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Re-Arranging The Seats
(A Lent Reflection)

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Re-Arranging The Seats 

Read : Deuteronomy 26: 1-11, Romans 10: 8-13, St Luke 4: 1-13 

On Sunday 23 July 1637, Jenny Geddes stood up in St Giles Cathedral, picked up her stool and threw it at the Dean of Edinburgh. As she did so, apparently she wished upon him problems with flatulence for daring to 'say Mass at ma lug!' Thus, she helped to pave the way to my visit to St Cuthbert's this morning. 

Jenny's stool-rage occurred when discontent in Scotland over the imposition of a prayer book by an English Archbishop had reached boiling point. In the resulting uproar the Dean and the Bishop had to flee the church. The following year the National Covenant was signed by those who wished to defy the crown and establish a Presbyterian church order in Scotland - a cause which was won after various twists and turns and terrible and bloody massacres. 

As I say, without all that I wouldn't be here this morning. The ecumenical movement might have worked its way out very differently; St John's might never have been built. I make this point simply to underline that what we are now and what we do now is not mere happenstance. We might prefer to be able to say with that comical Irishman who, when asked the way to Cork explained that 'If I was going to Cork sorr I'd not be starting from here.' But we have no choice about where we start because we can't pretend the past didn't happen; and the past informs, shapes and overshadows our present. 

Take the recent international rugby match at Croke Park in Dublin, for example. Croke Park is named after Archbishop Croke, one of the papists Jenny Geddes might have despised. But he was a keen supporter of Irish nationalism and this was expressed through keeping alive Gaelic football. The British authorities saw this, perhaps rightly, as a front for terrorism and in 1920 forces entered Croke Park stadium when a game of Gaelic football was underway and shot 20 people in the melee. Not surprisingly the arrival of an English rugby team in 2007 and the playing of the British national anthem was cause for great controversy. The past happened, for good or ill; and yet there was perhaps a real sense of healing yesterday as the anthem was not only listened to with respect but also sung audibly - the whole event given a happy gloss, no doubt, by the convincing victory of the Irish team. 

Our first reading resonates with this theme. The people of Israel are to make an offering of the first fruits of their harvest and to recite a creed that reminds them of their history that 'A wandering Aramean was my father…'; that their ancestors were used as slaves in Egypt until God led them to freedom and gave them the rich and fertile land they now enjoy. This is a celebration they are to make each year and foreigners, visitors, travellers who are in their homes are to be invited to join them - not because these aliens share the same story but because they can delight in the gifts of the land too. 

Of course, as we saw at Croke Park, whilst the past may make us who we are, it need not determine what we become. We can, if we choose, nurse resentments, vendettas, feuds, wrongs done long ago. Even today there are villages in England that enjoy a feud with each other because they were on opposite sides in the civil war in the 17th century - and the myth of rivalry is passed on to all who move in. Similarly, I suppose it's possible to feed our own ecclesiastical resentments, also based in the 17th century, pass them on to each new generation, so that the tribulations our ancestors suffered (and inflicted) become necessary angers shaping our present identity.  

And yet for most of us, our emotions are no longer stirred by the battles of the Scottish Reformation; the issues that excited them then seem alien to us now; we have better things to do, we feel, than to stoke old fires. Apart from anything else human history is not the straightforward affair we sometimes like to imagine. A few months after I came to St John's (nine years ago) a lady worshipped with us one morning by the name of Geddes. I asked her if she was any relation to Jenny; 'I believe so,' she replied. 'Very ecumenical of you to join us,' I said. 'Not at all,' she answered, 'my family are Episcopalian - have been for ages.'  

I'm not sure whether St Cuthbert's minister can trace his descent all the way back to the covenanters, perhaps he can; chances are that some genetic pollution has crept in somewhere, nevertheless. Similarly I, though Episcopalian now, only one generation ago on my mother's side, am of Scottish Free Church descent. Who knows, perhaps one of my ancestors signed the covenant; perhaps one of St Cuthbert's minister's fought with the Earl of Montrose against the covenanters. All of which suggests that to align ourselves too avidly to exhausted causes, to keep alive old vendettas is foolishness and is perhaps to give too great an authority to one regrettable period history over against another. 

