In the highways and the hedges

Tracy Niven
Wednesday 18 October 2023

Preacher: Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain
Readings: Romans 8:12-17; Luke 14:12-24

Today is all about family.  Outside the chapel and throughout St Andrews, academic families are celebrating their bonds.  Typically, third year students adopt first year students at some time over the early weeks of this Martinmas Semester, meeting them through halls of residence, societies and sports clubs, music or theatre, and, very occasionally, in the small hours of the morning on the dance floor at the Union.  These families come in all shapes and sizes, with multiple parents, aunts and uncles, siblings and hangers-on.  This year academic weddings seem to have become a tradition – and I’ve witnessed a number of couples, attended by their children and friends, minister and piper, tying the academic knot outside the chapel.  I even donated a clerical collar to help with a minister’s costume.

Today, Raisin Sunday, adopted children may well have been taking a bracing early morning dip, before an unconventional breakfast.  Their supposedly mature parents may have sent them out on a scavenger hunt, to achieve a number of feats – human pyramids over the PH seem to be a perennial challenge.  And I am sure there will be further gatherings around food and drink as the day wears on.  If you are taking part later in Raisin festivities, please have a wonderful day, and a safe one.  If your Raisin days are long behind you, congratulations.

But today’s readings from the Bible are also all about family.  Indeed the Bible reflects from beginning to end on the nature of family – and in particular, family as an image of God’s community.  Among other images, God is seen and loved as a father to his child Israel.
Isaiah 63:16: For you, O Lord, are our father;
Our Redeemer from of old is your name.
And indeed there are motherly images too: just three chapters later in Isaiah 66, we hear:
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
God’s people then, in the pages of scripture, see themselves as children, sons and daughters of God.

Now a key question in thinking about family is always: who belongs?  Who is included in a family, and who is not?
Jewish, Christian and Muslim paths are known as the Abrahamic faiths, because all see a profound significance in God choosing Abraham to be the parent of a nation.  And throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God’s people are usually defined as the children of Abraham, his descendants, his family tree.  To be part of God’s family was to be born into it.  All those begats in the Old Testament are there for a reason.  People belonged to God by inheritance.

As we gather today, we can’t help but be aware of the grimness of events in Israel/Palestine.  Last Sunday we said prayers in chapel in the first hours of this cycle of violence and murder, begun by Hamas militants.  A week later the horrors are becoming clearer.  The land is sometimes called the Holy Land, and it is a place all three Abrahamic faiths consider of deep significance, in different ways.  God’s family – the human family – is riven in many places, and particularly in Israel and Gaza today.  We will continue to pray for peace, and for new ways of negotiating our differences, in the recognition of our common humanity, our single family.

In returning to scriptural understanding of God’s family, this undergoes a hugely significant shift in the New Testament, the Christian scriptures.  What remained was the sense of God as our parent, usually as father, though motherly images are found too.  But this fatherhood was deepened and expanded.  For one thing, Jesus himself continually referred to God as his father.  This was so striking, and expressed a relationship that seemed so close, that it angered religious conservatives of his day.  It seems that the word Jesus used for God was Abba – it’s how he starts the prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father, in Luke.  Abba was the ordinary word used in Jewish families of that day, familiar, closer to Dad or Daddy than a formal Father.  Maybe that’s why the Abba musical is called Mamma Mia rather than My Mother?

Anyway, when the Apostle Paul reflects on what it means to be children of God in writing to the Romans, he says that when we pray we cry “Abba!”  In his day they used the word Jesus had used.  Dad.

The other shift in the Christian understanding of God’s family was about who belonged.  It was no longer by inheritance: it wasn’t a matter of birth.  As Paul says, You have received a spirit of adoption.  God is understood as a parent, as our parent, as a loving parent who has chosen us, who has wanted us, who has adopted us.  It was an extraordinary image for Paul to choose.  It seems that Jewish culture didn’t really have adoption of children at that time.  But Graeco-Roman culture did, and so Paul adopted the idea of adoption for catching the mystery and beauty of God’s relationship with humanity.  God has adopted us – we have a spirit of adoption.  And this idea took root.  St Jerome, in the fourth century, said, Christians are made, not born.  And there is something profoundly true about that.  Just this week I was chatting to an adoptive parent who said there is lots of evidence that when a child moves from being fostered to being adopted, there are usually huge improvements.  The child grows faster, becomes stronger, and thrives better.  Adoption gives security and permanence to the loving relationship – and it is profoundly good for the adopted child.

Paul’s theology of adoption is somewhat general.  It takes a story Jesus told to make it astonishingly specific.  Someone’s throwing a dinner-party.  He sends out save-the-date notices, then when it is time, he sends his servant to tell his guests to come.  But then the excuses come instead – about property, work and family.  Perhaps today they’d say they had to go and view a flat they might be moving into, or work on an essay that they had meant to finish earlier, or spend time with their new main squeeze.  The party-giver is angry, and maybe feeling a little rejected.  So he invites new people – without property, work or new marriages – the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.  They come, but there are still empty places, and so he tells his servant to Go out into the highways and hedges, and bring those people in so that my house may be filled.

Who lives in the highways and hedges?  The homeless, the vagrants, perhaps the mentally disturbed.

I wonder how many people have a song in their mind right now.  It’s from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in which George Clooney and others play vagrants, somewhat mentally disturbed at times, who live in the highways and the hedges.  One day, at a political rally, Clooney’s character hears a group of three girls singing the song In the highways, in the hedges.  It’s his daughters – but they will be calling another man Daddy in the morning, when he marries their mother.  Who is in and who is out?  Who belongs and who does not?  For Jesus, all belong, especially those who look like they don’t, who smell like they don’t, who feel that they don’t.

There may be Raisin revellers who resemble vagrants in the three streets and the beaches of St Andrews today.  And they and all people are part of God’s family.  Whatever people feel about themselves, they are adopted, they are included.  Students and others share with me that they feel unworthy, not good enough, conscious of mistakes, obsessed by inadequacy, convinced they do not belong, that no-one could love them, that God’s forgiveness, while fine for others, doesn’t apply to them, that their spiritual boats are too burnt.  Maybe it’s to them (or to you) that the girls are singing:
In the highways, in the hedges,
I’ll be somewhere working for my Lord.
If he calls me, I will answer
I’ll be somewhere working for my Lord.

Today is all about family.  The baptism of a child has taken place, his parents Laurence and Jamie made promises, and his godparents, family and friends have travelled to be here to share in this significant family occasion.  But while we have baptised Hamish partly because he belongs to a Christian family, St Jerome was right – Hamish was not born a Christian.  Instead, he has been adopted by God into his family, and we have recognised that fact in baptising him into that family today – not the Goodwins and Pottons, but the family of humanity adopted by God, our loving Creator, the family redeemed by Jesus Christ.

The picture on the cover of the order of service shows an academic family united by foam.  Tomorrow, this year’s first years will gather, dressed in costumes, for the foam fight.  I’ll be there as usual, hose in hand, to rinse hands, faces and sometimes the whole person.  Occasionally a student will say, Thanks for the baptism, Father.  They’re joking.  But there is truth there too.  They have been adopted since coming to University.  They have experienced some form of parental love.  They are in a community with others, siblings together, foamy together, fragrant together, shivering together.  From the highways and hedges of DRA to Sallies Hall, they have come to share in what has been offered.  It’s a model, albeit far from perfect, of God’s loving family, a spirit of generous, inclusive adoption.




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