A Sermon given by Professor Kenneth M Boyd
(College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh)
at St Lawrence, Morland
on Sunday, September 9th, 2012, 13th Sunday after Trinity

Song of Solomon 2.8-13; James 1.17-end; Mark7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

This morning we're celebrating Sophie's baptism. Just three weeks ago, in our church in Edinburgh, we had another baptism. The church was crowded to the doors, full of families, children and babies. When the poor old preacher (not me) got up into the pulpit, she could hardly be heard for the screaming, chattering and clattering of toys! Unlike mobile phones at a concert or the theatre, children can't be switched off before the proceedings begin. But that surely is the point, the reason why we bring children, not to be charged up with power or texts, and if they break down to be repaired, but to be baptised, and to be welcomed not just into their own family but into the family of God. For children are not things, possessions, status symbols. Children are people, little people who need to be loved into becoming big people, truly good big people; and for this they need supportive families; and to be supportive, families themselves need to be supported by caring communities - the kind of communities that churches, for all their faults, try to be.

Well yes: but why do we still mark this with ancient rites like baptism - why now, in the modern world? Only last week we were reminded how different this modern world is from the ancient one familiar to Jesus and the apostles - reminded by news of the death of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, who memorably declared: 'one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind'. He was not of course the first man to go up into space. That was Russian Yuri Gagarin; and remember what the Russian leader Krushchev said about him - that the cosmonaut had been up there, above the sky, and there was no sign whatever of God. So, clearly, God did not exist. And yet this morning in one of our readings, we are still being told that 'Every generous act of giving, and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights'. This is now the 21st century: can't we find some more modern, accurate and scientific way of speaking about the world than that outdated talk of 'up' and 'down'?

Well, of course we can, or at least science can. It's a great privilege to live at a time when science is becoming able to answer so many questions about the nature of the world that people have always been deeply puzzled by. But science has no way of answering those other questions that people have always been deeply troubled by: "Who really am I?" "How should I live?" "What is there to hope for in life?" It's not, thank goodness, the job of science to try to answer these questions by conducting scientific experiments on people. The only way to answer these questions is by the experiment each of us has to conduct for ourselves, and with one another, the ongoing experiment of everyday experience.

And it is precisely in this ongoing experiment of everyday experience, I think, that ancient words like 'every perfect gift is from above' can begin to make sense. In the experiment of everyday experience we search for the meaning of our life, our love and our longings; and in that search we can sense that we are on the right track when we are no longer 'down' or 'low', but manage to 'rise' to the occasion, to 'rise above' our poorer, meaner, 'lower' selves. When that happens, the words 'every generous act of giving is from above' tell us something important, if we have ears to hear and hearts to understand. They tell us that in rising above ourselves and becoming more generous, we are being put on the right track, not just in terms of our own psychology, but in terms of life's ultimate mystery - the generous mystery of God, the mystery beyond human understanding.

The mystery of God truly is beyond human understanding: anything we say about that mystery in language we do understand will always fall short of its reality. But the real human privilege and opportunity is not to speak about God. The real human privilege and opportunity is to listen and speak to God - as God speaks to us, in our most heartfelt thoughts and prayers, and in and through one another. And when we do this, as this morning's reading also tells us, we should 'be quick to listen, slow to speak'.

But finally, to go back to my other question: why do we still go on using ancient rites like baptism? Well! Why do we put a hand on the shoulder of a grieving friend? Why do we give a hug to those we love? It's the way the heart says what the head is too full, or feels too inadequate, to attempt. Baptism is one way - the Church's way - of opening a door onto the great experiment of everyday experience - a door that can ultimately lead to fullness of life in the generous mystery of God. It's also a door into the community of those who repeatedly fail in that experiment, but nevertheless never give up hope in it, those who ultimately are undefeated because we repeatedly go on trying. In doing this, the Church teaches, we are encouraged by the Holy Spirit - the Spirit whom the Eastern Churches call Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom. Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom. May Sophie - and all of us - discover and delight in that generous Wisdom.