Here’s what I had to say to my Nigerian colleague Chucks which is moving away from St Mary’s to go and work down south. God be with you, Chucks – we are looking to you to sort out the Church of England.
There was a lot of coming and going in the first reading that we had this morning. The story of Naaman that we read today is one of the most dramatic in the bible.
Come with me, the author of that story seems to say, come with me to a land far away. Come with me to the land of the Arameans. Come with me to the banks of the Abana and the Pharpar – the rivers of Damascus. Come with me to a place outside your comfort zone.
And of course, the naming of those rivers as the rivers of Damascus tells us that the story is placed in a part of the world that that we think about every day and pray about all the time. We are being taken for this tale to Syria.
And this story is a vignette of war. There’s a women taken in slavery, there’s conquest and there’s Middle Eastern strife and it all seems horribly familiar to us today.
The young woman taken as a captive from the land of Israel is one of the characters of the bible who always moves me, whenever we read this tale.
She, like Naaman’s wife has not been given the dignity of a name. Only the men are named in the narrative. She has been scooped up and carried off as a souvenir, a trophy of war. And in her day, who missed her? Who from her own town even knew that she had gone missing.
She was probably not that economically important at home and now here in this foreign land she is a slave in the house of her captor.
There was no social media in her day. There was no twitter campaign. There was no hashtag saying #bringbackourgirl. She was just missing – probably presumed to be dead.
And the fact that she was a slave seems almost incidental to the writer of the tale. For slavery would have been perfectly acceptable both to this story’s writer and its first readers.
We now have the firm conviction that slavery is wrong. Though all we continue to learn about people trafficking means that we must never as Christians feel smug that it was a Chrisitan, William Wilberforce which ended the slave trade. For we know now that though Wilberforce and his associates succeeded in outlawing the slave trade it went underground and continues in one rank form or another to this day. Wilberforce should continue to call on us all to bring a real end slavery by helping to end the trafficking of people from one part of the world to another.
But slave-girl she is.
And even though she has probably been forgotten back at home, she hasn’t forgotten the place she came from and so comes out with this extraordinary recommendation that her captor should venture to Samaria to speak to a holy man – a conversation which eventually leads to his healing.
I’d like to think that she gets some reward for this but it is he who is rewarded in the end, only emphasising that good things seem only to happen to men in the story.
Naaman’s indignance at having to go and wash in the River Jordan is rather magnificent. Why the Jordan and not the Abana and the Pharpar? Well, why not indeed? Yet the fact that he ends up being healed anyway after slagging off the Jordan as much as he was able is testament to God’s ability to love anyone. Indeed, the fact that the Lord blesses even the most pompous, is something that I find, well, just a little bit reassuring.
There’s grace even for the most unlovely in God’s world. And that’s news that is good and wonderful and holy.
At its heart, this story reminds us too that stories of great journeys are built into the stories of the bible.
We should perhaps pause more often and think about them in those terms.
The idea of migration being a positive thing is under such challenge politically in this country. Xenophobia, fear of foreigners, seems to be the stock-in-trade of the most disreputable politicians and some, though thanks be to God, not all, elements of the media.
And where xenophobia flourishes, the unwelcome consequences of racism, anti-Semitism, islamophobia, violence as we’ve seen overnight in Copenhagen and all of that stuff follows on all too easily.
It is worth saying publicly that without migration, this land and this city and especially this congregation would be very much impoverished.
On a Sunday morning here in St Mary’s we are a gathering place for the world and I hope that we always will be. Our key word here is welcome. And we try as hard as we can to mean it as fully as we are able.
But this Sunday we are not saying welcome – we are saying goodbye to someone. We are saying goodbye to Chucks. And not just Chucks but the whole family – Adanna and Christian and Mary-Isobel too.
It is a time for parting. And like all times of parting it is a time for thanksgiving.
Chucks, I don’t know exactly why you chose to come to this city.
For some years ago now you came across the world. You left the land of the Niger River and the Cross River. You decided that for at least a portion of your life you wouldn’t stay by the banks of the Otamiri River but would seek out a new land.
And, wonder of wonders, you came to Glasgow.
You came to this city, an amazing city of not one but two rivers – the River Kelvin and …. that other one.
And you’ve made a home and a life here. And we are glad you did.
The sorrow of parting is testament as it always is, to love and affection and respect.
And it is those things we feel for you today as we say goodbye. For thanksgiving is the antidote to sorrow.
The story of the slave girl and Naaman is the story of a rather unlikely alliance.
So is the story of you and I.
I never thought that I would be the person in the Scottish Episcopal Church who would end up with a Nigerian curate. But I’m glad I did.
And at a time when the Anglican world seemed full of poison and bitterness, I’ve never been more proud of St Mary’s than of the period of time when I stood at that altar regularly with a Nigerian priest on one side of me and an American on another and we celebrated God’s love together.
Let no-one ever think St Mary’s is a place of extreme theology. This is a place of bridge-building and I’m proud of that.
And I’m proud of you Chucks too.
I realised when I was thinking about your being here that I understood why you might be moving on.
We’ve been working our way through the sacraments haven’t we.
I’ve been beside you through your ordination to the priesthood, your wedding to Adanna, the baptism of your children and stood next to you at countless services of communion.
There’s aren’t many sacraments left for me to share with you.
I think I’ve only got the last rites to offer, so I quite understand why you need to get out whilst the going is good.
But in all that you’ve done, you’ve been a person of God in this place. And we are pleased to have got to know you and proud to have had you here.
You’ve had all kinds of achievements here. But Paul told us in the letter to the Corinthians this morning to be wary of getting excited about perishable garlands.
You leave here covered in imperishable garlands – our love for you, our joy in knowing you and our pride in having shared your life with you here in Glasgow.
You’ve shared in sharing the good news that we share every week at St Mary’s – that God is good and God’s love is wonderful.
And there is no greater garland.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Readers on this blog are invited to tap into the title link on this item – just to see and hear the inspirational sermon preached by Provost Kelvin Holdsworth, of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow.
Kelvin weaves into his Sunday Sermon – together with the story of Naaman the Leper and the Servant Girl of his wife – the ongoing saga of slavery and redemption, and the fruitful ministry of a Nigerian curate at the Cathedral, in the drama of strangers and sojourners and how they respond to one another in loving relationship.
Saint Mary’s is so obviously an ‘Inclusive Church’ in SEC, that a native Nigerian can find a loving community – together with Anglicans from around the Communion – in which to learn of Christ’s acceptance of ALL people, no matter what their ethnicity, gender or cultural background may be. The providential coming together of people of significant difference can always be an experience of affirmation and acceptance – where God’s unconditional love is taught and practised without discrimination. Deo gratias!
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand