Engaging with Christ’s Passion

Festividad de San José – Triana

As many of you know, Anna and I have just returned from a break in Andalusia in southern Spain. We arrived in Triana, a small village in the hills, on the day that they were celebrating the Festividad de San José (the festival of St Joseph) sensibly transferred to Saturday so that everyone could enjoy a good party then a four hour procession and then another party (all this of course after starting with a Festal Mass at 12 noon).

According to those in the know, there are such events regularly in towns and villages around the region mark particular saints’ days but of course everywhere has a full programme of events to mark Semana Santa (Holy Week). In Velez-Malaga (the nearest large town to where we were) the celebration of Semana Santa is recognised as one of the most impressive in the whole of Spain.

Along with everything you would expect of a fiesta (including amazing food and drink), there are processions, much like the one we witnessed in Triana, which become ever more grand throughout the week – starting on Palm Sunday and culminating with the Resurrection procession on Easter Day. The processions are accompanied by bands with crowds carrying candles. There are also huge floats (tronos) weighing up to 5,000kg, carried by large numbers of people, that depict scenes from the events in the week leading to Christ’s death and Resurrection.

Good Friday trono – Malaga

From time to time the crowd are become silence and the procession pauses while a saeta is sung. A saeta is an acoustic religious song (often in Flamenco style) sung from a balcony accompanied by wonderful guitar playing. After the saeta, the band start up again and theprocession moves forward. These processions seem to be able to blend celebration with sombre reflection and at the same time are also incredibly beautiful and moving.

This year along with other local churches we are once again holding a Walk of Witness from Kincardine Church in Ardgay to Creich Church in Bonar Bridge. There will be no huge tronos (just a rough wooden cross carried by one person), nor a band (just the voices of the pilgrims), but just like the people of Velez we will be marking the events of Christ’s last week, in Scripture, in prayer and in song (though maybe not in a flamenco style), as we pause from time to time along the road. When we arrive at Creich Church we will also be ‘partying’ with hot cross buns and coffee!! You are all of course welcome to join us and to bring your friends (we start at Kincardine Church in Ardgay at 10:15am).

Walk of Witness – Ardgay/Bonar

It is interesting to experience and reflect on how different cultures mark the milestones of our faith. We all start with the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and throughout Holy Week we engage with a number of important events as we reflect on our faith and on the life of Christ, before finally emerging blinking into the light of Easter. Although the Resurrection is a fundamental part of our Christian belief, there can be no Resurrection without all that precedes it, including of course the brutal execution. Conversely without the Resurrection, Jesus was just a good man who was unjustly put to death in a brutal, inhumane and horrendous manner – something that sadly happens daily around the world.

I would therefore encourage you all to engage with some of the events and services during Holy Week – Stations of the Cross in Dornoch on Monday or Tain on Wednesday, our service in Dornoch on Maundy Thursday with its reliving of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, sharing the last supper with them and then retiring to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and our moving reading of the Passion from John’s Gospel in our service of Tenebrae or Walk of Witness on Good Friday all tell the story of what happens between Palm Sunday and Easter Day and help us to really understand what our faith is about.


procession costumes – Velez-Malaga

Sermon for Lent 3A – 12.03.23

Exodus 17:1-7  •  Psalm 95  •  Romans 5:1-11  •  John 4:5-42

When it comes to affairs of the heart and adherence to ‘accepted moral codes’, it’s very easy to see that throughout history women have been judged far more harshly than men by those around them. Sometimes when a man has moved on from relationship to relationship he is considered a ‘jack-the-lad’ or a bit of a cheeky rogue, but if a woman acts in the same way – well – we can be all too ready to label her a harlot, a jezebel or even worse!

Thankfully, attitudes seem to be changing, but there are times when judgement and condemnation still rear their ugly heads.

Sometimes there are people who seem to relish in the gossip about the breakdown of someone’s relationship.

“Well, what can you expect?”

“You know she’s been married before!”

“She put herself about a bit before she was wed you know!”

You can just hear the voices, can’t you!

And don’t we especially love it when it’s involves someone rich and famous!

Joan Collins – married five times, Elizabeth Taylor – married eight times (though twice to the same man of course), Zsa Zsa Gabor – married nine times!

Shocking we say, but what can you expect of women with their track record! Oh how we love to be able to judge and condemn the lives of others.

In our gospel today Jesus meets another woman.

She has a history. Things done and left undone, some good some not so good. Guilt and regrets. Fears. Wounds and sorrows. Secrets too. She is a woman with a past.

If you study the history of this passage, if you read the commentaries and listen to the interpretations, you will learn that her past is generally seen as one of promiscuity. The evidence base for this being that we are told she had five husbands and is now living unmarried with a sixth man. What a scandalous woman!

