Nonsense by the fire...

A story about a precocious twenty year old medical student called Tom: it starts in a small pub in the middle of Edinburgh. A pub filled with students drinking beer, having a laugh, and speaking all kinds of nonsense. It is winter, the roads outside are filled with mud, slush, and snow, it’s freezing, and the students take refuge by the fire, pints in hand, chilled out, righting the wrongs of the world.

 Mr Thomas Aikenhead

Mr Thomas Aikenhead

Tom had one of those minds for figuring things out. He always had some pet theory he was going on about. Lately his subject of choice had been theology, or more precisely, debunking theology. “It’s all invented nonsense you know” he would say to his friends.

“Take Jesus, you don’t actually believe he was a miracle worker do you? They’re all tricks, and the best part is, his fisherman friends, they actually believed it! What blockheads they must have been. And don’t get me started on this doctrine of the Trinity, you know it’s not even in the Bible, not even once…” To put it mildly Mr Thomas Aikenhead was not the most tactful of individuals.

Recently a man called John Frazer, who some of Tom’s friends knew, had been put in prison simply for reading an anti-Trinitarian book. It must have panicked Tom’s friends, because they decided to turn Tom in. The year was 1697, and the punishment for railing upon, cursing or denying God was death.

Tom had no desire to die. No lofty ambition to be a martyr for a liberal religious cause, or anything like that. He really didn’t care that much. Upon imprisonment he immediately wrote a letter, renouncing all the things he had said, but the Church of Scotland was having none of it. They wanted an example to be made of him; they wanted to warn a nation overflowing with profanity of the consequences of being un-Godly.

 The Edinburgh Gallows: "Many Martyrs and Covenanters died for the Protestant Faith on this spot."

The Edinburgh Gallows: "Many Martyrs and Covenanters died for the Protestant Faith on this spot."

Before he died Tom said ‘It is natural for us human beings to have a desire to find the truth, to seek it out as we might find hidden treasure.’ He was hung on the 8th January 1697. He was the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. Mr Thomas Aikenhead did not call himself a Unitarian; The British Unitarian Association was not to come into existence for another hundred years.

In his inability to put the big questions down, in his disregard for Church authority, and in his thirst for truth beyond cost, I cannot help but admire him, and claim him as a martyr for the Unitarian cause. Perhaps unknowingly he pointed to a better world in which ideas, however brilliant or foolish, can be explored and tested, without fear of social or legal consequences. Out of his foolishness, his bolshie, playful and creative character, I think he points to a better world. A world in which friends can gather around a fire and share in truly open fellowship, share in a passion for life. Be foolish, speak nonsense, explore new ideas, dare to be different, and all the while be accepted and loved for who you are. To my mind, that’s the goal, that’s what the human spirit longs for, for true community, for The Kingdom of God, for the Kingdom of Heaven.

It’s my hope and prayer, that we can all grasp and share in this vision together, and even model it for a world so divided by ignorance and animosity. Let this place be a beacon of love to a hurting, and unheard world I pray.

Amen.


In Yeats’ poem he paints a picture of a world unravelling, a world unmooring itself from its own origins, becoming increasingly frantic, and chaotic. A world at war, a world in which genocide is common place, a world concluding.

Yeats.jpg

W. B Yeats was a mystic; he dabbled in ritualised magic, and was captivated by Irish legends. Part of his mystical perspective was the idea that history is cyclical – 2000 year loops – the birth of Christ, the subsequent unravelling, a lamenting call for salvation, surely the Second Coming is at hand!

And yet, despite the longing for Christian redemption, something more hideous comes, the beast slouching towards Bethlehem. I take Yeats’ meaning to be in this rather cryptic poem a deep pessimism. A resigned acceptance, or sense of deep uncertainty, to the terrors of the moment, ‘mere anarchy’, and the greater terrors to come. In other words, Yeats is showing us the future; there is a fork in the road, on one hand the way of the Kingdom, on the other a greatest sort of evil flourishes, and Yeats, so dismayed by the horror of his age, even the horizon is blackened for him.

Unitarians have a mixed or uneasy connection to the prayer Jesus taught us, the Lord’s Prayer. Do we tolerate it as a nod to our Free Christian heritage? Does it conjure for us baggage from a past life, where religion emotionally manipulated us? Does it, to us, represent a cosmological worldview which is quite simply wrong? Is it not perilously close to a creedal statement, chanting in unison truths which are not our truths? Does it not affirm the patriarchal order; the male is up, the woman down? Does it not paint a picture of a meek people, waiting for redemption, waiting for the Kingdom to elbow its way into our lives?

We all come to Lord’s Prayer in our own way, with our own thoughts, issues, and baggage. I think a lot of our hang-ups arise from not so much the words themselves, but rather how that prayer is understood by Christians out there.

So, let us briefly consider this prayer and its patter. And notice that in some ways it mirrors everything we do here on a Sunday morning. We start by lighting our chalice, and recognising the presence of the divine, and that means something slightly different to all of us.

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.

The language used here is personal; parental. This may be a hurdle right from the outset, but I think the purpose, if we can look past the gender specific language, is to open our most intimate selves to the divine.

Thy Kingdom come. 
Thy will be done in earth, 
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us. 

We ask for the Kingdom to come. Yeats’ fork in the road, a great evil or a great good. The sudden breaking in of Christ, the second coming! It’s understandable: faced with immediate horror, we long for a magical levelling. Where there is great injustice, we dream of a great saviour.

I think most Unitarians would struggle with the idea of the clouds parting, and Jesus arriving on his white horse. When we think of the Kingdom then, do we not think of the incremental arrival of the good? Do we not think of true community, good community?

To me this is what ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ means. It’s an optimistic participation in the arrival of community without injustice, without dysfunctionality, built upon a foundation of love. Our prayer ‘Thy Kingdom come’ is a foolish prayer, because it dares an optimism which is beyond reason. It’s a prayer, not simply to be said, but to be lived. When love underpins our actions the Kingdom is present. And all the more so when love is in the character of a community. This makes the next part of the prayer all the more clear.

Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us. 

In loving community let us nourish one another, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Hold one another is good regard, and bless one another, or to put that in more Christians terms, be Christ to one another. And do not let relational dysfunctionality get the best of us. Forgive those who have hurt us, and wish them well.

And lead us not into temptation, 
But deliver us from evil.

Help us stay true to the way of love. And all this brings me back to that precocious medical student - Mr Thomas Aikenhead. Thomas Aikenhead talked about that natural desire of humanity to seek after truth in a shameless fashion, to seek for it like we seek hidden treasure, to give everything in pursuit of the pearl of great price.

The truth that Aikenhead discovered was not in any formula of words, but in a vision of friends gathered around a fire, sharing in truly open fellowship, sharing in a passion for life. Being foolish, speaking nonsense, exploring new ideas, daring to be different, and all the while being accepted and loved for who you are

Let Thy Kingdom come. Let us be a beacon of love to a hurting, and unheard world. Let us embody an expression of the way we hope the world to become. Being the change we want to see: an example of when people come together, and share their lives in love and service.

Amen.