Greyfriars, Tolbooth and Highland Kirk
Jesus said to the paralysed man, “My son, your sins are forgiven” Mark 2:5
Today is a day for celebration as we baptise wee Campbell. At a service of baptism we remember a child’s utter, unmerited acceptability. And that doesn’t change, the Gospel’s message is that we are acceptable and loved just as we are. When we learn that truth then we have the opportunity to begin to be a blessing to others. When that truth is denied the whole community suffers.
If I have a resolution for Greyfriars, a kind of purpose in my ministry here, it is to recognise, with so many disadvantaged people on our doorstep, that no one should be quarantined, rejected or written off. For when we do that we diminish ourselves.
As we accept Campbell, who in his innocence has done nothing to merit this grace of baptism, so we must learn that grace with respect to all whom we meet and have to do for none of us earn the grace that is offered to us.
The other day a good friend related to me some of his experience working as a volunteer at the Crypt day centre at Camberwell in London. He helped to run a clothing stall that gave free clothes to homeless people.
He told me of an elderly Scottish gentleman who went by the fabulous name of Galloway Galt. He came in regularly for a pair of shoes. Galloway Galt was, according to my friend, an ex-army type, “whose life had slipped inside a bottle”.
“Even at his lowest times”, said my friend, ” a good pair of shoes would make him smile”; so my friend always tried to lay aside a good shiny, smart pair for him. “Shoes maketh the man” Galloway Galt used to say and left beaming from ear to ear in his new shoes.
Sometimes it is the smallest thing, like a good pair of shoes. The simple gesture of kindness, the smile instead of the dismissive frown, the dignifying gesture instead of the attempt to deny another’s worth that can make all the difference in the world.
A shiny pair of shoes gave this man his life back and he became for a moment what every human has the capacity to be; a source of joy to others an instrument of blessing and good news to the world.
Our world can of course be a harsh, judgmental and hard place.
So many people who long for a little acknowledgement of their humanity get knocked back and find they are never able to give because they are written off. As consequence, the world is denied their gifts. This is not just confined to people who experience homelessness, all through life things can happen to each one of us that does a little, or a lot to extinguish the light within.
When my friend worked in Camberwell, he told me that he once found some scraps of paper that had been thrown away. As he read these scrunched up pieces of paper, he realised that someone who was using the day centre had been writing poetry.
He discovered who it was and eventually Eddie had some of his poems published. My friend shared with me some stanzas of one of Eddie’s poems that sums up that sense of being rejected and diminished by life:
“In my dreams I still feel the warmth of a smile on a good friend’s face, a lover’s touch, my children’s trusting hand, my mother’s soft embrace.
But when I wake the world is cold and hard, eyes see not me but vagrant rags and unkempt hair, an object of pity (or scorn)”.
The character of God that the prophet Isaiah seeks to portray in today’s reading is one of the most important and endlessly urgent lessons about the nature of the love that we need to learn.
Listen to these words that Isaiah puts into God’s mouth, “You didn’t buy incense for me or satisfy me with the fat of your animals. Instead you burdened me with your sins; you wore me out with the wrongs you committed. And yet, I am the God who forgives your sins and I do this because of who I am. I will not hold your sins against you”. Our flaws do indeed wear others out, but we are never written off.
Such overflowing compassion is reinforced in that moving story of the paralysed man who is lowered on his bed through the roof where Jesus is ministering. As Jesus moves around Galilee he is creating inclusive community and people flock to him because this is what all of us ultimately crave; in spite of the “inventions” that would tell us otherwise. They do this, I think, because it is so rich and positive and rewarding to be around people who see the positive. Jesus healed so many wounds that enabled people to become a blessing to others, not a curse, to share grace with others not their fear.
The poet Kathleen Raine understood what potential exists in every person if they are only upheld and loved and supported. She wrote, “When walking the sword edge, or rainbow-bridge across the abyss, don’t look down, look up!
If you look down, the giddy horror of the abyss will assail you and if you look up you will perhaps see something of those higher powers whose instruments you are”
We are all of us so drawn to staring into the abyss.
So many heartaches and mishaps happen along the way so many newspaper headlines encourage us to gloat on the negative. Yet what we are encouraged by the Gospel to trust is that the whole community benefits from even one person who finds the capacity to glimpse wholeness again. Like Galloway Galt or the paralysed man, lives can be restored and anyone can start to be a blessing to others and life is re-emchanted.
This is the meaning of the journey of life, that we might be a blessing to others. Yesterday I received a message from a friend called Alastair Mackintosh who has just appeared on stage with a pop group called Nizlopi, whom you may have heard of. They had a song at number one in the charts recently talking about a wee boy out on the road with his Dad driving a JCB. It is a lovely and moving song.
Alastair is a writer and philosopher and a spiritual activist, deeply committed to enabling people whose lives have been blighted to find their “greater self” by which they might become a source of blessing to others. This is the last verse of the “rap” he wrote to share on stage in Glasgow last week, a homage to young men, many of whom as we know, go astray when the storms of life assail them. He urges people to find the courage to battle through:
“And that’s the courage that brings your boat to the ocean’s edge. That’s how it is in life’s journey, and all life’s smaller journeys. These are the steps to become a man. To see that your small self is actually held by your Great Self. And that you’re fit to be an elder in your community. Able to share the gifts and blessings. Able to support and sustain what gives life among your people. And to love your beloved, be you straight or gay. To love and be loved by the Beloved no less, my friends. Because we’re talking here of love in all its meanings. And you can only love with an open heart. And you could only ever have opened the heart by building courage. That’s what the journey’s all about. That’s what your battle wounds on the field of life are for. That’s the nature of this boat and your path that carries you down to the ocean. Capable of loving and able to be loved…. Capable of loving and able to be loved…. Capable of loving and able to be loved….”
These are the words we need to hear, the messages we need to give to all those who are paralysed by life.