But how easily we forget that women of her day had very little choice or control over their own lives. If she is divorced it is because the men divorced her. She had no right of divorce. That was exclusively the man’s right. Of course, maybe it wasn’t divorce. If she’s not divorced then she has suffered the death of five husbands. Five times she has been left alone, five times nameless, faceless and of no value –  five times having to start over again. Maybe some divorced her. Maybe some died. We don’t know. Either one, divorce or death, is a tragedy for her life.

So, let’s not be too quick to judge. We don’t know the details of her past. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe it is enough that she mirrors for us our own lives. We too are people with a past, people with a history. We are all in some sense the Samaritan woman.

People like her, people like us, people with a past, often live in fear of being found out. It is not just the fear that another will know the truth, the facts about us but that they will do so without ever really seeing us and without ever really knowing us.

We all thirst to be seen and to be known at a deep intimate level. We all want to pour our lives out to one who knows us, to let them drink from the depths of our very being. That is exactly what Jesus is asking of this woman with a past when he says, “Give me a drink.” It is the invitation to let herself be known. To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.

To be found out, however, without being known leaves us dry and desolate. It leaves us to live a dehydrated life thirsting for something more, something different, but always returning to the same old wells.

We all go down to some well or another. For some, like the Samaritan woman, it is the well of marriage. For others it is the well of perfectionism. Some go to the well of hiding and isolation. Others will draw from the well of power and control. Too many will drink from the wells of addiction. Many live at the well of busyness and denial.

We could each name the wells from which we drink. Day after day, month after month, year after year we go to the same well to drink. We arrive hoping our thirst will be quenched. We leave as thirsty as when we arrived only to return the next day. For too long we have drunk from the well that never satisfies, the well that can never satisfy.

Husband after husband – this is the well to which the Samaritan woman has returned.

But of course, there is another well – the well of Jesus Christ. It is the well that washes us clean of our past. This is the well from which new life and new possibilities spring forth. It is the well that frees us from the patterns and habits that keep us living as thirsty people.

That is the well the Samaritan woman in today’s gospel has found. She intended to go to the same old well she had gone to for years, the well that her ancestors and their flocks drank from. Today is different. Jesus holds before her two realities of her life; the reality of what is and the reality of what might be. He brings her past to the light of the noon day. “You have had five husbands,” he says, “and the one you have now is not your husband.” It is not a statement of condemnation but simply a statement of what is. He tells her everything she has ever done. She has been found out.

But of course it doesn’t end there. Jesus is more interested in her future than her past. He wants to satisfy her thirst more than judge her history. Jesus knows her. He looks beyond her past and sees a woman dying of thirst; a woman thirsting to be loved, to be seen, to be accepted, to be included, to be forgiven, to be known. Her thirst will never be quenched by the external wells of life. Nor will ours. Jesus says so.

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” This is the living water of new life, new possibilities, and freedom from the past. This living water is Jesus’ own life. It became in the Samaritan woman “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” She discovered within herself the interior well and left her water jar behind. She had now become the well in which Christ’s life flows.

It’s not enough, however, to hear her story or even believe her testimony.

Until we come to the well of Christ’s life within us we will continue returning to the dry wells of our life. We will continue to live forever thirsty. We will continue to live in fear of being found out.

So I wonder, from what wells do you drink? How much longer will you carry your water jars? There is another well, one that promises life, one by which we are known and loved. Come to a new well. Come to the well of Christ’s life, Christ’s love, Christ’s presence that is already in you. Come to the well that is Christ himself and then drink deeply. Drink deeply until you become the one you have drunk.


The Ruined Chapel

By the shore, a plot of ground
Clips a ruined chapel round,
Buttressed with a grassy mound;
    Where Day and Night and Day go by
And bring no touch of human sound.

Washing of the lonely seas,
Shaking of the guardian trees,
Piping of the salted breeze;
    Day and Night and Day go by
To the endless tune of these.

Or when, as winds and waters keep
A hush more dead than any sleep,
Still morns to stiller evenings creep,
    And Day and Night and Day go by;
Here the silence is most deep.

The empty ruins, lapsed again
Into Nature’s wide domain,
Sow themselves with seed and grain
    As Day and Night and Day go by;
And hoard June’s sun and April’s rain.

Here fresh funeral tears were shed;
Now the graves are also dead;
And suckers from the ash-tree spread,
    While Day and Night and Day go by;
And stars move calmly overhead.

William Allingham 1824-1889

Sermon for Lent 2A – 5th March 2023

Fritz von Uhde, Christus_und_Nikodemus via Wikimedia Commons

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

I guess that we heard quite a lot about the immune system (the body’s defence mechanism against disease) over the last few years of Covid. When it starts in a developing baby, it’s more or less a blank sheet, with littlecapacity to defend the body. The new immune system you see hasn’t seen any of the diseases that we’ve all been exposed to in the past and it has to learn from scratch.  The result can be that babies and small children get every cough and snuffle that’s going while their immune system learns by being exposed to them – that’s certainly the case with our grandchildren.

