being still in God's big world

Category: 2017

Perpetua the Every-Woman

The following sermon was preached at the University Chapel at Glasgow University for the Feast of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. The gospel text was John  4:1-26 (Jesus and the Samaritan Woman.)


Imagine the scene: Crowds of spectators flooding the stadium to watch the brutal torture and murder of people guilty only of faith in “the wrong God.” Wild beasts and soldiers bearing arms are set to task, tearing the martyrs apart in front of the glee-filled assembly. Sounds terrifying, but not unbelievable – which I think is the scariest part of the whole scene.

Today we memorialize the martyrdom of Felicity and Perpetua – two women imprisoned in northern Africa in 203CE and put to death along with 3 male companions after their baptisms in the prison. As the lore goes, Perpetua was a widowed young mother and noblewoman who was in her catechumenate (time of study before being baptised into the faith) when she was arrested. Felicity, a pregnant servant, was arrested alongside Perpetua and is said to have given birth in prison before the sentence of death was carried out. Perpetua’s father tried to intervene several times, but each time Perpetua refused to deny her faith in order to be released.

We have record of their story by virtue of what is thought to be Perpetua’s diary. Perpetua spent her time in prison recording testimony of her faith and her visions of a miraculous life to come in Heaven.

This testimony, or diary, reminds me of another such document that we have in more modern literature – the Diary of Anne Frank. Frank, who was imprisoned in a different way – in an effort to keep her and her family safe, dreamed of a better life when she might once again be free to experience all that the world had to offer.

And further, as I think about the plight of these women: Perpetua and Anne, my mind is brought to Pakistan, and the then 15 year old girl, shot in the face by a Taliban soldier who was sent to kill her for speaking out as an activist for equal access to education for women and girls. Malala Yusafazai, now 19, lives in Birmingham and continues to fight for equal access to education. From there my thoughts travel to Syria and to Bana Alabed, the 7 year old girl who took to twitter to tell the world, 140 characters at a time, about the atrocities happening in Aleppo.

The list goes on and on and on. Throughout history, women like Perpetua have fought to get their stories out even in the face of unspeakable odds.

In our lesson from John’s Gospel we hear of one such woman, whose experience is recorded by our Gospel writer. Though her name is not preserved, as was so often the case with stories of woman in the scriptures, her encounter with the Living God in the person of Jesus Christ, illuminates for us the life changing power of meeting God face to face.

The Samaritan Woman learns from Jesus about a new type of water – of living water – that quenches the deepest thirst of our souls. She desires this water and Jesus tells her how to obtain that well of eternal life. Jesus demonstrates that he knows this woman in all ways, both her sins and her virtues, yet instead of condemning her, he tells her how she might be atoned. He offers her a path to a better life instead of condemning her to death by beasts or gas chambers or Taliban fighters or cluster bombs. Jesus reaches out his hand in love and offers the Samaritan woman another way.

What would happen if more people responded to difference the way Jesus does in this story?

The fact that this woman is a Samaritan matters. Many of us likely remember the story of the “Good Samaritan.” A man is beaten and robbed and left for dead by the roadside. A priest and then a Levite (both presumably good, Jewish men) pass by the man, crossing the road to avoid an encounter. But then a Samaritan comes by, stops, and takes the beaten man away to safety.

The Samaritans practiced a form of Judaism that was outside of the mainstream and was considered unorthodox and blasphemous. Thus, the Samaritans were often thought of, in biblical times, as a crowd worshiping the wrong way and thus not people you wanted to fall into company with.

So, who are the Samaritans today?

I guess it depends on where we are looking: In the US the Samaritans would probably be the illegal immigrants who are being rounded up and deported without due process or they might be the Muslims who are being denied entry to the US simply because of the God they worship. In Britain, the Samaritans might be those who voted for, or against, Brexit – depending on what side of the political arena one finds ones self. They might be the immigrants wondering how long they will be welcome here after we leave the European Union. In Glasgow the Samaritans might be the Protestants, or the Catholics, once again, depending on which side of sectarianism one finds oneself.

