SUNDAY 17th September

St Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington

SERMON: CROSSING OVER

Exodus 14: 19-31

Psalm 114

1 Corinthians 15: 51-57

Last week we heard in Matthew’s Gospel that we are to forgive not just once, but seventy seven times, which basically means always! So that means I’ve no choice but to forgive John, who nicked the Gospel reading that was set for today and used it last week. But that’s no bad thing, because it turned me towards the other readings, and especially to the reading that we just heard from Exodus.

It’s yet another of the lurid accounts of the adventures and troubles of the people of Israel, our ancestors in the faith, as they dealt with their time as refugees and then effective slave labour in Egypt. These stories can be hard to hear sometimes, as they seem so brutal. How could you rejoice in the Egyptians being drowned by the walls of the sea crashing in around them, but on the other hand, 600,000 Israelites are said to have escaped a pretty brutal fate if they’d been caught and sent back to Egypt. More of the same: beatings, forced labour, not much reward, social isolation and likely pretty short lives.

So this story of escape and deliverance was important for Jewish people, and still is, but it was also important for early Christians too. Why’s that, you say? What has this got to do with Jesus? Well, the early church looked back through their experience of God in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and saw its roots in the escape from Egypt. The death that pursued the Israelites in the form of Pharaoh and his army was the death that stalked Jesus at his crucifixion; the crossing of the Red Sea was the victory of Jesus over death. The disciples saw Jesus again on the other shore – remember that meal on the beach at the end of the Gospel of John, when they go fishing and then make a meal with Jesus? That’s the shore on the other side of Jesus’ death and new life.

So this story is important to us today, because it is a reminder that God’s purposes are found in the depths of our tradition, even if we don’t really see it at first, and need to be reminded sometimes.

CRISIS IN OUR TRADITION

Yesterday I glanced at the latest edition of our Church of Scotland magazine, Life and Work. I read a wee article by Albert Bogle, who many of you will remember from when he was our national Moderator a few years ago. Albert is a remarkable person who built a strong congregation in Boness, and was the driving force behind “Sanctus Media” and “Sanctuary First” which look at how technology and multi-media can be harnessed in the life of the church and to engage people in the faith. Here’s a wee quote from his article:

“A great cultural tsunami has turned the social and spiritual landscape of church life, certainly in the western world, on its edge. A whole generation of church ministers and elders are feeling they are reading maps that no longer relate to the terrain in which they find themselves as leaders. In the past, faith was passed from generation to generation. We are living in a time when the chain of memory has been broken.”

That last phrase is particularly striking to me:

“the chain of memory has been broken.”

I think that Albert is absolutely right about that. It’s not just in the church, it applies to culture across the board. It’s an irony that in a time where we’ve never been able to access information more easily – you need something and you just google it – it has actually become incredibly hard to engage people in the bigger story of Christianity.

There’s more than one way to look at this though.

That same edition of Life and Work contains features on the Reformation in Europe in the Sixteenth Century. That too was a time when you could have said that the chain of memory was being broken. But the folk involved there weren’t completely destructive. Yes, there were things that they didn’t like about the way the church was going, and so they led a renewal movement in the churches which cast aside some of what was going on, but essentially the driving force was a recovery of what was core. What was key to them in their life as Christians.

So, sometimes a dislocation can bounce us into looking at things freshly.

Albert would encourage us to think in technological directions. Expanding our horizons about what our creativity has enabled us to do. He’s got online live worship going on, he’s functioning as a pioneer “digital minister.” That’s all great – and there’s definitely a productive path to go down there.

But there’s also other possibilities for us at this “junction” in the life of the church here in Scotland.

One of those possibilities is very simply trying to bring together the somewhat fragmented “big story” or “meta-narrative” if you want to by high-falutin’ about it. The big story of Christianity from before time, to creation, to the fall of Adam and Eve, to the strife of the patriarchs, to the time in Egypt, the escape back, the troubles through generations of leaders being successively faithful and unfaithful to God. Then the birth of Jesus into all of that, and our experience of his life and death, and new life FOR US in his resurrection.  That story, packed as it is with religious metaphors and story-telling, is really very shaky even in our church life today. And that’s a problem.

That’s a problem, because although our relationship with God is focused mainly through our experience of Jesus, that didn’t come out of nothing. It had a back story. You know how it is when things make more sense when we hear a bit more about what had gone on before. Well it’s a bit like that – it’s like finding out more about your family history. We need to know the bigger story. Jesus doesn’t really make sense without it. And that bigger story allows us to find corners of inspiration, bits that speak directly to us and our situations, and stuff that seems more mysterious. It’s quite striking just how much of the human condition is there in the pages of the Old Testament!

So what do we do?

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking about how pilgrimage is being revived without the problematic bits of venerating relics. That’s a great example of how something old can have new life and help us to reconnect with ways of getting close to God

On Easter Day this year, Sarah and I decided to be brave and drag ourselves out of bed to take part in an Easter Vigil at Old St Paul’s Church in Edinburgh. We had to get up and out by 4.20am to get there for a 5am start. We arrived in Jeffrey Street behind Waverley Station, and it was still pretty gloomy. We climbed the great stone staircase, with its crucifixion scene at the top, and opened the door. The church was in darkness, and as our eyes adjusted we could see that the church was filled with about 200 people, waiting quietly and expectantly in that mysterious atmosphere. We found a seat and in a few minutes a candle was lit at the back, symbolising the light of Christ in the darkness. And then the service began, with the light gradually increasing as everyone lit their candle, as the dawn light began to filter in through the stained glass windows. The big story of Christianity from Old Testament to New was told and the resurrection of Christ was celebrated with ringing bells, thundering organ and glorious choir.

You know, the details of how that liturgy was done are not what was important. It was the fact that that service seriously embodied the big story of Christianity in readings, prayers, sight, smell and sound. It was absorbing, and compelling and done with care and people were into it. It was about US as well as God, but it wasn’t ordinary. It could have been done in any number of ways. The challenge to us is, are we going to find creative ways to keep engaging with the big story or do we leave it behind and try to write another one. I believe that we HAVE TO engage with the big story with all its mystery and complexity and sheer inconvenience AND follow it further. It’s not over. We are part of a continuing story of God’s relationship with us, and we need to take that seriously too. God is not finished with us yet and there’s more for us in the life to come.

You know it’s strange, it does feel like the church in Scotland is at a kind of threshold. We’re at a point where we’re crossing over and we’re going somewhere and at times it does feel a bit like crossing the red sea. There seems to be a path across, but it feels a bit precarious and the waters might come crashing down on us at any time and sweep us away. The irony is that crossing over our red sea involves keeping focused on going forward, but looking back at the same time. It’s a long journey, and we need the sustenance of our tradition and what we can rediscover in it to feed us and to keep us rooted.

That might sound impossible to you, but remember. “Nothing is impossible for God”, and remember the words of Paul. We already heard from him today but here is again , reminding us in 1 Corinthians 15 that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” That’s one part of the big story that we really need.