John the Evangelist is a master of dramatic setting, of symbolism and of imagery. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and Jewish leader, arrives to see Jesus at night. Night, traditionally a time of ignorance, temptation, fear and unbelief. He comes in secret. Night’s also the time of day when faithful Jews studied and debated the Torah. 

Perhaps he comes to do precisely that and to learn more about this young radical who’s causing such a stir. He probably doesn’t want his colleagues to know about this curiosity. He calls Jesus Rabbi or teacher. Is he calling him that because he wants to become a disciple or is he saying it with heavy irony – a member of the Jewish elite addressing an uneducated Galilean peasant?

The discussion doesn’t go very well for Nicodemus. He gets off on the wrong foot because he talks about the outward and visible signs, the observable miracles that Jesus has performed. Jesus’ response perhaps seems to be a bit of a non sequitur:

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 

John 3:3

What a strange response. It’s difficult to understand Nicodemus’s reaction to this response without a brief examination of the word that is translated ‘from above’. The Greek word anothen can mean ‘from above’, but it can also mean ‘again or anew’. The NRSV translation that we heard this morning uses the former and puts the latter in a small footnote. Other translations do it the other way round, but in order to understand what’s going on, we really need to hear both.

So perhaps John’s playing on a deliberate pun in Greek to make a point. Nicodemus’s arrival at night is perhaps a hint not at unbelief, but at the wrong sort of belief, of a spiritual misunderstanding, which is played out in his misinterpretation of Jesus’s response to his mention of signs. He comes with a set of convictions about what is real and what is possible and they’re his stumbling block. 

John Calvin wrote that the mind of Nicodemus was

filled with many thorns, choked by many noxious herbs…

John Calvin “Commentary on the Gospel According to John”

How could he possibly see clearly through the thicket? Jesus is rebuking him for concentrating on the wrong thing, what he sees, not what’s in the heart. If you like, the inward and invisible grace, behind the signs.

Things don’t improve as the conversation goes on. What is it that Jesus is saying to Nicodemus in these exchanges and how does his understanding change from exchange to exchange?

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 

John 3:3

To see the Kingdom of God requires enlightenment, a changing of mind, not being impressed by mere signs and miracles, but seeing in a spiritual way.

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” 

John 3:5

To enter the Kingdom of God requires the world to be experienced in a new way, to encounter God through Jesus, a spiritual encounter.

Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

John 3:11

What he’s telling Nicodemus is that entering into the spiritual life requires a re-evaluation of everything he’s previously taken for granted.

Jesus is speaking about a spiritual rebirth, about dying to the old worldly self and entering into a spiritual life, about turning away from status in society, from possessions, from heritage and all those things that tie us to an constructed identity, based on what we have, what we do, what we know and what people say about us. It’s not about visible signs or miracles or any of the worldly stuff, but seeing things as they really are, no rose-tinted specs.

This is the Jesus who says

I have comes not to bring peace, but a sword”.

Matthew 10:34

At first it seems deeply shocking to hear Jesus, the Prince of Peace, appearing to promote violence and conflict. Yet when we read the Gospels, we have to admit that wherever he goes, he brings to the surface people’s deepest fears and insecurities. Jesus threatens cosy illusions and attachments. This spiritual rebirth is about taking a path which isn’t easy or comforting, the narrow way that’s discordant with what’s gone before. It involves death to the old self and the worldly life, quite literally a turning or renewing of ones mind, which is what repentance means. It involves spiritual renewal or rebirth.

During the conversation, Nicodemus moves from a total failure to understand what Jesus means, to the beginning of understanding but then finding the implications of spiritual rebirth rather uncomfortable to contemplate. Other Gospel figures hear similar messages about giving up status and certainty and trusting in a relationship with God. We see a variety of reactions. Take Zacchaeus the tax collector, he seems ready to give up his old life and follow the way that Jesus suggests. Or at the other extreme, the rich young man who is told to give everything to the poor and walks away disappointed, as he just can’t bring himself to do it. Nicodemus finds it difficult, but as we see from his later appearances in the Gospel narrative, he gets there in the end.

We’re now in the season of Lent, the period of the year when we focus on amendment of life, on spiritual rebirth, perhaps even on pressing the reset button on the value we place on status, possessions, how we see ourselves and what we think is important in our lives and relationships. It’s a time when we could take the opportunity to learn again from scratch, discarding old values and habits, and being born again with a new immune system like that of a baby: 

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 18:3

The Kingdom of God is a spiritual reality that can be seen only when we let go of our certainties and open ourselves to something new. It can’t be detected with the naked eye, or experienced through abstract notions of heavenly bliss. The Kingdom of God is now, not confined to tomorrow or the world beyond. Being born again (or from above), means that inherited or acquired status or knowledge aren’t what’s important, in fact they can get in the way. Seeing God at work requires a spiritual awareness, spiritual imagination and a large dose of humility.


