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world than that outdated talk of 'up' and 'down'?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
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.