stood alongside the Son of God, and we know that nothing can be the same again.  As we travel with Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, God’s beloved, we will enter into his life, journeying to Galilee and his preaching and healing there, to Jerusalem and his fearless challenge to the powers that be there, to the Cross and his ultimate self-giving in love, vindicated by his Father on Easter Sunday. He will stand alongside us as the one who calls us to who we truly are, and who we most richly can be. 

And we will stand alongside others, and our community, even our nation, calling them to be who they truly are and most richly can be. Just as we draw new strength from Jesus, may others draw new strength from us as we stand alongside them; just as we re-discover the true, core values of the gospel of love, so may others take inspiration from St Modoc’s to build a community of compassion and hope here in Doune; and just as we take up the challenge of starting out again, so may others know the grace of encouraging and supporting us as we journey into the Promised Land.

This sermon was preached by the Rector on the Feast of Christ the King, 26/11/17, on on the gospel reading - Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and the goats.

I was waiting in church for some extra chairs to be delivered and took the opportunity to take a closer look at the windows in the nave. The ones on the north  side illustrate the gospel that we’ve just heard. Nearest the pulpit, we see three scenes: visiting those in prison;  clothing the naked; giving water to the thirsty. The window nearer the door shows visiting the sick; giving a welcome to the stranger and giving food to the hungry. They are very Victorian windows, and that is no bad thing.  The Victorians were very practical people, who took seriously Jesus’ image of the sheep and the goats, where you were judged according to how you responded to those in need. It was the golden age of philanthropy, when  pioneer work was done by individuals such as Florence NightingaleLord Shaftesbury, Dr Barnardo, General Booth of the Salvation Army. All brought particular social evils to the public notice. 

The Victorians were generous, and they were well-organised: there were bodies to meet every conceivable need: charities for the poor, the sick, the disabled, the unemployed, the badly-housed;  charities for the reclamation of prostitutes and drunkards, for reviving drowning persons, for apprentices, shopgirls, cabbies, costermongers, soldiers, sailors and variety artistes. Sir James Stephen wrote in 1850: For the cure of every sorrow...there are patrons, vice-presidents and secretaries...For the diffusion of every blessing...there is a committee.

You can see a little of this atmosphere in the stained glass windows: each person performing one of these ‘acts of mercy’ stands higher than those on the receiving end - the recipients are either on a lower step, or in bed, or sitting/lying. it is a serious, reverent matter, a duty, a way to please God.

Andrew Reed was a Congregational minister, who founded orphanages and a lunatic asylum, who wrote in 1840 that he did so because ‘The divine image is stamped upon all.’

That sounds quite close to what our gospel is saying today:  When the Son of Man gathered the nations, he called to his right hand in glory those who had given food to him when he was hungry and drink when he was thirsty and clothed him and took care of him when he was sick. they were caring for him.  That is – when they cared for others in need in those ways, they were caring for him.  Jesus is calling us to see his face, God’s image, in the needy, the stranger, the prisoner, the sick.  That’s all well and good, and it helps us to reach out in a caring way to those to those who are maybe less easy to love and look after. Mother Teresa used to scoop up the dying down-and-outs off the streets of Calcutta and tend them with infinite tenderness, saying that they were ‘Jesus in his most distressing disguise’.

But I feel just a bit uneasy about caring for others simply because we are looking for Christ’s face in them, trying to serve and look after Christ and not noticing the real, actual person in front of us, who has their own face, their own name. They are not ‘dear’, or ‘pal’, they are Betty or Billy or Angus or Shona or whoever, and they are aching for us to be with them just as they are and for who they are.  If we are too self-conscious about our ‘service to another’ then we risk turning our caring into a project,  
into ‘good works’ that we think will earn us rewards.

If we turn to the gospel story again, we find that the sheep – those who have cared for Christ in others - did it totally unawares, and they were surprised that their deeds ‘counted’ as acts of caring for Christ. They simply did what their loving hearts moved them to do, naturally responding to those in need.  The image in the stained glass windows that I like the best is at the top of the window nearest the pulpit.

 It shows a man visiting someone in prison chained hand and foot. The man visiting is simply holding his hand, maybe asking his name, how he’s feeling. He’s visiting just to be alongside him because the chained man is there and in distress.  Maybe it’s from my prison chaplaincy days at Cornton Vale that this image resonates with me.  I’d spend a lot of my time sitting around drinking  prison tea and hearing about the women’s families, their homes, their lives.  Each was different, individual, unique, memorable, vivid. And actually, it was they who responded to each other in need,
accepting each other’s frailties and dependence with matter-of-fact generosity and care, showing me how just to take people as they are and be alongside them. 

We needed the Victorians’ vigorous, organised philanthropy,even if it became top-down and self-conscious and pious. We need the Welfare State’s care today even if it is inefficient and faceless and shrinking by the day. But let us never lose sight of the caring we can give  out of the depths of our hearts, one to another, reaching out to those who silently call to us, being alongside them, doing what we can but almost unaware than we are ‘doing’ anything.

Let us just be those who care because it’s who we are, filled with the joy of knowing Christ as our friend and our brother and filled with the joy of knowing those he cares about too, in all their individuality and quirkiness, their particular selves and their particular lives, saying their names and making sure that they know that we love them and God loves them and that we will help them out of that love, and for joy, never for duty and never for reward.