Sermon for Lent 1 – 26.02.23

One day when Jesus was relaxing in Heaven, He happened to notice a familiar-looking old man. Wondering if the old man was His earthly father Joseph, Jesus asked him, “Did you, by any chance, ever have a son?”

“Yes,” said the old man, “but he wasn’t my biological son. He was born by a miracle, through the intervention of a magical being from the heavens.”

“Very interesting,” said Jesus. “Did this boy ever have to fight temptation?”

“Oh, yes, many times,” answered the old man. “But he eventually won. Sadly, he died heroically at one point, but he came back to life shortly afterwards.”

Jesus couldn’t believe it. Could this actually be HIS father? “One last question,” He said. “Were you a carpenter?”

“Why yes,” replied the old man. “Yes I was!”

Jesus rubbed His eyes and said, “Dad?”

The old man rubbed tears from his eyes and said, “Pinocchio?”

I do apologise for making such a jokey start to our sermon this week, but I just could not resist the temptation!

It’s not very often that our lectionary provides us with such richness in scripture on the same day. Two of the most powerful and evocative stories in the Bible all about temptation.

And when it comes to stories about temptation, the readings we’ve heard cover just about everything.

Firstly, we have the wonderful account of Adam and Eve and their problems in the garden. There they are, in paradise; everything’s going just great, and along comes this snake with a smooth tongue and some new ideas. The next thing you know, temptation triumphs, paradise is history, all is lost and the man and the woman are left with shame, regret and a couple of fig leaves!

Then, in a powerful contrast, our gospel reading describes Jesus being driven from his baptism into the wilderness – which is just about as far from paradise as you can get. There, unlike Adam and Eve who were surrounded by ease and plenty, Jesus becomes exhausted – starving and alone as he struggles with his time of temptation and challenge.

The two stories form such an obvious contrast that it’s impossible not to compare them and to look for what emerges when they are taken together.

On one level, it looks simple enough – Jesus is the winner and Adam and Eve are the losers; they are weak and he is strong. So, we learn that it’s better to be like Jesus than like Adam and Eve.

What’s more, since today is the First Sunday in Lent, there is the added point that Lent is supposed to make us stronger so that we will be more like Jesus than like Adam and Eve, at least as far as such things as temptations are concerned.

And all of this is almost right.

Now some of you might remember the Green Goddess or perhaps Mr Motivator – two television fitness fanatics that tried to encourage us up from our armchairs and help us get in shape.

Well, as well as being physically in shape, there really is such a thing as being more or less ‘in shape’ spiritually – as being more or less prepared to handle the demands of a serious Christian life.

This has to do with our Christian character and with the development of particular virtues or habits. Getting into shape spiritually has some clear parallels with getting into shape physically or intellectually. There is no doubt that the disciplined rigour of a holy Lent can take us several important steps in the right direction, and the spiritual muscles or habits we develop with disciplines like a Lenten rule are exactly the same ones we use in real life – when the decisions we make can have vastly more important and immediate consequences.

Over the years many learned scholars and worthy theologians have debated whether or not the story of Adam and Eve in the garden is true. But what makes the story of Adam and Eve a true story for me is not that it describes accurately something that happened somewhere else a long time ago, but that it describes exactly what life is like here and now – it tells the truth, not just about them, but about us.

Over and over again, we find ourselves just like them – forced to decide what to do with something which, on the one hand, looks really good, seems useful and popular, and that just might teach us a thing or two – but which, on the other hand, we strongly suspect is not what God thinks best for us.

And we have to choose. When that happens, it’s better to be stronger and to have developed some of our spiritual habits. So, there is a real value to the notion that we need to ‘buff up a bit’, and that Lent is a good opportunity to do a bit more of this – or at least to begin doing it.

But how exactly do we go about getting in shape? Well let’s just take a closer look at what was happening with Jesus in the wilderness.

He has fasted and prayed for a long time – for as long as it takes – that’s what “40 days” means – and he’s famished. He’s absolutely exhausted and just think of the loneliness and the effort it takes to sustain something like this. He’s not at his best. He’s not bursting with physical or spiritual or any other sort of strength. He’s used all that up in just making it to where he is – in just being faithful to the fast.

This is when the temptations hit Jesus.

Now, I suspect that if the tempter had caught him on a good day, Jesus would have had all sorts of answers of his own to the questions – to the temptations – he was given. He might have told wonderful parables or asked clever and insightful questions right back at him and put the devil on the spot.