This isn't to discount our heritage - as I say, without it I would not be here. And when we entered into our Local Ecumenical Partnership in the mid-eighties we were well aware that this was not simply about two neighbours agreeing to have breakfast together. It was far more momentous than that; momentous because historically our relationship to each other was partly formed by Jenny Geddes and those years of suspicion, division and bloodshed. But we were also saying that we were not bound by that past, that past hurts should not limit our freedom in the present. 

Because like the Israelites in the first reading we have a longer perspective; we're able to celebrate with each other all the bounty that the Lord our God has given to us; the richness of the identity that each of us brings to our friendship; ironically, partly created by those years of separateness. And this sense of gratitude allows us to transcend our history, and to be the co-authors of a new story, a story of which some of us here have been writing for well over forty years (and Tom for over thirty of those). 

In his letter to the Romans, St Paul struggles with a very different kind of ecumenical partnership. He's a Jew - his ancestor was that wandering Aramean, his people re-lived year by year the exodus and the Promised Land and claimed a special relationship with God expressed in their Law. But now Paul is convinced that some of this must go. The Law, for one thing is not life-giving - but even more importantly, Paul says that his people must give up their special status in God's eyes. The grace of God, Paul is now convinced is for everyone, and we must all learn to relate to each other not as aliens but as brothers and sisters. In the passage we read he makes a statement we take for granted now but that was novel, astonishing for his day: 'there is no distinction between Jew and Greek (non-Jew); the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all.' 

This is the universal and inspiring message underlying our faith. We are all God's children; all now adopted as God's chosen people - not displacing the Jews, far from it, but joining them. Yet how easy it is to separate and divide; nursing old hurts, asserting ourselves by dismissing others; holding onto that which we think makes us special. Paul, through painful experience, has learned that God has no desire to exclude anyone; that the Word of God lives within our hearts and on our lips to the extent to which we are able to make the simplest of creedal statements - Jesus is Lord. There's no sense in which Paul is disowning history or downplaying his Jewish heritage. He constantly quotes from Jewish scripture. Similarly, in the Temptation story from Luke's gospel, Jesus quotes the bible at the devil, and the devil eventually gets the point and quotes the bible back at Jesus. (Which proves, amongst other things, I suppose, that simply quoting scripture doesn't make your argument right). 

It always seems to me that the important thing about temptations is that they're desirable - well that's obvious enough - desirable and plausible, even justifiable. The temptations Jesus faces are thoroughly worthy, just right for a man who wants to do good. Could he not have fed the hungry if he'd turned stones into bread? Would the world not have been a better place if he had been its ruler? Wouldn't more people have followed him if he'd done some wonderful sign, like leaping off the temple and returning safely to earth? One great sorrow of our existence is not that we have to choose between clearly good and clearly evil, but often between different shades of good. 

How then does Jesus make his choices? He carefully deflects any temptation that promises him a respect or adulation won not by love but by the constraints and coercion of power. It's a fatal, some might say foolish, decision, because we can see only too clearly that at this early moment in his ministry the hard realities of Good Friday are foreshadowed, the die is cast, and he has set off on the road to rejection, death and apparent failure. That was his choice. Yet here at the beginning of Lent we are reminded once again that our confession that He is Lord makes this our choice too, and it places us beside Jesus on the same journey. 

One of the great things about Lent is that it asks us to strip away some of the inessentials so that we can focus on what really matters - perhaps even like Jesus, to displace the good to leave room for the better. And we'll all have our own strategies for doing this. But let me offer you one gentle little challenge.  

Firstly, to find a way of celebrating each other's stories; of affirming what we see God doing in others - as individuals, and as two congregations in partnership. Celebrate, as did those ancient Israelites, the ways in which God's love is to be found manifest, in our separate identities. 

Secondly, to celebrate what we hold in common - those ways in which together we say in our hearts and on our lips and in all that we do that Jesus is Lord … and therefore that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, Episcopalian nor Presbyterian. 

Thirdly, to reflect on how we might better walk together in the Way of Christ, not disowning our past but not allowing it to be a burden either, a burden that weighs us down and prevents us discovering God's call to us to be made anew. So that we learn to form friendships and alliances unconstrained by guilt or resentment, by financial necessity or external command, but rather founded on the love of the One who is Lord of all. 

In this way we build a new and living heritage that in its own way will shape the church's sense of itself 400 years from now. What we do may not be as eye-catching or as memorable as Jenny Geddes' re-arrangement of the seats in St Giles, but who knows, it may give our descendents even more reasons to be grateful.  

Rev Dr John Armes, February 2007


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