A faith for fools- sermon for 2 February 2014

Please see below for more information about Religious Observance in Scottish schools

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 2 February 2014: Year A, Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

SERMON
Texts: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

A faith for fools
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This week I spent two days in Coatbridge, attending a meeting of the General Assembly’s Church and Society Council, of which I’m a member. I joined about a year ago, having been nominated both by the Presbytery of Inverness, and an existing member of the Council. They needed to have someone from the Highlands, and of course their work is to do with Christianity in public life, a topic I’d been looking at in my study leave the previous year in the United States.

We were mostly revising the reports to the General Assembly, which covered a dizzying array of topics. There will a report on the changing face of family life, on sport from a Christian perspective, on welfare reform, on Scotland’s relationship to Europe, and the continuing conflicts in the Middle East. Also reporting as part of Church and Society is the oldest committee of the General Assembly. The Education Committee was set up back in the nineteenth century, to keep an eye on developments in our state schools. And just before we met this week, education policy was suddenly all over the media.The media storm was about what is known legally as ‘religious observance’- or school assemblies to most of us! Schools have always had times when they get all or part of the school together, and assemblies are seen by teachers as an important way of creating community spirit in a school, and also a way of getting news and information to pupils. I am a chaplain at Inverness Royal Academy, and at Lochardil Primary. Just on Friday I did two assemblies at Lochardil, where among other things the school was recognising their new ‘house captains’- children who have been given a special role in the school to help other pupils. My contribution was to speak about the role of leaders. We read from the Bible about the twelve apostles Jesus chose to help him, and learned that there is one thing leaders cannot do without. Well? The answer, of course, is followers- who cannot just leave everything to the leaders. And we ended with a prayer for leaders and followers.

Not all school assemblies will have a religious element like that. But the law expects that there will often be a faith element in the programme of school assemblies. And so chaplains are appointed by the head teacher, to work not just on assemblies, but often also in classrooms and in other ways. We are often asked to do assemblies to mark important times and seasons, like Remembrance, or Easter, or at difficult times, for example if there is a bereavement in the school. My experience has been that the contribution of chaplains is warmly welcomed by school staff.

I have learned to make sure I know a bit of what is going on in the school so that I can do something which is appropriate. And to always make sure that I’m on last, after the head teacher has made the announcement. Many years ago I was chaplain to a school in Edinburgh. It was at the bottom of the hill, and there was another school at the top, and they had a shared playing field. I went in one morning with a really very good retelling of the story of David and Goliath, and spoke about how God helped the small boy David to slay the frightening giant Goliath with simply a sling and a stone. Then the head teacher got up, and the first item on her agenda was to tell the children not to throw stones at the children in the other playground! It’s important for the chaplain to be relevant!

The religious aspect of school assemblies has to be thought through carefully nowadays, because many children come from families which have no connection to Christianity. Their parents may be indifferent, or even hostile, to the church. And of course, there are also children whose families are of other faiths, such as Islam or Hinduism. So, not surprisingly, the law expects that other religious traditions will have a place, when appropriate, in school assemblies (although school should also recognises the major role which Christianity has historically played- and, indeed, continues to play- in Scotland). So my assemblies usually refer to the Bible and the Christian tradition, and I often invite the children to join me in a prayer. But I cannot and do not assume that many of them will consider themselves Christian, or, indeed, that they will know much about the Christian tradition.

Some people have been puzzled by the use of the phrase ‘time for reflection’, but that actually describes quite well what those of us who do assemblies have been doing for many years now. Assemblies really are a time for reflection- a space for children of all faiths and none to take a time to think about the big questions of faith and morality. So as a minister of the Church of Scotland, the national church, I seek create a space for reflection, and to do so for the whole school,, whatever their religious background. But I always do so identified as a Christian. And the school assembly gives us a precious opportunity to speak about Christ to children who might never hear about him otherwise.

The law is not going to change, and neither has the Church of Scotland’s attitude to assemblies changed. But clearly a school assembly in our multicultural age will be something quite different from that which many of you will remember in your school days. I think that’s the trouble. So many people have an opinion about assemblies who haven’t been to one for a long, long time!

I just used the word ‘multicultural’- a word which reflects the reality that Scotland is home to people of many different faiths and belief systems. I think I have used the word multicultural a few times in the last few weeks, because we have been looking at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Corinth was a multicultural port city. It had been founded as a Roman colony in Greece. So it was a city of many languages, nationalities, and religions. It was home to sailors, merchants, slaves, soldiers, government officials and many others from around the Mediterranean Sea. It was a long way from home for Paul, a Jew from Syria, who travelled there and founded the church in the city. And the new church reflected the diversity of local population- rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, and no doubt many other ways that people could identify themselves.

Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians, not because they were diverse, but because were divided. Different factions had appeared in the church, often named after different church leaders (including Paul). To which his ironic reply was ‘Was it Paul who died on the cross for you?’ Paul’s answer to the divided Corinthians is to make them look beyond their divisions, beyond the human leaders they so respect, and to point towards Christ. And especially, as he does in the passage today, to Christ’s crucifixion.

Perhaps it’s strange to be thinking about Good Friday already, when it’s just after Christmas. This is still, after all, the season of Epiphany, which is about how God in Christ has revealed himself to the nations. But when Paul wants to point beyond the factions in the church, or even beyond the diversities of religion, nationality, faith or race, Paul points to Christ on the cross. Paul will not bend his message so that it supports one or other of the factions in the Corinthian church. ‘As for us’, he says, ‘we proclaim the crucified Christ, a message that is offensive to the Jews and nonsense to the Gentiles’. Now, this doesn’t seem a very good move. One of the divisions in the Corinthian church was between Christians who were Jewish, and those who had come into the church from other faiths- Gentiles. Yet Paul says that his message of Christ crucified will upset both Jews and Gentiles. It doesn’t seem a very sensible way of commending the Gospel in this multicultural city.

But Paul was telling it as it was. A criminal put to death like Jesus was believed by Jews to be cursed. And a teacher whose life ended so ignominiously and obscurely had little attraction for Gentiles, especially upper-class educated and sophisticated Greeks or Romans. But Paul goes on to say, ‘for those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, this message is Christ, who is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For what seems to be God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and what seems to be God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’.

There is nothing more helpless and weak than a man nailed to a cross. It is foolish to expect people to be attracted by such a sight, to pay attention to a teacher whose life ends in such a way. But in this passage, Paul makes great play of concept of strength and weakness, foolishness and wisdom. The crucified Christ seems a foolish figure to many, but when you believe it somehow makes sense- it’s God’s wisdom. The crucified Christ seems weak, but it turns out that this is God’s power at work. For Paul, the weakness of Christ crucified shows the strength of God; and the folly of Christ’s dying on the cross points to wisdom of God, deeper than any human wisdom.

In his lifetime, Christ had also pointed out how God contradicts human expectations. The kingdom of heaven belongs not to those who are confident in their faith, but who know that they are poor in spirit. There will be God’s comfort for those who mourn. The humble will receive everything. The merciful will themselves receive mercy. And those whom God calls his children are not the ones who will ride off into battle for him, but those who work for peace.

Perhaps there was a time, long before my time, when the minister told the school what to do, and every school assembly had hymns, prayers and a sermon as we used the schools to mould new little church members. That day is long since past. Some of us may not like it, but that is how it is. And as we try to be Christians in this multicultural landscape, I really do think we can learn from the struggles of those Christians Paul wrote to in the multicultural city of Corinth. For Paul reminds the Corinthians, ‘From the human point of view few of you were wise or powerful or of high social standing’. Well, that just about fits most Scottish Christians today.

Paul has a message to us, and to the world we live in. The first is about unity among Christians. Sadly, there were plenty of people in the Christian community in Scotland last week who took the chance to give the Church of Scotland a good kicking. Some Christians seem to boasting in the media about how they are much better Christians than anyone in the Kirk.

In their struggles, the Christians of Corinth became divided among themselves. Part of the trouble was that some boasted that they were the better Christians. But Paul tells them, ‘no one can boast in God’s presence’. It is by Christ alone, he says, that ‘we are put right with God; we become God’s holy people and are set free’. It is not by belonging to a particular denomination, or a faction in the church, or by following a particular church leader that we are set free. ‘Whoever wants to boast must boast of what the Lord has done’. And what God has done was to give us Christ crucified.

And as he reminded the Corinthians that they were not powerful people, in the eyes of the world, so he reminds them that the Gospel did not start off seemingly powerful. I don’t go into schools to teach children Victorian hymns, or a middle-class morality. I tell them about Jesus of Nazareth, who must seem a strange figure to them- born in a stable, telling ordinary people that God loves them, dying like a criminal. But the tales of Jesus are all I have for them. And if that doesn’t seem like much, well, says Paul, ‘God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and he chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful’. To many people today, faith in the Christ crucified seems like a faith for fools. Powerful people make us seem a bit sheepish, for they seem confident in their own strength and wisdom. But you know, after the cross of Christ came his resurrection. Perhaps he wasn’t so foolish and weak after all. Perhaps he’s a fool worth following!

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo

Note:

Ewan Aitken, Church and Society Council Secretary, wrote about Religious Observance in September, when moves were first made to change it from ‘opt-in’ to ‘opt out’. This article reflects the contemporary thinking on Religious Observance with which the General Assembly has previously agreed.

Christian Today published an accurate account of the controversy last week.

Update June 2014 The General Assembly in May 2014 agreed to the proposal to ask the government to change the designation ‘Religious Observance’ to ‘Time for Reflection’ in the Education Act