But strength and energy and cleverness were all gone – there wasn’t anything left. And we know about this, too – this is a different sort of temptation from the one Adam and Eve faced.

This is when we face strong, or compelling, or addicting, or beautiful, or just plain hard temptations and we have run out of resources. No matter how strong we were to start with, we simply can’t any longer move in the direction we have chosen to move, and we are pulled instead along lines that are against our will but defined by our appetites and our ego.

Sometimes it’s not a matter of not being strong enough, it’s a matter of being empty. That’s where Jesus was – he was out of energy, out of fuel and he was tempted, really tempted.

But just look at what happens. Jesus does not say one word of his own. Instead, he quotes scripture in a simple and straightforward way that is unlike how he uses scripture virtually anywhere else in the Gospels. Jesus has no words, no resistance, no strength of his own – he’s simply holding on to the Father, and letting the Father’s words and the Father’s mind come through him. Jesus’ response to the tempter is not a victory of personal, spiritual strength in some sort of holy temptation-lifting Olympics. Instead, his victory is the gift that comes from surrender.

There is no doubt that his time in the wilderness gave Jesus a stronger and more disciplined relationship with the Father; and as a fully-human being, he had to pay attention to such matters, just like we do. But it also gave him something else, something more, something we see in his story of temptations. His time in the wilderness gave Jesus the insight and the courage to surrender, and so to depend, not on his own best efforts, but on an emptiness that can only be filled by the Father, and that can only be filled by a gift of grace.

Several months after this all happened, Jesus said to his disciples: when you are handed over to your enemies, “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you at that time.” Imagine that Jesus could taste the dust of the desert and hear again the voice of the tempter and remember that hunger that reached out even to the stones around him. He knew what he was talking about. At the end of the day, the spiritual life is never about us, about what we can and cannot do. At the end of the day, it is always about God and about God’s gifts – gifts of grace, gifts that do not fail.

Fr Simon

Who are you?

For the whole of March we are in Lent, when we should be reflecting on our relationship with God and each other and striving for spiritual growth and improving those relationships.

In his writings on Belovedness, Henri Nouwen asks each of us the question “Who is the person that lives this little life?” He then identifies three of the most common answers to the question “who are you?” These answers aren’t always explicit, but let’s examine what’s implied by them.

I am what I do” – I am my job, my role, my position. But when I retire or step down from a role or position, all that is lost and who I am becomes indeterminate, my very sense of myself is threatened.

I am what I have.” – I am my education or qualifications, my stuff, my relationships, my looks, my health. If any of what I have is lost or can’t be achieved then who I am is called into question, my very sense of myself is threatened.

I am what other people say about me.” – I am what other people think of me, say about me, respect in me admire in me. If others say good things about me, I feel good. If they say bad things, then I enter a dark place and my very sense of myself is threatened.

Anything familiar here? A response to “who am I” with “I am what I do”, “I am what I have” or “I am what other people say about me” is a response rooted in vice. In a nutshell these are the three temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness. Turn stone into bread – define yourself by what you have. Jump off the pinnacle of the temple to wow the crowd – define yourself by what people say about you. Become the ruler of the world – define yourself by what you do. 

I am what I have” exposes us to the sin and vice of lust. It’s the desire for more and more. “I am what other people say about me” exposes us to the sin and vice of anger. It’s living with a high sensitivity to how others regard you, which leads to great inward and outward anger when others disregard or disrespect you. “I am what I do” exposes us to the sin and vice of pride. It’s the desire to be important, to have power over others. Nouwen points out that anger, pride and lust are the three vices that have been identified since the early church as the enemies of a spiritual life, barriers to experiencing and sharing the love of God.

So if I am not what I do, what I have or what people say about me, who am I? Here’s what Henri Nouwen says:

I come, Jesus says, to reveal to you who you truly are. And who are you? You are a child of God. You are the one who I call my child. You are my son, you are my daughter, you are my beloved.”

Henri Nouwen “Here and Now: Living in the Spirit”

We would all do well to remember that as we journey through Lent. 


A Sad Anniversary

You probably don’t need any reminder that today marks the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces.  We have offered prayer and lit candles for the people of Ukraine over the past year and will continue to do so until this wasteful war comes to an end and the people of Ukraine in exile can return and all citizens can live without the threat of bombs and the fear of what the invaders may do.

Lord of all the earth,
be present with the people of Ukraine
at this time of danger, fear, and conflict.
Grant that wise and peaceable counsels may yet prevail,
and give to all suffering nations
the freedom they desire and deserve.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Holy God,
We hold before you all who live close to war and conflict;
and all who live close to the threat of war and violence.

We remember especially at this time, people in Ukraine and Russia.
We pray for nonviolence and peaceful resolutions of conflict.