There are Samaritans everywhere we go – who they are is determined by where we live.

In many places, the Samaritans are the women who are striving to get their stories out into a world where gender is still a major factor when considering what rights an individual is entitled to.

Today we commemorate Perpetua and Felicity for their strength and courage in the face of a world that not only sentenced them to death, but also a world where it is a miracle that any account of their lives still exists.

We relate to their story because women are still fighting to be heard today.

Whether it is women who were condemned for having too many husbands in biblical times (when the reverse would have been perfectly acceptable) or women who have the audacity to expect the right to be educated in modern middle eastern society, the rights of women and men are still different. But what we take from today’s lesson, is that in the eyes of God we are entitled to equality not only in this life, but in the life that is to come. The Living Water is equally available to all who seek its nourishment.

The Feast of Perpetua and Felicity is unique not only because we have an early record of the visions and dreams Perpetua experienced during her captivity and because of the recorded accounts of the peace and “ecstasy” she and her companions experienced as they were put to death, but also because the record of this occasion is the written account, authored by a woman, that survived against all odds in a place and at a time when the written accounts of woman were destroyed and cast off as heretical. Today we celebrate the lives and legacies of these two women – as they represent the every-woman.

Our call today is to look out and see where we find Samaritans in this world and to seek to give them voice. Our call today is the same as it has always been, to be the hands and heart and voice of Christ in this world and to proclaim the existence of a God of love who desires to uplift and hold close the hearts of all human beings – regardless of the markers that divide us – because we were all created in God’s own image. Our call today is to follow in the bold and brave footsteps of Perpetua and Felicity; to tell the truth, come what may, all the while seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.


Guidelines for Living

A sermon for Epiphany 4, Year A 2017

Preached at St. Margaret’s, Renfrew

Gospel Text: Matthew 5:1-12

Let me tell you about my day yesterday – it was a rough one. We’ll start from midnight, because that is roughly when I arrived home from the airport after a few days away. It took forever to fall asleep because my dog just couldn’t settle in. At 4am – the dog started barking maniacally. I tried to soothe him – then the doorbell rang. A young woman was knocking to point out that I’d locked my keys outside in the front door to my house. I took the house and car keys inside and headed back upstairs to try to get more sleep – it did not come.

In the morning I’d planned to drive to Ayrshire to drop off a birthday present for a friend. Since we’d be near the beach I thought it would be nice to take my puppy for a run by the seashore. As I packed the car, the phone rang and a contractor who we were expecting to come on Monday to finish some work on the house called because he was on his way and couldn’t find us. Ugh. So we delayed leaving so the contractor could come 2 days early.

We finally loaded up the car, drove to the coast, bought a present, and dropped it with my friend who was home and invited us in for tea. After an hour of tea and sympathy, my husband, dog and I went out to the car to head to the beach for what would now be a very short walk before the sunset. As we pulled away from the curb something loud and metallic made a bang and the steering on the car went heavy. We drove slowly the 4 blocks to the beach, with a terrible sound coming from the front end of the car. I threw the ball for Alasdair in the sand for a few minutes while Chris looked at it.

We got in the car and I urged Chris to drive to Kwik Fit rather than starting the hour drive home. We got to Kwik Fit at 415 and after a long wait they diagnosed us with an un-drivable vehicle. From there we walked, in the pouring rain, with the dog to the train station a mile away. Took a train to Central, another train to Anniesland, and then, finally, Chris’ dad drove us home. We arrived home last night at 9pm.

Then I read the news – legal residents of the United States were being sent back to their countries of origin, without a chance to plead their case because of where they were born. Syrian refugees, living in camps in Turkey, learned that after years of waiting and vetting processes to start a new life they would have to wait longer because of where they come from. A vet student from the Glasgow Uni Vet School can’t get home after vacation because she is not allowed to fly through New York since her passport is Iranian – it doesn’t matter that she is also a UK citizen. Families are being torn apart, hope is being taken away, and all of this because of our fear of the stranger. — Oh, and a goalie from Shettleston relieved his bladder behind his goal and got a red card…

In light of what is happening elsewhere in the world, my day seems a little easier than at first glance.