Give us hearts of hospitality and sanctuary,
forgive us all our hostility and hatred.

Bring all people to the humanity you give us,
and to the reconciliation and healing for which you gave your life.

Strengthen us all to work with you to build justice and peace,
reconciliation and healing,
in our hearts and homes, in our streets,
in all communities, neighbourhoods and nations.

Bless all who live lives for the peace and wellbeing of others,
and make their service fruitful.

In the name of Christ.

Reflection for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season of reflection and penitence. It’s not an easy season. It asks us to confront our sinful nature and see how far we have wandered away from God. It’s an uncomfortable, challenging experience, and it’s supposed to be.

But why should we be so discomfited? After all, in the secular world, “sin” is all around us. Rugby players are sent to the “sin bin”. Perfumes are marketed with names like “Red Sin”. There are cocktails themed on the Seven Deadly Sins. A well-known diet even divides the world into “free” food and “sin” food. Sin is no longer something serious. It just means something a wee bit naughty. It has little real meaning for most people. When most secular people do think of sin in a Christian context, they associate it with guilt, shame, and oppression.

And that is because often, under the banner of Christianity, the word “sin” has been weaponised. It turns into a malicious word designed to cause hurt and pain, dressed up in concern for the state of one’s soul. “Sin” in this context is a way of telling someone “I dislike what you do/who you are, and therefore so does God.” And because those who use the word “sin” to wound others do so loudly and repeatedly, that is the version of “sin” that secular society often associates with Christians. 

Ash Wednesday is noted for the custom of imposition of ashes, whereby the sign of the cross is marked on the foreheads of the faithful during the course of the liturgy. The symbolism is perhaps somewhat confused in our lections for today. The theme of preparation for God’s judgement is overshadowed not so much by Joel’s “Rend your hearts and not your garments”, as by the dominical sayings in Matthew 6, which condemn making an exhibition of piety.

In Joel the traditional mourning rite of tearing garments has been deployed as a sign of repentance, of turning to God, and the prophet is concerned that this be turned inwards, and not merely expressed visibly. The Gospel reading on the other hand makes no explicit reference to repentance at all, but to acts of righteousness, and to fasting. The point being that in the Judaism of Jesus’ day public displays of righteousness and fasting were deployed to emphasise the idea of confessing and seeking to atone for the sins of others. 

The idea that the goodness of the righteous, and their suffering, can in some way ameliorate God’s judgement and work in the cause of the salvation of Israel is deeply rooted in the prophetic tradition, such as in the servant songs of second Isaiah, and developed further in the Jewish martyr theology then applied to Jesus.

But misusing “sin” to cast judgement on others is nothing new, and in Matthew’s Gospel there are people who probably sound very much like people you know. Those who love to show off their displays of charity with a trumpet call. Those who pray loudly so that others can hear them being holy. Those who want you to know how much they’re suffering with their fasting. Jesus dismisses them all with a simple “They already have their reward.” In other words, these not-so-pious people are seen by others as pious and gain recognition for it. They’ve got what they wanted – the attention and adulation of others, but God isn’t so easily fooled.

Jesus instead urges us to be secretive. An odd choice of words perhaps, given that we usually associate secretive behaviour with sinful behaviour. But here secretive lacks malicious connotations. It just means doing something quietly and without fuss. So what does this have to do with Lent, and what we do with the word “sin”?

Jesus, in advising secrecy, is advising us to stop measuring sinfulness by external measures determined by our peers. Instead, sin is about looking in on ourselves. It’s about asking where we have gone wrong, and how we can move into a better relationship with God. And because no person is perfect, and none of us has a perfect relationship with God, we can’t judge others or be judged by others. We can only be judged by God. And so, we don’t need to prove to anybody that we are praying. We just pray. We don’t need to grimace and gurn when we fast. We just fast. It’s enough that God knows we are moving towards him. That’s the treasure in heaven we build up. 

Because ultimately, if all we find are our faults and failings, we’re stuck as sinners. We’re hopeless and helpless. But when we find our faults and failings, and then offer them to God, we move from sinner to saved. So maybe Lent, in all it’s challenge and discomfort, is joyous in itself. We’re sinners. We turn to God. We are saved. 

We could do a lot worse than let the words of the prophet Joel guide our spiritual journeys during Lent:

Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning for your sins. Rend your hearts, and not your garments, says the Lord God Almighty.” (Joel 2. 12:2) 

Joel 2. 12:2


Sermon for Transfiguration – 19th February 2023

The Transfiguration” by Raphael  (1483–1520) in the Pinacoteca Vaticana

Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

When you’re in the depths of grief, you’re always asking the same question and that question is why. It’s not a philosophical why, it’s a cry that comes from the very middle of you, the cry of a wounded animal and in the silence we get in return, people do all sorts of things.

Ash Sarkar in “The Moral Maze” 15th February 2023

The problem of evil, suffering, tragedy and where God fits in to such things has long been debated, and events such as the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria are bound to prompt us to ask the question all over again. When we ask the question, it’s in the silence we get in return that we might find the answer that we’re seeking.

There is, I think, a huge divide in their understanding of the idea of ‘God’ between people of faith and people without and this was glaringly evident in this week’s ‘Moral Maze’ which asked the question. 

Why does God allow suffering and tragedy to happen”.

Question posed in “The Moral Maze” 15th February 2023

The atheist contributors clearly have an image of an all powerful God who’s in control of all that happens. But is that the sort of God that we believe and trust in? If suffering and tragedy are part of God’s master plan then I don’t want anything to do with God. No, we believe in a God that was born as a helpless baby and died a horrendous death as a result of human cruelty, a God who suffers.

The priest Giles Fraser put it so well when he said:

What is it about a man hanging on a cross or for that matter a baby in a manger that speaks to you of omnipotence?” “It doesn’t seem to me that the central images of Christianity speak of omnipotence. The central images are images of powerlessness not powerfulness” 

Giles Fraser in “The Moral Maze” 15th February 2023

I might add that those images are images of sacrificial love in the face of suffering

The Islamic scholar Mona Siddiqui went on to say:

When I was watching the images, I heard people crying ‘God is great’ when they discovered life in the ruins, the ultimate expression of abiding help and gratitude

Mona Siddiqui in “The Moral Maze” 15th February 2023

To which the atheist philosopher Louise Antony replied: 

I think that hope and gratitude is massively irrational” 

Louise Antony in “The Moral Maze” 15th February 2023

in response to which Mona asked: 

People are free to express gratitude in the midst of tragedy and in spite of the suffering people continue to believe, why is that irrational?

Mona Siddiqui in “The Moral Maze” 15th February 2023

Yesterday morning, I took Moss, our collie, for his morning walk up the road. It was all rather different to usual. The Dornoch Firth was enveloped in cloud and instead of being able to see for miles, we could only see things as they appeared out of the fog, familiar trees, bushes, tracks and gates all made strange. And the sounds were strange too, kind of echoey and amplified. Our usual route was transformed, we experienced it in a different way. 

In Matthew’s Gospel this morning, Jesus, Peter, John and James climbed a hill as did Moses and Joshua in Exodus. Did you spot any similarities between the passage from Exodus and that in Matthew’s Gospel? In both there’s climbing of a mountain to an encounter with God and if we’d had a slightly longer section from Exodus we’d see that they both have faces shining like the sun, they both have bright clouds, with voices coming out of them and in both there’s fear in the on-lookers.

None of this is coincidental. Matthew writes the whole of his account of the life of Jesus with the idea in mind that Jesus is a New Moses and that’s reflected in the way he describes events and in how his explanations are shaped.

This event is referred to as the Transfiguration and Peter, who generally seems to get things wrong, sees the transfiguration as what things have been leading up to – the end point for Jesus’ ministry. This is heaven and we’ve arrived and so we better sort things out by building shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. But of course that’s not what it is about.

It would be better understood as the turning point in Jesus’ life. The point at which in His disciples eyes, He starts to be transformed from simply an amazing miracle worker into a suffering servant, who’ll sacrifice His life for the sin of the world. They move from being people who, like the atheists on the moral maze, don’t understand what God’s about, to people of faith who can see the reality of a suffering God.

Whilst much of what we heard in the Gospel this morning describes an external transformation:

he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Matthew 17:2

But in fact here’s a more subtle transfiguration, or metamorphosis at work here. The reality that was inside Jesus was revealed on the outside so that the disciples could see the reality of God through him.

If we wind forward to the end of Lent, to the crucifixion, we see the transfiguration and the crucifixion in both similarity and stark contrast, which underlines this metamorphosis.

The transfiguration takes place in private, Jesus is exalted, his garments glisten, he is high on a mountain flanked by two of the religious giants of the past, all is light. 

The crucifixion takes the form of a public humiliation, Jesus is stripped of his garments, raised high on a cross flanked by two rogues and all is darkness.

So what is all this to us? How does it affect us?

Well none of us can leave here exactly as we were when we arrived.. We’ll face trials and tribulations. There’ll be pain. There’ll be joy. There’ll be anguish. There’ll be delight. There’ll be suffering. But in all those things, we’ll encounter the powerless and loving God and we’ll understand the world differently because of our encounter here today. 


Reflection on Disaster and Tragedy

A Japanese Coastal Village after the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami

In the past few months, we’ve seen and heard of events that have at times been quite difficult to take in. Major floods in Pakistan and Afghanistan, torrential rains in India and Nigeria, and recently: two major earthquakes in the Middle East.