The dean of the seminary where I studied liked to say that Westerners are a people who like to “feel persecuted.” When we have a hard day or a frustrating encounter we externalize it and feel put upon. We take things so very personally that when encountering real persecution we struggle to know how to respond. As Christians, we are blessed to have literal written instructions reminding us how to respond in our Holy Scriptures.

Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew comes from Jesus’ sermon on the mount. In this section, which we know as the Beatitudes, which are so well known that they seem a poetic piece of literature rather than an instruction manual for living. They feel unattainable, while being something to aspire to. We often break them up and look at them one at a time in an attempt to try on “bite sized pieces” of them since taking them as a whole seems too challenging. We will leave that to the modern saints around us like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, or Desmond Tutu. They can’t possibly be for all of us.

And yet, they are. Jesus did not intend these instructions to be an impossible bar – he meant them as an instruction manual for living. They can be the outline for our rule of life if let go of our very Western need for perfection and instead focus on the biblical perspective from the prophet Micah to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

The Beatitudes offer us an alternative way of living. They invite us to a life of simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion.

Just this past week, Pope Francis spoke in response to US President Trump’s executive order banning immigration to the US from majority Muslim countries in the context of the beatitudes. He said that one cannot be a Christian and deny the rights and needs of refugees around the world – this is spelled out for us in the beatitudes. These simple yet extraordinarily challenging invitations are the hallmark of what it means to be a Christian.

For us in the Scottish Episcopal Church they are as relevant now as they were 2,000 years ago when Jesus first spoke them. In the past few weeks, our cathedral has been showered with hatred since inviting our Muslim brothers and sisters to share in the Feast of the Epiphany with us as a form of interfaith cooperation. Additionally, Glasgow has long been plagued with Sectarianism which often prevents ecumenical cooperation from collaboratively addressing the needs in our communities. And I say all of this while recognizing that my accent betrays my status as “other” in this context where we find ourselves. I can say “us” and “we” all I want, but I fully acknowledge and recognize that I’ve only been here 9 months and there is still so much for me to learn.

We are small, but we are mighty because we are a people who love justice. The Scottish Episcopal Church has a rich history of working for justice and peace and our call today is the same as it ever has been – our call is to be a church of the beatitudes. Even when it is hard. Even when it is scary. Even when we feel like our voice is too quiet or our hands are too small. This is the purpose of our MAPing process. We are called to create Mission Action Plans that put justice and outreach at the centre of our communal life together. It is our mission as a church to live into the beatitudes.

In light of everything else happening in the world, I’d like to take another stab at telling you about my Saturday: After the blessing of 5 days in the sun, I went to bed late because my puppy was so excited to see me. A good Samaritan saved us from having our cars stolen or house broken into when she ensured we brought our keys safely inside the house. A contractor, who is often someone we complain about being late or unreliable, turned up early and did some work we’ve been needing done. My friend got his birthday present and a smile on his face. By the grace of God, our car broke, not while we were on the highway, but while slowly pulling away from the curb, only a few miles from a garage who will fix it on Monday and we were not hurt. Because of the public transportation infrastructure in this great nation, we were able to get home with only minor inconvenience. And I ended my day with a nice cup of tea, a warm bath, and finally slept safely in my bed at the end of it all.

When I look at it like that, I have a whole lot more energy to remember and speak out for the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and persecuted. When I remember that my Saturday, while inconvenient, was actually a fine and potentially amusingly long day, I can also remember that when Jesus promised that comfort will come to those in need – He is talking about comfort not only from God, but God’s comfort that comes through us, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are the hands and heart and voice and love of God moving on this earth here and now.

We are the collected body of Christ, called to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour –

Our gay, Muslim, catholic, atheist, Jewish, poor, drug addicted, grief-stricken, persecuted, Tory, Labour, SNP, Liberal, UKIP

Neighbour as ourselves.

It can seem entirely overwhelming when we look at the news and consider what our tiny hands and small congregations can do to help – but when we remember that each voice joining together forms a chorus we can remember that together, “we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.”


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