The stories and images coming out of Turkey and Syria are devastating. In the aftermath of an earthquake of 7.8 on the Richter scale in southern Turkey and Northern Syria, buildings have been flattened, and many homes have been reduced to rubble. The death toll is already well on the way to 30,000 and in the days and weeks ahead, it’s expected to climb much higher.

Such disasters are bound to cause us to wonder ‘where God is in such things?’ So this is a good time to consider the gifts that God gives to help us in the difficulties of life and especially when our worlds are quite literally turned upside down.

Many people who’ve undergone adversity, experience a new sense of belonging to each other. There’s a remarkable sense of bonding between people who’ve experienced a particular disaster and who may’ve narrowly escaped death. There may be also a sense of guilt at having survived when friends and loved ones haven’t. God can give us the gift of a new sense of belonging and closeness to each other and also to God Himself.

Often, people deal with disaster by clinging to hope, expressed in phrases such as, “We’ll get through this together.” Such statements may be made through gritted teeth, in the anguish of physical and emotional pain. However, Hope has nothing to do with wishful thinking. Hope is the gift of openness to an unseen or unimagined future. It can keep us going, even when we can’t live and act in the ways we might normally be able to. The timing of the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011, just before the start of the Cherry Blossom season (the Sakura season) was very important in providing hope.

A crucial gift in God’s enabling is patience. It’s hope that enables waiting patiently for what is yet to be. Those of us, who can live active lives are accustomed to being more of less competent in what we do and can find patient waiting very difficult. Patience is the slow but definite practice of hope. It’s an active and loving holding on, perhaps without any other purpose than simply remaining; it’s “being” in the here and now.

With time, however, God also gives healing. It’s remarkable how there’s so a close relationship between time and healing. With time, we discover that in fact all along healing’s been taking place. There’s healing in the very nature of things, and of course there’s also the active work of healers, agents of God.

Experiences of suffering and distress are often also times of learning. Pain’s a great teacher. Many people say that’s at such times they learned the most valuable lessons of life. In particular, the value of things. That the things for which we spend so much time, money, and effort are worth almost nothing. When one’s experienced the loss of everything, all of one’s clothes and possessions swept away by an earthquake, tsunami, flooding or whatever, what remains is life itself, one’s family, and one’s relationship with God. In times of pain, illness and patient waiting, people come to reflect on the meaning of their lives, work, and priorities.

Flowing from these gifts, it’s both interesting and deeply moving to see something else emerge. In many contexts of disaster and distress, we see the depth of human caring. Those in ministry and in the caring professions often find that people in deep grief or pain reach out in concern for others. They want to be assured that some other person is being cared for. We may marvel at that, but it can be seen as a gift emerging from the very nature of our humanity. Our pain doesn’t destroy our better selves but rather brings them to the surface. Even as he suffered, Jesus prayed for those who crucified him. From the cross, he urged John to care for his mother.

Finally, the Suffering God enables faith. This isn’t a pre-condition of the other gifts. Rather, faith may be implied in those other gifts, but neither recognized nor acknowledged. Many people in their anguish call out to God, sometimes in accusing ways, just read the Psalms for examples. Sometimes, people, who say they don’t believe in God, call out to God. In contrast many, who’ve said they believe, find they can’t call out to God. Perhaps they imagined that their faith in God would mean that nothing like this could ever happen to them.

Faith emerges as the quiet, sometimes unrecognized gift that simply keeps us going. Faith isn’t the absence of struggle and doubt. Faith insists on dealing with the truth, with reality, with life and relationship; and through that keeping-on going, faith emerges in new forms.

It may be a new quality of prayer, or a new dimension of care, or a new commitment to reach out to those less fortunate. Such faith eventually finds its voice, to speak truth in the face of easy solutions or cheap grace. It speaks of the suffering God, who can and does help us in our hour of need.

The philosopher Charles Taylor has said that we must learn to understand what it means to have faith in our world. A world that isn’t a machine, controlled by a master manipulator of the levers. No, our task is to understand what it means to be with God and God with us, in a far less controlled, less predictable, but nonetheless, created world. In such a world, we must learn the meaning of belonging. We must learn to respect the earth, as many indigenous cultures have done since time immemorial and stop thinking that we can control everything for our own benefit.

We must learn also that the world isn’t just “our environment” but is rather the context in which we live with God. In so doing, we must learn see what God is doing in the world, and learn to live with and work with that, towards the unity with God seeks and the fulfilment of creation, in which all things come to their rest, in peace and harmony with God.

Our task, then, is to learn to see what God’s doing towards that redemption and to join God. That’s our theological and practical task—and what a privilege it is to be involved with God and God’s people in this way.